Andrew Sullivan Gives the Brothers Tsarnaev Too Much Credit

by Zujaja Tauqeer

Andrew-sullivan-why-i-blog-wideOver on his blog, Andrew Sullivan has been pondering the motives behind the horrific Boston bombing. His conclusion: Of Course It Was Jihad.

After reading all of his posts, I reached a different conclusion: by calling this act of terror “jihad”, Sullivan is imbuing Tamerlan Tsarnaev with too much representational power over Islam and giving Tsarnaev too much credit by accepting his (unsaid) claims of carrying out actual Islamic injunctions.

Sullivan maintains that Tamerlan was so far gone in his religiosity that one must conclude that his primary motive for acting was religion. Unlike the Obama administration, Sullivan doesn’t conclude that the religious sanction was all in Tamerlan’s head. He cites Rod Dreher, from The American Conservative, who notes that Muslims like Tsarnaev, when they kill, are sometimes carrying out Allah and the Prophet Muhammad's (pbuh) orders, such that Islam, when taken to its logical extreme, is a spur for violent expression. Islam’s violent and fundamentalist strains derive from the fact that it is a religion whose founder practiced violence. According to Sullivan there are concrete reasons why Muslims exhibit a unique proclivity to violence, post-18th century—modernity has exacerbated the inability of extremely religious Muslim loners to find meaning. Hence, killing of civilians.

Playing up Tsarnaev as a staunch, observant Muslim is made possible solely because of Sullivan’s claim that Tamerlan was acting in obedience to actual religious teachings. While there is in fact ample proof to the contrary in the history and scripture of Islam, Sullivan chooses to ignore that mountain of evidence. Instead he wants us to take the word of a 19th century Roman Catholic, Alexis de Tocqueville, for Tamerlan's jihadism. When it comes to talking about Islam, Sullivan sets aside customary rigor in investigating claims or citing sources.

In assigning jihad as the motive, Sullivan makes the ballsy and dangerous move of taking a term of holy war, imbued with much meaning and carrying with it many stipulations, and grants it just like that to the Tsarnaevs. Terming this act “jihad” is a grave mistake because it grants moral legitimacy to terrorism and accepts the rhetoric of terrorists that their acts are in fact exactly the kind of holy acts they say they are. This argument is nothing new. But I maintain that to describe the Brothers Tsarnaev as jihadis and simultaneously invest them with a reputation as devout Muslims, even though they were in fact acting in direct contravention to Islamic teachings, leads to the offensive and fallacious conclusion that a murderer is a model of what Muslims in their full devoutness would be. It gives undeserved power to the most egregiously insincere and disobedient Muslims who cause suffering to innocents to define the meaning of this religion.

Sullivan and modern critics of Islam in the media seem to have fallen victim to a propensity towards uncritical, unquestioned acceptance of the seemingly attractive belief that Islam sanctions violence. Sullivan’s grounds for calling Tamerlan Tsarnaev a jihadi are factually inaccurate and therefore he has no basis upon which to propound his dangerous claims that “it was jihad”. Jihad as holy war is not something that any Muslim can claim to carry out, and for someone prominent like Sullivan to grant that claim of jihad to a murderer without investigating whether it truly does meet the criteria for jihad is bordering on the irresponsible. Regarding jihad, holy war, the Quran notes, “Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged – and Allah indeed has power to help them. Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ – And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated.” [Ch22:V40-41] Jihad is holy war sanctioned under certain key principles, some outlined here, and it is meant for the defence of the freedom of conscience of Muslims, but not Muslims alone; thus the mention of cloisters and churches and synagogues.

