Delinking Terrorism and Islam

Exclusive: President Obama has faced sharp criticism from the Right for refusing to link Islam to acts of terrorism. He argues that to do so plays into the hands of violent criminals who wrap their brutality in the cloak of a great religion. But who has the better side of this argument, asks Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

Sen. Ted Cruz, expressing the views of many conservatives, accuses President Obama of “bizarre, politically correct doublespeak” for referring to “violent extremists/jihadists/radicals” instead of “Islamic terrorists.” However, by avoiding the linkage between one of the world’s great religions and acts of mass murder, Obama says he seeks to isolate the terrorists from the 1.6 billion mostly peaceful Muslims who inhabit the world.

Is Obama wrong to downplay the factor of faith in the declared motives of terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda?

President Barack Obama in his weekly address on Sept. 13, 2014, vowing to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. (White House Photo)

President Barack Obama in his weekly address on Sept. 13, 2014, vowing to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. (White House Photo)

Early this year, The Atlantic magazine ran an influential article that condemned “a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature.” The author, Graeme Wood, declared, “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. . . . The religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

Unlike many conservative rants, Wood’s long piece was nuanced and acknowledged the obvious: most Muslims don’t subscribe to the political agenda of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh). But while insisting on the serious faith of its “most ardent followers,” Wood’s article failed to answer a key question: Does their support for terrorism flow logically from a long and deep immersion in Koranic studies, or is the Koran, with its fighting words and readily accessible jihadist doctrines, simply a convenient text to justify violent impulses that stem from other causes?

If the latter is true, Obama has a strong case for downplaying the religious context of terrorist movements that claim to honor the one true faith. Judging from some recent profiles of ISIS leaders and terrorists, Islam was less a motivating force than an ennobling cover for their basically criminal, anti-social proclivities.

For example, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, described as the “godfather” of the organization, was “a onetime thief,  . . . a tattooed Jordanian and a reformed drinker of extreme personal violence whose own mother had proclaimed him not very smart,” according to the New York Times. He spent his youth as a “petty criminal” before joining other jihadists in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Haji Bakr, the former Iraqi colonel and organizational genius behind the ISIS until he was killed in 2014, was described as “a nationalist, not an Islamist,” by Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi. A major study of Bakr’s career by Der Spiegel reporter Christoph Reuter, based on a trove of captured documents, notes pointedly that “there is no mention in Bakr’s writings of prophecies relating to the establishment of an Islamic State allegedly ordained by God.” Although Bakr was not particularly religious, “he did believe that the faith of others could be exploited.”

Reuter adds, ISIS “has little in common with predecessors like al-Qaida aside from its jihadist label. There is essentially nothing religious in its actions, its strategic planning, its unscrupulous changing of alliances and its precisely implemented propaganda narratives. Faith, even in its most extreme form, is just one of many means to an end. Islamic State’s only constant maxim is the expansion of power at any price.”

As Atlantic magazine’s Wood admits, ISIS propaganda “has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe.” Among them were the Paris terrorists. The suspected mastermind, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was radicalized only last year when he traveled to Syria.

Growing up, he studied at a Catholic school before dropping out and “drifting into a life of thievery and drugs,” according to the Independent. He “showed much more interest in petty crime than Islam” and never prayed in a mosque, according to his sister.

The journalist and social historian Ian Buruma likened Abaaoud to the 1970s-era terrorist “Carlos the Jackal”: “the same self-satisfaction, the same pleasure in violence, the same delight in a deadly cause. . [Abaaoud’s] brand of political Islam is an extreme form of religious fanaticism, to be sure. But it cannot be properly understood by learning more about the Quran or the Hadith, any more than the bloodlust of [Carlos] can be reduced to readings of Das Kapital. Murderous revolutionaries, whether they act in the name of a religious or a secular cause, tend to be mesmerized by a cult of death. More conventional or traditional forms of Islam are far removed from a death cult.”

Salah Abdeslam, another ISIS operative who has been described as “the most wanted man in Europe” following the death of Abaaoud, was reportedly known most for “having a long line of girlfriends, including an English woman, and a party lifestyle.”

Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the woman killed during the police assault in Saint-Denis, “was a party animal with a string of boyfriends who had shown no interest in religion,” according to interviews by the London Daily Mail. She was “known for her love of alcohol and cigarettes rather than devotion to Islam,” the paper reported.

“Her brother . . . said that she had had no interest in religion, never read the Koran and had only started wearing a Muslim veil a month ago.” He added, “She had been the victim of violence since she was very young – mistreated and rejected – she never received the love she needed. From the age of five she was taken into care, so she grew up with a foster family.”

Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, who was Graeme Wood’s main expert source, told another journalist that the vast majority of Muslim scholars reject ISIS’s ideology. Indeed, he explains the movement’s rise primarily in non-religious terms:

“The reason ISIS emerged clearly has to do with the chaos in Iraq, the disenfranchisement of the Sunnis of Iraq (which is the result of the American invasion-occupation), and the chaos in Syria (which is a regime that has also disenfranchised Sunni Muslims). We have two big Arab countries, side-by-side, both in chaos, both with large Sunni populations that are disenfranchised. With a lot of young men who have no prospects for employment and feel marginalized. And who then identify their sense of humiliation and marginalization with the larger Muslim world, which they claim is also being marginalized and being humiliated.”

In a recent speech on the “driving force behind jihadist terrorism,” the noted French scholar Olivier Roy confirmed that young men become jihadists because it offers them a chance to belong to a “small brotherhood of superheroes” in a celebrated global cause, not out of faith. “Almost none followed a real process of religious education,” he said. “Their religious knowledge is low (some brought with them ‘Islam for the Dummies’). When they said that they were going to learn Islam in Pakistan or Yemen, it is just to appease their parents: in fact they go for jihad.”

He added, “This explains why . . . ‘reforming Islam’ does not make sense: they just don’t care about ‘what Islam really means.’”

It is, of course, true that Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups operating mainly in the Middle East embrace Islam to justify their radical doctrines. But politicians and pundits who insist on branding them first and foremost as Islamic play into the hands of sociopaths by conflating them with peaceful followers of a religion who make up nearly a quarter of the world’s population. Their focus demonizes Islam and casts the struggle waged by terrorists as a clash of civilizations, elevating the status of fringe extremists and attracting more thrill-seekers to their ranks.

So yes, words matter. In this sometimes shrill semantic debate, score one for President Obama, who wisely refuses to turn the world’s battle against terrorists into a Twenty-first Century Crusade.

Jonathan Marshall is an independent researcher living in San Anselmo, California. Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]

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20 comments for “Delinking Terrorism and Islam

  1. nmb
    November 24, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    The ruthless elites construct the new enemies

    http://bit.ly/1NMM8yR

  2. Abe
    November 24, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    Linking Terrorism and Zionism

    In reality, the so-called “Islamic State” is a mercenary syndicate operating at the behest of state-level terrorist patrons.

    As Christoph Reuter has pointed out, “aside from its jihadist label” there is “essentially nothing religious in its actions, its strategic planning, its unscrupulous changing of alliances and its precisely implemented propaganda narratives. Faith, even in its most extreme form, is just one of many means to an end.”

    This description contains all the information we need to understand ISIS true patronage — the Zionist State whose “only constant maxim is the expansion of power at any price.”

    • JWalters
      November 25, 2015 at 6:36 pm

      Good points. And why no MSM articles on the well-known Biblical underpinnings of Israel, with its instructions to massacre whole cities to establish Israel? Why no mention of the massive wave of innocent Muslim refugees created by the Zionist army’s brutal slaughtering of Muslims during the establishment of Israel? Why no mention of these same attitudes being expressed today by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, documented here?
      http://mondoweiss.net/2015/11/protesters-hotovely-conference

  3. jo6pac
    November 24, 2015 at 9:36 pm

    score one for President Obama, who wisely refuses to turn the world’s battle against terrorists into a Twenty-first Century.

    This is satire right? The cia goal is to spread the virus we see to day. In the New Amerika distrust among it’s citizens. The feds needing the rights to watch everyone but still can’t catch or don’t want to catch the so-called bad guys and gals. In the so-called cheney new Europe the same distrust was taken to a new level lately. Sadly this story gives into the corp. speak of the times. 0 will do what ever his puppet masters want and is very good at saying the right thing at the right time but never follows through. The new normal of corp. owned Amerika. Think Italy under Mussolini.

  4. Renfro
    November 25, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    ” Early this year, The Atlantic magazine ran an influential article that condemned “a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature.”

    The Atlantic magazine was revealed in the 1963 Fulbright Senate Hearings on subversive and propaganda activities of the ZOA and Israel to have been paid $50,000 to publish articles favorable to Israel.
    They still do it under the guise of ‘presenting different sides”.

    http://israellobby.org/AZC2/default.asp

    1962-1963 US Public Relations Plan

    Documents

    Document Page 1. In the early 1960’s, Israel funneled more than $5 million into US propaganda and lobbying operations. The funding, equivalent to more than $35 million in today’s dollars, was laundered from the the quasi governmental Jewish Agency into an Israel lobby umbrella group, the American Zionist Council. This two page master plan was subpoenaed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and discussed in the 1963 hearings on Israel’s US foreign agents

  5. November 25, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    Sen. Ted Cruz, expressing the views of many conservatives, accuses President Obama of “bizarre, politically correct doublespeak” for referring to “violent extremists/jihadists/radicals” instead of “Islamic terrorists.”

