Citizens of peaceful countries cannot continue to live in fear, seeing the space for their daily activities steadily reduced. The Boston Marathon bombing has created the potential for generating worldwide support to deal with the menace of terrorism.
Many militants call themselves jihadis and crusaders of Islam. We have chosen to describe them with their chosen terms. But we should not. When we address them in this way, we help spread their false ideology for them. It is time we changed the narrative.
Extremists associated with Al-Qaida and other terrorist networks have defined a common narrative. They deny the concepts of nation-states and democracy. They claim their goal is to establish a supranational Islamic community (Ummah) across the world under one controlling structure (Caliphate), with Al-Qaida at its head.
They train their followers to think of themselves only as Muslims. They allow no other identity, whether ethnic or national. They push their followers to think of the rest of the world as the “Other.”
This Other is not merely non-Muslim, it is anti-Islamic. They associate terrorist attacks with their ideology, claiming these are justified actions (jihad) by Muslims against the anti-Islamic world. In so doing, they lay claim to being the leaders of the Muslim people.
In the attempt to counter global terrorism, America and its allies have reinforced the militant discourse by identifying the terrorists as “Muslims.” This has helped the extremists to broaden their constituency. By identifying every member of these international gangs first as a Muslim, then as a militant, we unknowingly advance their agenda.
Media and politicians alike frequently refer to “Muslim scholars,” “Muslim scientists,” “Muslim parliamentarians,” “Muslim women” and, of course, “Muslim terrorists.”
The argument here is not whether there is a Muslim world tying together 1.6 billion people scattered from Morocco to Indonesia. The point is that by referring to militants, as well as ordinary citizens, primarily by their religious identity we help to legitimize the militants’ claim as Muslim leaders, enhancing their image in the eyes of the impressionable.
Spreading this religious narrative also supports the terrorists, because it becomes difficult for individuals or countries to act against them for fear of appearing to be going against their religion.
This has been the major reason for Pakistan’s lack of success against the many terrorist groups operating from its territory. Acts of “revenge” against any Pakistani politician, and even ordinary citizens, who oppose the militant agenda are increasing by the day.
This narrative also leads to Muslims in America being harassed and often accused of crimes because of their religion. This causes many American Muslims, who do not support the extremists, to feel antagonized or vulnerable.
These militants are difficult to define. It is not like fighting a war with a country. These criminals originate from Saudi Arabia, Mali, England, Nigeria, Chechnya, Pakistan and many other places. There are no rules. The leaders are quite adept at getting their followers to blow themselves up, turning them into nearly uncontrollable weapons. These suicide bombers have found refuge in a religious identity because their leaders have given their ambitions a religious cloak.
Why should we buy their act? Why should our societies help create a medieval theological empire? Why should we promote this mantra of a “Muslim world,” “jihadist movements” and “grass-roots jihadism”? Why help the militants play the role of religious crusaders and recruit young people into their ranks by painting America as the primary anti-Islamic enemy?
As a Pakistani Muslim, I know these terrorists have no nationality and no religion. They should be viewed merely as murderers. They kill innocent citizens of every religion and country.
In Pakistan, in 2011 alone, there were 476 terrorist attacks by these murderers that killed 4,447 Pakistanis. Bombs were used indiscriminately to murder people while visiting mosques, shrines, churches, political rallies and funerals.
These murderers are killing people everywhere and of every religion. They bombed the Boston Marathon on April 15. They bombed a crowded political rally in Peshawar on April 16. They caused the death of more than 3,000 people in New York in 2001 and have killed more than 40,000 citizens of Pakistan in the years since that attack.
These militants should only be regarded as criminals and murderers. They are not seen as the leaders of Islam by any Muslim country. However, by giving them refuge in religion, we have clearly taken the bait.
But it is not too late to change the narrative. All people who oppose such brutality should refuse to call them “Muslims” — only criminals.
Fouzia Saeed, a Pakistani human-rights activist, is a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. This article represents her personal view.