Sullivan further maintains that Tsarnaev’s acts and those of other violent Muslims find permission in the violent example of Islam’s founder. By this association with the founder of Islam he gives them greater significance than to the majority of peaceful Muslims who are not given such a favourable association by Sullivan. I'd like to make a salient point here about the Prophet serving as a model by which to compare Muslim acts. The founder of Islam does indeed provide a very concrete comparison for judging whether an adherent is acting in a manner sanctioned by Islam. Islam’s founder was not apolitical, not unaccustomed to war. He was a statesman, a lawgiver. He had to fight wars to protect his people against aggressors and he won and lost battles. He was also fully human, a husband and a father. In the Prophet Muhammad's life, unlike in Jesus', there is substantial evidence and examples of his response to situations of violence which serve as a check on Muslims against acts of terrorism. The historical fact is that Muhammad (pbuh) was founder of a new religion that threatened the establishment in his time. Before he was head of a state, his followers remained persecuted–they either practiced their religion in secret in Mecca or sought asylum in nearby areas (such as Christian Abyssinia or in Medina). Once the Prophet was installed as the leader of Medina after fleeing Mecca with many of his followers, the Meccans initiated hostilities against the state of Medina. He engaged in a series of defensive wars per Quranic injunction, “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loveth not aggressors.” [Ch2:V191]. Even with aggressive wars being waged against his people and state, there is historical evidence that he took all reasonable steps to avoid war. One famous example is the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, in which he agreed to crippling demands by his enemies in order to establish a 10-year truce. He did so because “if the enemies incline towards peace, do you also incline towards peace. And trust in God! For He is the one who hears and knows all things.” [Ch8:V62] There is not a shred of evidence of or allowance for initiating or prolonging hostilities when peace is an option.

So there is clear evidence for reasoned third parties by which to judge the presence of religious sanction for acts undertaken by Muslims relating to war and peace. Nevertheless, Sullivan still goes on to credit Tamerlan with having the support of God and Prophet for his actions, thereby giving these acts an unwarranted authority and significance, in spite of the injunction of the Quran that states, “Whoso kills a soul, unless it be for murder or for wreaking corruption in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and whoso gave life to one, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind.” [Ch5:V33].

Even the aggressive wars of the US that may kill civilians in Muslim countries (which some see as explaining terrorist acts by Muslims) would not give sanction to a Muslim to engage in likewise acts. “Do not be people without minds of your own, saying that if others treat you well you will treat them well, and that if they do wrong you will do wrong to them,” the Prophet Muhammad said, “Instead, accustom yourselves to do good if people do good and not to do wrong (even) if they do evil.” Contravening Islamic injunctions on war and peace is thus prohibited, even in the face of overwhelming wrong done by the aggressor—and the Islamic laws of war propounded in Muhammad's time clearly established that innocent non-combatants, women, children, the old, the infirm, even fruit-bearing trees and towns, were not to be targeted. Thus undertaking violence against innocent civilians, even as recompense for the acts of war committed by the US, should not and does not elevate a terrorist to the status of zealous Muslim. It makes him a murderer.

Some unrelated claims Sullivan makes about controversial “Islamic” practices which pose a threat to civilization, again by using another non-Muslim source, namely Sam Harris, are also equally false, e.g. that Islam apparently has ‘texts’ that sanction the murder of infidels and apostates and negates the rights of women etc. There are no core texts in Islam that sanction such acts and therefore those that carry out such acts are not acting on Islamic principles. According to the Quran, “There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely right has become distinct from wrong.” [Ch2:V257] If Sullivan can cite those who claim that violence such as the Inquisition perpetuated by Christendom, indeed even when carried out by Christian states or by the Church itself in the name of Christianity, is in direct contravention to the teachings of Jesus and the Gospels, it should certainly not be a stretch for him to make the same judgment for Islam in view of countries where repressive, power-hungry dictators and regimes (Zia ul Haq in Pakistan; the Taliban and Al-Saud in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia) have imposed unwarranted laws and unleashed terrible violence in the name of Islam, even though their condemnable acts have no evidence in the scripture. Nor is evidence for these abominable practices observed in the powerful historical example of the polity of Medina, a Muslim state of Muhammad’s time. There are in Islam guarantees for women attaining an education, inheriting property, and being able to divorce, rights that pre-empted Western courts and legislatures by over a millennia, which neither Judaism nor Christianity enshrine in their holy texts. Yet Islam is somehow a unique threat to “the emergence of a global civil society.” To say that modernity in inherently in conflict with Islam is an unnecessary and disputable claim and therefore an erroneous marker for jihadi violence. The tension between the developments of modernity, such as the rise of the modern secular state, and Islam cannot be seen to motivate Tsarnaev's actions because the Prophet noted, “Love for one's country is part of faith” and the Quran forbids the breaking of oaths (e.g. oaths of allegiance).

