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Does Islam Have A “Surprisingly Complicated Relationship With Terrorism”?

by Hugh Fitzgerald

Bruce Ashford, a Professor of Theology and Dean at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, contributed to Fox News his view of the latest  terror attack and what he calls “Islam’s surprisingly complicated relationship with terrorism”:

The horrifying attack in lower Manhattan that killed 8 people on Tuesday is a reminder that hardly a day goes by without an Islamic terror attack somewhere in the world.

We are now familiar with the post-terror routine when a Western city is attacked. Government leaders note the need to shore up security and assure their people that every protective measure will be taken, TV commentators dutifully state that terrorism’s roots are not in Islam but in some other phenomenon.

Is it really true that these terrorist attacks have nothing to do with Islam?

No. But neither is it true that most Muslims are terrorists or approve of terrorism.

Yes, at this point only the demented can continue to believe that these terrorist attacks by Muslims on Infidels have nothing to do with Islam. The pertinent Qur’anic quotes cited by terrorists before, during, and after their attacks, the ISIS or Al-Qaeda flags they wave or place on their vehicles, the cries of “Allahu akbar” after a successful attack — a war cry which, despite the BBC and many other misinforming media outlets, means not “God is great,” but “Our Muslim God is greater than yours” — all demonstrate that Islam has “something to do with terrorism.” But then Ashford befogs his initial clarity by adding, unnecessarily, that it is not true that “most Muslims are terrorists or approve of terrorism.” As to the first statement, of course. If most Muslims are not terrorists, that could be for a number of reasons other than disapproval. Those living in a Muslim land don’t feel the need to attack others like themselves, though terrorism may be employed against Muslims of other sects (e.g., Sunnis terrorizing Shi’a, or Ahmadis, in Pakistan); if they live in the West, they may not agree that terrorism is the most effective weapon to spread Islam, or may out of self-interest not wish to disrupt their own lives, especially if they are determined to take full advantage of the freedoms and opportunities a non-Muslim society offers them; they may wish to concentrate on establishing themselves in the lands of the Unbelievers so that they cannot be dislodged. Few may possess the fanatical fervor to sacrifice their own lives or well-being in acts of terror (which does not mean that they disapprove of others doing so). Besides, some may reason that today’s most effective weapon of Jihad is demographic conquest, and terror attacks may eventually cause some Western countries to tighten immigration policies (which Muslims naturally fear). The refusal to engage in terrorism, that is, may reflect not so much moral disgust as a host of practical considerations, including the lack of opportunity, the desire not to endanger one’s own position in the lands still controlled by Unbelievers, the belief that terrorist attacks may prove inimical to more effective instruments of Jihad, as unrestricted immigration.

Many Muslims in the West are keenly aware that terrorism alienates the Infidels on whom they still must rely. That is why, when Muslims participate in opinion polls about terrorism, some may not trust the poll-taker’s promise of anonymity, and prefer to give the answer that they think will make the least trouble for them or their coreligionists. When Muslims take part in such polls, it makes sense for them to deny approval of terrorism; the distortion in the data will thus always be in the direction of registering more opposition to terrorism than there really is. Polls taken by Saudi-owned Al Arabiya and Gallup suggest considerable support for the September 11 terrorist attacks within the Arab world, with 36% of Arabs polled by Al Arabiya saying the 9/11 attacks were morally justified, while a further 26% of those polled were “unsure,” and only 38% regarded them as unjustified. In effect, 62% called the 9/11 attacks completely or partly justified.  That’s hardly an overwhelming vote against terrorism. In a 2008 Gallup poll, 38.6% of Muslims believed the 9/11 attacks were justified. Another poll conducted in 2005, by the Fafo Foundation in the Palestinian Authority, found that 65% of respondents supported the September 11 attacks. And in all the numerous polls that have been taken of Muslims in many different countries, nowhere does a “vast majority” of Muslims express, as Professor Ashford claims, disapproval of terrorism.

