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The terrorist attacks in Paris, Belgium, and Turkey, not to mention dozens of previous such attacks in Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali, etc. have sparked a very intense debate in the West on trans-national terrorism and trans-national violent extremism. In America, there are those who directly connect Islam, Muslims with terrorism. While others, will not dare to put Islam and terrorism in the same sentence.

Between these two positions, it is becoming quite risky for well-intentioned researchers and policy-makers to raise some hard questions regarding Islam and the current form of trans-national terrorism. Doing so without directly accusing Muslims and Islam for supporting terrorism is seen as disingenuous in some circles. Meanwhile, on the other side, they are accused of promoting Islamophobia or simply not being culturally sensitive.

Caught in the middle of this debate is no other than President Obama himself. His reluctance, rightly so, in my opinion, of not using the term “Islamic” terrorism, has provoked the ire of a segment of Americans, who bizarrely accuse him of, at best, being weak on the war against Trans-National Violent Extremist Organizations (TVEOs) and at worst, supporting them. President Obama is right from a semantic and symbolic standpoint, not to use “Islamic” terrorism to describe the current trans-national terrorism. Let’s consider a situation where someone says “American values”, “American wars” or “American cars.” The use of the adjective “American” immediately associates the entire country  (or continent ) with the aforementioned values, wars or cars and furthermore, it gives ownership of these notions to America. Words create realities in people’s minds. Using the term “Islamic terrorism” immediately associates terrorism with the entire community of Muslims, which is misleading and dangerous. While understandable and even justified, the President’s stance on this matter and the reasoning behind it, have unfortunately been used by some to shut down any discussion about Islam and terrorism, and to cast doubt on the motives of pertinent questions such as:

  • How does the current inter-Islamic ecumenical debate, and the related power-struggle between Sunni and Shiah leaders, facilitate the recruitment by TVEOs?
  • Why is Islam being used by TVEOs, such as Daesh (ISIL), Al Qaeda, Boko Haram to legitimize their narratives, rituals and actions?
  • What are the effects of the current fight against trans-national terrorism led by western countries on the diverse global Muslim community of faith?

Of course, these are not the only questions we should be asking. But they are essential pieces of a complicated puzzle, and therefore should not be avoided or ignored.

What opportunities could be missed by avoiding these questions and many others in that vein?

Currently, there is a failure to fully appreciate and leverage the healthy debate that is going on in the Muslim world between reformists/progressives and conservatives on the role and place of Islam in the globalized modern world. This debate is a window into the potential confusion that young Muslims searching for religious meaning could experience; a confusion quite often exploited by TVEOs. But by recognizing and disseminating these type of debates in the public sphere, there is an opportunity to show alternative non-violent ways and that different opinions within the Muslim community co-exist. These types of internal conversations can be important educational tools for youth in particular, who are searching for answers and forming their religious identity. A couple of years ago, I came across a radio program in Chad during which two Muslim clerics were having an intense debate about the extent to which a modern society can apply the Sharia Law. The program was part of a donor-funded project. After the broadcast, there was a facilitated discussion among youth of the listeners’ group I was observing. I was impressed and encouraged by the quality of feedback and the constructive learning that occurred.

That experience highlighted to me the importance for example, of leveraging technology to encourage and connect the hundred million youth and women who are faithful Muslims, and who faithfully and humbly honor their relationship with God in the spirit of tolerance and love of others, to share their stories. They may not have the skills to craft moderate and politically correct messages suitable for conferences and western donors’ wishes; but if given the opportunity, they could share in their own words the experience of their own Jihad grounded in their daily reality and legitimized by their Muslim faith. These could be relevant counter-messages to TVEOs’ narratives, and maybe more appealing than messages crafted by clerics who do have the knowledge of Islam, but may lack the legitimacy to appeal to people targeted by TVEOs for recruitment.

Transnational terrorism since 9/11 attacks in the US cannot be fully captured from a secular analytical perspective alone. TVEOs such as Daesh, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram feed in part, not entirely, on the ecumenical and doctrinal ambiguities of Islam. By the way, these ambiguities are not true of Islam alone; all major monotheist religions have them. They raise internal debates and tensions, and have led in some cases to major schisms.

Governments, policy-makers and practitioners who have made it their goal to counter or prevent trans-national terrorism, cannot afford to shy away from asking the types of questions raised in this blog. However, answers to these questions should be analyzed in relation to other factors and within the different contexts in which they’re being asked. Discussions and analyses around transnational terrorism and violent extremism should not be reduced to debates about the effects of Islam, but should be informed and enhanced by frank discussions on the role that Islam and Muslims can play in perpetrating or preventing Trans-national violent extremism.  Essentially, those worried about fueling Islamophobia should take control of these conversations rather than ignore them, because by avoiding these questions they are not only missing the opportunity to benefit from the answers they might get, but also presenting an opportunity for the other side to manipulate and define the answers in ways that could be far more damaging.

Terrorism can be supported and perpetrated by people of different religious and ideological leanings; it is not unique or restricted to Islam, nor does it characterize or represent Muslims or their faith. However, the fact remains that the deadliest and most far-reaching TVEOs today ground themselves in Islam specifically and target Muslims around the world in their recruitment and killings (Muslims account for the highest numbers of victims from terrorist acts). We should be ready to ask difficult, but important, questions about the role of religion and ideology in extremism irrespective of what that religion or ideology is. Again, the key is to ensure that they are asked for the right purpose, in a constructive way, and with open mindedness.

It is a fine line to walk on, a difficult challenge, but one worth taking!