The heinous nature of the attack perpetrated by al-Shabaab on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya on September 21 has just been made public. Not only were 61 innocent civilians gunned down and six Kenyan soldiers killed during the assault, over the next three days hostages were tortured, physically mutilated, and hanged. Thirty-nine people are still missing. Another atrocity followed within a matter of days, this time perpetrated by the group Boko Haram on students in an agricultural college in Gujba, Nigeria. Fifty students were murdered as they slept. What sort of people carry out attacks on innocent shoppers and sleeping students? Western media and government leaders call them “sick men, criminals, cowardly, crazy.” But are they?
Not in their own eyes. When a four-year-old British boy called one of the attackers in the Westgate Mall a “very bad man,” the terrorist reportedly gave the boy and his sister a couple of Mars chocolate bars and said, “Please forgive me, we are not monsters” and then allowed the kids and their mother to escape, after telling the children’s mother that she had to change her religion to Islam. To me, that’s key to understanding the killers and their motivation. Despite their cold-blooded barbarism, these are not crazy men: Their operations are too meticulously planned and executed to be the products of delusional minds. What they are is jihadists. Moreover, they are part of a proliferating transnational religious movement, global jihadism, whose goal is nothing less than the imposition of Islam worldwide, beginning in the jihadists’ own backyards.
Not all Western media and government leaders, of course, are oblivious to or refuse to publicly acknowledge the religious ideology that drives the jihadists. Those who do, however, almost to a person, portray the jihadists as confused individuals who terrorize and kill in the name of Allah because they don’t really understand Islam. If this is the case, then it behooves Islam’s spiritual leaders to bring an end to their misunderstanding. Western governments alone cannot “de-radicalize” jihadists, as the recent case of Ali Dirie, a Canadian of Somali descent, points out. Dirie was convicted in 2009 of smuggling a hand gun across the US/CAN border to a terrorist group. He spent two years in prison. His rehabilitation program in prison obviously failed, for he died recently, fighting with the rebel forces in Syria. Critics say the government needs to do a better job with youth like Dirie. Really?
Who should correct those who misunderstand Islam? Logically, it should be a Muslim of the highest authority. But finding such a person poses a dilemma, in that there is no supreme authority in Islam equivalent to the Roman Catholic Pope or Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. There is no supreme political leader, no caliph, and there hasn’t been since Atatürk dissolved the caliphate in 1924. There’s the ulama, a body made up of Islam’s legal scholars who are qualified to give opinions on legal matters, but they are more interpreters of the law than spiritual leaders. There is no equivalent of the Catholic priesthood or Protestant clergy in Islam, either. The imams are mainly prayer leaders (at least in the Sunni branch of Islam), appointed by the local mosques that employ them. Not all of them are particularly well-educated.
Appealing directly to the Qur’an for guidance poses difficulties of another kind.
The Islamic idea of revelation is very different from the Judeo-Christian concept. The Bible is regarded as the product of a cooperative effort between God and multiple human authors. The writer of 2 Peter describes what that cooperative effort looked like: “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2:21). The Greek word translated into English as “carried along” is the same Greek word used to describe a ship carried along by the wind (a wonderful depiction of ‘inspiration’, I think). Men spoke, God spoke. Human authorship is evident in the great variety of genres, writing styles, narratives–and, occasionally, discrepancies–that one finds in the biblical text. Because the Bible is acknowledged to be the work of many human authors as well as a Divine Author, the Bible has been deemed to be “fair game” by scholars–Jews, Christians, non-Jews, and non-Christians alike–for intense scholarly investigation, literary criticism, and debate.
That has not been the case with the Qur’an. Muslims believe that their holy book contains, quite literally, the words of God. When one listens to or reads the Qur’an, one hears Allah speak, not his Prophet Muhammad who was merely a passive conduit. Moreover, the composition that was conveyed to Muhammad in Arabic is a copy of a divine Book which exists in heaven (sura 85:21-22). Like God, the Qur’an is eternal and uncreated. Given this understanding of the Qur’an as Divine Diction, it’s difficult to challenge anything one reads on its pages, including suras that sanction warfare.
I don’t see an end any time soon to the threat of global jihadism, quite the opposite. There will undoubtedly be more Westgates in the days ahead. The least we can do is call the threat we now face by its rightful name. To do otherwise is irrational, crazy, even.