Islamist terrorism: chilling echoes of Pastor Niemoller

The Islamists have us all in their sights. We are all targets. It is incumbent upon us all to speak up. Being Muslim is not enough. Are you the right kind of Muslim in the eyes of the Islamists?

Yasmin Rehman
29 June 2016

As a woman of Pakistani/Indian, Muslim heritage I have remained blissfully untouched by the sectarianism that is claiming the lives of so many in our communities. The shock and horror at the daily threats, violence and murder seem all the more frightening as, like many of the same heritage, my extended family is made up of Sunnis, Shias, Ahmadis, people of other faiths, and non-believers. Communities that once lived together and inter-married are now being made separate by the poisonous spread of Islamist ideologies. Sectarianism is not unique to Islam but the violence perpetrated in its name knows no bounds. Its targets are all people, everywhere. Its objective it would seem is nothing more than to keep us in a place of perpetual fear.  


Photo: from the film 'Why Can't I Be a Sushi?' by Hoda Yahya Elsoudani.

2016 is going to be another bloody year as the terrorists continue to wage their war against us all. The list of atrocities seems endless. After each event follows that oft repeated question – ‘how did we get here?’ Public outcry, government statements, articles in the media, phone-ins and documentaries follow and we all listen to experts and others like us trying to work out how we got here and what do we do about it. But then we return to our daily lives until the next incident takes place. I was jolted from this well-worn pattern of incident and public response when I saw a post on social media. The Clarion Project published details taken from the ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq of a hit list of 22 Western Muslim leaders as ‘Imams of Kufr’ who should be killed. The diverse list of politicians, Salafis and Sufis includes those known to have links to Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. This, despite the fact that the Islamic State’s ideology is directly descended from that of the Muslim Brotherhood. The list names Muslim leaders from Britain, Canada, USA and Australia.

This latest hit list is the most recent in a number that have been circulated across the world.  In September 2015, a hit list containing the names and photographs of secular bloggers, writers and activists around the world, including nine bloggers based in the UK, was circulated in Bangladesh. Xulhan Manon, founder of Bangladesh’s first and only LGBT magazine was brutally murdered by suspected Islamist extremists. Manon’s murder took place only weeks after Nazimuddin Samad was brutally murdered by Islamists after posting on Facebook. Sadly, these lists are not new but there was something even more chilling about the list posted by Clarion Project. As I read the names I was reminded of the famous quotation by Pastor Niemoller a prominent Protestant pastor who opposed the Nazi regime.   

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The Islamists, often with tacit government support, have been coming for the socialists, trade unionists, activists, writers and others in many Muslim majority countries across the world. The thirst for blood and lust for violence not yet sated by the murders, rapes and brutality meted out against Yazidis, Shias, Ahmadis, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, believers, non-believers, secularists, bloggers, writers, activists, women, men, children – basically anyone who does not fit their distorted world view. ISIS, it would seem now have new targets in their sights and some are those considered within the Islamist fold. Some who have remained silent at the murders and atrocities being committed by ISIS, others who have shared or tacitly endorsed the Muslim victim narrative and peddled the radical, hateful ideology of ISIS and other Islamists groups, are now targets too. The exposure of this complicity brings me no comfort. I feel utter despair at where we are now. Is this list a signal of the Islamists turning on each other or is it another example of Islamic sectarianism?

7th January 2016. Paris. Photo: Paul Alfred Henri

ISIS released their latest hit list only weeks after the brutal murder of Asad Shah and on the same day as Channel 4 broadcast a documentary in which Trevor Philips, former head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission unveiling a new poll telling us ‘what Muslims really think’. From press reports leading up to broadcast of the documentary it would seem that Muslims in Britain are uniquely unwilling to integrate into British society. Although the poll does not address the issue of Muslim sectarian divisions it would appear from the murder of Asad Shah and the ISIS list that perhaps we should now assume that Muslims are actually unable to live with each other too.  

The Shia-Sunni schism in Islam and its ongoing aftermath is well documented. However, in 2014, the Muslim Institute (I am a Fellow) took the bold step of putting sectarianism under the scalpel and giving insight into the ummah – the transnational Muslim community. As Ziauddin Sardar states in the introduction to this edition of Critical Muslim - It is simply not good enough to be a Muslim. You have to be labelled Sunni or Shia, and from there on progressively put in smaller boxes….And to those who deviate one iota …are, by definition, kaffirs – infidels who deserve to die.


