What You See is What You Get

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By Ziauddin Choudhury, USA

Two recent terrorism related violent incidents, though happening thousands of miles apart in two separate continents, had the overseas Muslim population astir.  This is not just because the perpetrators happened to be Muslim, but also they revealed either through their utterances or writings that they undertook these violent actions in retaliation for what they perceived as act of aggression by some western countries against Muslim countries.  One (in UK) even went on to quote from scripture (albeit very erroneously) justifying his heinous and dastardly act. The co-religionists of these perpetrators all over the globe, at least the overwhelming majority, were obviously shocked and ashamed that people from their faith could launch such cold-blooded acts of terror on innocent people. But they have been shocked before several times in the past decade by similar incidents of terror that were unleashed on innocent people in various parts of the world including Muslim majority countries. 

The reaction of the Muslims to all these incidents has been a vigorous shaking of the head noting their disapproval followed by a unanimous disclaimer that their religion does not condone such acts. Beyond that I have yet to see a firm action plan or program that aims to help their co-religionists to address such deviant behavior and anti-Islam acts that are increasingly posing a threat to their combined image and existence with other communities.  When a person claiming to be a Muslim performs an act that harms any community in the name of religion he is not only hurting the target community but his own community at large as well as the religion he professes.  It does not matter if the heinous act takes place in a country other than his own, or in his own country.  The Boston bombers (reportedly) claimed that their act was an expression of anger and retaliation for Western aggression against Muslims. The machete wielding killer in London declared that he was taking revenge for UK aggression in Muslim countries. 

Contrast these incidents with what happened recently in Muslim majority countries. The Pakistani Taliban routinely attack and kill fellow Muslims (Pakistan Army and civilians alike) in North West of Pakistan to take revenge for the government  opposition to their demands.  In the two consecutive months this year, bomb blasts have killed hundreds of Shias in Quetta, Pakistan, bombs that there planted by fellow Muslims from the Sunni sect. In Iraq killings by one Muslim sect by another is routine phenomenon now.  And I do not want add to this litany of grotesque killings by mentioning what is going on in Syria. If the attacks on Western soil were a revenge against acts of aggression the West on Muslim countries, how do you explain attacks by Muslims on fellow Muslims?

One typical comment that I hear from fellow Muslims on lone-wolf acts of violence or terrorism is why these acts are not termed as actions of a psychotic killer or sociopaths similar to those individuals who were responsible for numerous killings.  Well, I have a simple answer to this. The other perpetrators did not cite a cause for their deviant behavior, or if they did they put it on the society.  They did not take shelter behind their faith to exonerate themselves from their hateful acts. But the others cited above did.  They claimed that they were taking revenge for aggression against their faith and co-religionists. Ironically, it would be their co-religionists who would be disassociating themselves from such acts. And the greater irony is that such violent acts continue to happen. Why do these happen?   

Individualized religious radicalism or extremism does not happen in a vacuum. Tolerance and acceptance of diversity in opinions, and respect for other human beings is fundamental for a society.  When these values are not taught in a society extremist and xenophobic ideas take root.  We see reflection of these in many developing countries.  The other contributors to the rising threat of individualized or group radicalism are feelings of isolation, blame games for personal or national failures, or finding a common enemy for these failures.   I am going out on a limb to explain such behavior, but I would venture to attribute much of the past happenings of extremist and terrorist incidents to some of these factors. However, while these may explain partly the reasons of some lone wolf behaviors, these are not adequate to explain the mindless killings of fellow Muslims by other Muslims. This, I am afraid, has much to do with what social values that a child in those environments grows with.

Unfortunately in many parts of today’s world, along with poverty, absence of knowledge of human rights and right for diversity of opinions, and above all the ignorance of right to life and property is widespread.  This has never been taught in schools, and least of all in many families.  Add to all of this the political propagation of seeming injustice to groups or sections of people of a particular faith, and the proclivity of less privileged people of the world to put blame for their lacking on nations of wealth and power.  Otherwise we cannot explain why Muslims bomb their own kind in their own soil. Otherwise we cannot explain why an individual gets radicalized to the extent that he is ready to sacrifice his life to exterminate hundreds of other human beings.  It is possible that in some cases an individual’s conduct is driven by his demented psyche (probably that is why he is driven to this psychotic behavior). But I would say that I most cases this senseless behavior has much to how this individual has been trained by his environment and the education he had received.  

I have borrowed the title of this piece from a commonly used term by Web Programmers—what you see is what you get.  The intent is to drive home in our mind is that in today’s world of individualized or group religious extremism what we see is what we get from how we train our young mind.  Radicalism does not exist in a vacuum. It comes from absence of respect for human life, respect from a diversity of opinions, and tolerance.  People who take up arms in the name of Islam first remember that Islam is one of the religions that places right for human life, respect for all religions, and diversity of opinions above everything else.

Ziauddin Choudhury is a former staff member of the World Bank. He lives in Potomac, Maryland.E Mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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