VIEW: The scourge of terrorism —S Iftikhar Murshed - Friday, October 08, 2010

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The fundamental flaw in the contemporary discourse on terrorism is to equate it with Islamic doctrine. This plays into the hands of the likes of Osama bin Laden who justify the slaughter of civilians through distortions of Quran injunctions. In this there is an unmistakable nexus between such extremists and those whose purpose is to demonise Islam

The predominant theme of history is one of conflict and violence. The last hundred years have been particularly blood-drenched. The two world wars of the 20th century resulted in unparalleled devastation. In the near half-century that the Cold War lasted, the number of fatalities almost equalled that of the First World War in which approximately 8,400,000 soldiers alone are said to have died. The Nobel laureates, Heidi and Alvin Toffler, claim, “In the 2,340 weeks that passed between 1945 and 1990, the earth enjoyed a grand total of only three weeks that were truly war-free.”

The contemporary era is no less dominated by the same sordid drama of death and destruction except that the actors have changed. The foremost post-Cold War threat to global peace and security is terrorism from which no nation, big or small, is immune. Although this scourge has neither religion nor culture nor country, it has become commonplace after 9/11 to stigmatise Muslims because, incrementally, the incidents of such violence have been perpetrated mostly, but not exclusively, by a radicalised minority who profess Islam.

Scholars have identified the sense of victimisation coupled with a real or imagined threat perception as the two most important reasons for the recurring acts of terrorist violence and this is not peculiar to Muslims alone. For instance, the Daily Times issue dated February 2, 2006 carried an article by Christine Fair and Hussain Haqqani in which the authors stated that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), founded in May 1976 by Vellupillai Prabhakaran, were “the world’s largest group of suicide bombers” whose cadres were “not Muslim, but Hindu” and nearly 40 percent were women. However, the impact of the LTTE was confined only to Sri Lanka and ended with their defeat in May 2009, whereas that of so-called Muslim extremists has been global. This has generated fanciful theories about the inevitability of conflict between Islam and the West.

Harvard professor Samuel P Huntington’s article dated December 24, 2008 examined whether the existing “fault-lines between civilisations” would replace “the political and ideological boundaries of the Cold War as the flashpoints for future crisis and bloodshed”. He quoted M J Akbar of India who is of the opinion: “The West’s next confrontation is definitely going to come from the Islamic world. It is the sweep of Islamic nations from the Maghreb to Pakistan that the struggle for the new world order would begin.”

Huntington’s essay on this theme, ‘The Clash of Civilisations’, appeared in the summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs and, according to the journal’s editors, only George K Kennon’s ‘The Sources of Soviet Conduct’ that he published in the 1940s under the pseudonym ‘X’, had generated so much comment. Kennon’s piece inspired debate in Washington’s policy formulation circles and finally resulted in the US Cold War doctrine of containment, whereas Huntington’s article has impacted decisively on post-Cold War world security concerns centred on the threat from terrorism.

The fundamental flaw in the contemporary discourse on terrorism is to equate it with Islamic doctrine. This plays into the hands of the likes of Osama bin Laden who justify the slaughter of civilians through distortions of Quranic injunctions. In this there is an unmistakable nexus between such extremists and those whose purpose is to demonise Islam. According to the Indian writer A G Noorani, there is an “accord in mendacity” between “the leading professional jihadist Osama bin Laden and K S Sudarshan, the supremo of the virulently anti-Muslim body in India, the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS).” Both “interpret verses of the Quran in the same sense, perverted to their respective nefarious ends. Sudarshan’s RSS physically attacks the lives and properties of Muslims of India. Bin Laden’s al Qaeda attacks the soul of Islam.”

Extremists such as Osama bin Laden and Sudharshan rely on two unacceptable methods to distort the Quran’s worldview that is founded on peace and harmony. The first is the doctrine of abrogation, which presumes that the earlier verses of the scripture were abrogated by subsequent ones in the 23 years that the process of revelation lasted, and the second is the textual isolation and de-contextualisation of the passages, which inevitably results in the misinterpretation of its fundamental principles.

Abrogation theologians primarily cite the Quranic statement: “Any message which we annul or consign to oblivion, we replace it with a better one...” (Quran, 2:106). What they ignore is that the word ‘message’ (ayah) in this passage relates to the earlier scriptures and this is obvious from the preceding verse that declares that the Jews and the Christians would never accept any scripture subsequent to their own. All that is stated in this verse is that the Quran has superseded the Bible. However, ‘ayah’ is also used in a more restricted sense to denote any of the 6,247 verses of the Quran because they unfailingly contain a message and this is the assumption on which the doctrine of abrogation is based. Implicit in this questionable doctrine is a presumption of Divine fallibility. The implication is that God made His commandments known but then had second thoughts and amended His earlier pronouncements.

Besides exploiting the flawed concept of abrogation, extremists have also extracted individual passages of the Quran to justify suicide bombings and other terrorist acts. For instance, the verses pertaining to the conditional permission to fight only in self-defence are said to have been cancelled by pronouncements such as: “And so, when the sacred months are over, slay those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God wherever you may come upon them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every conceivable place...” (Quran, 9:5).

The killing of “those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God” has been taken out of context to justify violence although the verse pertains to an ongoing war and cannot imply the initiation of hostilities because aggression in any form is prohibited. This passage, which is misconstrued by extremists as authorisation for indiscriminate slaughter, has been described as “the sword verse” although the word ‘sword’ does not appear even once in the Quran. In fact, the very next passage enjoins believers to protect polytheists that have not attacked them and conduct them to a place of safety.

There is need for Muslims to reclaim their religion from a radicalised minority that kill, maim and destroy in the name of Islam. Till they understand and expose the distortions of their scripture, the false ideology of religion-based violence cannot be defeated.

The writer publishes Criterion quarterly. He can be reached at

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