A personal response to answering Islamic terrorism

INTERVIEWS  |  Anne Lim

Thursday 14 April 2016

The love of Jesus is the only way to break the cycle of fear and fighting in answering radical Islam, says Nabeel Qureshi, an American-born author and academic who became a Christian in the wake of the September 11, 2001, twin tower bombings.

Raised as a devout Muslim in the United States, Qureshi grew up studying Islamic apologetics with his family and engaging Christians in religious discussions. After a discussion with a Christian at his university, the two became friends and began a years-long debate on the historical claims of Christianity and Islam. Nabeel chronicled his journey in his first book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, which became a New York Times bestseller.

Now a global speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, he has lectured at more than 100 universities, and participated in 18 moderated, public debates in North America, Europe, and Asia.

He holds an MD from Eastern Virginia Medical School, an MA in Christian apologetics from Biola University, and an MA in religion from Duke University. At present he is studying Judaism and Christianity at Oxford, pursuing his doctorate in New Testament Studies. He divides his time between Atlanta and Oxford with his wife and baby daughter.

In his latest book, Answering Jihad, Qureshi explores what jihad is, how it relates to ISIS and Islamic terrorism today, and the most appropriate reaction for Christian believers.

Q: How did September 11, 2001, change your thoughts on jihad?

Nabeel Qureshi

Nabeel Qureshi

A: On September 11, I was confronted for the first time with the stark reality of jihad. It was not as if I had never heard of jihad before; I certainly had, but I knew it as a defensive effort buried deep in the pages of Islamic history. That is how our imams alluded to jihad, and we never questioned it. As American Muslims we rarely, if ever, thought about jihad. When the twin towers fell, the eyes of the nation turned to American Muslims for an explanation. I sincerely believe September 11 was a greater shock for American Muslims like my family than for the average American. Not only did we newly perceive our lack of security from jihadists, as did everyone else, we also faced a latent threat of retaliation from would-be vigilantes. It felt as if we were hemmed in on all sides. In the midst of this, while mourning our fallen compatriots and considering our own security, we had to defend the faith we knew and loved. We had to assure everyone that Islam was a religion of peace, just as we had always known. I remember hearing a slogan at my mosque that I shared with many: “The terrorists who hijacked the planes on September 11 also hijacked Islam.”

Q: This led you to studying the history of Islam, in which you discovered a lot of violence in what you were taught was the “religion of peace.” How did you respond to that?

A: After years of investigation, I had to face the reality. There is a great deal of violence in Islam, even in the very foundations of the faith, and it is not all defensive. Quite to the contrary, if the traditions about the prophet of Islam are in any way reliable, then Islam glorifies violent jihad arguably more than any other action a Muslim can take. This conclusion led me to a three-pronged fork in the road. Either I could become an apostate and leave Islam, grow apathetic and ignore the prophet, or become “radicalised” and obey him. The alternative of simply disregarding Muhammad’s teachings and continuing as a devout Muslim was not an option in my mind, nor is it for most Muslims, since to be Muslim is to submit to Allah and to follow Muhammad. Apostasy, apathy, or radicalisation; those were my choices.

Q: Are there different kinds of followers of Islam?

A: Muslims interpret Muhammad’s teachings very differently, often along partisan lines of authoritative interpreters and cultural boundaries. That is why, in very broad strokes, Shia Islam looks different from Sunni Islam, why Bosnian Islam looks different from Saudi Islam, why folk Islam in the outlands of Yemen looks different from scholarly Islam in the halls of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Although the core of Islam is centred on the person of Muhammad in seventh century Arabia, the expression of Islam reflects local customs. That is one reason why it is important to remember that Islam is not primarily a religion of Arabs. The country with the most Muslims in the world is Indonesia, followed by Pakistan, India, and then Bangladesh. None of those nations are Arab, and local customs manage to find their way into Islamic expression. In addition, no two Muslims are exactly alike, and that is another reason why the expression of Islam is so varied. My sister and I were raised in the same denomination by the same parents, but her practice and interpretation of Islam looks very different from how mine looked. Her leanings were far more Western and pluralist than were mine. I was more interested in learning about Muhammad and his teachings than she was, while she was more interested in American pop culture than I was.

Q: What’s the difference between Islam and Muslims?