Though there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, there have been no mass demonstrations (meaning more than two-three thousand) by Muslims protesting terrorism carried out against Infidels. After 9/11 the only demonstration in a Muslim land against the attacks was in Iran, where a few hundred Shi’a held a candlelit vigil in Mohseni Square. There were, however, celebrations of 9/11 in several Muslim countries, and in the West Bank and Gaza. In recent years, there have been demonstrations in London against ISIS, involving a few thousand Muslims, but those participating — most were Shi’a — were demonstrating against ISIS not for its attacks on Unbelievers but on fellow Muslims. The last such demonstration, on October 2, 2017, coincided with the Shi’a observance of Ashura. In November 2016 a story appeared in the Western media claiming that “millions of Muslims” in Iraq had demonstrated against ISIS, and that this demonstration had been under-reported, with a deliberate “media blackout,” in order not to put Muslims in a good light. There was no media blackout. Millions of Muslims were on the move, but they were not demonstrating against ISIS. They were Shi’a Muslims taking part in a mass pilgrimage to visit the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, Iraq. ISIS had nothing to do with it.

The relationship between Islam and terrorism is significantly more complicated than either of those extremes would allow. In order to better understand that relationship we must acknowledge at least three complicating factors: Islam’s texts, its varied cultural manifestations, and its humanity.

The Koran is written in classical Arabic, which the majority of Muslims worldwide cannot read. Therefore, knowledge of Islam comes mostly from the Muslim community rather than directly from the Koran.

First, Islam is a text-based religion. The Koran is the supreme Islamic text, and it is supplemented by the hadith which are official collections of reports about Muhammad’s words and deeds. Both the Koran and the hadith contain passages that can be used to support terrorism and those that can be used against it.

One the one hand, there are passages that condone religious warfare (jihad). Although those passages concern conventional warfare rather than modern terrorism, these passages can be drawn upon to support terrorism against “Christian” nations. Koran 9:5 says, “Fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them.” Koran 9:111 promises paradise to those who slay and are slain for Allah.

Professor Ashford writes that “there are passages that condone religious warfare.” Not just (a few) “passages” (he offers only two), but 109 jihad verses that do not merely “condone,” but rather, command, warfare against the Unbelievers. The subject of Jihad is given more attention than any other subject in the Qur’an. And then he makes another error, when he claims that those “passages concern conventional warfare rather than modern terrorism.” If by “modern terrorism” he means only the use of vehicles or explosives, then he’s right. Of course the tools of “terrorism” will vary over time, but the tactic of terror is the same whether Muslims used swords to decapitate those who would not submit to Islam 1400 years ago, or today use trucks in Nice and Barcelona and New York City to strike terror in the hearts of the Unbelievers. In both cases it is terrorism.

Even more disturbingly, Professor Ashford had a perfect opportunity to inform his readers that there are several verses in the Qur’an, and stories in the Hadith, that call not just for Jihad through conventional warfare but specifically, call for the use of “terrorism” as a weapon.

Here are some of those verses:

We will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve for what they have associated with Allah of which He had not sent down authority. And their refuge will be the Fire, and wretched is the residence of the wrongdoers.” (Qur’an 3:151)

“When your Lord inspired to the angels, ‘I am with you, so strengthen those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.’” (Qur’an 8:12)

“And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them whom you do not know, whom Allah knows. And whatever you spend in the cause of Allah will be fully repaid to you, and you will not be wronged.” (Qur’an 8:60)

And in the hadith we find Muhammad saying: “I have been made victorious with terror.” (Bukhari 4.52.220)

Surely Professor Ashford knows these passages. Why did he not quote any of them? It appears that even though he wants to admit that there is some link between terrorism and Islam, he doesn’t want to offer the evidence of just how unambiguous is the Qur’anic command to “cast (or strike) terror” in the hearts of the enemy, or how clear Muhammad, the Perfect Man and Model of Conduct, is in attributing his success to that tactic: “I have been made victorious with terror.’

Ashford might have written: “The Qur’an contains 109 verses urging jihad warfare against the Unbelievers. This subject is given more attention than anything else in the Qur’an. We need to be aware of these verses, and the effect they have on Believers. Among them are 9:5, 9:29, 2:191-193, and 47:4, which I urge you to read, so as to better comprehend the significance of Jihad.” He might then have added: “Furthermore, the Qur’an unambiguously endorses terror as a weapon of war, as does Muhammad in a famous Hadith. The tools of that terror may have changed; the strategy of terror remains the same.”

But instead, he reduced all that to the laconic “there are passages which condone religious warfare.” That is an alarming understatement.

And then, having played down the significance of Jihad and terror in the Qur’an, even while pretending to fully recognize it, he goes on to insist that the Qur’an contains passages that allow Muslims to live peacefully with Unbelievers:

On the other hand, there are passages that encourage peaceful coexistence. In the Koran, we read passages such as 109:6, “To you be your Way [religion] and to me mine.” In another passage, we are told that Allah says, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Koran 2:256). So Islam’s texts contain both type of passages.

