commentary

(Ethics Newsline, a publication of the Institute for Global Ethics)

December 8, 2008

The Backlash Against Terror

by Seth G. Jones

The recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, are part of a disturbing trend across the Muslim world of groups that target civilians in the name of Islam. Less visible to Western eyes, but potentially just as significant, is a growing backlash among Muslims who condemn such attacks as unethical.

The Mumbai perpetrators arrived by boat and launched small-arms assaults over a two-mile radius against civilian targets: several prominent hotels, a café, a hospital, a Jewish Center, the city's main commuter rail station, and a range of smaller targets. Sajjad Karim, a British member of the European Parliament, was at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel when a gunman burst into the hotel foyer. "He was standing there with a big automatic machine-gun type of weapon," Karim said. "And he just lifted it up and started firing it at us." The senselessness of the act was incomprehensible.

But the attacks should not be viewed in isolation. They are part of a broader array of terrorist incidents that have jolted India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and numerous other countries. Terrorism is so pervasive across South Asia and the Near East that the region accounts for 87 percent of all attacks globally that led to casualties, according to a study by the U.S. government's National Counterterrorism Center in early 2008.

One of the results of this wave, however, is a growing debate within the Muslim community about terrorism and the ethics of targeting civilians. There appears to be renewed acceptance of the principle that such activity is fundamentally unethical and immoral.

In India, throngs of Muslims have demonstrated against the attacks, holding aloft banners with slogans such as "Killers of Innocents are Enemies of Islam." Several Muslim clerics harshly condemned the Mumbai attacks, including Maulana Abul Irfan Mian Farangi Mahali, a prominent cleric from the northern city of Lucknow. He stated that the terrorists should not be called legitimate followers of any religion, including Islam, and that terrorism is an act of cowardice. Killing innocent civilians of any faith is unethical and cannot be justified in Islam or any religion.

In addition, Mumbai's top Muslim clerics vowed to block the burial of the nine attackers killed during the fighting with Indian forces, declaring their acts an affront to Islam. "Such demons — they will not find an inch of land in any Muslim cemetery," remarked Maulana Sayed Moinuddin Ahsraf, secretary of the All-India Sunni Jamiat-ulema.

This backlash also has begun to confound al Qa'ida. One of the most prominent critics of al Qa'ida and its practices is Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, better known as Dr. Fadl. He is the former leader of the Egyptian terrorist group al Jihad and was a close associate of al Qa'ida's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In late 2007, in a major break with the past, Dr. Fadl published a book from his prison cell in Egypt calling for an end to jihad in the West and in Muslim countries. "We are prohibited from committing aggression," he wrote.

In his book, Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World, Dr. Fadl argues that "there is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property." He characterizes terrorism as unethical and illegal under Islamic law, and contends that the "blowing up of hotels, buildings, and public transportation" is not permitted under Islam.

This backlash from Dr. Fadl and a handful of Muslim clerics has not been confined to a few prominent figures. Public opinion polls suggest a notable — and growing — support base for this wave within the Muslim world. Polling data from a 2008 report released by the Pew Research Center shows declining support among Muslims for both terrorism and al Qa'ida. Since 2002, there has been a major decline in the percentage of respondents saying that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians are justified to defend Islam from its enemies. In 2002, for example, three-quarters of Lebanese Muslims said such attacks could often or sometimes be justified. Today, only one-third say they can be justified.

Opinions about Osama bin Laden have followed a similar trend. Three years ago, nearly two-thirds of Jordanian Muslims voiced at least some confidence in the al Qa'ida leader. Today, just 19 percent have a positive view of him. In 2003, 20 percent of Lebanese Muslims and 15 percent of Turkish Muslims had positive views of bin Laden. Today, bin Laden's ratings have plummeted to 3 percent in Turkey and 2 percent in Lebanon.

The extent of any backlash, however, is unclear. The voices of Muslims who denounce terrorism have received scant attention in the Western press. And it is apparent that many who may wish to publicly denounce terrorism have not, fearing retribution. Prominent clerics in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, have been killed for publicly condemning the Taliban as unethical and un-Islamic for targeting civilians.

Nevertheless, the trend is unmistakable. The attacks in Mumbai offer a window of opportunity for people from all religions to condemn terrorism in all of its forms as unethical and contrary to basic human dignity. And given their excessive gruesomeness, these recent attacks may ironically make it easier for ordinary Muslims to condemn those who to try to hijack Islam to further their extremist agendas.


From time to time Ethics Newsline® publishes timely guest commentaries. This week's piece comes to us from Seth G. Jones, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and author, most recently, of In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan (W.W. Norton, forthcoming). Dr. Jones recently returned from several weeks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This commentary originally appeared on Ethics Newsline, a publication of the Institute for Global Ethics on December 8, 2008.