When you get to the edge of the abyss, step back
The Muslim world – the victim of terrorism
by Hans Ucko
Christians and Muslims share a history of good memories and bitter conflict. The Christian-Muslim dialogue is one way of recalling together times of communities living in peace with each other but it also offers space for listening to stories and experiences replete with painful memories of controversy and rift conditioning the present. While we in gratitude to God should remember the good memories, we should also not be afraid to address instances of conflict in our common history and in our present living together. We want to open new doors in dialogue because we believe that this is the only way that we can truly find ways towards respect for each other, together stand up for human dignity and work for peace. We want to deepen our dialogue so that we enter into the heart of the matter, the ultimate concern in each of our religious traditions.
These days we are given the space to address a very complex and difficult question. Is the Muslim world today a victim of terrorism and what do we as Christians have to say about it? I think this question more than many others needs to be part of the dialogue between Christians and Muslims. But it is a topic fraught with sensitivities. That is why I have given my presentation the title: WHEN YOU GET TO THE EDGE OF THE ABYSS, STEP BACK. We are at the edge of the abyss today, the abyss of mistrust, hardening positions, a time when stereotypes are hardly gainsaid, when we are not walking the second mile with our neighbour, something which is increasingly necessary if we are not to fall down into the abyss. At the edge of the abyss, step back and look for another perspective. Do not look down into the abyss. We might become dizzy and fall down and perish. Instead, we need another perspective, which focuses our eyes on a goal at the other side of the abyss, where we
can help each other to be faithful and hopeful.
In a way it would be easy to answer the question whether the Muslim world is a victim of terrorism. It is enough to say: watch the news! In Iraq Sunni suicide bombers and Shiite death squad terrorize the population. Holy shrines are crumbling over people in prayer and the streets are filled with blood and body parts. People are found in mass graves with signs of execution. The breakdown and disintegration of an entire country hangs heavy in the air.
The terror in Iraq is already beyond our grasp. It is too much and yet it is as if there is still more to come, as if we had not seen anything yet, as if we were still waiting for it all to fall apart, where voices of moderation are no longer heard. For the time being, in this time of great anguish, people try to take solace in and listen intently to the lone voice of that serene man, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who provides a canvas on which the Iraqi Shia community as well as anyone else in Iraq could paint another future than the one which is their daily experience.
How can we step back from the abyss that now seems to stare us in the eyes, the fratricide killing and conflict between Shiites and Sunnis? Who is stoking the fire? What can be done?
By the title for this conference the organizers have indicated that this meeting is not only to address whether the Muslim world is a victim of intra-Muslim terrorism. From the text accompanying the invitation it becomes clear that another aspect needs to be addressed as well. Is the Muslim world, Muslims, Islam itself the victim of terrorism? Has the "war on terror", proclaimed by the Bush administration in 2001 led to a war on Muslims and Islam, in which the entire Muslim world has become a victim?
Since the events of 9/11, there seems to be a drive to divide the world between 'those who are with us' and 'those who are against us'. The world has been divided. A climate of fear and suspicion has enveloped the world. If those who wish to prevent the realisation of this nightmare do not concretely oppose this pernicious philosophy, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy with all that it might entail. At the edge of an abyss, step back!We lived for decades with the threat of a devastating clash between the West and the Communist bloc. After the implosion of the Soviet bloc we have been witnessing how another enemy of the West is being constructed. It is as if we were not able to live without a real or imaginable enemy. The philosophy of a clash of civilizations has been elaborated as the Weltanschauung of our time, the comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world. This is to succeed the balance of terror between the West and the USSR during the Cold War. The Bush administration’s "enduring" war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, has all served to reinforce the widespread perception that Islam in itself is in some special way linked to terrorist violence. Islam is seen as having a predilection for violence and is defined as inherently violent and one of the primary sources of contemporary violence in the world. It is in this context that we refer to the universally known and quoted writings by Samuel P. Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order". But the depiction of Islam as an inherently violent religion does not end here. There is an alarming amount of anti-Islamic literature published after 9/11. The very titles of many of these works make you realise how much the clash of civilizations is alive as a leit-motif, "American Jihad: The Terrorists Among Us" (Steven Emerson, 2002) or Daniel Pipes, Militant Islam Reaches America (2002). Similar works brand American Muslims critical of Israeli policies as potential terrorist threats. Others incite suspicion against American Muslims claiming that they are taking part in a secret conspiracy to promote terrorism in America.