No, he’s wrong as to both verses. Qur’an 109:6 was an expression of Muhammad’s total disgust with all of the Unbelievers, who had kept trying to make a compromise with him, but still wanted to hold to their essential Unbelief. Here is how one Tafsir (Qur’anic commentary) explains 109:6:

If the Surah is read with this background in mind [the attempt of the non-Muslims to come to some compromise with Muhammad so that he would stop maligning their gods], one finds that it was not revealed to preach religious tolerance as some people of today seem to think, but it was revealed in order to exonerate the Muslims from the disbelievers religion, their rites of worship, and their gods, and to express their total disgust and unconcern with them and to tell them that Islam and kufr (unbelief) had nothing in common and there was no possibility of their being combined and mixed into one entity. Although it was addressed in the beginning to the disbelieving Quraish in response to their proposals of compromise, yet it is not confined to them only, but having made it a part of the Quran, Allah gave the Muslims the eternal teaching that they should exonerate themselves by word and deed from the creed of kufr wherever and in whatever form it be, and should declare without any reservation that they cannot make any compromise with the disbelievers in the matter of Faith. That is why this Surah continued to be recited when the people to whom it was addressed as a rejoinder, had died and been forgotten, and those Muslims also continued to recite it who were disbelievers at the time it was revealed, and the Muslims still recite it centuries after they have passed away, for expression of disgust with and dissociation from kufr and its rites is a perpetual demand of Faith.

To repeat, 109:6 (“To you be your Way [religion] and to me mine”) is Muhammad’s way of dismissing the Unbelievers (initially, he was addressing the Quriash tribe, but later, the commentators tell us, he meant to include all Unbelievers), it was a way of saying there would be no more discussions; we Muslims have the true faith; you Unbelievers have kufr (unbelief); we have nothing more to say to you.

This is summed up at

When read in context, like many other verses misinterpreted for apologetic purposes, surat al-Kafiroon advocates the opposite of what is sometimes claimed. This surah is not a proclamation on religious tolerance and freedom or a recognition of religious pluralism. In fact, this surah unequivocally forbids inter-faith dialogue, expresses Muslims’ “total disgust” of non-Islamic beliefs and advocates an “us versus them” mentality between Muslims and disbelievers. This is how the surah is understood by mainstream Islam and the majority of its classical and contemporary scholars. Furthermore, if the historical context were to be ignored, it would still remain an abrogated verse, superseded by “the verses of fighting.”

Professor Ashford says he has spent two years living in a Muslim country. How was it possible for him not to have read the tafsir that explains the real meaning of 109:6? Was he unaware of how that verse has been understood by Muslims, and how it  been presented by those apologists for Islam who practiced in convincing non-Muslims of a benign interpretation?

Then Professor Ashford quotes 2:256, another verse which appears to say something appealing: “there is no compulsion in religion.” This is a favorite of Muslim apologists, and its use, along with the misinterpreted 109:6, raises the question of whether Ashford is knowingly misrepresenting Islam or whether, not knowing nearly enough, he is doing so innocently.

If there is “no compulsion in religion,” then why are Infidels subject to all sorts of onerous disabilities, including the payment of the capitation tax, or Jizyah, in order that they be protected from Muslim attack? All of the humiliating conditions that are placed on Unbelievers — that is, those who refuse to convert — certainly constitute “compulsion in religion.” How many millions of non-Muslims — Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists — over many centuries converted  to Islam, in order to escape the status of  subjugated dhimmis? Don’t those conditions that caused them to convert constitute “compulsion in religion”?

As for the application of 2:256 to Muslims themselves, they are threatened with death if they become apostates, which is another, even clearer, example of “compulsion in religion.” The last word on Muslim apostates and the meaning of “no compulsion in religion” surely belongs to Muhammad, who in the collection of hadith that Muslims deem to be most reliable is depicted as saying: “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him” (Bukhari 9.84.57). And finally, we might note, in any case, 2:256 is one of the abrogated verses in the Qur’an.

The gross misrepresentation of both 109:6 and 2:256 raises the question of whether Ashford is a deliberate apologist for Islam (even as he offers himself as a model of judiciousness), or — which is also unacceptable — he does not know, because he has never bothered to find out, the real meanings of 109:6 and 2:256. In the first case, the meaning of 109:6 is exactly the opposite of what some non-Muslims think it means; in the second case, the actual practice of Muslims, in how they treat apostates and dhimmis, belies the literal meaning of 2:256.

