Tackling Terrorism Requires Less Fixation With Religion and More Action

A picture taken on November 26, 2015 shows ambulances, police and fire fighter vehicles outside the mosque after a suspect le
A picture taken on November 26, 2015 shows ambulances, police and fire fighter vehicles outside the mosque after a suspect letter with powder was found at the Great Mosque in Brussels on November 26, 2015. AFP PHOTO / BELGA / ERIC LALMAND ***BELGIUM OUT*** / AFP / BELGA / ERIC LALMAND (Photo credit should read ERIC LALMAND/AFP/Getty Images)

According to Greek mythology, Procrustes was a bandit who invited unsuspecting victims to spend the night at his house only to rob and kill them. His modus operandi was stretching or chopping his victims to make them fit into his iron bed. The insistence of many people on turning the debate on terrorism into a debate on religion often seems like an intellectual version of this gruesome exercise. Regardless of the role of individuals, governments, and organizations in generating terrorism, there seems a pathological preoccupation with fitting religion in as the prime mover. Following the attacks in Brussels the same tired old refrains are flying again: We need to focus on the role of religion in terrorism; we need to have an "honest" conversation about Islam; we need to stop being politically correct; we need to name the enemy; we need to support "real" reformers; we need to stop "regressive" liberals from "suppressing" this crucial debate by raising the canard of Islamophobia.

Well here's a news flash; the only debate that has been ubiquitous in mainstream and social media since September 11, 2001 has been specifically about religion. An association has been made over and over between Islam and terrorism by a slew of commentators and journalists and there has rarely been much "political correctness" on display. There is a legion of people who have dedicated their entire careers to the threats of "Radical Islam." Let's see about that political correctness and suppression of debate:

Frank Gaffney -- former Assistant Secretary at the Pentagon who runs the Center for Security Policy -- was recently named by presidential hopeful Ted Cruz as a security advisor. He was also cited by Donald Trump in his recent tweet about stopping Muslim immigration to the United States. Gaffney has frequented conservative media since 2003 and now has a potential path to the corridors of the White House. Or how about Robert Spencer, darling of the Fox News Network who runs the popular website "Jihadwatch" and who is quoted almost every day by other prominent conservative commentators like Pamela Geller and Andrew Breitbart. Regarding those two: much as they are often criticized by the media for their openly anti-Muslim rhetoric, their blogs have followings in the hundreds of thousands and they have popularized outlandish notions like "Creeping Shariah" and "Taqiyya". Geller has excellent financing and is courted not only by Fox News but by liberal talk shows like Bill Maher's extremely popular "Real Time."

And it is not just conservative media. New Atheist writers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have kept themselves in the limelight for the past decade purely on the strength of their frequent diatribes against Islam. In that respect, they are even more ominous in the picture they paint of millions in the Muslim world praying and planning for violent Jihad and global domination. They have also spawned and support a small but very vocal group of "Ex-Muslims" and "Progressive Muslims" like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Tarek Fatah who say the same exact things but are courted even more by certain sections of liberal media due to their "credential" of being a present or former Muslim.

Or how about the two main Republican contenders for president or many prominent members of the Tea Party; is their conversation about Islam "honest" enough? Are their solutions powerful enough?

Where is this "honest" conversation about Islam being suppressed? In what section of the media and on what planet? Because it certainly isn't this one. Whether it is cable news or social media, not a day goes by without a mention of the relationship between Islam and terrorism.

Let me help these people along the way and summarize the ideas they are pushing for: The Muslim World must accept that there is something intrinsic to Islam that creates and perpetuates violence and terrorism. That Muslims must "reform" their faith by disavowing certain parts of their scriptures which they must accept are advocating violence and global domination. Better still, they should treat religion as a badge of membership and not take it seriously because, you know, religion makes people stupid. After all this is done, extremism will decline, ISIS and Al-Qaeda will stop recruiting, extremist interpretations of Islam will be defeated and we will all live happily every after.

