By Hamid Dabashi
22 August 2019
In the aftermath of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, the United States is once again roiling in pain, struggling to come to terms with its violent reality. With every such act of mass murder, the American nation seems to be edging closer to the full recognition that the terror of its own racist white supremacy is far more serious than all the frightening delusions it has about the violent non-white "other".
Shortly after these mass shootings, the New York Times ran an editorial, pertinently pointing out that "[i]f one of the perpetrators of this weekend's two mass shootings had adhered to the ideology of radical Islam the resources of the American government and its international allies would mobilize without delay." Indeed, they would as they should.
The editorial reasoned further: "The awesome power of the state would work tirelessly to deny future terrorists' access to weaponry, money and forums to spread their ideology. The movement would be infiltrated by spies and informants. Its financiers would face sanctions. Places of congregation would be surveilled. Those who gave aid or comfort to terrorists would be prosecuted. Programs would be established to de-radicalize former adherents."
There is nothing wrong with a state mobilising to face any threat that comes its citizens' way. The key question that the New York Times editorial raises, and indeed many others are asking, is when will such mobilisation happen when white men perpetrate mass violence? Or, in other words, when will the hateful ideology called "white nationalism" be considered terrorism and treated as such?
Whence Islam, The Enemy?
What, in effect, such editorial positions, mirroring a national mood, call for is to expand the definition of "terrorism" exclusively applied to Islam and Muslims to others who are not Muslims.
But before this call can be heeded and such change of perception achieved, we must first explore when, how and why "Islam" or "Muslims" came to be so thoroughly identified with the dreaded term "terrorism" despite the overwhelming body of evidence that there is no such special relation.
Indeed, acts of terror that can come from any ideology, whether adopted by Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, or other religious groups or even the so-called seculars, agnostics and atheists.
Without first addressing when and how Islam and Muslims became categorically "terrorist" until proven otherwise, the expansion of the term "terrorism" to any act of wanton cruelty of mass murder will not be serious.
This belated and much overdue attention to racist white supremacy terrorism will never amount to anything if we do not get to the bottom of this diabolical hatred of Muslims that has taken root in the US and Europe.
While thinking about this question, I was reminded of a 2011 article by the self-proclaimed American "intellectual" Sam Harris published on Truthdig. The 1800-word piece was meant to be his defence against accusations by journalist Chris Hedges that he is harbouring genocidal thoughts about Muslims.
Essentially, Harris challenged the charge of racism by claiming that he has nothing against Muslims as such and that he is talking about "ideas" not people.
"My analysis of religion in general, and of Islam in particular," Harris wrote, "focuses on what I consider to be bad ideas, held for bad reasons, leading to bad behavior. My antipathy toward Islam - which is, in truth, difficult to exaggerate - applies to ideas, not to people."
And what exactly are these Islamic "ideas" that designate Islam as a vile and violent religion compared with any other religion? Harris mentions the following: "martyrdom, jihad, honor, etc".
A quick look at his writings about these concepts reveals how Harris cherry-picks certain convoluted thoughts and weaves them into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here is an example:
"[T]he reality of martyrdom and the sanctity of armed jihad are about as controversial under Islam as is the resurrection of Jesus under Christianity. It is not an accident that millions of Muslims recite the Shahadah or make pilgrimage to Mecca. Neither is it an accident that in the year 2015, horrific footage of infidels and apostates being decapitated has become a popular form of pornography through the Muslim world. All these practices, including this ghastly method of murder, find explicit support in scripture."
Every single sentence of this passage is a landmark of rubbish. Martyrdom is as much integral to Islam as it is to Christianity, while Jihad is as much a matter of moral courage as marking physical rebellion against tyranny.
Reciting the shahadah and making a pilgrimage to Mecca are what millions of peaceful Muslims do mostly in the autumn of their lives, neither of which has anything to do with whatever kind of "pornography" Harris is fed by his fellow Islamophobes on the internet.
The problem with such outlandish statements is that they are readily consumed by the wider American society and its leadership, which form their perceptions of Islam and Muslims based on the volumes of nonsense the likes of Harris regularly produce.
These writings cannot stand a half-decent scholarly examination and yet a whole Islamophobic movement is nourished by them.
There is much the matter with practices of Islam, and no other souls on this earth have addressed those issues more diligently than Muslim thinkers over the last 1,400 years. In fact, the rise of multiple and conflicting schools of philosophy, theology, and mysticism in Islam reflects the reality that Muslims have never been content with the state of their faith and from a position of critical intimacy and with a caring intellect have sought to right the wrong they have seen in their collective practices.
It is equally important to keep in mind that rapid globalisation of Islam and the widespread presence of Muslims in four corners of the world have created new and fruitful conditions of critical thinking for Muslims.
Over the last century alone, Muslim thinkers like Muhammad Iqbal from Pakistan, Mohammad Arkoun from Algeria, Ali Shariati from Iran, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm from Syria, Nasr Abu Zayd from Egypt, among dozens of others, have revolutionised the very texture of critical thinking about and in their faith.
Yet their scholarship has hardly made it to the US mainstream, which prefers to make quick conclusions based on easily digestible biased statements which the likes of Harris readily provide. This astonishing fusion of arrogance and ignorance is the historical root of American Islamophobia.
Indeed, American society will not be able to fully comprehend the reality of white mass violence and redefine "terrorism" to rightfully include it until it stops embracing hate-mongers like Harris and the intellectual terror they remorselessly perpetrate.
Without such introspection, without getting to the roots of this ignorant, gaudy, malignant hatred of Muslims, the term "terrorism" will never be liberated to include the racist mass murders in El Paso, Dayton, Pittsburgh, Poway, Santa Fe, Parkland, Las Vegas, Colorado Springs, Charleston, etc.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.
Original Headline: Redefining 'terrorism' in America
Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.