Below is a slightly revised version of a couple of emails I sent in an exchange over the general topic of the responsibility of the American/Canada Muslim communities to address misconstructions/abuse of ‘jihad’. It seemed to me that were some important considerations missing in this conversation (coming in the shadow of the Boston bombings and the obsession over the Tsarnaev brothers’ “religiosity”) as well as some problematic assumptions being made about the nature of crime and violence. These were, as a lot of my posts on this blog tend to be, thoughts I was writing ‘aloud’ — ideas I’m constantly exploring in my own head.
I don’t think, to be quite frank and honest, any amount of YouTube videos, intellectual engagement or process of addressing “Jihadi” rhetoric and ideas will eliminate the grievances that lead young men towards violence of the apparent ‘terrorism’ nature. Indeed, we can find instances of many young men (Muslim or not) committing acts of violence as a result of particular socio-political grievances/fears/marginalization and they can cover these with justifications rooted in (and certainly not entirely) religion. And again, there is an assumption in this discussion it seems as there is in this discussion in the broader world that if a young Muslim man, out of Muslim kinship or not, decides to commit an act of violence (or speak in an inciting manner against occupation and violence) then he must have reached that point of anger/”radicalization” through aggressive ‘jihadi’ rhetoric alone. Why? Can’t anyone just snap? Can’t anyone just one day wake up angry with the world, their lives and decide there’s one way to make a statement? Is it possible for our young Muslim men to wake up tired of being under a microscope of surveillance? Do they really need an overseas ‘shaykh’ to tell them what their issues are? Are these young men without the unique human experiences that may have led them towards a certain point of no return?
We as a community are having this conversation, I think, only because the society in which we live envisions and speaks of Islam as something foreign and disassociated from itself. If a Muslim man commits a crime, why he must have done it out of some religious doctrinal brainwashing! We as a community are also falling prey to this misunderstanding – well, we already have. You don’t have to be brainwashed to be angry; to commit violence. You don’t need to be practicing or non-practicing, to be ‘pious’ or not. Whatever that even means. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, we all have the capacity for violence within us. I doubt Dzkhokhar Tsarnaev, presuming his guilt, saw himself planting bombs at the marathon he seemed to frequent every year. I doubt he saw himself being chased by 10,000 members of law enforcement and military through Watertown a year ago. Maybe even two days before the manhunt when he was talking about Claritin clear on his Twitter.
Someone who’s angry, fed up and unable to see their kin under attack and occupation (or upset their career dreams and ambitions have been dashed), with the capacity/will for violence is not going to be so easily convinced by a religious sermon, a class lecture, a YouTube video or nuanced Sunday school teachings growing up, I’m sorry to say. And sometimes even having received all of that, their anger may only require a trigger in order to become violence – and that’s outside anyone’s control.
Also would like to note that a lot of the so-called “radicalization” and ‘terror plots’ in our communities here seems to be coming through entrapment/coaching/handling by FBI/CSIS (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and much more). Maybe we should also spend some effort on addressing and standing up to that; maybe we should stand up to the radicalization and use of our youth and young men for purposes of making sure big budgets and jobs stay in demand.
Additionally, We need to move out of the religious/non-religious binary when we talk about crime and violence. Yes, there are studies that testify that more practicing Muslims (more ‘religious’ folks in general) are less likely to engage in crime and violence – this, however, should not be treated as a sacrosanct law of the universe. When talking about Muslims, Muslims as much as their non-Muslim counterparts, seem to forget how everyday context, history and experience inform the decisions of every living individual – especially, for purposes of this discussion, Muslims. Not all Muslims, shockingly, make their daily decisions or long-term decisions based on their religion – their understanding of it or someone else’s. You might be hard-pressed to find maybe any Muslim who makes a decision based solely on Islam alone. I can’t help but feel it’s incredibly hard to argue that personal experience, personality, knowledge (or a lack thereof) and influence of other forces (people, organizations, ideologies or events) play little role in the formation of decisions and thus the paths we take. Thus, when we talk about the issue of piety and ‘religiosity’ and ‘religious understanding’ to thwart abuse of certain concepts in Islam, we forward the idea that individuals who commit crimes/violence are motivated solely by religion — misunderstood, but religion nevertheless.
My head hurts.
This idea of ‘correcting’ religious interpretation/engagement assumes that many/most young men who commit or plan acts of terrorism actually read/engage with religious texts. It also assumes, again, (or seems to assume) that these acts are thought out in a vacuum – that only a particular reading and understanding of religious text can lead to justification of so-and-so act. And again – can you stop a crime before it happens? I’m seriously thinking Minority Report here and ‘precrime’. It seems as though we’re trying to stop a precrime and thus also incriminating our own community and its members in a way.
Can we stop someone from committing an act of violence if that is what their will leans towards? And how big of a problem is this actually in our community, where young men are committing acts of “terrorism” or planning to that some are saying requires ‘more’ effort in addressing? What has our community been doing for the past 11 or so years then? Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, on his Twitter a few months ago, addressed how he wished no longer to talk to ‘idiots’ who equated Islam with terrorism. Is it not possible for criminals/terrorists/what-have-you to actually read the texts (or engaged with them secondhand) in the ‘good’ way and still fall into the trap of violence and human despair and/or hate? Why is this hard to believe and accept? Are Muslims not human like other’s and thus susceptible to the same virtues and vices as other human beings?
I can’t believe I actually feel the need to lay that out.