This photo released by the FBI shows who the FBI was calling Suspect No. 1, in black cap, and Suspect No. 2, in white cap, walking through the crowd in Boston on April 15 before the explosions at the Boston Marathon.
The Boston Marathon bombings (April 15, 2013) and the Woolwich, UK attack and murder (May 22, 2013) are grim reminders not only of the continued threat from militant religious extremists but also of the need and importance for political and religious leaders, commentators and the media to put these horrific acts in their proper context.
Facile, superficial or biased statements and disproportionate coverage create a bias that plays to militant Muslims desire for national and international attention, terrorizes citizens in the belief that this may influence their country’s foreign policies and encourages copycats. At the same time, they risk reinforcing far right anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim (Islamophobic) forces, further driving a wedge between non-Muslim and Muslim citizens and alienating the majority of loyal mainstream Muslim citizens.
In the wake of the Woolwich attacks, Tony Blair’s recent article in the Daily Mail, titles “The ideology behind Lee Rigby’s murder is profound and dangerous. Why don’t we admit it?: Tony Blair launches a brave assault on Muslim extremism after Woolwich attack,” ignores the facts on the ground and opts for a common (ideological) thread: “There is a problem within Islam from the adherents of an ideology that is a strain within Islam. And we have to put it on the table and be honest about it .It has at its heart a view about religion and about the interaction between religion and politics that is not compatible with pluralistic, liberal, open-minded societies.”
Though well intentioned, it perpetuates his long held belief since the Bush-Blair invasion and occupation of Iraq that the primary driver, the root cause of terrorism, is religion and not political and social contexts and foreign policies. It is wrong headed and doomed to continue to be part of the problem not the solution.
A similar flawed narrative can be seen in statements by other political leaders and media commentators such as London mayor, Boris Johnson’s article “By standing united, we can isolate the virus of Islamism” in the Daily Telegraph. The monolithic use of the term Islamism fails to distinguish between mainstream and violent extremist Islamists. Each are individuals or organizations that appeal to the religion of Islam but extremists, like their Christian and Jewish counterparts, are more often driven by political, economic or social issues and grievances, such as military intervention, invasion and/or occupation of land by foreign forces. They misinterpret or twist the religious beliefs of the mainstream majority to legitimate their hate speech, use of violence and terrorist attacks. Major polls (Gallup, Pew, Zogby and others) have long documented that widespread anti-Americanism or anti-European Muslim attitudes are driven by foreign policies. But that there is a distinct difference between the mainstream majority, who remain non-violent and admire and desire (Western) economic and technological accomplishments as well as the rule of law and freedoms and a minority of extremists who resort to violence and terrorism.
Painting with broad brushes about mainstream Islam makes make innocent Muslims victims of discrimination, hate crimes and threaten their civil liberties. Yet, as also witnessed in public statements and denunciations by Muslim leaders, individuals and organizations in the US and UK and internationally, the vast majority, a mainstream consensus, abhor these attacks on their fellow citizens. While some municipal and national officials have done so, many others are challenged to develop a robust policy to counter terrorism policy, cooperating with mainstream Muslim partners.
John Esposito is a professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University.