Early Roots of Extremists

Oct 17

Question – On what basis do today’s terrorists justify their actions as Islamic?

Justifying acts of violence in the name of religion has been part of human history since the dawn of civilization. The history of Muslims is no exception. In contemporary times we find al-Qaeda, in general, and Osama bin Laden, in particular, conflating political rhetoric with religious imagery. In his August 23, 1996, “Declaration of War against Americans Occupying the Two Holy Places,” bin Laden evoked powerful religious imagery while speaking about the stationing of American soldiers in Saudi Arabia. He said, “The people of Islam suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice. . . .the latest and the greatest of these aggressions, incurred by the Muslims since the death of the Prophet . . . . in the occupation of the two Holy Places. Clearly after Belief (Iman) there is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy from the holy land.” Such language undoubtedly helped catalyze the popular perception that there must be some kind of religious motive behind al-Qaeda’s terrorism.

The early history of Islam also witnessed the claim of a religious mantle to justify acts of extremism and violence. Islamic scholars often narrate the story of the early extremists – the Kharijites or the Khawarij (literally means “those who left or went out”). The Kharijites may be rightly considered the first to terrorize in the name of Islam. Modern day Islamic scholar Tahrir ul-Qadri, who has issued a 600 page fatwa against terrorism, views al-Qaeda and the Taliban as the modern day manifestation of the Kharijite ideology. Dr. Qadri said, “They [terrorists] can’t claim that their suicide bombings are martyrdom operations and that they become the heroes of the Muslim Ummah (community). No, they become heroes of hellfire, and they are leading towards hellfire. There is no place for any martyrdom and their act is never, ever to be considered jihad.”

During the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad a small group of people started an extreme puritanical tradition, which Prophet Muhammad warned against. He said that, “There will come a time when a group of people will leave our ranks. They will recite the Quran with fervor and passion but its spirit will not go beyond their throats. They will leave our ranks in the manner of an arrow when it shoots from its bow.” The son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, Ali-ibn Abu Talib (also the fourth Caliph) warned about such extremists by noting that even when they say the truth their “ends are devious.”

Studies by modern day scholars have found that terrorists are often the least educated about religion. They are not dumb or insane. Author Louise Richardson in her book “What Terrorists Want?” says that the terrorists are “rational political actors” who often go to great lengths to justify their action to themselves and their followers. This explains their propensity to don the mantle of religion. However, their practice of religion often deviates from the core teachings of the faith. For example it is well known that many of the 9-11 hijackers frequented bars, even though Islam forbids the consumption of intoxicants.

The terrorists of today like the Kharijites before adopt a simple slogan that they are “enjoining good and forbidding evil.” They borrow this idea from the Quran. But to act on this simple idea of “doing good and eschewing evil” (in Arabic it reads “Amr-bil-Maruf-wa-Nahia-anil-Munkar“) requires knowledge and wisdom, a trait lacking in terrorists.

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