Islam Has Been Hijacked, and Only Muslims Can Save It


In the wake of last month's attacks, leading Muslims in America and other Western countries rushed to condemn the killings. Yet they were slower to condemn the likely killers. "They, of course, condemn the destruction that happened on September 11," says Daniel Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum, a think tank in Philadelphia. "The leading organizations have never, however, condemned the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, militant Islam."

American Islamic leaders reply to such charges with indignation. They protest that it is unfair, even bigoted, to demand that they disassociate themselves from people with whom they have never been associated. "What we've found is that other religions don't have to defend their faith when extremists do maniacal acts," Salam al Marayati, the director of the Muslim Public Affairs Office, told The Tampa Tribune. In the same vein, Imam Abdul Rauf, of the Al-Farah Mosque in New York City, told CBS News's 60 Minutes: "That's just as absurd as associating Hitler with Christianity or David Koresh with Christianity. There are always people who will do peculiar things and think that they are doing things in the name of their religion."

For some time now—since well before the September 11 attacks—some Muslims have been arguing that the whole concept of the "Islamic terrorist" is an unfair stereotype. "A terrorist," writes Syed Soharwardy in an article published online, apparently before September 11, by an outfit called Muslims Against Terrorism, "should be identified and condemned as a terrorist, but a terrorist should not be identified with his/her religious affiliation." Why, Soharwardy demands to know, is the terrorist who happens to be a Muslim always identified as a Muslim terrorist? "The white supremacist groups in the Western world are fundamentalist Christians," he writes, yet "their terrorist attacks on blacks and other ethnic groups aren't reported and associated with their religion."

This is a reasonable argument that many reasonable people have made in other contexts. During the 1950s, loyal American leftists resented and resisted demands that they specifically denounce Communism or be presumed fellow travelers. More recently, mainstream African-Americans likewise protested demands that they disassociate themselves from Louis Farrakhan or other controversial figures, with whom they have nothing in common apart from skin color. In 1994, peaceable Jews everywhere were swift to condemn the massacre of 29 praying Palestinians by an Israeli settler named Baruch Goldstein; but they were equally swift to deny, rightly, that Goldstein's demented act had anything to do with Judaism or with themselves.

The false-accountability smear is the oldest trick in the book, and anyone who has been on the receiving end knows how effective it is. Even to assert that you should not have to defend yourself sounds defensive. All sympathy, then, to Muslim leaders in America and other Western countries who protest being held accountable for what they do not say about events they had nothing to do with.

But in this particular case, they are wrong. On September 11, history saddled them with a special obligation to speak out in specific and unequivocal terms against terror in any and all its guises, not only for the good of their country but for the good of their faith.

Like it or not—and no one likes it—Islamic terrorism is a real and distinct phenomenon. Religion is at its heart. The terrorists themselves say so. Even the names of their groups trumpet the connection: Armed Islamic Group; Gama'a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group); Hamas (an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement); Hezbollah (Party of God); Al-Jihad; Palestine Islamic Jihad; and so on. As a theoretical point, it is certainly fair to say that these groups misinterpret and pervert Islam, but in practice that hardly matters, since what they are doing is establishing and rapidly extending a new religion with the divine right to murder as its creed. In a video late last year, a bin Laden henchman issued a call to Muslims everywhere: "Forward to shed blood." That is the liturgy.

The terrorism itself—not just the September 11 killings but the stream of massacres committed by Hamas and Hezbollah and others—is undoubtedly the work of twisted individuals, not of religion as such. It may well be true that if the fanatics of the world did not happen to be Muslims, they would be something else. But in a crucial respect, religion is the essential and unique ingredient of the current terrorist war.

What sets this war apart is its reliance on suicide as an indispensable weapon. In New York City and Washington, hijackers fly planes into buildings. In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, bombers blow themselves up in discotheques and restaurants. In northern Afghanistan, an assassin posing as a journalist kills himself along with the charismatic leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

The last time the world saw anything like this was almost a century ago, when, writes Pipes, "the Assassins, a fanatical religious sect that flourished in the 12th century, developed jihad suicide into a powerful tool of war that succeeded in killing dozens of leaders." The Assassins, he noted, believed that by killing they were earning immediate entry to paradise.

People will kill themselves for a cause, a country, or a creed, but not reliably. To be confident that the attacker will finish the job, you have to make him not just willing but eager to die. Religion offers the only reliable inducement. Without its religious element, the current war would be literally inconceivable.

Although it is not clear that hate-filled zealots listen to anybody, the only people who might even in theory get through to them are the leaders of their faith. I believe the Western imams when they say that the new jihadists' creed is (to put it in Western terms) a heresy, even a sacrilege. But only clerics can discredit a heresy, and in order to do so, they need to be willing to confront and denounce actual heretics.

Instead, the message has been mixed, muddled, muttered. For instance, Imam Rauf told 60 Minutes: "Fanaticism and terrorism have no place in Islam." But then he went on to say: "I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened." (Note the verb. The crime "happened"?) Many mainstream Islamic leaders have let their support for the Palestinian cause wash over into acceptance of Palestinian terrorists' tactics. Fox News recently dug up a tape in which Abdurahman Alamoudi, the president of the American Muslim Council, told a rally in Washington last year: "Hear that, Bill Clinton: We are all supporters of Hamas. Allahu akbar. I wish to add that I am also a supporter of Hezbollah." Three days after the September 11 attacks, this man joined President Bush at the National Cathedral ceremony.

Before September 11, it was possible to dismiss such support for Hamas as a rhetorical flourish, but now the stakes are apparent. Today, a world-historic schism is taking place. Islam, a faith of life, is birthing a parasitic cult of death: a cult of mass murder, nihilism, and ecstatic rage. And this black progeny threatens to consume its parent. Everywhere, it is winning converts in Islam's name. Consider this celebration of slaughter, reported by The Washington Post in August: "After a Hamas suicide bomber killed 15 people and wounded dozens in a central Jerusalem pizzeria Thursday, Palestinian boys clapped and chanted slogans in the streets of West Bank cities. Middle-class Palestinian professionals, including secular people formerly estranged from Hamas's fundamentalist Islamic agenda, sang the bomber's praises. Everywhere, Palestinians pronounced themselves content, even thrilled, with the suicide bombing."

That is the future that beckons to Islam. No, it is not America's or Israel's fault. No, a change in American policies will not stop it. To resist the cult of death, life-affirming Muslims will have to challenge it in mosques and on television and in the streets and everywhere, even if that means criticizing, say, Hamas at least as sharply as they criticize, say, Ariel Sharon. Western Muslims didn't ask for this battle, but if they continue to shrug and say, "Don't look at us, look at Israel," they will lose it anyway.

"Islam was hijacked on that September 11, 2001," a Muslim cleric named Hamza Yusuf said at a White House prayer meeting last month. The metaphor may have been more apt than he realized. Islam has indeed been hijacked, and not just by the terrorists of September 11, but also by Hamas and Hezbollah and all the others who commit or condone murder in God's name. If respectable Muslim leaders continue to shrink from confronting and resisting the hijackers, we now know what will happen—to the hijackers, to the passengers, and to the people on the ground.