What Is Humanism | Islam and terrorism: a humanist view

Islam And Terrorism: A Humanist View

Islam and Terrorism: a Humanist View

by David Schafer
Published in the Humanist, May/June 2002

"Leaders of the Muslim community in the United States, and even President Bush, have routinely asserted that Islam is a religion of peace that was hijacked by fanatics on September 11. These two assertions are simply untrue. First, Islam--like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or any other religion--is not about peace. Nor is it about war. Every religion is about absolute belief in its own superiority and the divine right to impose its version of truth upon others." --Dr. Pervez Amir Ali Hoodbhoy

In the January 8, 2002, New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote, "There's just one thing that most Americans and Osama bin Laden seem able to agree on: that the attacks on the World Trade Center arose somehow from Islam."

But is Islam an inherently violent religion? With good reason many of us have been turning to acknowledged experts for help in clarifying what turns out to be a complex issue. In particular, three highly respected humanist writers of great courage and persuasiveness, with roots in the Muslim community, have been widely read and quoted: ibn Warraq (a pseudonym), Salman Rushdie, and Pervez Hoodbhoy. Their views deserve our closest attention.


First, let's consider Pervez Amir Ali Hoodbhoy, an outstanding Pakistani nuclear physicist, whose December 30, 2001, Washington Post article, "How Islam Lost Its Way" (expanded in the spring 2002 Free Inquiry), strikes at the heart of the matter. Insisting on the fundamental diversity of Islam, Hoodbhoy writes:

    Maulana Abdus Sattar Edhi, Pakistan's preeminent social worker, and the Taliban's Mohammad Omar are both followers of Islam, but the former is overdue for a Nobel Peace Prize while the latter is an ignorant, psychotic fiend. Palestinian writer Edward Said [of Christian background, teaching at Columbia University], among others, has insistently pointed out that Islam holds very different meaning for different people. Within my own family, hugely different kinds of Islam are practiced. The religion is as heterogeneous as those who believe and follow it. There is no "true Islam."

Every essentialist statement ever made about Islam should be weighed against this paragraph, with which virtually all objective scholars of Islam would agree. In practice, there is no "true Islam"; there are only Islams--as many as there are individual Muslims. Moreover, the differences among Islams are sometimes vast. Uniformity is concentrated more or less in five "pillars": the confession of faith; the prayer ritual; fasting during Ramadan; giving alms for the poor; and the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one's lifetime. Some Islams add a sixth pillar--jihad, the internal or external "struggle in the path of God"--while still others substitute it for one of the other five. There is also great disagreement among Muslims as to the practical meaning of jihad--particularly as to whether it refers primarily to inner struggle, directed against one's worst impulses, or to outer struggle, directed against a society that refuses to allow Muslims to worship.

The history of Islam is replete with accounts of divergences in the theory and practice of the religion. In the first 300 years--from 632 CE to around 950 CE, the so-called formative period of Islamic thought, according to W. Montgomery Watt in a book of that name--a transition occurred from the original oral traditions of Islam to a written tradition that came to be widely accepted by Muslim scholars. There is much controversy today about exactly what happened during this period, since the territory of Islam was at that time expanding enormously and many special arrangements were made by Muslim conquerors with local leaders throughout the conquered lands, permitting the orderly conduct of life to continue.

Different schools of Islamic law sprung up in different regions, with varying implications for future development. When the Quran (the words of Allah as dictated by the angel Gabriel to Muhammad), the Hadith (stories of the Prophet), and the Sunna (the ethos of Islam as practiced by the Prophet) were finally articulated, there were already many conflicting interpretations of these texts. With the subsequent further migration of the faith to as far away as China, the Americas, and Indonesia, Islam found itself taking on a multitude of forms and nuances, with no single authority to determine which among them was "correct." The introduction of new languages, living styles, and technologies further complicated the problem of uniformity.

Today Islams comprise an enormous variety of beliefs and behaviors. What is routinely practiced by one group may be forbidden by another. For instance, some Sufis employ verse, music, and dance to achieve mystical "union with God." In a panel discussion at Yale on October 3, 2001, Professor Lamin Sanneh told of his research on the Jakhanke Muslims, a pacifist sect of Nigeria.

