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Another attack - in the name of whose Islam?
Irfan Yusuf is writing Once Were Radicals, a book exploring how young Muslims of his generation navigated into and out of political Islam. This piece, first published in The Age on the 22nd of Sptember,, appears on Webdiary with his permission
Another atttack- in the name of whose Islam?
by Irfan Yusuf
Another deadly terrorist attack in a Pakistani city. This time a truck laden with a tonne of explosives crashed into the entrance of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel on Saturday night, killing at least 60 and injuring hundreds. The timing of the attack - during the last 10 nights of Ramadan - could not have been more sacrilegious. Even pre-Islamic Arabs regarded the month of Ramadan as sacred, a time when tribal wars would cease. Yet for Islamist terrorists, no time is too sacred to pursue their ends through bloodshed.
Pakistan's Aaj TV news network showed one flustered Pakistani politician facing fierce questioning about how such a heavily secured location in the heart of the capital could have been the subject of attack. "You are journalists. You seem to know it all. Why don't you tell me how we can stop these attacks?" he said.
Indeed, it is easy to pretend to know all the answers. In the West, too many self-styled terrorism "experts" want us to forget that this latest attack is yet another reminder that most victims of Islamist terror are themselves ordinary Muslims.
Since the London bombings in July 2005, Australians have feared the possibility of a home-grown terrorist attack. The Howard government spent millions telling people to "be alert but not alarmed". Yet some "experts" want us to be more alarmed than alert.
This month, on the seventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks, James Cook University sociologist Dr Merv Bendle, spoke of "the hijacking of terrorism studies … by the postmodern left" with an agenda of avoiding "alleged 'Islamophobia' … (and) maintaining good relations with representatives of ethnic communities, rather than preventing acts of terrorism".
Yet as the recent terrorism trials in Melbourne illustrated so well, it was Muslim community members whose evidence proved crucial to the prosecution's case. Further, the experience in Australia, Canada and across the Western world has shown that extremists wishing to recruit disaffected youngsters are often most easily recognised by others from the same congregations.
While the verdicts in Australia's largest terrorism trial were being handed down last week, The Australian published an article speaking of a "recorded Muslim terrorism vow" that unnamed "Australian counter-terrorism agencies" had recorded.
Yet the so-called "discovery" turned out to be little more than the wording of a bay'ah, a standard pledge formula used by Islamic religious (and especially Sufi) teachers from aspiring disciples. The pledge is an expansion of the basic shahada or creedal formula recited by those wishing to convert to Islam. Sufism is a huge religious force in Pakistan, and no doubt many of the Marriott Hotel victims would have made such pledges to Pakistani Sufi teachers.
If a recently leaked UK intelligence report is any indication, it seems Muslim extremists drawn to terrorism have as little knowledge of Islam as their non-Muslim - and too frequently anti-Muslim - cultural warrior equivalents.
The report - produced by MI5's behavioural science unit - contradicts many widely held assumptions and confirms less prejudicial assessments on why some young people are attracted to fringe theologies and extremist violence. It looked at several hundred people "involved in or closely associated with violent, extremist activity". Most had a secular upbringing, lacked "religious literacy" and openly engaged in irreligious behaviour including drinking and taking drugs.
The report states: "We cannot make assumptions about involvement in terrorism based on the colour of someone's skin, their ethnic heritage or their nationality." Terror recruits are almost never foreigners or illegal immigrants, rendering much ethnic and ethno-religious profiling ineffective.
Sadly, much broader community discussion is less nuanced, and seems intent on convincing us that any increase in manifest religiosity and/or political activism among Muslims must be dangerous.
Such voices have powerful sponsors. Influential Australian thinktanks often invite speakers who cast negative aspersions on some 1.3 billion Muslims that they would never cast on any other faith or cultural group.
That is not to say that we should ignore religious factors. So much of today's terror happens in the name of Islam. But we must always ask the question, whose Islam? Is it the Islam of the first London bombing victim to be buried, the 20-year-old bank clerk Shahara Islam, who bore the name of the religion in whose misguided service the terrorists killed her and 50 other innocents? Is it the Islam of many of those killed in the weekend's Islamabad bombing who had gathered at the Marriott Hotel to break their Ramadan fast?
Modern political Islam's ideologues occupy the theological fringe, most knowing little of 14 centuries of development in the theological, spiritual and legal sciences that form mainstream Islam. Men like bin Ladin, al-Zawahiri and others on the extreme end of this fringe have virtually no formal university training other than in business administration (in bin Ladin's case) or medicine (in Zawahiri's case).
To claim they represent mainstream Islam is as ridiculous as alleging Christianity is represented by the likes of Radovan Karadzic.
Bombs don't discriminate on the basis of religion. Certainly we should be alert, not alarmed - but we should also be informed.