    Many (if not most or all) of those who loudly object to “political correctness” are jerks and bigots who use accusations of “political correctness” as a shield to defend themselves from being called out as jerks and bigots.

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/the-big-picture/2783-Correctitude

    • Abe
      November 26, 2015 at 3:50 pm

      Mike H loudly objected,
      “Just how much is the Kremlin paying you Mr Parry?”
      See comments https://consortiumnews.com/2015/11/24/turkey-provokes-russia-with-shoot-down/

      No one can accuse you of being “correct” (factually… twice!)
      so let’s just say
      don’t be a jerk, Mikey.

      • November 26, 2015 at 5:03 pm

        Hi Abe. Just to let you know that I am very definitely a different MikeH from the other Mike H who you think you are responding to.

        And incidentally I agree with you about the other Mike H; I don’t much care for him from what I have seen of his posts. He is definitely much more “right wing” than I am.

        And I usually like your posts.

        I guess it is unfortunate that the other Mike H and I happen to have similar name handles.

      • Abe
        November 26, 2015 at 7:49 pm

        Affirmative, MikeH. I appreciated your comment.

        It’s clear from your blog (linked to your handle) that you are an entirely different person from Mike H.

        The “correctitude” video you linked to correctly highlights out how jerks like “Mikey” H operate.

        My apologies for any identity confusion.

        • November 26, 2015 at 11:39 pm

          Thanks, Abe.

  6. MarkK
    November 25, 2015 at 4:06 pm

    Call a spade a spade:
    Quran (2:216) – “Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not.”

    Quran (3:151) – “Soon shall We cast terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers, for that they joined companions with Allah, for which He had sent no authority”.

    Quran (8:12) – “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them”

    • JWalters
      November 25, 2015 at 6:45 pm

      The Koran also specifically says Jews and Christians are “believers”, and those who follow God’s teachings will be rewarded in heaven. Where it condemns Jews or Christians it is talking specifically about those who have forsaken their own religions and become unbelievers.

      • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
        November 25, 2015 at 7:45 pm

        MarkK sounds like Mark KKK if you know what I mean. You should read the Quran in full context if you want to mention it…………Again, KKK sounds more suitable as a last name for you.

    • Evangelista
      November 25, 2015 at 9:47 pm

      Mark,

      You need, first, to find yourself a competent translation of the Qur’an, one with cultural explanation footnotes and no, or minimal and then neutral, ‘explanatory’ insertings. You need then to recognize you are reading cross-culturally and reading information intended for a cross-cultural audience having a number of common analogic reference constructions, and that those will make references appear vague to you, in many cases, and recognize that most of the references will be middle-east local and so foreign to your culturation, but can be comprehended if you make effort to adjust your perspective to recognize the connections of the references. If you are a King James Version Bible reader you should have a head-start, or, if you are not, you should start with a reading of the KJV Bible, to learn to stretch your mind to comprehend the unfamiliar in expression.

      You don’t have to ‘become a believer’ in any case to become a competent Scriptures-reader, but you do have to learn to read in contexts, in the verbal contexts on the pages, the reference contexts in the relevant narration, in the general context a narration, or section of narration fits in and derives from, and in the overall context of the belief-system the Scripture is component of. This last is especially important in dealing with Islam, especially if your culturation is Western, and more especially if your culturation is Judeo or Judeo-Christian. This is because Islam derives from a wholly different construction of deity, one that (Who) is all-compassing, not all-mighty, all-benevolent, not all-powerful.

      This is important to keep in mind when reviewing Mohammed’s revelations, because the revelations of Moahammed reveal a deity who assigns equality, and fairness as responsibilities, which being opposite what the adherents to the Judeo-Christian deity reveal him, reverses common designator constructions. For instance, where a Judeo or Judeo-Christian “conservative” would be adamant about adherence to ‘Divine Law’, and ‘Divine Law’ would mean ‘Hew thee narrowly to the Divine Authority’s Demands of thee’, an Islamic ‘conservative’ must, to be conservative, be adamant about his own (not your) maintenance of his own responsibilities to egalitarianism and responsibilities-to-community responsibilities. European royalty style authorities, kings, emperors, etc., deriving their ‘authorities’ from ‘deitic investiture’ (divine right to rule) would be anathema in Islam, if not blasphemous.

