Only Fools Confuse Religion With Criminality

Declaring that Islam is at war with itself, or that we witness a battle for the soul and heart of Islam, is vulgar, reductionist and essentialist.

If I read one more article or hear one more speech by a Western politician telling us that we are experiencing a war within Islam between radicals and moderates, or a battle for the future and soul of Islam, I will seek medical options for a long hibernation so I can wake up in another era, when more sensible analysis is used to understand and roll back the expanding circles of violence that plague many countries.

We suffer enough stress and danger in the Arab region from political violence, aging tyrants, foreign invasions, local criminal and militia groups, colonial settler expansions, and frayed, hemorrhaging socio-economic systems that we do not need this added intellectual bludgeoning by the international battalions of perplexity and confusion who find comfort in old-fashioned wholesale racism and reductionism (“Islam is this, Islam is that”) that explains nothing other than their own bewilderment.

Declaring that Islam is at war with itself, or that we witness a battle for the soul and heart of Islam, is vulgar reductionist, essentialist nonsense. But it is a nonsense that is totally understandable in its current context of violent, nationally dislocating events. It is much easier to declare a war within Islam than to do the hard work—and admit the hard truths of some shared culpabilities—to understand accurately the several simultaneous frightening phenomena we see all around us: Our world has suddenly become tainted by violent young men who kill with glee across the Middle East, governments fall, borders fray or dissolve, established criminal groups like Al-Qaeda expand, new extremist militants like the “Islamic State” (ISIS) hold their ground in Syria-Iraq and attract pockets of like-minded fanatics in Egypt, Libya and other lands, Arab, Iranian and Western armies fight back, and a handful of troubled individuals in Western countries carry out isolated murders in their home capitals, often with some links to Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the like.

Why would some young men born and raised in France, Denmark, Canada, Germany Belgium, Great Britain or other impressive societies travel to ISIS lands to fight for what they see as their existential cause, or turn against their own societies? Why do new pockets of these extremist criminals spring up regularly in new countries, like those in Libya who slaughtered Egyptian Christians this week? Why, above all, do some of these killers who brandish the holy book of Muslims mostly kill fellow Muslims in the Arab-Asian region

Explaining this as a great battle underway within Islam strikes me as reflecting a combination of racism, ignorance, perplexity and some old fashioned Orientalism. The outcome of this battle, we are told, will shape the Islamic faith and its adherents for centuries to come, maybe until the end of time and the coming of the Mahdi (Messiah). The facility with which some people move from reading the day’s ugly news into eschatological verdicts about 1.4 billion people across the world is striking, laughable and troubling.

Those who recklessly analyze the condition of Islam itself should instead do the harder work of understanding the realities of a handful of killers, or a group of misfits, or a gang of criminals, or pockets of dislocated outcasts, or some desperate youth on the verge of sure death by life-long marginalization and hopelessness. Instead, they affirm pompously the contested condition of all Islam, all 1.4 billion Muslims living in hundreds of very different societies, practicing very different social and political values. My own impression, living my whole life among some of those multitudes of Muslims, is that 1,399,925,000 of them live in peace and a middle class commitment to family values, education and hard work that seem more like old-fashioned Protestant work ethic legacies than anything else I have witnessed in my life.

The angry young killers and criminal terrorists among them were not amongst us a generation or two ago. Why and how did they suddenly appear in the last few decades? What caused the most fanatical and brutal among them, like the ISIS group, to suddenly see the imminent coming of the Mahdi?

These phenomena are not eschatological signs or divine signals. They are socio-political mechanical processes that have logical and verifiable causal explanations; they can be analyzed like the knocking of a car engine, the pain of a sore muscle, or the drips of a leaky water fountain. The symptoms of radical Muslim militants who speak in the language of religion are of this world, indeed, our world, should we dare to trace how our societies and policies allowed young farmers, immigrants, or taxi drivers to transform into crazed killers and criminals—whether this occurred and continues to occur in Arab or Western jails, in the rubble of their bombed out neighborhoods, or in the death-sentence prisons of their own societies where they absorb the numbing, transformative realities of chronic hopelessness and dehumanization.

Islam is what it has always been, a religion with complexities and varieties of adherents. The trouble today is about relatively small groups of extremists and deviant killers who speak of Islam. Only fools would confuse the two.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter at: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global