The past few days have witnessed catastrophic explosions across Baghdad, a church brutally bombed in Peshawar, and a mall invaded in Nairobi. I know there are real differences between these places and their politics. It's clear al-Shabab is not al-Qaeda is not the Pakistani Taliban, but these differences fade in the face of such actions.
Like many in the Muslim world, I wish such people would disappear—except I know that they don’t die except when they take others with them. And to what end? Apparently, at least occasionally, the wish for a universal Caliphate is described. About this, however, we know only one thing: It’ll be less crowded. Everything else is a muddle. To have aims, of course, you must have brains.
“Islamic” extremists are, in addition to not being very Islamic, not very intelligent. They fight amongst themselves with almost comic regularity. They claim to want a universal Caliphate, but show not the least interest in the compromise, nuance, and planning required by such a massive and diverse state. If given charge of a midsized city, I’m certain they’d do no more than run it into a ditch.
And then blow it up.
Indeed they spend most of their time massacring the people they claim to be acting on behalf of. The entire phenomenon is so offensive, absurd, and self-defeating, which begs us to ask: How is it that such extremism not only continues to plague us, but appears to find new spaces to spread into?
Troubled times call for troubled men
I don’t come from “it’s all a conspiracy” school of foreign policy. Nor do I have much patience for the “don’t call them Muslims” approach—a suicide bomber’s status with God is not of immediate consequence to my analysis. The fact is, there are people who claim to be Muslim, who articulate or at least legitimate their response to certain grievances through a religious language, and they cause grievous harm.
That doesn’t mean their grievances aren’t real. Neither does it mean that theirs is really a religious struggle, nor that we can dismiss the religious content of their rhetoric. But we would be foolish to catch ourselves in semantics. There are bigger problems; namely, thousands of people dying, year after year, with no end in sight. So yes, part of fighting back lies in articulating a more compelling and, well, actually Islamic interpretation of Islam.
But part of fighting back is acknowledging the conditions that enable extremism and give it oxygen to keep up its kinetic fight. In Lord of the Rings, the world of men, faced with a resurrected evil, eventually unites around Aragorn. In the Muslim world, on the other hand, there’s no Aragorn. From “religious” to “secular,” most of our leadership has been a stunning disappointment.
And this is not a purely “Islamist” phenomenon—after the recent Egyptian coup, for example, too many were quite comfortable with the massacre of hundreds if not thousands. Not only did they stay quiet, they justified what is clearly murder. Simultaneously, refugees became the target of state-sponsored hate speech. All fascisms begin by blaming the weak and the marginal.
The Gaza Strip, we were told, was on the verge of conquering Egypt (apparently on the Obama administration’s behalf). Wouldn’t the Gazans rather start with, I don’t know, the rest of Palestine? And who would entertain such a ridiculous notion and why am I entertaining it here? Perhaps because such sentiments mirror one another.
We see, in the different ideologies of the Muslim world, similar patterns. Whether this is the extremism of political monopoly, or economic monopoly, or religious monopoly—or all of these. Extremism is not a ghost particle. It does not spontaneously self-generate. I’m not dismissing the very real and serious challenge of foreign intervention—like Putin’s propping up of Assad’s dictatorship.
But foreign intervention does not explain why so many in the Muslim world behave as if God’s ordered them to be their own worst enemy.
Where is the rich and vibrant religion that produced so much art and culture? Where is the deep and profound spirituality that united an era’s best minds and masses in common and uplifting faith? Where is the inherent and inward confidence that allowed Muslims to travel the world and to see it as their own and to live with dignity?
Whether Sunni versus Shiite, Islamist versus secular, Kurdish versus Arab, or left versus right, Muslim versus non-Muslim, the center’s nowhere to be seen and rarely, if ever, heard. (“We have made you a middle nation.”) The arguments long ago became antagonisms and antagonisms launch miniature Armageddons, all aimed at one another, with little concern for who might be in the way. They scream loud enough for all the world to duck and cover.
Haroon Moghul is the Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. He is a graduate student at Columbia University, a widely-recognized speaker on Islamic thought and Muslim history, and the author of The Order of Light (Penguin 2006). Haroon's writings have been featured on Foreign Policy, Boston Review, Salon, Tikkun, Religion Dispatches, Al-Jazeera, Today's Zaman and Dawn. He is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and serves as an expert guide to the Muslim heritage of Spain, Turkey, and Bosnia. Twitter: @hsmoghul