Friday, April 26, 2013

Terrorism by American Muslims -- What the American Muslim Community Can Do

This is a draft of my khutba (sermon) for this afternoon.
(After the traditional liturgical opening).

Assessing Our Responsibility

Every act of illegal aggression perpetrated by Muslims is painful to other Muslims. The terrorist attack at the Boston marathon was a particularly painful event for me personally, and I suspect for many others, because the profiles of the two brothers who almost certainly committed these heinous crimes is so familiar. The younger brother's profile, in particular, suggested that even seemingly well integrated and academically successful youth can fall victim to heretical thinking of which Islam is innocent.

It is too facile to focus only on denouncing the act, and denouncing guilt by association -- declaring as we often do, truthfully, that Islam has always condemned such behavior, and that hundreds of millions of Muslims would never approve of, let alone commit, such acts.

The reason that this is too facile can best be seen by contrasting it with the great pride that we take in the great principles of our religion, and the great examples set by the Prophet, his companions, and their successors. If we reject guilt by association, we should obviously also reject credit by association. For, after all, our generation and recent generations of Muslims have done little to deserve much credit in terms of benefit to humankind.

Of course, to the extent that we try to emulate the first generations of Muslims and to apply the principles that they advocated in the modern age, we should deserve some credit for effort. Likewise, to the extent that we may be able to do more to avoid having more Muslims commit acts that are most definitely and extremely un-Islamic, we may not go as far as to say that we deserve blame for these crimes, but we must certainly engage in more soul searching and measurement of our actions and words to minimize the likelihood of repetition of such tragedies.

Islamic Prohibition of Murder, and Emphasized Prohibition of Aggression Toward Civilians with Whom One Has Made a Covenant

Let's begin by reemphasizing, albeit very briefly, the canonical Islamic prohibition against terrorism, focusing especially on such acts being perpetrated on American soil by citizens, legal aliens, or individuals who entered the country lawfully with a proper visa. All such individuals have signed an explicit, not only implicit, contract with society not to engage in any types of crimes -- and murder is recognized by Islam as the worst of crimes, as the Prophet (p) said:

‏ ‏حَدَّثَنَا ‏ ‏عَلِيٌّ ‏ ‏حَدَّثَنَا ‏ ‏إِسْحَاقُ بْنُ سَعِيدِ بْنِ عَمْرِو بْنِ سَعِيدِ بْنِ الْعَاصِ ‏ ‏عَنْ ‏ ‏أَبِيهِ ‏ ‏عَنْ ‏ ‏ابْنِ عُمَرَ ‏ ‏رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمَا ‏ ‏قَالَ ‏ ( ‏قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ‏ ‏صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ‏ ‏لَنْ يَزَالَ الْمُؤْمِنُ فِي فُسْحَةٍ مِنْ دِينِهِ مَا لَمْ يُصِبْ دَمًا حَرَامًا ‏).
(Al-Bukhari narrated On the authority of Ibn Umar (r), the Prophet (p) said: "A believer will always have some leeway - to return to his proper - religion, as long as he does not spill forbidden blood).

This is within the context of the commandment against murder:
وَلَا تَقْتُلُوا النَّفْسَ الَّتِي حَرَّمَ اللَّهُ إِلَّا بِالْحَقِّ
(And do not kill the soul that has been made sacred by Allah outside the context of law enforcement)

Returning to the fact that legal entry into the U.S. constitutes a covenant not to violate laws or take lives, we cite the saying of the Prophet (p):

‏ ‏حَدَّثَنَا ‏ ‏مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ عَبْدِ الْمَلِكِ بْنِ أَبِي الشَّوَارِبِ ‏ ‏حَدَّثَنَا ‏ ‏أَبُو عَوَانَةَ ‏ ‏عَنْ ‏ ‏عَبْدِ الْمَلِكِ بْنِ عُمَيْرٍ ‏ ‏عَنْ ‏ ‏رِفَاعَةَ بْنِ شَدَّادٍ الْقِتْبَانِيِّ ‏ ‏قَالَ ‏ ( ‏لَوْلَا كَلِمَةٌ سَمِعْتُهَا مِنْ ‏ ‏عَمْرِو بْنِ الْحَمِقِ الْخُزَاعِيِّ ‏ ‏لَمَشَيْتُ فِيمَا بَيْنَ رَأْسِ الْمُخْتَارِ وَجَسَدِهِ سَمِعْتُهُ يَقُولُ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ‏ ‏صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ‏ ‏مَنْ أَمِنَ رَجُلًا عَلَى دَمِهِ فَقَتَلَهُ فَإِنَّهُ يَحْمِلُ لِوَاءَ غَدْرٍ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ ‏ ).

(Ibn Majah narrated that the Prophet (p) said: "Whoever feels that his life is safe in the presence of another man, and then that man kills him, then the killer will be carrying a sign of 'traitor' on the day of judgement).

Consequently, the Prophet (p) said that such a killer will be extremely remote from paradise:
‏ ‏حَدَّثَنَا ‏ ‏قَيْسُ بْنُ حَفْصٍ ‏ ‏حَدَّثَنَا ‏ ‏عَبْدُ الْوَاحِدِ ‏ ‏حَدَّثَنَا ‏ ‏الْحَسَنُ بْنُ عَمْرٍو ‏ ‏حَدَّثَنَا ‏ ‏مُجَاهِدٌ ‏ ‏عَنْ ‏ ‏عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ عَمْرٍو ‏ ‏رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمَا ‏ ( ‏عَنْ النَّبِيِّ ‏ ‏صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ‏ ‏قَالَ ‏ ‏مَنْ قَتَلَ مُعَاهَدًا لَمْ يَرِحْ رَائِحَةَ الْجَنَّةِ وَإِنَّ رِيحَهَا تُوجَدُ مِنْ مَسِيرَةِ أَرْبَعِينَ عَامًا ‏).

(Al-Bukhari narrated on the authority of Ibn Amr (r) that the Prophet (p) said: "Whoever kills a person to whom they had given a covenant will never smell the odor of paradise; and the odor of paradise can be smelled from a distance that can be traveled in forty years).

Such murder is the worst kind of violation of covenants, and Allah (s) mandated fulfilling covenants:
{وَأَوْفُواْ بِالْعَهْدِ إِنَّ الْعَهْدَ كَانَ مَسْؤُولاً} سورة الإسراء:34.
(And fulfill your covenants, for you will be accountable for your covenants)

{وَأَوْفُواْ بِعَهْدِ اللّهِ إِذَا عَاهَدتُّمْ وَلاَ تَنقُضُواْ الأَيْمَانَ بَعْدَ تَوْكِيدِهَا وَقَدْ جَعَلْتُمُ اللّهَ عَلَيْكُمْ كَفِيلاً إِنَّ اللّهَ يَعْلَمُ مَا تَفْعَلُونَ} سورة النحل:91
(And fulfill your covenants, which are in fact with Allah, whenever you make any covenants, and never violate your oaths after affirming them, for you have made Allah your guarantor, and Allah knows all that you do)

There are many other Prophetic traditions (Hadiths) that forbid cheating or otherwise acting unfairly toward those with whom we have made covenants.

Terrorist Profile

The canonical proofs of extreme un-Islamicity of illegal behavior are too many to list in our limited time, and every Muslim knows them to some degree. We remind ourselves during sermons because this is the tradition of the Prophet, but also to try to understand what a terrorist may be thinking. 

It is important in this context to note that decades of social-psychological research on terrorism have shown that terrorists are not deranged people or people suffering from PTSD or other psychological disorders. Indeed, terrorist organizations would never recruit such people, because they would not be effective in carrying out their criminal missions and would endanger their co-conspirators.

Instead, the profile of a terrorist that has emerged from research and numerous interviews has shown three components: (1) a strong identity-political identification, be it religious, national, ethnic, or otherwise; (2) a sense of victimization of the group with whom the potential terrorist has identified himself or herself; and (3) a sense of helplessness in trying to address this perceived or real injustice by lawful means.

