I noticed a difference between how moderate Christians and Muslims discuss extremists. Christians will say that fundamentalists like the members of the Westboro Baptist Church are not “True Christians.” Muslims, from what I’ve seen, say that violent extremists are un-Islamic. I asked an Imam about this, and he said that the terrorists are still Muslims even though they are acting in a violent way. Would you agree with that statement? If they are Muslim, what can the community of Islam do to reach out to them?
Mainstream Islam is a very decentralized religion. There is no single authority that people follow, and the leaders of the mosques have no authority, they are simply people who serve the community, and ultimately people feel free to ignore them and think differently. Mosques are not centers of power, they are public service institutions very much like public libraries.
This decentralized nature of mainstream Islam is very important to take into consideration when thinking of anything that Muslims say or do. The various communities in an area all operate independently, and even the community that gathers inside the same mosque. There are no consensuses to be reached, no power plays or efforts to make one’s opinion or agenda supreme over others. Everyone is free to build their own community and to focus on the things they like and to fit the religion to the concerns of their time and culture. Thus the Muslims of Turkey may live and act very differently from those of Malaysia, and in a way every man and woman is his/her own sect and community, free to apply the religion in ways that make the most sense to them. Islam provides a skeleton or framework that anyone can flesh out in the way they like.
In Islam saying someone “is not a true Muslim” is like saying a professor “is not a true academic”. There is no hard definition, and no authority that gives and takes the “Muslim” label from people. Anyone that states the testimony of faith is a “Muslim”, and if they do something un-Islamic, they may always repent. If they break the law, it is job of law enforcement to deal with them.
No pious person will freely make statements about whether a certain person is a Muslim or not, or if their deed causes them to stop being Muslim. It is not our job to judge people, it is God’s job, and the mainstream Muslim community is rightfully suspicious and mistrustful toward Muslims who involve themselves with the job of judging people.
Whether someone is a Muslim or not is a matter of the heart, and we cannot see inside a person’s heart. A person who appears to be the best Muslim may actually not be Muslim at all and may be pretending to be so for his/her own personal benefit.
The common Muslim belief about terrorists is that they are usually foolish youth enamored by promises of glory and greatness. Their leaders or inciters are often or always people working for intelligence services, whether Western or Iranian or Saudi (etc.), using Islamic rhetoric to motivate these youth into carrying out their dirty work for them. Are these youth guilty or innocent, or a mixture of both? I cannot say. They often believe themselves to be the purest in faith and to be doing things that the average mainstream Muslims are too lazy or cowardly to do.
I expect some time in the 80’s or 90’s intelligence services realized that Muslim jihadists are perfect soldiers, as they do not require payment and are fearless, wishing for death. The US made use of them against Russia in Afghanistan, and somebody made use of them to carry out 9/11 and other terrorist attacks, to justify the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. War is very profitable for some people (especially lenders), and jihadists make great soldiers, I expect there are enough people around the world ready to make use of them for their own economic and political ends.
Terrorists are extremely rare, media hyperbole notwithstanding. Even if there currently are 100,000 Muslims in the world subscribing to terrorist ideas, that makes up 0.00006% of Muslims, or 6.6 out of 100,000 (while there are 354 Americans with AIDS out of 100,000). We can say that Muslims have been extremely successful at curbing terrorism. In the mainstream Muslim community terrorists are extremely rare and foreign beings. I have never met someone in my entire life who went on to join a terrorist group. We sometimes hear stories of the type “this person’s friend’s cousin knew a guy who went on to join a terrorist organization”, the stories are usually similar to stories of ghost sightings.
This is not to say that Islamic terrorism should be ignored. We Muslims have double the reason to dislike terrorists and wish for an end to them: their crimes, which cause suffering for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike (the vast majority of victims who have died because Islamic terrorism have been other Muslims), and secondly, the effect of their deeds on the way non-Muslims see us and treat us. While to a non-Muslim terrorism is a distant threat similar to hurricanes, a Muslim living in the West has to suffer daily persecution when he or she is looked upon as a potential terrorist by many.
How do more moderate Muslims attempt to change the minds of terrorists and the “foolish youth” that follow them? Is there an effort to use Islamic doctrine to convince them that violent acts are not acceptable in Islam?
