How Muslim are the Muslim terrorists?

If a person chooses to identify as a Muslim, we do not question her identity because that is disrespectful, especially if we are not Muslims ourselves.

Eldar Sarajlic
9 January 2015

Was the recent murder of 12 people at Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical paper, an act of Islamic terror? Or was it just terror, without a religious or identity character? Beneath the simplistic binary claims that the act does not represent Muslims and Islam, or that Islam is to blame altogether, there lies a difficult and important dilemma: How should we refer to the identity of the perpetrators of this, and other similar acts of terror? Should we consider them Muslims or not?

The dilemma is beyond mere semantics. It is also a question of morality and respect, because what lurks in its background is a certain unease many feel about using the name of a great religion with a billion adherents to describe the character of a handful of extremists.

President Obama recently made a remark that the self-proclaimed Islamic State is not Islamic, because ‘no religion condones the killing of innocents.’ In a similar spirit, a recent op-ed in The New York Times said that since the vast majority of Muslims have nothing to do with the acts of killing Parisian journalists, by calling them Muslims we wrongly ascribe intolerance to Islam and perpetuate misunderstanding.

So, should we stop referring to these terrorists as Muslims?

Although it may seem intuitively right not to refer to them as Muslims because by doing so we unjustly blur the line between peaceful and tolerant Muslims and those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam, this option is problematic.

There are several conceptual and moral reasons why this is so.

First, there is the question of the labeling authority. Namely, which entity is vested with power to issue and legitimize identity labels to different groups of people? Usually, we take identity claims by individuals and groups at face value. If a person chooses to identify as a Muslim, we do not question her identity because that is disrespectful, especially if we are not Muslims ourselves. In other words, who are we to say if someone is a Muslim or not, if they choose to identify as such?

Claiming that terrorists from Paris, Boston bombers or ISIS fighters are not Muslims is wrong to the extent that it is paternalistic. It assumes that we are in the position of authority to determine the legitimacy of identity labels of different individuals and groups. It implies that we have the ultimate symbolic power to determine other people’s identity. The truth is that we don’t have such a power, and should not have it. This is not only disrespectful; it also embodies a colonial attitude that considers the west the center of the world and the ultimate arbiter of symbolic worth.

Second, as an alternative to this, we could ask if the Islamic community worldwide recognizes those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam as Muslims. If we cannot legitimize their identity claim because we are not Muslims, maybe asking other Muslims if they accept it as legitimate would be the right thing to do?

Although I am not aware of a wide-scale Muslim plebiscite on this issue, it is safe to say that there are a billion and a half Muslims on the planet today, and most of them reject violence as an authentic expression of Islam. So, if most Muslims do not consider terrorists as their brethren-in-faith, should we follow suit?

The problem with this claim is that it is a two-edged sword. Taking views of the majority as the source of legitimacy of identity claims can backfire, as the experience of various Muslim minorities in the Islamic world, such as the Ahmadiyya, testifies. Social exclusion and persecution is very often the flipside of the majoritarian standard for ascribing individual and group identity, not least in the Muslim world.

In addition, doing so would force us to take sides in an interpretative conflict within the Muslim community about the meaning of their faith. Besides mere strength in numbers, what reasons do we have to stand on the side of one particular interpretation of Islam and not the other? If we follow most Muslims in not considering the Paris terrorists as their co-believers, where should we stand when it comes to other issues that divide Muslim communities worldwide? Should we accept Shia or Sunni traditions as the proper expression of true Islam?

If we want to reject taking sides only on the basis of numbers, and still have a method of adjudicating between conflicting interpretative and identity claims, we must examine the basis of the Muslim faith and see for ourselves whether Quran or the Prophet Mohammad’s tradition (the two main normative sources of Islam) provide any guidance to help us to ascribe or deny Muslim identity to Parisian and other similar terrorists. We must understand the fundaments of Islamic religion in order to acquire a proper measure for establishing their Muslim identity.

The answer we may find there, provided that we have the time and knowledge to do so, may however not be straightforward. Like many religious books, Quran is rich in examples both of tolerance and intolerance, tranquility and violence. There are verses promoting peace and understanding, as well as those calling upon Muslims to engage in violence. Also, although Mohammad was allegedly a peaceful and a tolerant man who did not aim to force people into his faith, he still waged war and created an Islamic empire by the use of the sword.

Still, we may be interpretatively generous and follow those who claim that peace-loving verses are more dominant and that the overall message of Islam is much more about love than violence.

But, even if we accept this understanding of Islam, according to which the acts of terror committed by people such as Bin Laden or the Paris terrorists are not fully in line with the main Islamic values, we still lack sufficient reasons for labeling them non-Muslims. The problem here is that by taking the normative sources of Islam as the ultimate measure of someone’s identity we limit ourselves only to the ideal level of discourse, completely disregarding the non-ideal and historical reality that is constitutive of any identity.

Namely, any doctrine or ideology consists of the ideal and non-ideal elements. Ideal elements are represented by the fundamental documents of the doctrine, such as books, declarations or constitutions. Non-ideal elements are made of particular interpretations of those documents that guide individual and social action. For example, we do not assess the value or the liberal character of a country only on the basis of the words inscribed in its constitution, but also on the basis of its behavior, both in the past and in the present.

Identity of an individual, group or a country is always partly constituted by its contingent existence in history, context and relation to others. It is a mistake to derive somebody’s identity exclusively from the level of ideas and norms. Being a Muslim could be a normative notion but only for those who consider themselves Muslims. For the rest of us, it should not be normative at all. It is rooted in history and the inter-subjective relations of Muslims with non-Muslims.

Therefore, by refraining to label individuals and groups who identify with Islam as Muslims, westerners and non-Muslims are committing not only a conceptual but also a moral mistake. Establishing substantive requirements for ascribing a Muslim identity to someone from outside of that community – especially from westerners – amounts to imperial-type disrespect of others’ identities. However, leaving it to other Muslims to do it instead, or diving into the meanings of the Islamic doctrine is not a solution either, given its inherent conceptual problems and difficulties. So, what is the solution?

The simple way to go about this problem is first to establish if the self-identification and behavior of the individuals or groups in question corresponds in a meaningful way to the content of their ascribed doctrine. If a sufficient amount of someone’s identity, and the practice on the basis of that identity, derives from a particular doctrinal source, then such a group or an individual can be considered a member of the given identity community. Second, if identity is inter-subjective, as most philosophers and sociologists today would think, then the way someone relates to others matters in assessing it. If a person relates to others as a Muslim, through everyday interaction, they should be considered as such.

In the case of terrorists, such as those in Paris, or Syria, if their everyday practice and identification corresponds with the main principles of Islam – such as the belief that there is one god and that Mohammad was his messenger, praying five times a day, fasting the month of Ramadan and similar – and if they relate to others on the basis of their self-ascribed Muslim identity, we have every reason to consider and refer to them as Muslims. The normative problem that stems from the fact that they might have strayed from underlying Islamic values by committing acts of violence is a matter of internal interpretative interest to members of Islam, and not relevant for the way we refer to them in secular media narratives. Trying to be politically correct and refrain from using the name they have chosen for themselves only increases confusion and perpetuates misunderstanding of the complexities of the modern world.

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