Understanding the diversity of Islams gives those of us who aren't Muslim a valuable tool to facilitate our dealings with Muslims and is therefore much too important for us to ignore or deny. Nearly everybody knows a Catholic who almost never attends mass or who practices birth control, or a Protestant who believes in heaven but not in hell. Many of us who are familiar with variations in religious practice and belief among both Christians and Jews may not realize that similar variations exist among Muslims. The obvious reason is lack of personal contact with Muslims. However, if you have lived where Islam is common, and especially if you have Muslim friends, you probably have observed some of this diversity and may even take it for granted.

In Muslim-populated areas, tales of religious contradictions--some trivial, some not--abound and may at first seem incongruous to non-Muslims. Consider the account in the December 8, 2001, New York Times of stand-up comedian Shazia Mirza, a devout British-born Muslim woman, who prays, always fasts during Ramadan, and never eats pork or drinks alcohol, who told this joke about being in a crowd during a pilgrimage to Mecca: "I felt a hand on my bottom. I ignored it. I thought, `I'm in Mecca. It must be the hand of God.'" Upon leaving her comedy club afterward, she was violently assaulted by three Muslim men outside. In his recent book Crescent and Star, Stephen Kinzer, a New York Times correspondent in Istanbul for several years, tells of a Turkish man, sitting next to him on a plane, who was filled with revulsion when the flight attendant couldn't guarantee that a plate of cold cuts placed before him didn't contain pork. When the attendant apologized, removed the plate, and asked if he would like something to drink, he said, "Yes, I'd love some red wine."

Descriptive labels are often treacherous. While there is little overlap between Sufis and Wahhabis, for example, each sect, as presently constituted, includes a wide range of beliefs and behaviors. At the October 3 Yale panel, an American woman wearing a head scarf complained indignantly, "I don't like this term fundamentalist. I consider myself a Muslim fundamentalist. There is nothing fundamentalist about putting an airplane through a building."

Near the end of his article Hoodbhoy asks, "What should thoughtful people infer from this whole narrative?" To Muslims he says, "Muslims need a secular and democratic state that respects religious freedom and human dignity and is founded on the principle that power belongs to the state." Most Western Muslims seem to agree with this statement. But he goes further, saying, "We have but one choice: the path of secular humanism, based upon the principles of logic and reason." This could lead Western non-Muslims to say, "We told you so," but then they would be missing the whole point. All parties have been too long accustomed to blaming others for the problems they face. Their attention should be directed to his criticism of the West:

    The United States, too, must confront bitter truths. The messages of George W. Bush and Tony Blair fall flat while those of bin Laden, whether he lives or dies, resonate strongly across the Muslim world. Bin Laden's religious extremism turns off many Muslims, but they find his political message easy to relate to: The United States must stop helping Israel in dispossessing the Palestinians, stop propping up corrupt and despotic regimes across the world just because they serve U.S. interests. . . . Americans will also have to accept that their triumphalism and disdain for international law are creating enemies everywhere, not just among Muslims. Therefore they must become less arrogant and more like other peoples of this world.

We ought to take these exhortations seriously on at least two accounts. First, bin Laden isn't an Islamic scholar or even a genuine Islamic leader but an extremist political leader--a demagogue. His so-called Islam may or may not represent his sincere views, but he isn't authorized to speak for a majority of Muslims. All the same, he manages to use his Islam cleverly to exploit the long-festering anger of Muslims, especially in the Middle East, toward the West. We would be foolish to acquiesce in this perverse strategy.

Second, Arabs and other Muslims haven't always been so angry with the West. Albert Hourani, in his Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 (Cambridge 1983) traces four distinct periods in the relations between Arab intellectuals, especially in the Middle East, and Western nations after 1798, when Napoleon's armies occupied Egypt. About the first phase, roughly from 1830 to 1870, Hourani writes: "A small group of officials and writers became aware of the new Europe of industry, swift communications, and political institutions, not as a menace so much as offering a path to be followed." Regarding the second phase, from 1870 to 1890, Hourani writes:

    Europe had become the adversary as well as the model: its armies were Present . . . its political influence was growing . . . its schools were forming students whose processes of thought and view of the world were far from those of their parents; the cities were being re-made. . . . Change had become unavoidable, and the writers . . . were [trying] to persuade those formed in a new mould that they could still hold on to something from their own past.