Here's the first problem with this line of thinking:

There is no historical precedent of the followers of a faith reforming by disavowing parts of their faith. Societies have reformed by movements within religion paralleled by political and social movements . The Lutherans for example, broke the monopoly of the Catholic Church and weakened its political power. This paved the way for successive Western governments, especially after the advent of democracy, to separate religion and government through a gradual legislative process that required successive leaders to stay loyal to the idea of secularism. Political rights, women's rights and LGBT rights were also won through sustained legislative and civil campaigns, not through effecting a rejection of faith or scripture. In fact these movements left religion largely untouched which may be part of the reason for their success. When you start a debate about religion you invariably end up with two sides each trying to win the other over, never with two sides doing their best to find middle ground and reach a consensus. That is the nature of religious faith, as well as the opposition to it. Always has been, always will be.

Here's the second problem with the argument:

ISIS and Al-Qaeda have already made religion the centerpiece of their narrative. They have already appointed themselves the only true defenders of Islam. It is not that they don't care about how the subject of Islam is discussed in the West; they would in fact fervently hope that it is broached with insensitivity so that they can continue to prey on Muslim populations by selling their story of Islam being under global assault and by continuing to present themselves as victims even as they continue to make thousands of Muslims the victims of their crimes. Many, including presidential candidates are already making irresponsible statements and fanning hatred. The sort of debate that would emerge if those who wish "political correctness" to cease on this issue succeeded would be exactly what ISIS needs, and already exploits, to complement its "Us Vs Them" narrative.

Here's the third and most important problem with this argument:

An unbridled dialogue about Islam and terrorism will not stop ISIS from continuing on the warpath. It will not stop Bashar Al-Assad from bombing his people. It will not stop the House of Al-Saud from exporting anti-Shia hatred all over the world. It will not stop the proxy sectarian wars that Saudi Arabia and Iran are motivating from Karachi to Beirut. It will not stop the British and American Governments from selling hundreds of billions dollars worth of weaponry and fighter jets to Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt where they are used to crush democratic uprisings and kill civilians. It will not stop the world from continuing to support-in fact it will increase support- for the Kings and dictators whose jails and torture cells have cultivated the atrocity exhibition that is ISIS and Al-Qaeda. It will not stop the misguided invasions by global powers that create the vacuum which gave extremism a grand arena in Afghanistan in 1979 and in Iraq in 2003. It will not stop the religiopolitical parties of the Muslim World who have pushed anti-women and anti-minority legislation while thwarting progressive legislation to keep their political role alive. In short, none of what births and sustains violent extremism will be affected by this "honest debate" many want about Islam.

It is high time to disembark from this ship of fools and tackle the people and policies that have directly contributed to this grotesque golden age of global terrorism. Stop supporting and selling weapons to brutal, autocratic regimes. Sanction and lobby Saudi Arabia and Iran till they agree to sit at a table and talk like grown-ups. Support democratic forces without prejudice and support progressive Muslims without demanding that they reach your desired level of lacking religiosity first. Stop ISIS from smuggling oil, stop recruits from reaching them through every border. The answer to terrorism will not leap out at us from the pages of scripture; it will require the world putting aside petty politics and vested interest and working together.

Islamic reform and tackling terrorism are not the same thing. Reform is a gradual process that takes place on many fronts and cannot be forced or accelerated by outside forces. Terrorism needs to be dealt with now. This is not Islam or Muslims versus the rest of the world so stop trying to make it that. This is terrorism versus the rest of the world, especially Muslims who have suffered most of all.


The Huffington Post is covering anti-Muslim discrimination and those who are working to combat it. The Islamophobia Tracker is our attempt to create a comprehensive look at the scope and severity of Islamophobia, and illuminate efforts and discussion around ways to stop it. Why? Because hate and bigotry are toxic for everyone. If you have a story you'd like to share, please email us at islamophobia@huffintonpost.com.