Terrorists not ‘losers’ nor ‘worshipers of death,’ but ‘idealists’

Western leaders cannot expect to defeat terrorism in their countries when they deny the roots of the jihadi phenomenon: the deep connection of the attacks to faith.

Just like Barack Obama, Francois Hollande and David Cameron, who denied that the jihadi bombings in the West were in any way connected to religion, Donald Trump and Theresa May now also insist on mischaracterizing the jihadi phenomenon, calling the jihadis by different names such as “evil losers” (Trump) and “sick cowards” (May).

During his campaign Trump spoke in different terms (“radical Islamic terrorism”) – but since then he has evidently adopted the approach favored by the other Western leaders, who consider any reference to the religious roots of terror as “unhelpful.” Like them, he is apparently motivated by the understandable need to avoid offending 1.4 billion Muslims.

So first, let’s put forward the true, if “unhelpful,” definition. The jihadis who perpetrate these horrific crimes are neither losers, nor nihilists, nor worshippers of death, nor sick cowards. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of them are devout and fanatic believers. They are idealists who sacrifice their lives for the sake of a utopian future: a world ruled by their faith.

The attacks they commit are extreme acts of piety. They seek to emulate the dedication of the early believers in order to revive the glory and grandeur of the past. In fact, as part of their training, many suicide bombers adopt a pious lifestyle: they immerse themselves in prayer, help the needy in their society, pay all their debts, and become moral and religious role models for others.

Following the Directives of the Koran

Contrary to the approach of the Western leaders, who blame the evil character of the perpetrators while absolving the faith they follow, the truth is that these perpetrators, by the standards of their own belief, are virtuous people who follow the directives of the Koran [48:29]: “Be fierce towards the infidels, merciful towards each other.”

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The problem lies not in the perpetrators’ innate character but in some of the core values of their religious belief system. Indeed, their faith – any faith – includes elements that are beautiful alongside elements that are malevolent. Denying that these malevolent elements are part of the faith, as the Western leaders do, is wrong. It is such denial that is unhelpful; in fact, it is self-deception.

Can the mischaracterization of the terrorists’ acts actually achieve the goal of avoiding offense to the world’s Muslims? The answer is no. Faced with the Western leaders’ statements that totally disassociate the jihadis’ acts from their religious roots, the world’s Muslims can only conclude that Western leaders do not understand their faith and have the intellectual conceit to mischaracterize it.

In fact, this mischaracterization denies some of the core values that underpinned the great achievements of Islam in which Muslims take pride: the establishment a great civilization and the building of not one empire but several in the course of history.

Can Islam Reform?

It would be far more respectful to Muslims to acknowledge that these values (of self-sacrifice and extreme dedication aimed at spreading the faith by force) were the basis of Islam’s expansion, just as the spread of Christianity, after the Emperor Constantine established it as the state religion, was based on a similar process of imposing the faith by force. However, Christianity has since renounced these values. Christianity does not deny its past, but it has jettisoned the element of coercion.

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Similarly, Western leaders must not denigrate the Muslim past by denying its core values, but rather should demand that Muslims follow the same path: realize that some violent values that underpinned their civilization and glorious past are incompatible with modern morality. Western leaders should therefore demand that contemporary Muslims focus on other aspects of their faith (as Christianity has done), and totally reject imposing their religious utopian vision by the force of arms.

Western leaders cannot expect to defeat “terrorism” in their countries when they deny and evade acknowledging the roots of the jihadi phenomenon: the deep connection of the attacks to the faith. Admitting this connection will not only be more respectful to Muslims, it will also be conducive to reforms and useful to Muslim reformists, who acknowledge that the terrorists’ ideals come from within: from the houses of worship, the schools and society at large.

Being truthful towards the Muslims is more respectful than denial. It will also be much more helpful, since only discarding the completely unnecessary hypocrisy regarding the roots of Islamic terror will help Muslims adopt a normal attitude towards their past: pride in its achievements, along with the necessary criticism of the archaic values that led to these achievements.

Islam 2.0

Muslims should accept a post-caliphate role for themselves just like all European states have reconciled themselves to post-imperial status. This is an admittedly painful process but it is an unavoidable one. The most senior Muslim religious leaders should seek a Muslim aggiornamento (a bringing up to date of the religion) along the lines of the reforms introduced by Pope John XXIII.

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These messages should be delivered by Western leaders openly and insistently, in lieu of the intellectual evasion and denial practiced today. It should be emphasized that this demand is not addressed exclusively to Muslims. It is a demand that the West and Christianity have applied to themselves, and therefore have every right to demand it of the Muslim world. Only thus will the ideological base of jihad be eradicated and “terrorism” significantly decline. Needless to say, this is a long-term process, but it is nevertheless the genuine solution to the problem and the only way to produce results.

Facing the Truth and Stopping Jihad

In translating this insight into concrete policies, two steps seem to be immediately necessary. First, Western leaders must cease the hypocritical denial of jihad’s deep connection to faith, and firmly and openly demand that the leaders of the Muslim world take significant steps to reform the religion.

Second – and this is up to them alone – they must enact legislation to stop the jihadi use of the Internet, which has been powering the spread of jihadi ideology for over a decade. They must disregard all the corporate excuses, that this is impossible or incompatible with free speech. Free speech does not permit incitement to murder, including faith-based incitement. They should honor the international conventions against genocide and not allow the Internet companies to flout the laws of democratic countries.

By: Yigal Carmon/ The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI)