the religion of more than a billion believers, has been hijacked.
If the first week's suspicions are confirmed, the suicide attacks
against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are the capstones
of nearly twenty years of terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam.
As layer upon layer of violence has accumulated, Islam itself has
come to be associated in many Western minds with terrorism. It is
a tragic turn and one for which the vast majority of moderate
Muslims bears some responsibility.
Islam is no
more inclined to terrorism than any other monotheistic faith. Like
its sisters, Christianity and Judaism, it can be both merciful and
stern in practice; like them, it also teaches the love of God and
the humanity of all mankind, believers and unbelievers alike. In
times past, Islam has served as the bedrock of flourishing, tolerant,
and peaceful orders.
will say that a religion, at any point in time, is whatever its
adherents understand it to be. If that is so, then Islam, as understood
by too many Muslims, is in danger of deteriorating into a manifesto
for terror. The reason: Too many Muslims have been silent in the
face of horrific deeds committed by an extremist minority.
terrorism" first entered the lexicon on a Beirut morning in
1983, when two suicide bombers destroyed the barracks of American
and French peacekeepers. The American toll came to 241 dead; the
planners, Shiites inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini, claimed credit
in the name of Islamic Jihad. For decades, modernizing Muslim thinkers
had worked to demilitarize the concept of jihad struggle
waged "in the path of God." Secular revolutionaries had
mothballed the term, employing the vocabulary of "resistance"
and "liberation." But it was an act of jihad that drove
America from Lebanon, with electrifying effect.
A new era had
begun an era in which Muslim extremists interpreted their
faith as a license to kill foreign "enemies of God." Radical
Muslim clerics scoured Islam's sacred texts for justifications of
violence, and found them. In the years to come, the clerics and
the terrorists widened their license. At first, it included only
"intruders" in Muslim lands: foreign forces, embassies,
and civilians. Later it was extended to include "enemy"
installations in third countries, and finally, civilians in the
"lands of unbelief." No moral red line could stop the
In a parallel
process, suicide operations became a matter of routine. Suicide
is forbidden in Islam. Back in 1983, only a handful of radical clerics
were prepared to classify kamikaze-type acts as deeds of "self-martyrdom,"
guaranteeing immediate entry to Paradise. After the first operations,
an intense debate ensued over religious law, some clerics ruling
in favor of the tactic and many against.
But as the
years passed, "self-martyrs" became popular heroes and
the resolve of the critics waned. When, last April, Saudi Arabia's
grand mufti suggested that such acts were no more than suicide,
the head of Egypt's Azhar University, supposed bastion of moderation,
waffled. (It was permissible, he said, but not against civilians.)
In some quarters, the "self-martyr" is hailed as the most
noble of all believers; according to one particularly respected
Sunni cleric, "these operations are the supreme form of jihad."
In this climate,
it is now possible to recruit "self-martyrs" not one at
a time, but by the dozen. And for the first time, terrorist planners
can envision what was once unthinkable: large numbers of simultaneous
suicide operations, carried out by teams of "self-martyrs."
the Middle East itself is less vulnerable to extremist violence
than it was a few years ago. The regimes in most countries
most notably, Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia have suppressed
their own Muslim opponents. But the regimes have opened a "safety
valve" not against themselves, but against America.
As a result, the region is awash in incitement.
This has combined
with a moral timidity among Muslim moderates. They have condemned
and disavowed the atrocities in New York and Washington, and there
is no reason to doubt their sincerity. But these same people were
silent in the face of similar deeds, done on a smaller scale in
other places. Each small outrage undermined those very religious
inhibitions that might have prevented last week's mass murder. And
in a globalized world, a red line erased in the Middle East is erased
In recent years,
some Western observers of Islam have claimed that it is moving toward
an enlightened reformation. What happened last week was the opposite:
a dangerous slide toward a medieval holy war. To stop the regression,
the moderate majority will have to argue against the mobilization
of Islamic religion for war. Individuals may rely on their faith
to inspire them in adversity. Religion may be invoked at times of
loss. But it is impossible to deploy religion to justify killing
and self-immolation, without undermining the foundations of the
In the pained
expressions of decent Muslims, there is more than regret at America's
loss. There is a growing realization that the men who brought down
the twin towers put Islam in peril. Only Muslims can redeem it.