Who or what is to blame for jihadist terror?
The recent Paris attacks raise many questions.
Could these terrorist attacks be an aftershock from the series of Arab revolutions that began in 2011 and aimed to end despotism but ultimately created destruction?
Was France specifically targeted because of its role in Muslim countries from Mali to Syria and Libya?
Isn’t it true that the Paris attacks and similar incidents are rooted in an intellectual and religious heritage in which politics and religion intersect and overlap in such a way that it has become impossible to distinguish between the two?
What is the connection between the terrorist attacks in France, Turkey, Lebanon and Tunisia? And how do we address this dangerous confusion in our political tradition between worldly politics and religion?
We need to acknowledge that some of the attempts in the Arab world aimed at explaining terrorism have fallen into the trap of justifying it and thus failing to take responsibility for what is happening.
So, just what are the root causes of terrorism?
Terrorism is a complex phenomenon that cannot be blamed on any single factor: Despotic regimes are responsible for the terrorism that emerges in response to them, while it is also true that the absence of economic development represents an expressway to extremism. We can also agree that the United States and the West bear some responsibility for the extremist movements that have sprouted across the Arab world.
But this should not and must not stop us from examining our own cultural foundations and intellectual heritage for the roots of this dangerous extremism, not to mention address the approach that we are taking to address it.
The first step to eradicating terrorism is facing up to some hard truths. We are facing a new group of Muslims who reject any interpretation of Islam that does not agree with their own views. These Muslims reject “the other”, only in this case the other is not just Christians or Jews, but also Muslims of any other stripe or denomination. They base this view on a few religious texts starting with the writings of historic figures such as Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah and Ibn Taymiyyah in the 12th and 13th centuries, reaching 20th-century figures including Jamaat-e-Islami founder Abul al-Mawdudi, Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb and, finally, al-Qaeda strategist Abu Bakr Naji.
When we look at the variety of such texts and the sheer number of people who are referencing them, it becomes clear that it is difficult to distinguish between such extremist ideology and moderate political Islam. For the most part, political Islam, whether in the form of jihadist organisations or political parties, draws its religious interpretation from the same body of texts. Is there any real difference between Islamism and jihadism so long as they draw water from the same well?
While some so-called moderate Islamists are seeking to distance themselves from jihadist ideology, severing all ties with the literature that supports this, logically it is difficult to speak of a “moderate” political Islam that shares the same understanding and acceptance of ideas promulgated by Mawdudi and Qutb. These are also the same ideas that ultimately gave rise to the Islamic State and Boko Haram.
Curing ourselves from terrorism — a more judicious expression than “fighting terrorism” — requires a careful examination of the causes of this disease. This includes the failure of religious institutions to offer a conceptual paradigm that can reconcile worshipers with their own religion and does not nurture an adversarial relationship with “the other”.
As for the political and intellectual elites who pursue superficial explanations for terrorism by saying, for example, that poverty and marginalisation are responsible, they are merely finding an excuse for this terrible scourge and offering dangerous misinformation. It has been established that hundreds of these terrorists come from well-to-do backgrounds and that many countries suffering from poverty and lack of development do not have the same troubles.
Terrorism is a complex phenomenon; its causes cannot be reduced to a single factor. But first and foremost, the Arab and Muslim world must take a look at itself and search for the root causes of this plague. This act of introspection is not self-flagellation, nor does it dispense with any of the other causes of terrorism, but it is a necessary step towards understanding the phenomenon and safeguarding against it.