The issue is complicated, therefore many speakers and scholars are silent on the extremist doctrines, except when those who subscribe to such doctrines carry out actual terrorist acts, in which case there is usually widespread denouncement of the act. The main issue is that if someone speaks out against ISIS, for example, he can be easily misconstrued to be supporting the Iraqi or Syrian governments, which are equally evil. Therefore they often see the safe route as simply not speaking on it, or only speaking of particular acts instead of attacking the doctrine.
Another issue is that of jihad, when is the use of violence justified? There are various opinions on this, and many speakers/scholars are afraid to come up with anything new as it makes them easy targets for personal attacks and character assassination (i.e. “this new scholar seemingly disagrees with this respected ancient scholar, therefore the new scholar must have strayed from the right path”).
Scholars are increasingly under pressure to clarify and modernize jihad doctrines to make them fit the modern context. The correct and sensible doctrine is that jihad is simply a matter of states. If the US comes under attack, jihad would be to join the US army and defend the country. During the time of the Prophet when the Muslims did not have a state of their own, there was no fighting, no violence, even when their antagonists did violence toward them. Eventually the Prophet was democratically elected to be the leader of the city-state of Medina, and thus, like any state, it had to engage in wars to defend itself, and thus the Quranic verse (22:39) was sent down that permitted the Muslims to engage in fighting against another state.
Modern jihadists ignore these facts, aided by ambiguous texts on jihad, and say that jihad means to engage in violence against any oppressor, at any time. Luckily the vast majority of Muslims consider this false and corrupt, and thus we see that Muslims around the world follow the law and go about their daily lives. Eventually the texts of jihad are going to be properly codified to outlaw terrorism, but it is a slow process, as scholars do not want to be seen to be breaking away from tradition.
As for how we “convince” people that terrorism is wrong, there is no standard practice. As said earlier, there might be 6.6 militant individuals per 100,000 Muslims. There are 15.5 would-be murderers among a population of 100,000 blacks. We do not ask blacks how the “moderate” among them try to convince their fellow blacks not to commit murder, and we do not ask parents how they convince their children not to have incestuous sex with each other. The question is wrong because it implies categorical guilt and responsibility upon the people we are questioning, for something extremely rare and exceptional. A father is not responsible for convincing his son to not have sex with his daughter, and a Muslim father is not responsible for convincing his son not to be a terrorist, because in both cases it is assumed that the son has learned, throughout his entire life, that incest/terrorism is wrong.
Muslims do not have to teach that terrorism is wrong, any more than they need to teach that the sky is blue. Non-violence is the assumption that governs all our interactions with each other. The overwhelming majority of Muslims never come in contact with a militant person, and so they do not have any experience in convincing people not to be terrorists, the same way that most people do not have any experience in trying to convince a man with a very rare mental illness that he is not a duck.
Muslim children are raised to be productive members of society, to be doctors, engineers and firefighters. They do not have to be taught not to be terrorists, any more than black children need to be taught not to be murderers. The entire fabric of the Muslim community is based on the assumption of peace and prosperity, and children grow up wanting a peaceful and productive life.
Therefore Muslims do not have anti-terrorism strategies the same way parents generally do not have anti-incest strategies. If a person shows militant tendencies, similar to a person showing pedophilic tendencies, family and relatives may seek help from community leaders or therapists. If that fails, if they think there may be a danger to the public from said individual, they may alert the authorities, like Muslims have done on a number of occasions in the US in cases of terrorism.
I hope this answers your question. There is no need for an “effort” to convince people that terrorism is wrong, the same way there is no need for an effort to convince people that incest or pedophilia are wrong. It is taught everywhere in society, every day. We cannot blame society for a pedophile’s crime, saying he did not get the memo that it is wrong. It is the same with Muslim society and terrorism. Pedophiles and terrorists are deviants, and an effort to convince them that what they do is wrong is completely ridiculous, since their entire lives they have been learning that what they do is wrong and unacceptable.
Still, due to the collective blame that Muslims receive, most Muslim writers, journalists, speakers and bloggers have spoken out against terrorism. But they are simply repeating what the general Muslim population says; at dinner tables, classrooms and mosques, and their writings and speeches are less for the benefit of the Muslim community than they are for the benefit of non-Muslims who may be wondering what Muslims think about the issue of terrorism.