Regarding 1900 to 1939, Hourani observes:

    Two strands of thought . . . moved further apart from each other: . . . those who stood fast on the Islamic bases of society, and . . . moved closer to a kind of Muslim fundamentalism . . . [and] those who continued to accept Islam as a body of principles or . . . of sentiments, but held that life in society should be regulated by secular norms, of individual welfare or collective strength. . . . For most of . . . this generation, the secular principle was [Ottoman, Egyptian, or Arab] nationalism.

Ottoman nationalism suffered a fatal loss after World War I, when the spoils in the Middle East were divided up in 1920 by Italy, France, and England in "the peace to end all peace." The Ottoman Empire had been the home of the caliphate and by 1924 both were gone. The Arabic word for catastrophe is nakba, and this was to be only the first such nakba experienced by the Arabs during the twentieth century. In Hourani's phrase, the "kind of Muslim fundamentalism" that developed after 1920 was represented by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and the formative years of two guiding spirits of what would become the "Islamic resurgence": Sayyid Qutb and Mawlana Mawdudi, both of whom were to advocate external jihad and martyrdom, though few outside the Muslim world took them literally at the time (see, John L. Esposito's Voices of Resurgent Islam).

The rage of Arabs and other Muslims continued to grow throughout the rest of the twentieth century, not because of any teachings of Islam as such but as a result of the forced domination of Muslims by Western nations, which increased with one nakba after another.

Two events after World War II radically altered the course of Muslim-Western relations. The first was the onset of the Cold War, which ended the period of European ascendancy and polarized the whole world, including Muslims, between the United States and the Soviet Union. Then another major nakba occurred in 1948--the greatest nakba of all in most Arab eyes--when all the Western nations collectively imposed the formation of Israel with no apparent concern for the fate of half a million non-Jewish Palestinians (not only Muslims but also Christians and secularists).

Arab humiliation grew as the United States both strengthened Israel militarily against the Palestinians and other Arabs and armed Middle Eastern dictators during the Cold War in return for their often cruel support in the struggle against the Soviet Union. In 1967, the defeat of the Arab armies by Israel was referred to by Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser as yet another nakba. To many Arab intellectuals this seemed to be the final, intolerable blow.

But the collapse of the Soviet Union would prove to be yet another catastrophe from the point of view of Muslims who had looked to it for salvation from the United States. This hope in itself was particularly remarkable because the official atheism of the Soviet Union had long been thought to exclude the possibility of Muslim cooperation. The perceived victories of Islam over the Shah of Iran in 1979 and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, as well as the eventual demise of the Soviet Union during the same decade, caused many Muslim intellectuals to seek refuge in Islam under the banner "Islam is the solution." The slogan clearly implies that the new upsurge in Islamic radicalism was seen as an answer to the long, intractable problem of Western domination, from which there was no other escape.

The importance of this background was illustrated on August 22, 2001--three weeks before the attacks of September 11--when the Los Angeles Times published an article entitled "Terrorism Is at Odds with Islamic Tradition" by Khaled Abou el Fadl, an authority on Islamic law of war and revolution at the University of California at Los Angeles. According to Abou el Fadl:

    Classical Muslim jurists were uncompromisingly harsh toward rebels who used what the jurists described as stealth attacks and, as a result, spread terror. Muslim jurists considered terrorist attacks against unsuspecting and defenseless victims as heinous and immoral crimes, and treated the perpetrators as the worst type of criminals.

The author then offered "another dimension" to the problem:

    Modern Muslim terrorist groups are more rooted in national liberation ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries than they are in the Islamic tradition. Although these terrorist groups adopt various theological justifications for their behavior, their ideologies, symbolism, language and organizational structure reflect the influence of the anti-colonial struggle of the developing world. For instance, the groups often use expressions . . . imported from national liberation struggles against colonialism [which] did not emerge from the Islamic heritage. In short, modern Muslim terrorism is part of the historical legacy of colonialism and not the legacy of Islamic law. According to the Islamic juristic tradition, terrorists would have no quarter.


One of the most widely quoted opinions about September 11 is that of Salman Rushdie in the November 2, 2001, New York Times. In defending the article's title, "Yes, this Is about Islam," Rushdie asks, "If this isn't about Islam, why the worldwide Muslim demonstrations in support of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Of course this is `about Islam.'" To his credit, though, he quickly adds, "The question is, what exactly does that mean?" and then describes "a cluster of customs, opinions, and prejudices," asserting that "radical political movements" have been growing "over the last 30 years or so" from "this mulch of `belief'" and characterizing the whole as "this paranoid Islam."