This chilling statement from Ziauddin Sardar sums up the basis of divides amongst Muslims and the battle for an authentic Muslim identity. There is no longer any space for those of us who are secular and progressive and, as Kenan Malik says wear our faith lightly and not as a sacrosanct public identity. The primacy of a faith identity above all else is now commonly accepted but for Muslims this in itself is no longer enough. This was made absolutely clear in the recent incident of sectarian violence in Glasgow – a city that is no stranger to religious divisions. The brutal murder of Asad Shah, a Glasgow shopkeeper shed a spotlight on sectarian violence amongst Muslims in the West. 

It now seems that hardly a day goes by without some discussion about sectarianism and Islam. I warmly welcome the space opening up about the position of Ahmadis in Islam and a much belated recognition of the violence and abuse this community has suffered over many years. Pakistan has led the way in the treatment of Ahmadis. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, often described as a nationalist and socialist, was Prime Minister of Pakistan when the constitution was amended and Ahmadis declared non-Muslims. This was followed in 1984 under the regime of General Zia ul Haq when Ordinance XX was introduced and it became a criminal offence for Ahmadis to call themselves Muslims. These developments took place long before the days of ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their extremist offspring.  The daily impact of this persecution and restriction on Ahmadis freedom to practise their faith is movingly described by Shamila Ghyas. The violence and murder is becoming worse but we should be cautious about ignoring the prejudice and discrimination which has gone unchallenged for many years. We must also acknowledge that persecution of Ahmadis is not limited to Pakistan but includes Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and many other countries where Ahmadis are designated as non-Muslims. Saudi Arabia where Ahmadis are forbidden from performing Haj, one of the five pillars of Islam – has faced calls from human rights organisations to cease its persecution of Ahmadis.

Following the debates in the media it is heartening to hear many Muslims state their abhorrence at the attacks on Ahmadis. However there are those who continue to label Muslims not like them as ‘other’ and outside of Islam. This labelling as ‘other’ or non-Muslim is made all the more dangerous for those who do not conform to the accepted norms by increasing levels of community policing which has extended from women and girls through codes of honour and shame to everyone in the community. An issue that demands much more attention.  No doubt the ISIS list, like the murder of Asad Shah, will help continue discussions about divisions between different Muslim groups but there needs to be a much more open conversation about those outside of Islam who are also at grave risk.

In my work with the Centre for Secular Space, I have spent several years working closely with members of the Council of Ex-Muslims (CEMB) tackling Islamism and other religious fundamentalisms and extremism. During that time I have met many activists, bloggers and atheists – believers of other faiths, agnostics and atheists who regularly receive threats of violence against them and their families. They include people like Imad Iddine Habib, an ex Salafi Muslim who fled to the UK from Morocco as well as secular Muslims considered to now be ex Muslims by the Islamists. There is very little understanding amongst the authorities about the threats and experiences of these groups of people and a total lack of focus on their experiences by the wider or Muslim communities. Is this because they are outside of a faith identity? Or is it because there is a lack of understanding about the complex nature of the context of the threats? In the cases of the Bangladeshi activists and atheists I have worked with, the police and others appear focused on the communal element of the threats without recognising the extremist/Islamist ideologies present in them and in some cases refusing to investigate the threats as hate crimes as a result of religion and belief. This response is to a significant degree the result of ongoing police engagement with community leaders who act as gatekeepers and community ‘experts’ advising the police.

"I am Bamako. We are Humanity". Sign at memorial at Bataclan Theatre. Photo: Karima Bennoune

Finding a way to tackle sectarian violence and the ongoing threats to all of us from Islamist terrorism will continue. But one thing is clear – Muslim or non-Muslim- we are all in their sights and are at risk. But it is incumbent on us all to speak up and challenge whomever, wherever and whenever we can and remember the lesson in the quote from Pastor Niemoller before it’s too late.

This article was first published on 2 May, 2016

Read more articles in our long running series: Frontline Voices against Muslim Fundamentalism

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