Ashford again:

To complicate matters further, the Koran is written in classical Arabic, which the majority of Muslims worldwide cannot read. (Muslims believe that the Koran cannot be translated into another language and still remain truly the Word of God.) Therefore, knowledge of Islam comes mostly from the Muslim community rather than directly from the Koran.

But where does the “Muslim community” get its knowledge of Islam? From the Qur’an, which over the centuries has been copiously annotated by Muslim commentators, with their tafsirs, or exegetical commentaries. Annotated Qur’ans exist in many translations, but it is still the annotated Qur’an — in modern Arabic, and in other major languages of Islam, including Farsi, Urdu, Bahasa, Turkish, and now, too,  in the new languages of Islam, that is French, English, German, and other European tongues — for those who cannot read the original. It’s unclear what point Professor Ashford is making. If he means to imply that the “meaning” of the Qur’an is whatever the “Muslim community” wants it to be, that isn’t true. We keep coming back to the texts, for Islam is a book-based faith. The Qur’an may appear in many languages, but the range of content is severely constrained. That’s one of the tasks assumed by Muslim scholars in an age of translation: to make sure that whatever the language, the text of the Qur’an is as true to the original as those scholars, and their copious annotations, can make it.

Second, Islam takes many different shapes. Even though its texts serve as an enduring “center point” for Koran, the teachings of those texts are interpreted and applied in a wide variety of ways depending upon context. A given manifestation of Islam might be influenced by Western Christianity, Southeast Asian animism, or secular humanism. It will be affected by its adherents’ language, social and economic status, political situation, and educational level. These influencing factors might tilt a person towards approving of terrorism or away from such approval.

Are there differences in the practice of Islam among Muslims? Of course there are. The Sunnis and Shia differ, and have often been at war with one another over the centuries. The dour and uncompromising Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia differ from the easygoing Sunnis of Bosnia or Niger. Islam in Indonesia, with its cultural substratum of Hinduism and Buddhism, has some folk practices not to be found among Muslims in Yemen or Turkey. There are many sects of Islam — Ashford is telling us what we already know — but he wishes to emphasize their perceived differences, as a way to prevent us from coming to any conclusions, or making any moral judgments, about Islam. But all Muslims read the same verses in the Qur’an, the same stories in the Hadith, the same details of Muhammad’s life set out in his biography, or sira. That sets a limit to those differences. Islam may not be a “monolith,” as apologists like to insist, but nor is it a case of anything goes. The 109 Jihad verses do not change depending on which sect of Islam you belong to, nor do the verses that command Muslims to “strike terror” in the hearts of their enemies. All Muslims are taught these commands, and taught too, not to take Jews and Christians as friends. They learn that Muslims are the “best of peoples” (3:110) and Unbelievers the “most vile of creatures” (98:6). The exemplary figure of Muhammad remains fixed in amber. No sect of Islam denies the stories of the consummation of his marriage to little Aisha, or the treatment of the Banu Qurayza, or the assassinations of Abu ‘Afak, Asma bint Marwan, and Ka’b bin al-Ashraf, or the attack on the Jews of Khaybar. Differences there are within Islam, but they are not so great as to prevent us, as “Islam-is-not-a-monolith” apologists would wish, from talking about, understanding, and judging, a faith called Islam.

Third, Islamic communities are composed of fellow humans. My experience in the Islamic world is one that causes me to believe that the vast majority of Muslims are not inclined to participate in terrorism or approve of it.

That’s anecdotal evidence from someone who has already given signs of being an apologist, deliberate or unwitting, for Islam, as shown by the following: first, his fleeting admission that in the Qur’an there are “passages that condone religious warfare,” a description which hardly does justice to the more than 100 verses that command Jihad; second, his failure to mention the verses that command striking (or casting) terror in the hearts of the Infidels; third, his misreading, possibly deliberate, of 109:6 and  2:256, which are mentioned as examples of another side of Islam ”which show the possibility of “peaceful coexistence” when, if properly understood, they most certainly are not. Participation in terrorism is not practicable for the “vast majority” of Muslims, nor is it necessarily desirable when there are other, more effective ways to spread Islam, including through demographic conquest. Approval of terrorism (carried out by others) is another thing, and as we saw above, a number of opinion polls suggest that nearly as many Muslims (36%) approved of the 9/11 attack  as disapproved (38%), and that was in a poll, moreover, that did not include such countries as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, and Libya, where we have reason to believe terrorism is regarded with greater favor than in such countries as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, where the poll was taken. In not a single one of the polls of Muslims have the “vast majority” shown themselves disapproving  of terrorism. There is much more data on Muslim attitudes toward ISIS, Al Qaeda, and terrorism in general, to be found here. The single most disturbing datum was that half of all British Muslims declared their support for ISIS. And one wonders how many of those who claimed to disapprove of ISIS did so only because they mistrusted the poll-taker’s promise of anonymity.  There is plenty more in these opinion polls, conducted with Muslims in many different countries, and following many different terrorist attacks, to make one alarmed. Professor Ashford, who claims the “vast majority” of Muslims disapprove of terrorism, might want to take a look.

