Written 7 April 2008. Posted here 1 June 2010.
Many Muslims complain when the phrase "Muslim terrorist" is used in the media. They correctly point out that people committing terrorism to separate Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom were called "IRA terrorists" or "Irish terrorists" but not Catholic terrorists. Why is this complaint made, and is it valid?
As an aside, my 1971 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines terrorist as "Any one who attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation." It illustrates this with references to the French terror under the Jacobins (which is the origin of the political use of the term) and mentions the extreme revolutionary societies in (Tsarist) Russia. When it was compiled, I suspect the phrase "Muslim terrorist" was unknown.
The reasons for the complaint are obvious. Like almost all (though sadly not all) Muslims, I condemn terrorism. The phrase "Muslim terrorist" risks giving the impression that Islam itself is in some way associated with terrorism. The enemies of Islam are of course only too keen to foster such an impression.
However, in my view the complaint is invalid.
The terrorists fighting the British in Northern Ireland were motivated by Irish nationalism, not by their Roman Catholic religion. That is quite clear from their speeches and writings. There is no reason why Irish atheists, or indeed Irish Protestants (although I am not aware of any actually in the IRA) could not be wholehearted members of the IRA. If you read the IRA entry in Wikipedia you find a group motivated by nationalism, not by religion. It just so happened that the native Irish were Catholic while the settlers transplanted by the British were Protestant so the nationalist / settler divide was mirrored by a Catholic / Protestant divide.
For many decades the world has experienced terrorism carried out by Palestinians. The media has consistently referred to "Palestinian terrorism" notwithstanding the fact that most Palestinians are Muslims. Similarly terrorism conducted by Kurds in Turkey is called "Kurdish terrorism" in the media even though almost all Kurds are Muslims.
When Muslims resident in Britain commit, or seek to commit, terrorist acts we need analysis before deciding what name to give them. We need to know what motivates them, for what cause they are attempting to "fight" and name them accordingly. To determine their motivation, we have to listen to what they say, unless we believe that they are lying.
The leader of the 7 July 2005 bombers was Mohammad Sidique Khan who made a pre-suicide videotape; the link takes you to the text of the video. I don't believe that a man recording a video before committing suicide will lie about his motivation and have selected the following extract:
"Our religion is Islam - obedience to the one true God, Allah, and following the footsteps of the final prophet and messenger Muhammad... This is how our ethical stances are dictated. Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters."
His videotape states clearly that he was motivated by his religious beliefs and not by some other aspects of his identity. We all have multiple identities; I am simultaneously British, Mancunian, Punjabi, Pakistani, Muslim, Conservative and Cantabrigian amongst others. Different aspects of my identity come to the fore in different contexts. Mohammad Sidique Khan's statement makes it clear that he was motivated primarily by his religious beliefs and not by some other aspect of his identity.
The same is true of the only other bomber in that conspiracy to record a suicide videotape, Shehzad Tanweer. I am confident it is also true of the failed 21 July 2005 conspirators, and others, although I have not attempted to gather evidence.
Some argue that people who commit these crimes cannot possibly be Muslims. Most (but sadly not all) Muslims would agree that in committing the mass murder of innocent people on the London Underground the bombers violated the most fundamental teachings of Islam.
This is not the place for a detailed theological discussion of "takfir", the process of declaring that someone has ceased to be a Muslim due to their conduct or beliefs. However, in the eyes of the world someone who adheres to the Shahada (the declaration of belief), prays regularly, eats only halal food, and goes on Hajj is a Muslim. None of us who might have met Mohammad Sidique Khan or Shehzad Tanweer before they blew themselves up would have dreamt of arguing that they were not Muslims.
To conclude, someone who commits terrorism because he is motivated by his Islamic religious beliefs, and is not motivated by some other cause, is a "Muslim terrorist" notwithstanding the incorrectness of his understanding of Islam. Conversely, if he is motivated by some other cause, then he needs to be labelled accordingly; for example "Palestinian terrorist."
While I have not attempted a survey, from my casual reading of the quality press I think that most of the time the press gets this distinction correct. Instead of complaining about the term "Muslim terrorist" we need to think about how to get British Muslims more engaged in the political process so that the Muslim voice is better heard in the corridors of power.