Terrorists vary from Islamic beliefs



The Arabic word Islam, with linguistic ties to the Hebrew word for peace and wholeness, means “submission to God.” For most Muslims, this submission is a “total way of life,” encompassing everything from food and family life to politics and government. They do not easily distinguish between the sacred and the secular, regarding their religion as a complete and complex system. Alford T. Welch, in A New History of Living Religions, writes “Traditional Muslims view virtually all aspects of individual and group life as being regulated by Islam . . . individuals, societies and governments should all reflect the will of God.”

Claiming more followers than any religion except Christianity, Islam emerged in a small area of the Arabian peninsula in the sixth century A.D., a relative latecomer to the world’s religious systems. Mohammed, its primary prophet, is said to have received visions and revelations from God. Its sacred writings include the Quran (the revelation of God) and the Hadiths, (statements of the Prophet). Its ethical system calls for kindness, gentleness and consideration of others. In the words of Mohammed “There should be neither harming nor reciprocating harm.”

Since its beginnings, Islam has had a tempestuous journey. During the last three centuries, it has been besieged by internal and external crises of major proportions. The disintegration of the Ottoman empire after World War I was the first in a series of events, including World War II, the collapse of European colonialism, the rise and fall of communism, shifts of power in the Middle East, and technological and cultural developments that have all posed significant challenges to Islamic identity.

In recent years, increasing dissatisfaction with secular governments among traditional Muslims has triggered a resurgence of “pure” Islam, a fundamentalist return to the basics of the faith (a similar phenomenon occurred in Protestant Christianity in the U.S. as a result of massive disillusionment following World War I).

The vast majority of Muslim fundamentalists, however, are not proponents of violence. Even the concept of jihad (holy war), while carrying a range of interpretations, is characterized in its purest form as “speaking a true word in the presence of a tyrannical ruler.” Nevertheless, this conservative discontent has also been the matrix of pockets of violence, terrorist activities and suicide missions. The zealots who engage in these fringe activities have believed that their actions would help to claim the world for Islam and for God.

The United States has been perceived by some Islamic fundamentalists as one of the primary secularizing forces in the world. American values have been interpreted as promoting consumerism, materialism and militarism, all against the will of God. Some U.S. policies in the Middle East have been a continuing source of frustration to certain segments of the Islamist movement. The fact that some nations in the region are friendly to U.S. policies and values has also been extremely problematic when viewed through the eyes of those who want to see a return to the true religion.

All of these ingredients, coupled with a misguided interpretation of the Quran and the appeal of the fundamentalist movements to Muslims who have been alienated and disinherited by events beyond their control, have come together at various times in terrorist expressions, including the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, bombings in Kuwait, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole and possibly the most recent tragic scenarios in New York City and Washington D.C.

Seeing themselves on a sacred appointment from God, many of the perpetrators of these and other terrorist attacks have been able to justify and even embrace their own deaths and the deaths of others, believing that their actions would gain them certain immortality. For them, death and destruction are merely the stepping stones in an exalted mission for good.

Perhaps this was the kind of thinking that led to the horrific events of September 11. And yet, as the twin towers disintegrated and the Pentagon burned, most Muslims around the world looked on, as we did, in shock and disbelief.

As the prophet Mohammed is reported to have said, “He who helps violence being promoted or seeks help to promote violence is forever under the wrath of God.”

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