I lived and worked in a Muslim republic for two years and have spent time in more than 20 other Muslim contexts in the Middle East, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Although in certain situations I have felt threatened, on the whole I have experienced Muslims as peaceful people of goodwill and extraordinary hospitality.

How do these three factors help us evaluate and respond to terror attacks waged by Muslim organizations?

First, it is inaccurate and dangerous to ignore that terror attacks have their roots in Islam or to minimize the danger represented by ISIS and other similar organizations who justify their warfare by direct appeals to Islam’s texts. Although we should avoid stigmatizing Muslims in general or alienating them to the point that they are more likely to radicalize, we would be wrong not to recognize ISIS’s rootedness in Islamic texts.

Second, it is inaccurate, dangerous, and inhospitable to depict Muslim countries as being composed of teeming swarms of probable terrorists. To portray our more-than-two-billion Muslim neighbors in such a manner is inaccurate, but it is also a dangerous in that it alienates potential allies who are best equipped to fight back against terror-promoting versions of Islam.

Third, it is undemocratic and un-American to try to shut down reasonable exercise of religious freedom. On the one hand, we should rebuke certain voices on the right who wish to provoke or harass Muslim Americans as they go to the mosque or wear their burkas. On the other hand, we should rebuke certain voices on the left who refuse to acknowledge terrorism’s ties to Islam or who bristle when Christians extol Jesus to Muslims. As Nabeel Qureshi recently argued, sharing alternative worldviews with Muslims is one of the best methods to address the roots of terror.

Islamic texts are problematic, but that doesn’t mean my Muslim neighbor should be ostracized. What is true on the micro-level is also true on the macro-level.

Terror organizations such as ISIS do in fact have their roots in Islamic texts and traditions. To deny that fact is to misunderstand our enemy. And yet, our public recognition of that fact should not be communicated in ways that misrepresent, disrespect, and provoke our two billion global neighbors who are Muslim.

Who are all these people “on the right who wish to provoke or harass Muslim Americans as they go to the mosque or wear their burkas”? No doubt there are some, but there is also deliberate exaggeration, with numerous false claims made by Muslims of being victims of “hate crimes,” or claiming to be “afraid” of anti–Islam speakers (such as Robert Spencer) so as to prevent their appearance on campuses. For details on this see here and here. And even while Professor Ashford wants us “to acknowledge terrorism’s ties to Islam,” he downplayed those ties in his own discussion of what is contained in the Qur’an, giving readers no conception of how important are the commands to wage Jihad (his readers do not learn that there are 109 verses about Jihad warfare), not mentioning at all any of the verses or hadiths specifically commanding the use of terrorism (as 3:151, 8:60,8:12, Bukhari 4.52.220), and misrepresenting other verses (109:6 and 2:256), which he wrongly claims contain “passages that encourage peaceful coexistence.” And if “we should rebuke certain voices on the left who refuse to acknowledge terrorism’s ties to Islam,” what of Professor Ashford himself who, even as he appears to give terrorism’s ties to Islam their due, manages to downplay the omnipresence of Jihad in the Qur’an and to omit entirely the commands about using terror. Perhaps he deserves a mini-rebuke, for his mini-acknowledgement of terrorism’s ties to Islam, or more exactly, Islam’s ties to terror, which for 1400 years have been the ties that truly bind, and cannot be undone by sleight of word, no matter how hard a quasi-defender of the faith may try.

Islam does not have a “surprisingly complicated relationship with terrorism.” It is, in fact,very simple. Terrorism was present at Islam’s creation; terrorism is commanded by the Qur’an; terrorism was Muhammad’s major weapon of war; for Muslims, terrorism has worked. He stated it himself: “I have been made victorious by terror.” We should believe him.

First published in Jihad Watch.




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