On Muslims, Terrorism, and Bigotry

by Ahmed Humayun


Minar-e-Pakistan, Lahore

Terrorist attacks of the sort we have seen in Lahore, Brussels, Ankara, Paris, and in so many other cities around the world, are serious atrocities against innocents. These attacks are also a cunning attempt by strange cult-like groups to provoke large scale conflict – between Muslims and Westerners, and between different types of Muslims. These groups are utterly opposed to those of us who hold multiple identities at the intersection of different cultures, and do so comfortably or even proudly.

People become members of terrorist organizations for different reasons. Some are fanatics and true believers; some are looking for adventure; some are commonplace thugs and criminals; some are sadists; some are deceived and some know exactly what they are doing. Whatever the case may be, the leadership of these groups is investing an enormous amount of time and energy in finding young Muslims who have real or imagined grievances, and channeling this sentiment into a destructive path. A vast infrastructure of extremism and propaganda is designed to incite and recruit people to the ranks of these groups.

It's true that terrorist recruitment mostly fails: the number of terrorists are a tiny portion of the global Muslim community. Yes, that matters. Most people are not attracted to spectacular terror as a way of life.

But this is small comfort. Terrorist groups may comprise a tiny minority of Muslims but they have an outsized impact – on the politics of Muslim majority societies, and on the state of Muslim communities in the West.

Consider what has happened to the Muslim world so far. There are now tens of thousands of members of these types of militias, maybe more, depending on how you count. Many of these people are from the middle class – people who have lots of options in life. Thousands have migrated from Western societies to join the wars in places like Syria and Iraq. (Though, we are overly naïve when we ask, how do people with choices fall for this murderous nonsense? The people with choices – the rich Bin Laden's, the middle class Zawahiri's – are at the vanguard of these types of groups. The use of terror to advance utopian ideas has deep precedent in modern history).

Tally the lives lost and maimed, the treasure expended to confront these groups. And when you factor in the devastation of Islam's intellectual and cultural heritage, the serious setbacks to democratization, scientific progress, and moral advancement, the costs start becoming incalculable.

It is true that terrorism is far from the only challenge faced by Muslim countries. We know about the long, sordid history of shoddy and brutal government that predates terrorism. We know that even without terrorism, in many countries illiberal elements are influential, that there are serious social deficits in areas like women's rights, or the situation of minorities, or in the overall progressiveness of legal systems. We know about the challenges of economic underdevelopment and the lack of education. Helping these societies move forward will require action on many fronts.

(At the same time, let's not forget that the story of Muslims in our world at large is not merely the story of terrorism or illiberalism. It feels trite to say, but I think it has to be said that Muslims are making positive contributions to their communities and their nations everywhere. They are launching startups, running charities, doing stand up comedy, writing novels, making music, and so on. Reducing the Muslim experience to the squalidness of terrorism does not reflect the world as it is).

Yet if the state of affairs in the Muslim world is complex, one thing is clear: there is a large and growing cluster of extremist groups that aim to impose their harsh vision through indiscriminate violence. And these groups are not going anywhere. They see tremendous opportunities for growth in our fractured world. There is every reason to believe that atrocities will continue to happen, and that the ranks of these groups will grow, unless they are countered.

Next, look at the West. It is true that relative to many other threats, terrorism kills much less people – by orders of magnitude. Nevertheless, terrorists have had an extraordinary impact on Western countries. They have been highly successful in disrupting the politics of advanced democracies and empowering many of the worst elements within them. The sad fact is that terror works. No Hollywood screenwriter could have dreamed up the inventive barbarism of these groups, carefully designed to polarize and provoke overreaction.

Fear has been an enormous boon for organized anti-Muslim networks. These groups are actively trying to whip up fear of all Muslims – not just terrorists, of whom we all need to be wary. Anti-Muslim bigotry is real. It would be wrong if it was just a spontaneous grassroots reaction to terrorist attacks, but it is worse than that. Anti-Muslim bigotry is being systematically stoked by formerly fringe entities that have now gone mainstream.

Anti-Muslim bigotry manifests itself in different ways in different countries, depending on unique histories and political cultures. In the American context some advocate taking discriminatory measures against all Muslims due to the actions of terrorists. This sort of anti-Muslim sentiment is inconsistent with the principles and laws of the nation, which has historically tried to transcend this sort of rank tribalism, whether it is based on religion or ethnicity or country of origin and so on. Collective guilt or responsibility is the inverse of the American spirit properly understood.

While we should call out anti-Muslim bigotry, we should also realize that it does not ‘represent' America. The rejoinder to anti-Muslim stereotypes should not be anti-American stereotypes (or vice versa). This is what terrorists want, and one way to counter them is to not to play into their hands. Just because people claim to speak in the name of America does not mean they speak for all Americans. And just because people claim to speak in the name of Islam does not mean they speak for all Muslims. Both ‘America' and ‘Islam' contain multitudes; neither are the sole property of the loudest voices that prattle on in their name.

We owe it to each other – and to the values we claim to hold – to do better.

Ahmed Humayun is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, and an expert at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, both in Washington, D.C. These views are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of either institution.