Like Hoodbhoy, Rushdie doesn't wear out his welcome by primarily attacking the United States but, rather, addresses his most scathing criticisms to those in the Muslim communities abroad. He alludes only briefly to "the geopolitics of the Cold War and America's frequently damaging foreign policy `tilts,' to use the Kissinger term, toward (or away from) this or that temporarily useful (or disapproved-of) nation-state, or America's role in the installation and deposition of sundry unsavory leaders and regimes." This is the message Americans must heed.

Rushdie then turns to the future of Islam, writing: "If Islam is to be reconciled with modernity, these [critical Muslim] voices must be encouraged until they swell into a roar. Many of them speak of another Islam, their personal, private faith." The very existence of this personal Islam is often completely unknown to Americans. But Rushdie believes, "The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal, its depoliticization, is the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp in order to become modern."

No argument here. But he continues in a more insistent vein, "If terrorism is to be defeated, the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based and without which Muslim countries' freedom will remain a distant dream."


A far more elaborate and relentlessly negative treatment of Islam is that of ibn Warraq. In the preface to his 1995 ground-breaking Why I Am Not a Muslim, ibn Warraq describes in sorrow and anger the personal experiences and powerful emotions that moved him to write the book, and he speaks of its "harsh, final judgments on Islam" in the acknowledgements.

His strong resentment toward the religion of his childhood resonates with many humanist readers, myself included, whose path out of traditional bondage was mainly intellectual in nature. This book and The Origins of the Koran, which followed in 1998, are entry points into the slowly expanding literature highly critical of Islam, past and present, in general and in specific detail, with particular focus on contradictions in the Quran and the traditions surrounding the Prophet, violence in the history of Islamic interactions with other groups, and issues of the status of women and the relation of religion to the state.

For some time, ibn Warraq's Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society has been promoting "the ideals of rationalism, secularism, democracy, and human rights within Islamic society." His website (www.secularislam.org), with extensive links on a variety of pertinent subjects, has been an eye-opener for many who believed that Islam simply means "peace" (there is a remote etymological connection between the words Islam and Salaam) and is all about creativity in algebra, astronomy, art, architecture, and Persian poetry (though Islam is also about these things and much more). The section entitled "Jihad, the Arab Conquests, and the Position of Non-Muslim Subjects" graphically summarizes the fearsome aspects many Westerners have come to associate with Islam. This is required reading for all who may doubt that Islam even has a darker side.

Unfortunately, ibn Warraq's essentialist point of view, which appears to stem from his personal experience, is that there is one "true" Islam that is literalist and violent--and little else. This leads him to refer scathingly to "apologists" who deceptively, as he sees it, attempt to discern other more benign, even humanitarian, aspects of this religion. These "apologists," however, are clearly in the majority among scholars of Islam and can't be dismissed. Furthermore, ibn Warraq's blunt, negative style will never succeed in converting a billion Muslims to his point of view.

Twice during the past decade I have published in Humanism Today (an organ of the North American Committee for Humanism and the Humanist Institute), my own optimistic assessments of chances for the future evolution of Islam in the direction of humanism. These favorable estimates, while clearly contingent on events yet to unfold, are based on some sixty years of comparative study of the history of civilizations. In "The Joy of Humanism" (1996, volume 10), I wrote:

    Despite current bluster and genuine danger Islamic traditions are no less congenial to the slow evolution of Humanism than Judaeo-Christian traditions have been; the key to such evolution lies in ameliorating not only ignorance but also historical conditions of poverty and external domination that have created profound anger toward the West and its ideas. From the beginning Islam has assimilated extra-Islamic influences and accommodated to local conditions.

I then went on to list a few of the hundreds of sources from which my optimism was derived. In my second article, "The Clash of Visions: Toward a Humanist Response to Huntington" (1998, volume 12), I pointed out:

    It would be terribly wrong to conclude that Osama represents Islam. . . . Although Islamic fundamentalism is currently ascendant the long-term outlook for the evolution of more liberal forms of Islam and even an "Islamic Humanism" seems to me to be favorable. If Christianity and Judaism, both inherently conservative, can evolve by gradual stages into Humanism I see no reason why Islam cannot.

