Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Muslims’ rejection of terrorism is not enough to stop it | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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This month at the Aspen Ideas Fest, one of America’s most prestigious discussion forums, I heard The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offer a familiar explanation for why terrorism continues: Arabs and Muslims allow it to.

“Until and unless the Arab Muslim community fundamentally delegitimizes these kinds of attacks, they’re not going to go away,” Friedman emphatically declared.

The “Muslim communities enable terrorism because they don’t reject it” narrative has dominated mainstream debates in the U.S. since 9/11. It is no wonder why: The argument is simple, intuitive, and easily encapsulated in a sound bite.

It is also wrong.

Gallup research on what Muslims actually think, collected in more than 50 countries over the past 10 years, erodes the foundational assumptions of this framework. Careful analysis of hundreds of thousands of interviews suggests that al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist attacks are akin to other violent crimes–they are carried out in defiance and to the determent of the wider community.

If al-Qaeda violence were the outgrowth of the Muslim community’s quiet consent, as Friedman suggests, we would expect support for terrorism to be stronger among Muslims than other groups. The empirical evidence illustrates the opposite: Muslims globally are on average more likely than the American public to unequivocally condemn attacks on civilians. According to Gallup surveys, 6% of the U.S. public think attacks where civilians are targets are “completely justified.” As points of comparison, in Saudi Arabia this figure is 4%, and in both Lebanon and Iran it is 2%. A Gallup report on Muslim Americans to be released on August 2 shows U.S. Muslims are more likely than their peers from other major American religious groups to reject targeting civilians.

Moreover, if Muslims and Arabs could stop al-Qaeda’s aggression simply by rejecting it, one would assume that terrorism continues because Muslims sit unharmed by it and have little regard for those targeted. In reality, violent extremists’ primary victims are Muslims –in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Morocco, Indonesia, and Pakistan to name a few. Just as the occurrence of violent crimes in U.S. cities does not indicate Americans’ silent acquiescence to them, continued terrorist violence is not proof that Muslims tolerate it.

Rather, the opposite is true. In the U.S., the majority of foiled al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist plots never materialized because Muslim Americans alerted the authorities.

The final assumption buttressing the claim of Muslims’ collective responsibility for terrorism is that Islam inspires the violence –the same religion shared by the wider community. The data paint a different portrait. Not only are many Muslim communities more likely to reject terrorism, but they often condemn the violence on religious grounds.

Gallup asked citizens of majority-Muslim countries around the world if they thought 9/11 was “morally justified,” and why they said what they did. The minority who condoned the attacks explained their opinions with political, not scriptural, justifications. In contrast, the majority who condemned them supported their position by pointing to their ethical and religious objections to the killing of innocents.

The notion that terrorism will only stop when Muslims reject itis not only built on false assumptions, it is also bad for counterterrorism. Extremist groups seek legitimacy by claiming to enjoy the support of a wider community. To say that the continuation of terrorist attacks is evidence of some broader endorsement only reinforces al-Qaeda’s narrative, while alienating mainstream Muslims.

A decade after 9/11, these average Muslims have suffered most at the hands of al-Qaeda. If their “fundamentally delegitimizing” terrorism could make it disappear, it would already be a distant memory.