Courtesy Reuters

Explaining the Terrorists

By Gideon Lichfield

To the Editor:

Jonathan Laurence ("The Prophet of Moderation," May/June 2007) complains that Tariq Ramadan leaves his audience "unsure whether Ramadan thinks terrorism in Europe and the Middle East is justifiable or unjustifiable" and that "by 'explaining' the attacks, he declines to denounce them as incomprehensible; he keeps the door open to future justifications of violence against civilians on religious and political grounds."

This seems a misunderstanding of Ramadan's position. In a 2004 interview with Foreign Policy, for instance, he was asked, "How do you feel when Islam is used to justify terrorism?" He replied: "Horrified. But responsible. When the Luxor terrorist attack took place [in Egypt] eight years ago, long before 9/11, I wrote a letter from a Swiss Muslim to his fellow citizens saying that this is not acceptable.... We have to condemn this as Muslims and as human beings.... We can have a legitimate resistance to oppression, but the means should be legitimate. Terrorism, which kills innocent people, is not Islamically acceptable. Within Islam there is an accepted diversity ... and we must never say that terrorism or violence is part of this accepted diversity." That sounds pretty unequivocal. The problem is that Laurence associates "explaining" with "justifying." This is a common conflation but a misguided one. To explain is merely to recognize that even the most twisted human beings are human beings and have their own internal logic; it does not conflict with having a clear moral stance. Quite the contrary: the need to dismiss your enemy as "incomprehensible" suggests that you may not be sufficiently secure in your own moral convictions.

Demonizing enemies this way is both intellectually comfortable and politically useful, since it creates a clear boundary between a rational "us" and an irrational "them"; indeed, it provides license for all-out war by placing "them," by fiat, outside the sphere of reasoned or reasonable behavior. But given that six years of an all-out war on terrorism have generated more terrorists than they have destroyed, it is not unreasonable to ask, instead, how to prevent these twisted human beings from twisting other human beings to their purpose. And that requires comprehension.

This is precisely what Ramadan is about. By describing what he sees as the true nature of Islam and the original meaning of terms such as "jihad" and "taqiyya," Ramadan seeks to show that violent fundamentalism is a perversion of the prescribed Islamic responses to oppression -- but at the same time, to explain why some Muslims feel oppressed and how jihadist ideology can sway the susceptible among them. Extremism can then be fought both by campaigning against it within Islam (as people like Ramadan do) and by reducing the sources of geopolitical friction that give extremists fodder. It would surely be irresponsible for anyone charged with protecting the world against terrorism not to have such knowledge.

Gideon Lichfield

Jerusalem Correspondent, The Economist

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.

Continue