It’s Time to Call Islamic Extremism What It Is
On November 27, 2008, Fahad Ullah and Mohammed Altaf were barricaded in the Oberoi Trident Hotel in Mumbai. They were two of 10 perpetrators of the Mumbai massacre of 166 people. In transcripts of their phone conversations with their Lashker E-Taibe leaders back in Pakistan who had planned the attack, Fahad and Mohammed were instructed to keep killing people. “Inflict maximum damage, don’t be taken alive…kill the hostages, except the two Muslims, keep your phone switched on so that we can hear the gunfire.” These tapes are macabre at its worst.
In addition to the hotel, other attackers targeted a Chabad house, killing Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and Rivka Holtzberg. One of those murdered was the mother of a friend of mine. The difference between life and death that day was a question of faith. Muslims lived, everyone else died. Similar attacks in Kenya, Mali and elsewhere have victimized non-Muslims specifically, or sects of Muslims, such as Shia. In the worst cases, ISIS slaughtered thousands of Yezidis in Iraq and enslaved thousands of women.
Behind all the narratives about terrorist attacks by the Islamic State, there is a tendency to claim that this group and others like it have hijacked the Islamic faith. If we don’t blame all musicians for Ted Nugent’s antics, as one meme asks, why should we blame all Muslims for ISIS? If we don’t blame all white people for the KKK, how can one stereotype Muslims for Paris?
These are worthy points, but there is a difference between blaming everyone and purposely avoiding the nature of what underpins Islamic extremism. No one denies that the Inquisition was carried out by Catholics or that the KKK was motivated by racist white supremacy. Did the KKK merely hijack “whiteness” — and did Tomas de Torquemada only hijack otherwise peaceful Catholicism?
If we do not label the terrorists as Islamic extremists, we do a disservice to combating them. It may be true that 99 percent of Muslims have no connection to radical extremist groups. That was also true of the number of people involved in the Inquisition or lynchings by the KKK. Small minorities of extremists, given sufficient support in a wider society, are responsible for most of the world’s crimes, whether it is ethnic genocide or religious right-wing extremism.
When the Islamic State rode into the town of Sinjar last year and beheaded elderly men and women, it did so based on its religious extremist views. If any other group had done the same thing, whether right-wing Christian militias such as the Phalange in Lebanon massacring Palestinians at Sabra and Shatilla, or Buddhist extremist monks on a rampage against Rohingya in Burma, we would call it out for its religious extremist attributes. Only with Islamic extremism is there a feeling of a need to tread lightly.
This is doing a disservice to victims. Many Shia, Ahmadi, and other Muslim communities have been a target of this extremism. Shia scholars call this a “takfir” ideology, an ideology that targets other Muslims who are seen as “unbelievers.” The last decades have seen a rise in this extremism, and ISIS is now showing how alluring this ideology is. Most ISIS volunteers came from Europe by the thousands. They came to the Middle East and butchered, raped, and murdered their way through Syria and Iraq, slaughtering ethnic and religious minorities that had lived there for more than 1,000 years.
If what is needed is a new vocabulary to confront these kinds of organizations, then Islamist extremism is a fair description. There is Jewish extremism and Christian extremism. There is right-wing religious extremism. Only with Islamic extremism is there a hesitancy to deal with the reality. No one pretended that defeating Nazism would have to wait until the German people could struggle against the hijacking of their democracy.
Those like the Islamic State threaten Islamic minorities and non-Muslim minorities; they blow up ancient shrines and erase cultural heritage. So long as people are being murdered in the name of religion, the whole world must step forward, call it what it is, and say that there will be no more Yezidi massacres, no more selling of people into slavery for religious reasons. If we can confront the historical prejudices of the Inquisition, the Crusades, or white supremacy, we can confront this extremism as well.