Some Christian and political leaders are heard or read labelling Islam as inherently violent. Their comments go beyond what is called Islamic fundamentalism. Islam is targeted explicitly or implicitly. The civilization threatening our civilization is said to be not only Islamic fundamentalism but Islam itself. It is portrayed as the enemy that has to be defeated. Scholars, thinkers and academics, clergy stand up and declare that Islam is the enemy of the West. Islam is seen as the continuation of the eternal enemy of the West. Islam is understood as "Islamo-fascism", which is "yet another mutation of the totalitarian disease we defeated first in the shape of Nazism and fascism and then in the shape of Communism; it is global in scope…"[i] Another writer, Sam Harris continues: "Mainstream Islam itself represents an extremist rejection of intellectual honesty, gender equality, secular politics and genuine pluralism".[ii] He continues in another article: "It is time we admitted that we are not at war with "terrorism"; we are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran."[iii]
The denigration of Islam in the West has had consequences. If I were to ask in the West about the feelings they would have when I say: "He is a real Christian" or he is a real Muslim", I am sure most of the people I asked would get positive associations regarding the real Christian: He is someone who is good, generous, open and kind. "The real Muslim" would however bring forth associations of fear, envisaging a terrorist image. It has almost become a saying: "Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims."
The 'war on terror' has had devastating consequences. Maybe one reason in spite of the concreteness of terror itself is that the enemy ‘terror’ nevertheless is too vague. It is a war against an enemy without a face; a war on terror fails to realise that terror is a tactic and not an enemy. We do not really see the face of the enemy "terror" we are supposed to fight. The war on terror risks leading us into the use of too blunt weapons and too wide definitions of who the enemy is.
The proclaimed war on terror has an addressee in Islamic fundamentalism but the ball does not end there. As if by association Islam itself is made a target. The clash between the protagonists of the Cold War was different from the altercations between the West and Islam. Although Communism posed a threat to the West, it was an economic or at best a political ideology without deep roots in people's souls and consciousness. Islam, like Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism is a religion, which has profound roots in the consciousness of hundreds of millions of adherents.
The thin line between the war on terror and how this touches upon Islam itself has made millions of Muslims apprehensive as to the real intention of those who declared and defend the war on terror. Insecurity and defensiveness will surface interchangeably as the only way to protect oneself. You dig your heels in and your eyes go from one side to the other, prepared for yet another attack. And the longer it goes on, the more one’s defence-system hardens. Unlike secular ideologies, religions tend to get stronger as result of persecution. The best way to deal with religious fundamentalism is not to wage a war against it, but to remove or moderate its influence through rational arguments, preferably borrowed from the same religious discourse from which they emerge. This is what happened in the West during the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment, and this is what needs to be done in Islam, by Muslims themselves. That is why the effort of the US to export democracy so far has not succeeded. It needs to grow out of the people, the democracy they need in order for all in a particular context to live with freedom and equal opportunities.
At a time when there are rumours of another war, this time against Iran, on equally dubious grounds that led to the invasion of Iraq, the time has come for all people of goodwill to raise their voices louder against such an insane venture. When you get to the edge of the abyss, step back!
The whole history of 800 years of coexistence between Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism in India; the coexistence of Muslims, Christians and Jews in Spain; the coexistence of Muslims and followers of other faiths in Iran, Turkey, Egypt, etc show that it is possible for people from different religions or civilizations to live peacefully together. Based on old experiences of that which was good for us all, may these times give us new ideas.
