Why Terrorism? Why Islam? Why Now?

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called for an international conference on terrorism. It is a proposal well worth supporting.

Since the London bombings earlier this month, two strong clusters of viewpoints have emerged. One camp believes that the fatal bus and subway bombings had everything to do with British policies toward the Muslim world, especially in relation to military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other group is focusing blame directly on "Islam," "Islamism," "Islamic extremism," etc.; take your pick.

These two views are so different as to be diametrically opposite. Those who reject the idea that the London terrorist attacks were a drastic response to British policies in Iraq and the Middle East, can easily be persuaded to the alternative view that young British Muslims are using terror to make a political statement based on their understanding of the Qur’an, the teachings of Muhammad, the Madrasa, Wahabism, etc.

If you fall into this latter ideology, there is no room to re-examine or re-evaluate any British foreign (or even domestic) policies. It becomes deceptively simple to place the entire burden of solving the "home-grown" terrorism problem on Muslims, especially British Muslims. However, this is a fundamentally wrong thesis, one that not only hinders solutions, but is most likely to make matters rapidly worse.

The alternative stance of solely blaming British policy –” historical and contemporary — toward the Muslim world is, to say the least, equally unhelpful because it serves only to free Muslims (especially British Muslims) from their legitimate responsibility of examining just how they are raising their own children and how proactively they participate, as a faith group and cultural community, in British society.

And that dilemma posed by the two ways of viewing western-world terrorism brings us to difficult questions that demand answers: Why Islam? Why terrorism? Why now?

Historically, the Qur’an has called upon believers to undertake spiritual "jihad" — this has been the Muslim way of life for some 1400 years. And throughout these 14 centuries, only a very few, tiny minorities among the world’s Muslims have intentionally misinterpreted the true meaning of jihad. Each time such distortions of teaching have arisen, the Muslim majority, including its scholars, activists and community leaders, have managed to turn back the tide of fanatical madness that threatened the true faith..

For example, the fanatic sect of the Kharijites (meaning the "Seceders") would declare jihad on non-Muslims, or on Muslims who held views differing from their own. Their use of terror tactics to advance their ideology was rejected by the Muslim majority.

The Kharijites believed that anyone who is considered a grave sinner can no longer be a Muslim, but is instead a dangerous enemy of the faithful. This extreme sect turned the fury of its distorted jihad against the Muslim majority and its established rulers in the pursuit of narrow idealism and uncompromising fanaticism. The Kharijites’ ideology is long past, but the death, destruction and misery they created — mostly among fellow Muslims — is a tragedy of historical record.

So why today, in our enlightened 21st century, are some young Western-raised Muslims subscribing to a similarly fanatical, and fatal, ideology?

Although Britain formerly occupied and subjugated Muslims in India, Egypt, Iraq, and Palestine — as well as collaborating with France to divide and conquer other parts of the Muslim world — the past three decades or so have seen more normal and mostly balanced foreign relations. Some Muslim countries, like Pakistan for instance, belong both to the remaining British Commonwealth and the international "nuclear club."

Then what is new in British foreign (and perhaps, domestic) policy that is inciting a few young British Muslims to turn now to violence as a means of political statement?

Boxing ourselves into any single, exclusionary view of the situation is in itself a trap — we will never get inside the disturbed minds of the most recent suicide bombers and their mentors by choosing to blame only extremist interpretations of Islam, or British foreign policy alone.

Throughout the present decade, right-wing politicians and writers have been broadcasting their chosen doctrines about terrorist attacks in Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Indonesia, the U.S., Spain and London. The predominant theory is that such acts, committed by Muslims (or those who claim Islam as their faith) are therefore the fault of Muslims and Islam as a whole. They say the attackers in each case are motivated by political Islam, whatever that is. Hence, they have no need to examine the national or foreign policies of any of the victimized countries. No discussion, no study. Period.

Similarly, Muslim apologists try to shift the blame squarely onto the policies of politicians, who are mostly right-wing. But this is just as unacceptable, as the history of the Kharijites demonstrates.

This is why it is so important and urgent to ensure that a wide spectrum of Muslim academics, activists, and researchers are invited to Tony Blair’s upcoming international conference on terrorism. I can only hope it will be held sooner, rather than later. Time is not on our side.