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Countering Islamic Extremism

PRINCETON – Last month, US President Barack Obama hosted a three-day summit on “Countering Violent Extremism.” That term has already spawned a new abbreviation, “CVE,” used no fewer than 12 times in a Fact Sheet released by the Obama administration on February 18.

The Fact Sheet also uses the term “violent extremism” 21 times. How many times do, terms like “Islam,” “Islamic,” or “Muslim” appear? Zero. There is not even a reference to the “Islamic State.” That entity is referred to only by the initials “ISIL.”

This is not an accident; it is part of a strategy to win the support of mainstream Muslims. Riham Osman, speaking on behalf of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which participated in the summit, said that using terms like “radical Islam” harms the cause of stopping the violence. This may partly reflect the Muslim community’s understandable fears that associating Islam with terrorism and violence would contribute to an increase in attacks on, or discrimination against, all Muslims.

Another reason that has been offered for not referring to “Islamic radicalism” or the “Islamic State” is that to do so concedes the terrorists’ claims that they are acting in accordance with Islam’s teachings. That might draw others, who regard themselves as pious Muslims, to join them.

Finally, the repeated use of “Islamic” as part of the description of enemy groups may make it appear that the West is “at war with Islam.” That could lead more moderate Muslims to fight alongside the extremists, thus broadening the conflict and making it more difficult to end.

Yet there are also problems with seeking to avoid these terms.

The first problem is political. The conservative US Senator Ted Cruz, who may be about to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, has said, “You cannot defeat an enemy if you refuse to acknowledge what it is.” That line could win votes. Indeed, it is never a good idea for a politician to appear to be denying what we can all see before our eyes.

Moreover, because it is obvious to everyone that most violent extremism is being carried out in the name of Islam, avoiding the word is unlikely to prevent attacks on Muslims in response to this violence.

A further problem becomes apparent as soon as we ask why it is important that mainstream Muslim leaders stand up in public and say that their religion opposes killing innocent people, or that those who die when committing such acts are not “martyrs” and will not be rewarded in the afterlife. Why should Muslim leaders, in particular, make such statements, rather than Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or Hindu leaders?

The answer, once again, is obvious. But it is obvious only because we already know that groups like Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Taliban are not obeying the precepts of Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, or Hinduism.

At the Washington summit, Obama said that “all of us have a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like ISIL somehow represent Islam, because that is a falsehood that embraces the terrorist narrative.” At least this statement, unlike the White House Fact Sheet, acknowledges that groups like the Islamic state claim to be Islamic. Otherwise, what would be the relevance of this statement to “countering violent extremism”?

Nonetheless, Obama’s assertion that “all of us” have this responsibility needs to be more narrowly directed. If I tried to get into a debate with any moderately well-educated Islamic State supporter about whether that organization is true to the teachings of Islam, I would lose the argument. I am not sufficiently expert in the Islamic tradition to be confident that extremists are misinterpreting it, and few of us are. The responsibility to which Obama was referring rests with those who are much more learned in Islam than “all of us.”

Even for people who are learned in Islam, discharging the responsibility Obama has placed on them will not be easy, as a reading of Graeme Wood’s revealing recent account demonstrates. Wood presents a picture of people driven by a firm belief in Islam, and knowledgeable about its key texts. Anyone familiar with Christian fundamentalism in the United States should be able to discern a pattern in the attitudes taken by religious fundamentalists, independently of the religion to which they adhere.

The Islamic State’s spokesmen insist on following the original precepts laid down by the Prophet Mohammed and his earliest followers, understood literally and with no adjustment for different circumstances. Like Christian fundamentalists, they see themselves as preparing for – and helping to bring about – the apocalypse.

Let me emphasize that I am not saying that the beliefs of today’s Christian fundamentalists are morally on a par with those of today’s Muslim fundamentalists. There is a vast moral difference between those who oppose the taking of innocent human life and those who kill people because of their nationality, or what they say, or because they are “apostates.” But the fundamentalists’ worldviews are similar in important respects, regardless of the religion to which they adhere.

By now, the problem with trying to counter those who seek new recruits for “violent extremism” without focusing on this extremism’s Islamic basis should be clear. Those considering joining an extremist Islamic group should be told: You believe every other religion to be false, but adherents of many other religions believe just as firmly that your faith is false. You cannot really know who is right, and you could all be wrong. Either way, you do not have a sufficiently well-grounded justification for killing people, or for sacrificing your own life.

Granted, some people are not open to reasoning of any kind, and so will not be swayed by such an argument. But others may be. Why rule it out in advance by denying that much extremist violence is religiously motivated?

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His next book, The Most Good You Can Do, will be published in April, 2015.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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