To demonstrate how Muslims are actually supposed to act when it comes to those of other faiths, I'll cite here a treaty signed by the founder of Islam with the monks of St. Catharine's monastery, Mt Sinai (since it gives an example of Muslim-Christian relations and the US is considered a Christian nation).

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world)”.

Sullivan makes many general claims, without proof, about Islam’s supposed violent teachings and the supposed violent example of its Prophet in supporting his claim of jihad and in asserting Tamerlan’s faithfulness to Islam. It is a concerted effort to proliferate factually inaccurate generalities in order to make damaging claims about the proclivity towards violence and primitiveness of the adherents of an entire religion. What’s worse, his anti-Islam claims and false pronouncements on jihad damage the entire endeavour of peaceful Muslims to counter the influence of violent terrorists who claim to be waging a jihad against the US.

Sullivan says all religions have fanatical sides but in view of the Taliban and Tsarnaevs, he concludes Islam’s violent side is “more murderous that most”—which directly contradicts this handy pie chart by Prof. Cole that subjects the claim to historical rigor. More than modernity afflicting the religion and causing violent expression among adherents, it is evident that western exploitation via the processes of colonization and decolonization have caused structural issues in nations where a large part of the Muslim population resides.

There is not a shred of evidence providing either explanation or justification for the Boston bombing being termed a jihad—a religiously sanctioned war—against the US or its people, nor is there any reason to conclude that Tamerlan and his brother deserve the kind of association with Islam and legitimacy that the term “jihadi” grants them. Apart from all that I have mentioned, Prof. Juan Cole, expert historian over at The Informed Comment, compiles this handy list for how the terrorist acts of the Taliban and Tsarnaevs are not manifestations of Islamic beliefs. This evidence should at the very least serve to make a reasoned third party question how the Brothers Tsarnaev, if they really were so devout, could disobey so many Islamic commandments to carry out surprise acts of terror against civilians. Sullivan says that cherry picking from the Quran makes it easy to turn to violence. Suffice it to say that by cherry picking to seek sanction for violence and ignoring all the above-mentioned legal and scriptural checks, those Muslims engaging in acts of violence are inherently not acting in obedience to their religion and therefore there is no basis to grant them the image of observant Muslim ideologues. They are simply violent people. Or as Dreher says in explaining Christian violence, “violence is inherent in the human condition”.

The terrorists touted in the media as extremist, fundamentalist Muslims are, in their violence, uniquely seen to exhibit their religion, when no other violent extremists of any other religion are vested with such representational power. They should not be.

In falsely painting violent terrorists like Tamerlan Tsarnaev as supremely devout Muslims, Sullivan and others are giving the unwarranted impression that moderate Muslims, who vastly outnumber violent ones, are by comparison lesser depictions of the Islamic faith, less willing to carry out the demands of their religion. They are not.

The 99.9%, whom Sullivan and Dreher so patronizingly think “non-Muslims should encourage, for the sake of peace”, are and have always been fundamentally opposed to the killing of civilians. They are the ideologues that are truly extremist in their desire to end bloodshed. They do follow the example of their Prophet—when treating with kindness and justice those who bring war upon their coreligionists. Their full obedience to God and Prophet is manifested not in blowing themselves up, but in fighting for the freedom of conscience of all humans. They are vocal in their condemnation, even when no seems to be listening. It is because they consider themselves to be devout Muslims. For the majority of Muslims who have utterly condemned the tragedy in Boston and disavowed terrorist acts carried out in Islam’s name clearly and explicitly, Sullivan’s is a tough claim to accept.

Zujaja can be followed on twitter.