The term “terrorism” has become devalued by its abuse in Western discourse to delegitimise the struggle of opponents of the West, without its ever being applied to the actions of the West, or of its friends and allies.
The term “terrorism” has become devalued by its abuse in Western discourse to delegitimise the struggle of opponents of the West, without its ever being applied to the actions of the West, or of its friends and allies. Thus everything the Palestinians do is terrorism, and all Palestinian mujahideen terrorists, while nothing the Israelis do is ever terrorism; the resistance movements in Chechnya, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Iraq are all terrorist, while the oppressors of those countries are never terrorists, whatever they do to impose their will. The concept of state terrorism is recognised, but only applied to states whose politics and policies are anti-Western; Western states and those who serve the West’s purposes can do what they like, how they like, without ever being labelled. By any impartial definition, the US must be considered the world’s greatest terrorist state, because of its long involvement in dirty wars almost everywhere, but particularly against Islamic activists and movements – as well as the overt brutality of its actions in places like Afghanistan and Iraq; yet it is only described as such in a few dissident circles.
Among Muslims, the term has been applied to virtually all Islamic movements and activists by their enemies at some time or another. Domestic Islamic opposition groups in virtually all Muslim countries have been described as terrorists and associated with al-Qa’ida, that mysterious network that has come to embody evil in the Western mind. Most of what the West calls terrorism by Muslims is in fact jihad against Islam’s enemies; Islam has never been a pacifist deen. Military power has always been a key part of political power, used by those in power to protect or project their interests; Islam is nothing if it does not recognise and reflect the realities of the world. Pacifism has become a weapon used by western governments – themselves remarkably violent by any standards – against their opponents. The targeted use of force against enemies who deserve and need to be fought was a key part of the Seerah of the Prophet (saw), and is a legitimate strategy for Islamic movements today. No-one should doubt the legitimacy of the use of force against the enemies of Islam in places like Palestine, Kashmir or Chechnya, for example, or even in domestic politics in certain circumstance; the execution president Anwar Sadat of Egypt by Egyptial mujahideen led by Khalid Islambouli shaheed in 1981 , for example.
We should be clear, however, that there are constraints on the use of force, in any circumstances. Whatever we think of the US and its role in the world, and whoever we consider to have been responsible, most Muslims understand that the attack on the World Trade Centre was a totally unacceptable crime that crime that deserves to be called terrorist; the fact that the US has been guilty of much worse elsewhere does not justify either the use of hijacked airliners as weapons, or the targeting of civilian buildings, in order to attack it. The Pentagon must be regarded as a legitimate target, being the headquarters of the US military, but the (alleged) use of an airliner to attack it was unacceptable. This was why the 9/11 attacks were immediately condemned by Imam Khamenei, the Rahber of Islamic Iran, and Islamic movement leaders all over the world.
Similarly, Muslims everywhere were shocked and pained that Chechen mujahideen were responsible for the atrocity in Beslan last month, which ended with hundreds of children killed when Russian troops stormed the school. Although we should be cautious about believing reports based on information (or misinformation) issued by the Russian government, particularly some of the more sensationalist accounts of the attackers behaviour, mujahideen commander Shamil Basayev, one of the heroes of Chechnya’s jihad, has admitted that he planned and ordered the operation, although he blames the deaths on Russia’s attack on the building. Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov has said that Basayev will be taken to account for it once the Chechens are in a position to do so.
The logic of the operation was clear. In nearly a decade, the Russians have killed over a third of Chechnya’s population, and devestated the countries infrastructure, including towns hsopitals and other vital social institutions. Many Chechens cannot believe that the Russian people understand what this means, because if they did they would not allow it to happen. They hope therefore that if the pain that the Chechens have suffered for so many years, and apparently without any prospect of its easing, is demonstrated to the Russian people, perhaps they will understand the Chechens” plight and do something about it. The logic is impeccable; the reality is very different. Even if the approach worked it would be unacceptable; the fact is it doesn’t. However, only people who are themselves deeply traumatised, having long been victims of appalling crimes themselves, can possibly come to believe that such crimes are justifiable. Even as we condemn such acts, we must also condemn the conditions which push God-fearing Muslims to commit them, and strive all the harder to change those conditions.
A tendency to be pushed into acts of unacceptable violence when under pressure may be part of the human condition; certainly it is not unique to Muslims. But it has often been seen among Muslims, as they have found themselves under attack all over the world. In Egypt, for example, the Gama’a al-Islamiyya was pushed first to armed insurrection, then to acts of undoubted terrorism in the 1990s, by the Egyptian state’s brutal repression of its peaceful activities in the 1980s. Ultimately it was concern not only about the legitimacy and efficacy of the approach that caused the Gama’a leaders to change their strategy, but also concern about the souls of a generation of embittered activists whose akhirah was endangered by the acts they were committing in the name of Islam.
A similar retreat from unacceptable uses of force is required from Muslims everywhere. The Islamic movement cannot afford to let itself be pushed into a position in which the only options offered to Muslims are support for outright terrorism or reluctant endorsement of a pacifist approach, as promoted by “moderate” Muslims who are acceptable to the West because they effectively serve Western interests. We are now in a time of global war between an aggressive foe that aims to dominate the entire world for its own profit, and Islamic movements that aim first to liberate their own lands from western control, and then to establish Islamic social and political orders. We can only win this war by establishing standards of conduct far higher than those of our enemies, not by sinking to theirs, whatever the pressures on us.