Sunday, June 26, 2016

Islam and Terrorism (Book Review)

Islam and Terrorism is a very disturbing book that provides many insights into the motivations of Islamic terrorists, and how they are firmly rooted in the radical interpretation of Islam. It has challenged much of what I thought I knew, and provided me fresh perspectives on recent trends in terrorism. This is a book I would recommend to anyone seeking to understand the topic better.

About the author and the book

This book provides an inside view into Islam. Mark A Gabriel was an Egyptian and an Islamic scholar. He “started memorising the Quran at the age of five and finished when [he] was twelve years old”. He earned his bachelor, master and doctorate from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, one of the oldest universities in the world, and the most prestigious for Sunni Islam. Disillusioned by the violent side of Islam, he began questioning the basis of his faith and was tortured by Egyptian secret police. He later converted to Christianity and took on a new name. This allows him to speak more openly about Islam, but as a result he has also received many death threats. The book was first published in 2002, and updated in 2015 to include the latest developments such as the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS.

Islam and Terrorism is organised broadly into three sections. The first 1/3 of the book summarises the interpretations and core beliefs of radical Muslims. The remaining 2/3 shows how these beliefs are rooted in the lives and example of Muhammed and his early followers, and traces the history of how extremist groups evolved, and their continual attempts to overthrow their governments to establish a caliphate and Islamic law. In the final chapter, the author also provides his proposal on the best way to counter radical Islam.

Interesting things that I learned from this book

This is not a comprehensive review of the book. I will summarise just a few of the points mainly from the first section that I found most insightful, and how current events that previously seemed strange now appear quite natural. For the remainder, I encourage you to read the book yourself.

Islam is a religion of works, and martyrdom is the assured and direct path to paradise

The author laments the Western media’s facetious fixation on seventy virgins in paradise as the reward for martyrdom. The true motivation is going to paradise at all, and avoiding hell. On the day of judgment, all infidels will go to hell and Muslims may go to paradise depending on the good works they have done in life. But even “if you live the best Muslim life you possibly can, you still have no guarantee of entering Paradise… There is only one guarantee – martyrdom.”

Islam is both politics and religion, hence a Muslim’s loyalty is to Islam and not the state

“Islam is a religion and a state. After Muhammed emigrated from Mecca to Medina, he set up a political government, established laws, and established Islam as a system of beliefs that covers every aspect of life.” As a physical manifestation of this, the mosque for Muhammad was not just a place of worship, but a headquarters for all his wars. “Muslims in general are very proud of the history of the caliphate in Islam. For thirteen centuries the caliphate united Muslim lands both spiritually and politically.” Radical Muslims (including terrorists) “want the caliphate back, and they ultimately want Islam to rule the entire world.” “To a committed radical who is fighting for his faith, the caliphate means everything and nationality means nothing. His nationality is now belief in Islam.”

In Shariah (Islamic Law), earlier peaceful teachings are superseded by later teaching on jihad

Shariah is based on the Quran, which “is filled with contradictions.” This includes attitudes towards Christians, Jews, alcohol and women. “Islamic scholars had to determine, therefore, which verses to follow in the case of contradiction.” This was accomplished by the principle of abrogation [which is] based on the fact that the Quran was revealed to Muhammad at different times over a period of about twenty-two years… To solve a contradiction, they decided that newer revelations would override or abrogate previous revelations.” “The principle of abrogation is very strong. If a verse is abrogated, it is as if the earlier verse had not even existed.”

“At first the messages that were revealed to Muhammad were peaceful and kind in order to attract people. But circumstances changed.” When Muhammad encountered opposition in Mecca, he moved to Medina and built up an Army, with which he returned to conquer Mecca. “Sixty percent of Quranic verses talk about jihad, which stands to reason because Muhammad received most of the Quran after he left Mecca. Jihad became the basic power and driving force of Islam.”

Authorities have repeatedly tried and failed to destroy radical Islam.

