After 9/11, President Bush described our fight against terrorism as a “crusade” — a statement he later retracted. In his first press conference after the recently thwarted terrorist plot to blow up planes flying from Britain to the United States, the president said, “This nation is at war with Islamic fascists.”
The phrase “Islamic fascists” has drawn the ire of the American Muslim community. We use “Islamic ethics” to mean ethics based on Islamic teachings that guide our behavior. Similarly, Islamic art draws its inspiration from Islamic teachings that discourage certain types of art (immodest imagery or certain life forms). When the president uses “Islamic fascists,” it conveys that fascism is rooted in or inspired by Islam. This is the way the Muslims see it, regardless of what Bush may claim he really means.
Bush earlier said that Islam is a religion of peace. Now, caving in to extreme right-wing pressure, he’s equated the religion of peace with the ugliness of fascism. Such rhetoric contributes to fear of and backlash against American Muslims. A recent Gallup poll shows four out of 10 Americans feeling “prejudiced” against Muslims.
Prejudice against Muslims allowed our politicians to whip up a frenzy in rejecting the proposal of a Dubai firm to operate U.S. ports. Conservative columnist David Brooks wrote, “But it is certain that the xenophobic hysteria will come back to harm the United States. … (The Mideast) is a region in the midst of traumatic democratic change. The strongest argument the fundamentalists have is that they are engaged in a holy war against the racist West, which imposes one set of harsh rules on Arabs and another set of rules on everybody else. Now comes a group of politicians to prove them gloriously right.”
Scholarly writings are delving deeper into the roots of suicide terrorism. Robert Pape, in his book “Dying to Win,” uses over two decades of data to show the paucity of connection between suicide terrorism and any religion.
The pioneering instigators and largest purveyors of suicide terrorism are the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are overwhelmingly Hindu. Pape writes, “From Lebanon to Israel to Sri Lanka to Kashmir to Chechnya, the sponsors of every campaign have been terrorist groups trying to establish or maintain political self-determination by compelling a democratic power to withdraw from a territory they claim.” Occupation is the primary motivator, with religion, at best, an “aggravating” factor.
Today we all live in fear of terrorism. Equating terrorism with Islam makes the mainstream Muslim community doubly vulnerable, to both the terrorism and its backlash.
In these trying times it is important that our nation stand united. Muslims form an important part of the fabric of America. We are law-abiding citizens, dedicated to the protection of our national security. We should not be singled out because of our faith.
Nor should our faith be equated with the evils of terrorism or fascism. We have no control over the actions of shadowy terrorist groups. But as taxpayers we certainly have a right to petition and expect our government to do everything in its power to protect us, including rejecting counterproductive rhetoric.
A recent policy brief by the Stanley Foundation states that Western powers “should not focus on the religious and cultural divisions between East and West when approaching this issue (terrorism), as this plays into the existing grievances of Arab and Muslim populations and creates a sense of clash between civilizations, all of which hinder the resolution of differences.”
An attempt to institutionally and rhetorically dissociate Islam from terrorism is imperative.
(Parvez Ahmed is board chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.)