It certainly looks as if the Muslim world is a victim of terrorism. Where do we go from here? While realising that Islam has become a particular victim of terrorism in many ways, it is equally important to see this fact within the reality of the whole world as a victim of terrorism. It is, say those who know it, the weapon of the poor, which then should prompt us to address the situation of the poor in the world and do so together. The fact that terrorism is a weapon of the poor, does not take the pain away from those who, without suspicion, find their dear ones maimed and butchered, homes destroyed, and livelihood capsized. But, as we know, there is no lull: terrorism continues to be a useful tactic, particularly in the form of suicide attacks, which "suggest to the target society that their enemy is not a rational actor with a particular set of political ideals, but a compulsive and volatile force, ready to pay the ultimate price to achieve victory. In this manner, the apparent fanaticism of the attacker brings its own rewards to the terrorist group. Similarly and somewhat counter-intuitively, the apparent desperation of the attacker can raise the moral standing of the group, as the suicidal aspect connotes not the cowardice or cynicism of a conventional terrorist attack, but rather points to the frustration of last resort. These factors are force multipliers."[iv] One task for interreligious dialogue and cooperation must be to find ways out of this spiral of violence together.
It is difficult to read the mind of the perpetrator of terror as well as of the victim of terror. I have to probe deeper. We are at the abyss as victims of terrorism. When you get to the edge of the abyss, step back! There is a risk that we only look upon ourselves as victims. There is a risk that we are being reduced to and reduce ourselves to one identity, the one of the victim. My identity is defined over against the other. When people are elevating their identity as a banner or looking for ways of either inventing or reinventing ethnicity, enemies are essential.
In our time we are living through many vehement assertions of identity and are constantly exposed to the formation of group identities over against a common enemy. A particular politics of identity based on a sense of victimization, reducing identity to a single affiliation, facilitates the creation of ''identities that kill'', says Amin Maalouf.[v] We see it often. The resentment of the West in many parts of the Arab world, the frustration against the US for its foreign policy in relation to some Arab states and Israel feeds enormous resentment. Migrants and Gastarbeiter, even those for several generations in Europe, feel marginalised. It furthers a self-image and identity, which is only defined as underdog or victim. The reaction is self-marginalisation and in the end, when there is no longer any hope or future visible, or no light in the tunnel, an explosion of violence. When my self-image is one of a victim, the whole field of vision is narrowed down and the horizon is lost. One does not find one’s way out. The response to perceived victimhood is likely to go over board, be too much or be misdirected, the end result is that the gates of the prison of mind remain closed. It suits the oppressor if s/he can keep me so preoccupied with my situation that I cannot raise my eyes and see my salvation. "The most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed", as Steve Bantu Biko rightly said it.
There is thus a risk in living with a self-image that is fed not by dialogue but by one channel alone, one's own frustrations. Stereotypes abound, labelling becomes the easiest way out. That is why my final point is to advocate more dialogue between people, between Christians and Muslims so that we can come close enough to each other that we can shed stereotypes. It is with this in mind that I, while in Tehran, would like to underline that the present lack of relationship between Jews and Iran is something that needs to be addressed the sooner the better. Stereotypes abound leading to nowhere but to the abyss.
Christians and the West constitute equally difficult concepts, likely to lead to a dangerous amalgamation. We must therefore arrive at driving a wedge between the too easy identification between Christians and the West. While it is true that the West is for ever linked to a Christian heritage, it is not its only heritage. While it is true that Christians in the West will have to shoulder the history of Christianity in the West and in relation to other parts of the world, the West and Christians today are not identical entities. Christians today, in the West, have to struggle to find new ground for being Christian in a post-modern world, in a world where the heritage of being Christian weighs heavily on the possibilities to reassess what it means to be Christian.
We need a dialogue between us, a dialogue that is strong enough to cope with ups and downs. It must be merciful enough that it enables us to function with each other as in the story of the Good Samaritan, not as an act of pity but as an at of solidarity, an act of sister- and brotherhood. It is a normal thing to do. It says in the Gospel of Luke: "But a Samaritan while travelling came near the man who was wounded; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him" (Lk10:33, 34). This task is now the task of Christians whenever they see that their Muslim neighbour has become a victim of terrorism. This would apply to when Islam is defamed through cartoons, when Muslim immigrants are denied dignity in society and when there is no one willing to listen to grievances of Muslim men and women, whether in the West or in Muslims countries. Muslims should not become victims of terrorism. The only victim of terrorism should be terrorism.