Several mistakes are easy to make. There is also a right way to go about it.
Posted 5 February 2023
Probably since 9 September 2001, and certainly since 7 July 2005, I have observed many Muslims struggling to find an appropriate way of talking about terrorism committed by other Muslims.
If a Muslims gets this wrong, as well as damaging their own reputation, they also end up damaging the way that Islam is seen by non-Muslims.
Accordingly I recently wrote an article about how to do it wrong, and right, for the Islam & Liberty Network. You can read it below.
At the end of my article “Why does Islam have such a terrible reputation?” I promised that my next ILN post would answer the question “What can we, as individual Muslims who care about the reputation of Islam, do to improve the position?”
Sadly, procrastination affects all of us. Also, I have realised that my question was too big to be answered by a single post. Since I consider terrorism to be the largest single cause of Islam’s poor reputation, this article focuses entirely on how to talk about it.
My personal experience started shortly after the 7 July 2005 London bombings. At that time, as a member of the UK PricewaterhouseCoopers Supervisory Board, I was the most senior Muslim in the firm. A group of PwC Muslim staff contacted me, wanting to put out a statement within the firm disassociating themselves from the 7/7 bombers.
Instead, I spoke with the UK Senior Partner to explain how the firm’s Muslim staff felt. He then published a voicemail to all UK personnel explaining how mortified PwC Muslims felt. He asked PwC’s non-Muslim staff to show sympathy to their Muslim colleagues who were feeling terrible. This message from the Senior Partner had a much more positive impact than any statement that PwC Muslims could have put out themselves.
Since then, I have regularly observed how Muslims often get their communications wrong. When I was Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, I also had to write statements myself after particularly serious acts of terrorism. I provide two examples.
A good definition of terrorism is unlawful violence carried out by non-state actors pursuing political or ideological goals. That means terrorists always have goals. If they don’t (for example an angry man shooting co-workers) then it is not terrorism.
However, after your relatives, friends, or fellow countrymen have been killed, you don’t want to hear instant analysis before you hear anything else.
After the 7/7 bombings, the Muslim Council of Britain in my opinion seriously harmed its reputation by being too quick to talk about British foreign policy as a motivating factor without first laying out the groundwork of strong, unequivocal, condemnation for an extended period prior to raising any analytical questions.
When someone declares the shahada, prays, fasts, reads the Quran, they are clearly a Muslim no matter how evil they might be. Claiming that the terrorists are not Muslims (and therefore nothing to do with you) merely damages your own credibility.
Indeed, contending that the terrorists are not Muslims merely invites your listener to compare the terrorists’ religiosity levels to your own, decide that the terrorists are more “authentically Muslim”, and then conclude that Islam really does encourage terrorism since the most “authentic Muslims” are the terrorists.
I have seen some non-Muslims, typically anti-Muslim bigots, take this line in their writings.
Many Muslims wrongly think that if they concede that the terrorists are motivated by their understanding of Islam, that is tantamount to accepting that Islam promotes terrorism.
While anti-Muslim bigots regularly assert precisely that, knowledgeable non-Muslim political leaders do not. For example, Prime Minister Tony Blair was, and still is, categorical that the terrorists have a perverted understanding of Islam. (I still remember hearing some silly Muslims in the media criticising Tony Blair for expressing an opinion about Islam while being a non-Muslim, rather than simply saying that they strongly agreed with him! That is another example of how Muslims themselves regularly damage the reputation of Islam.)
When you deny that the terrorists are motivated by their understanding of Islam, you look as if you are trying to hide something bad about Islam.
You also damage your own credibility because your listener can watch the terrorists themselves saying in their video recordings how Islam motivates them.
The phrase is undoubtedly true. Islam as understood by me and by many other Muslims is a religion of peace. However, that is not how Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other Muslim groups think about Islam.
Use of the phrase merely invites derision. Indeed, there is a website promoting strongly anti-Muslim views which calls itself TheReligionofPeace.com
I recommend spending just a few minutes glancing at it. If you are going to talk positively about Islam, it helps to know what your most extreme opponents are saying.
This response has a formal name and its history is set out in the Wikipedia article “Whataboutism”.
Trying to change the subject in this way always makes you look worse, and Islam look worse.
This requires serious, but perfectly manageable effort. I recommend reading two books, both by authors who I know personally:
Afterwards, you will be equipped to talk about the subject with credibility.
One of the key things you will learn is that this understanding of Islam is a new twentieth century concept rather than something deeply embedded in the history of Islam. I made this point in my talk at Brigham Young University in Utah: “Do Muslim religious texts cause religious persecution?”
In passing, the title I chose for my talk demonstrates the importance of not shying away from challenging questions.
After a serious terrorist incident, unequivocal condemnation is the first thing that your interlocutor needs to hear from you.
I have illustrated this with two statements that I wrote on behalf of the Conservative Muslim Forum immediately after terrorist attacks.
Attack on the Paris offices of French magazine “Charlie Hebdo” yesterday [ January 2015]
CMF statement: The terrorist bombing in Manchester [May 2017]
The evening of the Charlie Hebdo attack, I wrote a piece “Charlie Hebdo – Condemnation is necessary but not sufficient” which the Conservative Home website published the following day. The link takes you to the same article on my website where it is accompanied by some additional material.
Similarly, three days after the November 2015 Paris attacks, I wrote another piece for the Conservative Home website “It is not enough for Muslim organisations simply to condemn terrorism.” Again, I have linked to the piece on my own website. In passing, you can see that my views have been consistent over the last seven years!
Remind your listener that most people killed by Muslim terrorists are other Muslims. People like yourself are hated by the terrorists for your liberalism, since for them no Muslim is ever a “good enough” Muslim.
This helps to change the focus so that terrorism committed by Muslims is not seen simply as a conflict between Islam and the rest of the world, but rather as a conflict inside Islam between Muslims with awful views, and the overwhelming majority of Muslims who do not share those views.
Mohammed Amin is Chairman of the Islam & Liberty Network Council. He is writing in a personal capacity.
The text below is copied from my page "Simply condemning terrorism by Muslims is not enough." Obviously space constraints precluded my reproducing it in the article as published by the Islam & Liberty Network, although I did link to the page.
I have a simple challenge for Muslim organisations and Muslim leaders.
What are you doing to:
- Encourage British Muslims to join the police, the armed forces and the security services?
- Teach young Muslims to treat Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, atheists etc as full equal members of society entitled to exactly the same level of respect as given to fellow Muslims?
- Teach young Muslims that religious practice is a matter between the individual and God, and no Muslim has the right to denounce another for being “insufficiently Muslim” or worse still to contend that someone who self-describes as a Muslim is outside the religion? (This is known as “takfir”, is widely practised by ISIL and provides their religious justification for killing other people who self-describe as Muslims.)
- Respect people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender as full equal members of society?
- Encourage British Muslims to join non-religiously based civil society organisations such as mainstream political parties, The National Trust, The Women’s Institute etc. so that they associate regularly with people of all religious backgrounds rather than spending all their free time with other Muslims?
- Teach young Muslims that Britain is a wonderful country in which to be a Muslim and that Britain is not at war with Islam or with Muslims?
If you are not actively doing this, in my opinion you are part of the problem. Passive indifference to the 95 per cent of our wider society which is non-Muslim is not enough.
We all have to promote cohesion and to immunise our young people against being radicalised. Sadly too many parents only face up to the reality of radicalisation after their son or daughter has gone off to Syria to join ISIS. Even worse are the small number of those parents who actually regard such sons or daughters as heroes and not as children who have been duped into a death cult.