A: Especially because of the great diversity of Islamic expression, it bears repeating that Islam is not Muslims, and Muslims are not Islam. Though Muslims are adherents of Islam, and Islam is the worldview of Muslims, the two are not the same, as too many uncritically want to believe. On one end of the spectrum, many assume that if the Quran teaches something then all Muslims believe it. That is false. Many Muslims have not heard of a given teaching, some might interpret it differently, and others may frankly do their best to ignore it. For example, even if we were to demonstrate through careful hermeneutics that the Quranic injunction to beat disobedient wives (4:34) is meant to apply to all Muslims today, it would still have zero bearing in my family. My father will not beat my mother. On the other end of the spectrum, criticism of Islam is often taken to be criticism of Muslims. That is equally false. One can criticise the Quranic command to beat disobedient wives without criticising Muslims. Islam is not Muslims, and one can criticise Islam while affirming and loving Muslims.

Q: What does it means that Islam is a religion of peace?

A: In our Islamic community, we were taught that the “surrender” of Islam was a submission of one’s will and life to God, which I would argue is noble and does not connote violence. But to contend that the word “Islam” signifies peace in the absence of violence is incorrect. “Islam” signifies a peace after violence, or under the threat of it. According to Islamic tradition, that is how Muhammad himself used the word. His warning to neighbouring tribes is famous: Aslim taslam, “Surrender and you will have peace.” It was a play on words, as aslim also connotes becoming Muslim: “Convert, and you will have safety through surrender.” So the word “Islam” refers to the peace that comes from surrender. Peaceful Muslim communities today present that imagery as a spiritual peace with Allah, but records of Muhammad’s life indicate that the notion of submission was also used in military contexts.

Q: You believe that the implication that Islam is a religion devoid of violence is simply false?

A: Yes. The frequent proclamations by leaders and media members of Islam’s peacefulness may be well-intended, but more is needed than good intentions. Instead, we must open our eyes and not allow ourselves to remain blind to evident facts in our attempts to either protect or sway Muslims. Though violence is writ large throughout the pages of Islamic history, including in its foundations, that does not mean our Muslim neighbours are violent. Muslims deserve to be treated with the kindness and respect due to all people. This intrinsic worth means we need not distort the truth about Islam to respect Muslims.

Q: Why would a person move from moderate Islam to radical Islam?

A: There is a consistent thread running through each and every example of such radicalisation. The radicalised Muslims were explicitly introduced to violent traditions of early Islam, they became convinced of their authenticity, and they intentionally chose to follow them

Whatever the additional factors might be, however, the foundations and history of the religion do more than simply enable the use of violence for Islamic dominance; they command it. Nevertheless, most Muslims in the world are not violent people because of the centuries of tradition and layers of interpretation that separate them from their foundational texts. That is why I hope to also explain their perspectives, so we can understand our Muslim neighbours and show them the love and compassion that all people deserve, devoid of unwarranted fear and mistrust.

Q: What’s the best way to view jihad, as we live in context with Muslim neighbours and friends, and with increasing numbers of Muslim refugees arriving?

A: We must be careful not to slide down the slippery slope of assuming every Muslim is a threat. Of the thousands of Muslims I have known in my personal life, only one has become radicalised to the point of explicitly supporting violence, and none have actually undertaken violent jihad. It is wrong to paint all Muslims with the same brush; we need to see them as individuals, the vast majority of whom just wish to live life, take care of their families, and peacefully honour God … There is certainly a first step in responding well to radical Islam, whether individually or collectively. We must understand it for what it is.

Q: Does the idea of jihad have violent roots in Islam?

A: Yes. Although the average Muslim agrees that the Quran and hadith are the ultimate basis of their faith, many have not critically read either and would be surprised to find violent, offensive jihad shot through the foundations of Islam. The Quranic revelations reflect the development in Muhammad’s life as he moved from a peaceful trajectory to a violent one, culminating in Surah 9 of the Quran, chronologically the last major chapter of the Quran and its most expansively violent teaching. Surah 9 is a command to disavow all treaties with polytheists and to subjugate Jews and Christians so that Islam may “prevail over every faith.” The scope of violence has no clear limits, so it’s fair to wonder whether any non-Muslims in the world are immune from being attacked, subdued, or assimilated under this command. Muslims must fight, according to this final Surah of the Quran, and if they do not, then their faith is called into question and they are counted among the hypocrites. If they do fight, they are promised one of two rewards, either spoils of war or heaven through martyrdom. Allah has made a bargain with the mujahid who obeys: Kill or be killed in battle, and paradise awaits.

