First things first, this is not an attempt to distract anyone from the humiliating atrocities and brutality committed by Israel against the Palestinians in the recent upsurge of attacks that included assaults on Al-Aqsa Mosque and bombing of innocent children and women, not to mention the demolishment of the buildings of rare international agencies such as Al-Jazeera and Associated Press working in Gaza.
This attempt is an endeavor to draw similarities between what this recent Israeli violence teaches us about war, terrorism, and religion, primarily Islam, for the sake of this article.
To clarify my positionality, I am a Pakistani pursuing my master’s in Theological Studies from Harvard, primarily focusing on Islam. I also have a background in Political Science. Being born two years before 9/11, I have witnessed the worst of terrorism in Pakistan when our military dictator President Musharraf chose the “with us” option against the “against us” binary put forward by President Bush.
From mosques to public markets and from Sufi shrines and Churches to educational institutions, the violent extremists killed thousands of innocent civilians in their suicide attacks.
Read more: What’s causing extremism in Pakistan?
Not only that, the use of terms like “Islamic Terrorism” and “Muslim Terrorists” by international media organizations added fuel to the fire and deeply bothered me and made me think there is something inherently “wrong”, “violent”, and “inhumane” about Islam. I felt like my religion caused the worst amount of violence, and hence was hesitant to talk about it, even in a Muslim-majority country like ours.
Unfortunately, we did not find articles titled “How to talk about terrorism without being Islamophobic?” as we find now after the Israeli brutality in Palestine in the form of articles titled “How to talk about Israel without being anti-Semitic?” I am not saying the latter question is not fine or helpful to understand diverse Jewish perspectives including the ones condemning Israeli violence. I am just asking why the former question was not a concern for international media.
Read more: Long read: Battle for the soul of Islam
Hence, the role of media was crucial here to link Islam with terrorism instead of explaining the complexity of the matter and elaborating on the diversity of Muslim cultures and societies.
Understanding religion holistically
As a teenager, having all this at the back of my mind, I always felt reluctant to talk about religion and Islam, even in a Liberal Arts school where freedom of expression was the core. I assumed what my colleagues and professors would think if I relate this and that with religion, so I had to control my impulses most of the time to ask questions in those wonderful classes.
In addition, statements like “oh man, please keep religion aside in this debate” also restricted the true freedom of expression on other occasions. Also, the “secularization” of these liberal institutions is a separate discussion that causes “self-concealment” of religious identities and religious perspectives.
Briefly, I felt like a passive receiver being bombarded with ideologies from the Right and Left instead of being asked or encouraged to analyze those ideologies using religious/theological arguments.
I think religion and religious experience is a reality that needs to be understood holistically, because if not and if we keep avoiding it, then the right-wing organizations will keep exploiting religion for their political purposes all over the world.
Purpose of madrassahs
Due to all the reasons mentioned above, when I was working on my graduate school application, I was told not to mention my experience at madrassah (religious school) where I went for the memorization of the Quran as it might have a negative impact on my application.
Later on, I consulted a professor, and he asked me that the “real” academicians in the west know that madrassahs are like Harvard for those seeking Quranic and Islamic education in the Muslim world, especially for people coming from underprivileged backgrounds. Thanks to Harvard for not judging me over mentioning madrassah in my application and for not putting the madrassahs in the category of producing “Islamic terrorists”.
The 1980s’ history of these madrassahs tells us that most of them were built by the Pakistan-USA-Saudi alliance to promote Wahhabism in Pakistan and eventually defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan through the so-called jihadi narrative.
When the Soviets were defeated and hence the mission accomplished, the same mujahideen turned into Taliban that later became a global threat to security.
Read more: Taliban return: What do Afghanis think?
Lessons to learn
The point is, the current Israeli upsurge in oppression and violence against the Palestinians teaches us it is always problematic to understand things in isolation by not delving into their complexity.
If you focus on the recent brutality only as events of violence over politics or religion, you are doing an intellectual disservice by not keeping track of the series of events and knowing about the history and origin of such oppression.
You need to think of the Israeli oppression in the colonial narrative along with a century-long history of it, instead of only talking about the daily-basis powerful and dehumanizing brutality of the oppressor and the fragile resistance of the oppressed.
Similarly, when you think of an attack by a terrorist organization anywhere in the world, it is not enough to simply condemn it but it is incumbent to see and assess the history and origin of these terrorist wings to understand the problem holistically as responsible and educated citizens of modern nation-states.
I ask why all these terrorist organizations emerge from places of war and not from others? Why did the Taliban emerge as a byproduct of the Afghan War, and the ISIS of the Iraq War, and the Hamas of the Israeli oppression?
We need to understand the importance of main stakeholders and their motives in these wars instead of simply buying the “Islamic terrorism” narrative uncritically, as most western media organizations sell it in the recent uprising of Israeli violence in Palestine.
The “territorial” claims and the brutality of these terrorist groups are also “modern” and lethal from all humanitarian and religious perspectives, but again let us also ask why, when, how, and where they emerged for what purposes?
In short, we see how the narratives of resistance, war, and terrorism are linked to each other. Not only that, but such narratives also restrict people from being themselves because there is so much fuss about religion, particularly Islam, instead of any sincere attempts to understand the root causes of these terrors and brutalities.
Read more: Fueling religious fires
The writer is a Master’s in Theological Studies candidate at Harvard Divinity School and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.