July 13, 2005,
The challenge for Muslims.
“You’re either with us,” said President George W. Bush, in a much-maligned speech delivered after 9/11, “or you’re with the terrorists.” At the time, our thoughts turned to whether the United States of America and her allies would have the steel to fight the war on terrorism to a victorious conclusion. Since then, a goodly number of America’s allies have wobbled, especially over Iraq, but even they realize that the United States is not the bad guy. One cannot say the same for the many Muslims living in the West who have yet to pick a side in the war on terrorism.
It shouldn’t be a difficult choice for Muslims. There is nothing in the Koran that sanctions violence on the scale we saw in London on 7/7, Madrid on 3/11, or New York on 9/11. There’s no passage endorsing suicide bombing, or its 7th-century equivalent. Indeed, suicide is a mortal sin in Islam: Muslims know this, and they also know that al Qaeda plays fast and loose with the Koran to justify its nihilist ideology. And yet, disquietingly, most have chosen to sit out this war to remain insouciant while terrorists and brigands hijack their religion.
The subway attacks in London have demonstrated once and for all the necessity for moderate Muslims to openly repudiate Islamist extremism. Two underground stations that were targeted King’s Cross and Aldgate East were hubs for ordinary Londoners going about their business. But the third target, Edgware Road Station, was different.
Edgware Road is in an area heavily populated with Arab Muslims. Walking down Edgware Road in the evening, one sees Middle Eastern restaurants brimming over with young Muslims eating ethnic fare, smoking flavored tobacco in water pipes, drinking mint tea, and generally enjoying themselves. The London terror attacks indeed, al Qaeda’s war against civilization is against these moderate Muslims, too. It is a war against an Islam that is tolerant, adaptable to Western society, and that preaches respect and peace.
Even if a significant number of moderate Muslims wanted to condemn terrorism and repudiate Islamist fanaticism, it might be very difficult to do so: The menace of fanaticism does not simply infect Islamist states, it also poisons its civil society, even in the West.
Sadly dangerously it is not uncommon for U.S. and British Muslim groups to be evasive when discussing the war on terror. Of course they’ll condemn individual terrorist attacks, though more out of sympathy for the victims and their families than out of a sense of solidarity with the West. When so much of Islamic civil society is corroded by the ideology of extremism, moderate Muslim dissenters have few outlets to voice their frustration and stop the tragic hijacking of their faith.
I experienced this firsthand while studying at the London School of Economics. Less than two weeks into my freshman year, after I expressed some interest in becoming involved in the student Islamic Society, I was invited to a screening of an incendiary video on the conflict in Chechnya, and another on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These videos were clearly intended to recruit potential terrorists: Indeed, the London School of Economics has a grim history on this front, having educated the terrorist who murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and having unwittingly hosted the jihadist group al-Muhajiroun.
What is more, another extremist group recently set up shop on campus, and invited a speaker who expressed his support for a nuclear Iran and a “global Islamic caliphate.” All this occurs because school authorities look the other way, refusing to monitor campus Islamic groups which are increasingly being taken over by extremists. When even Islamic civil society is controlled by fanatics and terror partisans, there is very little, if anything, that moderate Muslims can do. It is a sobering, sad, and thoroughly dispiriting truth.
The war on terror is not simply against terror-sponsoring states, but against the institutions of civil society that give terrorists quiet support, that inflame local Muslim populations, and that prevent the emergence of a moderate, peaceful form of Islam. The war on terror can never be won unless Muslims who have the privilege of living in the West stand up for civilization against the forces of barbarism and nihilism. I wish I could say otherwise, but I won’t be holding my breath.
Alykhan Velshi, an Ismaili Muslim, will graduate this month from the London School of Economics.