The author traces the roots of modern jihad to the 1920s when Ataturk established a secular state in Turkey and “overturned the Islamic succession system that had led the Islamic world for 600 years.” “Muslims reacted negatively” and the Muslim Brotherhood was started in Egypt with the goal of re-establishing the Islamic system. In the 1950’s an intelligent scholar, Sayyid Qutb, grew disillusioned with the paganism and idolatry of the world, and published a book Signs Along The Road that provides the philosophical underpinnings of today’s Islamic terrorist groups. The author equates him to Martin Luther (who broke away from the Catholic church and founded the Protestant church with a desire to be more faithful to the bible).

The Egyptian government sentenced Qutb to death in 1965, imprisoned his followers, and tried to destroy all copies of his book. However, this only elevated his authority. New groups were formed building on his teachings, each more influential than the last, with an expanding geographic reach. As one group of leaders was imprisoned or killed, another took its place. These included Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who was the author’s professor at Al Azhar. They also led to Al Qaeda and later ISIS.

This book has changed the way I look at the world

Islamic terrorists are not practicing a form of misguided Islam, as we would like to believe

In fact, the terrorists’ beliefs are grounded in Shariah, and they regard more moderate Muslims as having drifted from the faith. Calling them “misguided” may be like Catholics calling Protestants misguided. Depending on what ideology a specific terrorist group subscribes too, they may even regard peaceful Muslims as infidels as well, to be killed. This leads me to wonder whether ongoing efforts to provide a counter-narrative to extremist ideology can be successful, if Islam truly does promote jihad and violence. The fact that martyrdom is a core teaching also poses big security concerns, as it lends itself perfectly to fuelling the types of suicidal bombers and gunman of modern day terrorism.

On a side note, the pagan lifestyle of terrorists is one of the oft-cited arguments I’ve heard why they are not true Muslims. For example, it was widely publicised that the Paris attackers drank,smoked, did drugs and frequented gay bars. But perhaps that is why after joining radical Islam, they believed a martyr’s death would wipe their slates clean and send them to heaven?

It is important to note that the author takes pains to emphasise that he is not suggesting that all Muslims are violent. He writes, “Islam is the religion. Muslims are people following the teachings of Islam according to many different interpretations.”

Many terrorist practices are consistent with Islam

It was also interesting to understand that mosques have always played a key political and military role in Islamic history, and hence we should not be surprised when Islamic fighters use them as bases to “store weapons and make military plans”. This is a common occurrence in many Middle Eastern conflicts, and sparks outrage when attacked because under the Geneva Convention (which is influenced mostly by Western Christian philosophy), places of worship are off limits. Other practices, such as beheadings, or cutting off arms and legs all follow examples from the Quran. And “Allah commanded the prophet Muhammad to enforce killing rather than taking prisoners.”

It is very worrying that Southeast Asian countries are moving toward Islamic Law

In recent years, the leaders of Malaysia and Brunei have begun the process of imposing Islamic Law. This has sparked significant outcry, and discussions have focused on the penal code and how it would apply to non-Muslims. But a deeper concern would be the implications of all the commands to wage jihad and establish the caliphate. What is this is a step on the road toward radicalising the country? A think tank in Malaysia found that 60% of Malays identify as Muslims first (and now I understand why, it is the explicit teaching of Islam).

Terrorism has no clear solution

The most sobering takeaway from this book is that killing the leaders will not stop terrorism, but neither can it be solved by treating the terrorists as deluded or misguided. What then is the solution? The author’s proposal is for a reinterpretation of Islam, and for details of what that means you should read the book.

Finally, it is important to consider the credibility of the author. All I have written above is based acceptance of what he has written as a subject matter expert, given his impressive credentials. But he also clearly has a biased viewpoint. Unfortunately in matters of religion, it is not possible to be objective. But from my further research surrounding his work, I am at this point inclined to trust his views. Recommendations of other good books on this subject are welcome!