These traits are common, and difficult to overcome, but terrorists have one more mental mutation that may be avoidable: To commit the unthinkable crime of killing innocent people, including children, requires dehumanization of the victims. Most interviewed terrorists do not recognize that they did anything wrong, because they feel that the people with whom they have identified have been dehumanized and thus victimized, and therefore make the leap to dehumanize their victims.

(After delivering the sermon this afternoon, a gentleman came to me and he said that he agreed with all that I said, and that having served in Vietnam, he wanted to add one more trait to my list: Young men who engage in terrorist activities get a "power high" from destruction. Apparently, it is like a drug that gives a quick and perverse jolt to the pleasure center of the brain... I'll look to see if there is any neuroscience research on this.)

Islamic Teachings to Counter the Terrorist Drive

But Islam teaches that the reaction of the faithful should always be either thankfulness (shukr) when good happens or perseverance and restraint (sabr) when calamity befalls them.  The Qur'an teaches that one should not respond to hatred and victimization with injustice to others:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُونُوا قَوَّامِينَ لِلَّهِ شُهَدَاءَ بِالْقِسْطِ وَلَا يَجْرِمَنَّكُمْ شَنَآنُ قَوْمٍ عَلَى أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا اعْدِلُوا هُوَ أَقْرَبُ لِلتَّقْوَى
(O you have faith, stand fast for Allah as witnesses for justice, and let not the hatred of others prompt you to do injustice; always be just, for that makes you closer to piety)

The Prophet (p) taught that one should never feel so helpless as to give up or transgress:
((المؤمن القوي خيرٌ وأحب إلى الله من المؤمن الضعيف، وفي كلٍ خير، احرص على ما ينفعك، واستعن بالله ولا تعجز، وإن أصابك شيءٌ فلا تقل: لو أني فعلت كذا وكذا وكذا ولكن قل: قدر الله وما شاء فعل، فإن (لو) تفتح عمل الشيطان ))
(Muslim narrated: A strong believer is better and more beloved to Allah from a weak believer, and there is good in each. Always pursue what is of benefit to you and do not despair; and if calamity befalls you, then do not say 'had I done such and such, such and such would have been the case', but say 'Allah has chosen, and whatever He choses He does', because saying "if" [i.e. entertaining counterfactuals] opens the door to the devil)

In this regard, it must be important to remember that strength is in continuing to do good even when others do bad, and to restrain oneself even when angry, as the Prophet (p) said:
ليس الشديد بِالصُّرَعَةِ ، إنما الشديد الذي يملك نفسه عند الغضب
(Al-Bukhari narrated: The strong is not one who can outwrestle his opponent; rather the strong is one who can restrain himself when angry)

What We Can Do

But we know that our congregations and societies will always have weak people, who feel despair and resort to criminal activities that they justify to themselves -- most wrongly -- in the name of religion. Knowing that fact, we should emphasize and reiterate the teachings summarized above. But there is more that we can do:
  1. Obviously, we cannot deny that we feel the pain of other Muslims around the world, or that there are Muslims who are victimized, but we can make sure not to speak of these issues in excessively desperate ways that make weak people feel despair and helplessness. Focus on political, humanitarian, and other positive measures that can be taken as positive channels for dealing with loss and sadness.
  2. We should refrain from disparaging remarks about how politicians or others in our country are not paying attention to Muslim suffering, and repeatedly saying that they pay more attention to (ostensibly) "smaller" calamities at home. First of all, it is natural to focus on what is closer to home, second, all human life is sacred, and not measured in numbers, and third by insinuating that others are dehumanizing Muslims, we help to start those weak people on the road to dehumanizing their neighbors, which allows them to justify criminal un-Islamic behavior as retribution.
  3. We should be open to conducting solid research on what types of speech and organization is conducive to perverse interpretations of religion, and not fall back on familiar historical religious speech, some of which was authored for local consumption (in time and space) during the time of Mongol invasions and other dark episodes.
There are probably many other measures that we can take in order to help in prevention of criminal behavior and other misdirection of Muslims' energies in unproductive directions. The first step is to go beyond defensiveness and vicitimhood and to think proactively about possible such measures.