      Studying Islam is, really, in fact, lots of fun, in my opinion, because of Islam being an egalitarian religion. As one studies it, from an outside point of view, one can see why Western authoritarians work themselves up to such an extent about it. Not that they recognize what it is that rubs them the wrong way, other than instinctively. What it is that does is the egalitarianism, which makes Islam, or would make it, the natural religion of the United States Constitution, a secular equivalently egalitarianism and responsibility defending document (what defines a Republic a Republic is the responsibility to defend the principles of the Republic so they apply equally to all of the public of the Republic, fairly and responsibly).

      If you start now, apply yourself and learn the nature of Islam, I suspect you may give yourself a head-start into the future of the United States’ American culture, since the activities of the commercial elite have been creating a vast class of impoverished have-nots, homeless, jobless, prospectsless, who, looking up and seeing the one percent vastly-rich increaing the gap where once was a middle-class to a chasm, will very likely find the egalitarianism of Islam appealing, and begin to take Mohammed’s teachings seriously.

      It’s the way it goes in history.

    • John Hawk
      November 26, 2015 at 6:38 am

      These quotes from the Quran are taken way out of context!

    • richard vajs
      November 26, 2015 at 9:53 am

      How about we quote all of the intolerant, militant, genocidal passages in the Old Testament (including the Revelations)? – the tally will outweigh the whole Koran. I’ve read both, have you? Let’s compare – starting with the Book of Joshua.

  7. MEexpert
    November 26, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    ISIS or Al-Qaeda have absolutely nothing to do with Islam. How could they? Islam means peace and what they are doing has nothing do with peace. Islam strictly prohibits killing innocent human beings. They are not killing infidels. They are killing Muslims. Shi’as are Muslims whether ISIS likes it or not.

    They are the tools of the Zionist Israel. Israel is only afraid of shi’a Iran and shia Hezbollah. So Saudi Arabia and Israel collude to use ISIS to murder innocent Shi’as. Has any one wondered why ISIS or AL-Qaeda hasn’t attacked Israel if they cared about the Palestinians, as they claim to do. Saudi Arabia is the worst Islamic country but the ISIS hasn’t bothered them either. Their only attack in Saudi Arabia was to kill shi’as.

    It serves the interest of neocons and the Zionist to label ISIS as Islamic.

    One other comment. Mr. Marchall Says:

    “The reason ISIS emerged clearly has to do with the chaos in Iraq, the disenfranchisement of the Sunnis of Iraq (which is the result of the American invasion-occupation), and the chaos in Syria (which is a regime that has also disenfranchised Sunni Muslims). We have two big Arab countries, side-by-side, both in chaos, both with large Sunni populations that are disenfranchised. … With a lot of young men who have no prospects for employment and feel marginalized. And who then identify their sense of humiliation and marginalization with the larger Muslim world, which they claim is also being marginalized and being humiliated.”

    It is amazing that people are so concerned about Sunni population being disenfranchised in Iraq and Syria. No one ever cared for the disenfranchisement of the majority of Shi’a population (60%) for a number of years by the minority Sunni government of Iraq. Similarly, the minority Sunni government in Bahrain continues to disenfranchise the huge Shi’a population but no one is complaining about them.

    Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are systematically elimination shi’as from their population with a peep from the free world.

  8. MEexpert
    November 26, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    I should have also included Saudi Arabia. Shi’s are completely marginalized there as well. They can’t find jobs, cannot practice their religion and are discriminated in every way possible. They cannot even protest against the government. Their punishment is death.

  9. Jay Bergstrom
    November 29, 2015 at 12:41 am

    I highly recommend R. Crumb’s definitive work – Genesis. Ho Lee Fuk. The cartoon books I saw in Lutheran Sunday school seem to have missed a lot. These dicks are calling us westernoids Mohamed deniers. Christ on a crutch, they are angry with us for ruining the horrific status quo of their despotic regimes. Rightly so, Bush et al should be rung up on charges. Many of these maniacs are driven to return chaos to those who delivered it to them. If they see us taking care of our maniacs many of them would just go home to farming or rebuilding the life in the country of their birth. Prolly more effective than precision guided munitions. If they are persistent, grant the Kurds the deal… In return for sanitizing the area of IS maniacs, they get their country. Tall order. Turkey, Syria, and Iraq lose hectares. Kurds regain their home. I think we can do this. What’s the frequency Kenneth?

  10. John E. Reuter, Esq. (Ret.)
    December 2, 2015 at 7:43 pm

    Interesting and sincere essay, but unconvincing and unpersuasive. Try as one might, it is impossible to untangle Islam from jihadi terrorism. Mr. Marshall cannot see the forest for the trees. Islam is being “reformed” as we speak. The ultimate question is whether it can or will ultimately be “tamed” as was Christianity. Therein lies the fate of humankind.

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