In the harsh, eerie glare of September 11, what I am saying here may be considered an update of my earlier remarks. While the events of that date have heightened my already acute sense of urgency, they haven't altered my fundamental optimism, provided that we are able to learn from those events and adjust our behavior accordingly.

It would be hard to make the case that Islam is intrinsically more cruel or violent than Judaism or Christianity. The Old Testament--the foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition--echoes, after all, throughout the Quran and can easily match the Quran on a literal basis for violence and brutality. Jews, and later Christians, have never had any problem with ascribing violence to their religion when it served their purposes.

For example, in Exodus 15:3, after Jahweh has drowned the Egyptians, the Hebrews exult, "Jahweh is a man of war, Jahweh is his name!" and throughout Joshua and Judges they proceed to slaughter the various Canaanite tribes viciously, merely to obtain their lands, on the basis of a covenant with Jahweh. From David's kingdom onward, Jahweh is referred to almost 300 times as "God Jahweh of the armies," although modern readers might not recognize this phrase as the King James "Lord God of Hosts." (Host is, after all, derived from the same word as hostile.)

The gradual liberalization of Judaism and Christianity included the metaphorical interpretation of such phrases, with the heavenly host referring to the stars and the angels. Rudyard Kipling, however, was under no illusions about its literal meaning when he wrote in "Recessional," a prayer to the god of the British Imperial Army:

    God of our fathers, known of old, Lord of our far-flung battle line, Beneath whose awful Hand we hold Dominion over palm and pine- Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget--lest we forget!

And the cruel punishments set forth in the Old Testament laws (notably death by stoning) for what the modern world might regard as civil wrongs or misdemeanors or no wrongs at all are all-of-a-piece with the severe hudud punishments called for by Wahhabi jurists in Saudi Arabia and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The brutality of the Christians in the Crusades was unmatched. John L. Esposito writes in Islam: The Straight Path:

    The contrast between the behavior of the Christian and Muslim armies in the First Crusade has been etched deeply in the collective memory of Muslims. In 1099, the Crusaders stormed Jerusalem and established Christian sovereignty over the Holy Land. They left no Muslim survivors; women and children were massacred.

Again, in 1187, the contrasting behavior of the Kurdish sultan Salah-ad-Din (Saladin) and Richard the Lion-Hearted is described by Esposito:

    The Muslim army was as magnanimous in victory as it had been tenacious in battle. Civilians were spared; churches and shrines were generally left untouched. The striking differences in military conduct were epitomized by the two dominant figures of the Crusades. . . . The chivalrous Saladin was faithful to his word and compassionate toward noncombatants. Richard accepted the surrender of Acre and then proceeded to massacre all its inhabitants, including women and children, despite promises to the contrary.

Christianity's image as a religion of love and peace was also battered by the Inquisition, the witchcraft persecution, slavery, and the violent practices of the Ku Klux Klan, to name a few prominent instances.


It should be clear from the passages cited from the works of Pervez Hoodbhoy, Salman Rushdie, and ibn Warraq that these humanist authors hope and believe there is a possibility that Islam can evolve throughout much of the world toward more democratic, pluralistic societies. And I totally share their goals of promoting rationalism, secularism, democracy, and human rights within Islamic society. But what is missing is a realistic plan to accomplish this. We cannot force such choices and time isn't on our side in such a grandiose project. In our own self-interest we need first to find ways to effect a satisfactory accommodation with all those Muslims whose concept of their religion and whose personal lifestyles are compatible now with humanity's continuing coexistence. This won't happen if we concede to Osama bin Laden the idea that his Islam is the "only true Islam" or wait for the conversion of a billion Muslims to humanism. To ask for all this at once is to ask for too much, too soon. As Voltaire said, "The best is the enemy of the good."

Humanists will do well to extend a supporting and encouraging hand to those millions of Muslims who reject bin Laden's brand of angry, vengeful political doctrine and welcome them warmly and gently into the modern world. We will do even better if we work hard to eradicate political and economic inequalities--to empower the powerless, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, educate the young, and heal the sick. This is a message all Muslims will understand.

David Schafer is a consulting editor for the Humanist and a recently retired physiologist who now devotes most of his time to humanist research, writing, and teaching.