Q: Where did “radical” Islam come from?

A: If we consider the words of the founders of the movement, radical Islam was born out of a frustration with the political inferiority of modern Muslim nations to Western and Eastern superpowers, especially in light of the Quranic promise that Allah will grant victory to those who strive for him. Radical Muslims believe another Golden Age awaits Muslims who are devoted to following the true teachings of Islam, and they are zealous to bring this about and see the glory of Islam restored. Radical Islam, then, grows out of an understanding that the average expression of Islam today is too far removed from the teachings of Muhammad and the Quran. Adherents often consider moderate Muslims to be apostates because of their lack of zeal for the original teachings of Islam. To summarise: radical Islam is a devout, literal adherence to the foundational texts of Islam, including faith in its promises.

Q: Where has ISIS come from and what are they trying to accomplish? Are they connected with Al-Qaida or Boko Haram?

A: Al-Qaida, ISIS, and Boko Haram are interconnected, and they all interpret and conduct their politics through the lens of their religious beliefs. There is no denying that each group has political aims, but these aims are grounded in a religious worldview, and their actions are driven by religious principles and motives. Each group sees themselves as champions of true Islam, applying their views on the canvas of global politics for the sake of Muslim societies. Their practice of Islam places relatively greater emphasis on the foundational texts of the faith than does the practice of more moderate Muslims. Their methods are based on the writings of Sayyid Qutb, whose teachings were almost entirely derived from the Quran, and Abd al-Salam Faraj, who focused on the life of Muhammad in addition to the Quran. When leaders and media members insist that these groups are not Islamic, they are either speaking out of ignorance or intentionally engaging in propaganda. These three groups are dynamic expressions of the modern Islamic reformation, and their interpretations of the Quran and hadith, in terms of being devoid of accreted tradition, are among the most pure in the Islamic world.

Q: Do you believe that Muslims want to take over the West with sharia?

A: I would be quick to answer, “No, but…”. “No,” because the question implies a conspiracy among the average Muslim immigrant, as if all Muslims were part of a ploy to take over the West. That is untrue and ludicrous. In my experience, Muslims immigrants are simply trying to live life as best as they know how, as are all of us. For the vast majority, imposing sharia does not even enter their minds. “But…” because many Muslims do entertain romantic notions of sharia and Islamic dominance. The Golden Age of Islam appeals to many hearts, and in the minds of most Muslims it is nebulously connected to sharia. Yet as Muslims in Egypt loudly declared through the swift ousting of their elected Muslim Brotherhood president, the average Muslim might not know what sharia really looks like.

Q: How do you think we should handle the thousands of Syrian refugees wanting to find solace in the West?

A: Muslims are coming to the West, and they are bringing their culture and values with them. My encouragement to those who fear Muslim immigration is that we should engage immigrants with love and friendship, sharing our views and our lives with one another. Part of the reason why Muslims immigrants in the West can become radicalised, as with Sayyid Qutb and more recently Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, is that Westerners do not help them to understand our culture and do not provide them with appealing ways of navigating it. Segregating ourselves from those immigrants with whom we disagree only encourages further disagreements and misunderstandings. Instead of fearing Muslim immigrants, we should embrace them and be the element of love and change we wish to see. I suggest friendship rather than fear as a better way forward.

Q: What do you think is the best way we should answer jihad?

A: By being proactive, not reactive. It means living life with people who might be different from us. It means stepping out of our comfort zone and loving people unconditionally, perhaps even loving our enemies. Fear will not work, as it will only alienate those we might hope to impact. Our fear is also positive reinforcement for terrorist activities, as creating fear is a goal of terrorism. Fighting won’t work either, but will further embolden the radical and convict them that their cause is just. Plus, terrorist groups like ISIS want us to fight back. Their hope is that they can sufficiently anger the world so that we will fight them on the field of Dabiq, ushering in the end of the world, as Muhammad’s tradition foretells. Fear and fighting both fuel the radical fires. We need something that breaks the cycle, and I think that can only be love. Not love as wistfully envisioned by teenagers and songwriters, but love as envisioned by Jesus, a decision to put the needs and concerns of others above our own, even at the cost of our own.

My suggestion is that we engage Muslims proactively with love and friendship while simultaneously acknowledging the truth about Islam. This is not the final step in answering jihad, but it is the correct first step, and it offers a better way forward.

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