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Why Do People Call Us Terrorists?


By Professor Nazeer Ahmed

(Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is the Director of the American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, located at 1160 Ridgemont Place, Concord, CA 94521. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is a thinker, author, writer, legislator and an academician. Professionally he is an Engineer and holds several Patents in Engineering. He is the author of several books; prominent among them is "Islam in Global History."  He can be reached by )

“We believe that Allah is the Creator and Sustainer of all the worlds”, the voice of the little Indonesian girl was sincere, almost pleading. “Our Prophet was sent as mercy to all creation. We are a people who love peace. Then, why do people call us terrorists?”

The occasion was a recent visit to a pesentran (a village madrassah) on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia. The children had lovingly organized a reception for a delegation of international scholars, ministers, princes and dignitaries, assembled to discuss the issues of extremism and civil society in modern Islam. In attendance also were observers from some of the major NGOs and think tanks in Washington, DC.

It was a serene, almost bucolic environment. The open reception area was surrounded by tall palm trees. Tropical birds provided a counterpoint to the hymns of the children. And then the serenity of the night was shattered by a question that thrust up the raging conflicts of the modern world into the consciousness of the little children as well as the dignitaries who had gathered to come to terms with them.

As background material for our readers, the pesentrans are residential boarding schools in rural Indonesia and constitute the largest, private system of education in the world. They are run by the Nahdatul Ulema in Indonesia which has a membership of over forty million. More than a million students attend the pesentrans and receive both religious and science education. They are supported by private waqfs and local citizen donations. The Nahda has shunned the trappings of political power (although they do have political influence) and has studiously avoided extremist ideologies in favor of a moderate, spiritual Islam. Focusing on the poor, forgotten children from the rural backwaters of the vast archipelago, the Nahda has built, maintained and managed an educational infrastructure that is the object of envy of many a bungling, non-performing bureaucrat of the world.

Why do people call us terrorists? This is a question as complex as one wants to make it or as simple as one is inclined to believe. But it is a question that no thinking Muslim can sidestep.

When confronted with this accusation, most Muslims go through a ritualistic denial. Some become defensive. Others respond with passion. None of these is an adequate response. A dispassionate self-examination in the context of global fears on terrorism is yet to emerge in the Islamic community.
Let us begin with some undeniable facts. On 9/11 America was attacked. There were more than three thousand civilian casualties, of whom the overwhelming majority was American. Most of the attackers were Saudi nationals. The attack was brutal, premeditated and merciless.

The world has changed dramatically since 9/11. Freedoms around the world have taken a beating in proportion to the rising fears of terrorism. The t-word has been used by many governments to suppress dissent and silence political opposition. There have been wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Positions have hardened. Substantial minorities in Western Europe view Muslims with suspicion. According to a recent survey conducted by Cornell University, fully 43 percent of all Americans favor curtailment of the civil liberties for Muslims in America. In turn, a general distrust of the West, and of the United States in particular, is taking roots in Asia and Africa.

Moderate Muslims must accept some responsibility for this slide towards suspicion and distrust. They remained silent even as the specter of extremism rose like a dark colossus on the Islamic horizon. The platform was abandoned to a small band of extremists who set the agenda for the debate and controlled its outcome.
We will present a historical analysis of the slide towards extremism in the next article. Here, we merely point out the need for a rigorous and honest self-assessment of why extremist groups have surfaced in Muslim body politic.

That a majority of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack came from Saudi Arabia cannot be overlooked in this self-assessment. A large number of questions present themselves. To what extent is Wahhabism, the basis of governance in Saudi Arabia, responsible for the emergence of a violent social archetype? Is it the Wahhabi dogma, which packages religion into neat little compartments of bida’, kufr, shirk and haram? Or, is extremism a reaction to the cultural and political intrusion of the West into the rest of the world? If Wahhabism is responsible for the rise of extremism, then why has it spread into non-Arab Asia?
In the nineteenth century, as European dominance spread across Asia and Africa, the thrust of reform movements was internal. It was considered acceptable to wage jihad against fellow Muslims to rid the society of what were thought to be un-Islamic practices. Uthman Dan Fuduye (d 1812), for instance, waged an incessant armed struggle against the Muslims emirates of West Africa.

However, it was the so-called jihad waged by a reformer in the depths of the Arabian desert that was to prove to be of long-term consequence to the Islamic world. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Shaikh Abdel Wahab of Najd, fired by a zeal to reform the bedouins in the Arabian desert, who he believed had lapsed into un-Islamic practices, waged a jihad. Rejected by his neighbors, his fortunes improved when he married into and formed an alliance with the Saudi ruling family. His raids into neighboring territories brought him face to face with the Ottomans who were the nominal rulers over Arabia. Mohammed Ali, the Ottoman viceroy of Cairo, dispatched an army from Medina and contained the Wahhabis.

A hundred years later, the First World War saw the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. It was broken up and its pieces were swallowed up by the European powers. One of the British objectives in the Great War was the dissolution of the Khilafat or its movement away from Istanbul to a more controllable location. When the Khilafat was dissolved by Turks themselves (1924), the deck was clear for bolder political moves. Saudi armies moved into Hijaz in 1925 and the cities of Mecca and Medina was brought under Saudi control.

An immediate Wahhabi onslaught on the historical edifice of traditional Islam began. The graves of the Suhaba which had stood the test of time for more than thirteen hundred years were leveled. The dome of the Prophet’s mosque, and his very grave, were saved, from last minute demolition, thanks to the protests from Muslims around the globe.

But Saudi Arabia was a poor country at the time, dependant to a large extent on income from the hajis and donations from rich Muslims such as the Nizam of Hyderabad. The economic paradigm changed as the export of oil picked up momentum after the Second World War. By 1960, thanks to its oil largesse, Saudi Arabia was on the global stage, and its voice was heard both in Washington land Moscow.

There began a determined effort on the part of the Saudis to spread their brand of Wahhabi Islam around the globe. Madrassahs and masjids alike, too poor to sustain themselves, appeared in Riyadh and Jiddah, bowls in hand. To their credit, the Saudis helped, pouring billions of dollars into building the infrastructure of education and houses of worship around the globe.

Since the 1960s, the Saudis have made substantial investments into madrasahs and masjids around the globe. While the infusion of oil money did help in the construction of the much needed infrastructure, the price paid was the abandonment of the spiritual Islam that had grown over a thousand years and its replacement by a largely ritualistic, puritanical Islam emphasizing rigidity over flexibility, intolerant to the core, riding roughshod over history and culture alike. Dissent was not tolerated. Contempt for other religious traditions was openly expressed by word and in print. The result was the creation of a religious edifice without spirit, a body without soul. Into this spiritual vacuum, the extremists walked in, hoisting their political agendas, creating mayhem around the globe.

Moderate Muslims tolerated the rise of this dark colossus for almost fifty years. Indeed, many were willing to sell their services to this historical madness for pittance.

America was not spared the reach of Wahhabism and its offshoots. The debate here was not just between sufi and salafi. The debate was also between moderate salafis and radical salafis. Generous funds flowed from the Gulf to the New World to assist and co-opt selected masajid into havens for radical salafis.

The wind shifted in the 1990s. Successive Gulf wars have impoverished the nations of the Middle East. Today, Saudi beggars are a common sight in the Gulf. The rising armies of unemployed and unemployable youth provide fertile recruiting grounds for the radical salafis.

To explain a complex issue to a little girl in Indonesia was not easy. When she asked why they call us terrorists, we simply said: they call us terrorists because the rest of us did not speak up.


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