Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: Niass & Shahzad

I received some snarky message after the Shahzad attempted bombing in Times Square, asking if I were still standing behind the idea of Islam as a religion of peace. It was a stupid comment. Classical Islamic law forbids murder and forbids terrorism, and it forbids aggression. Whether that makes it a religion of peace is a matter for debate; it isn’t my diction. Medieval Islam, like medieval and even modern Christianity (cf. the Portuguese and Spanish Empires’ ‘God, glory and gold’), was used as an imperial ideology, sometimes for conquest states– but that use of it was contrary to the verses of the Qur’an instructing believers not to commit aggression and to agree to peace treaties with others who seek them.

But in any case, no contemporary Muslim-majority country I can think of would launch a war of naked aggression purely on an Islamic basis. In fact, few wars of naked aggression have been initiated by Muslim-majority countries in the past few decades. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980 was an act of aggression on a self-proclaimed Islamic state by a secular Arab nationalist one, and premised on Arab nationalism, not Islam. Violence in the Levant is usually at least framed as a response to Israeli aggression. The issue of Morocco in the Western Sahara is national and territorial, and both parties are Muslim.

That is, few self-consciously “Islamic” polities have behaved as illegally and wrongly as did George W. Bush when he invaded Iraq on false pretenses and in the absence of an attack by Iraq on the US.

The people who say that “Islam” authorizes aggressive violence are a fringe of cultists and typically non-state actors. Those kind of people, you have in any society. The Hutaree in Michigan are a Christian sect that allegedly makes similar assertions. And you have the Christian fundamentalist Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.

So the snarky question was a stupid and uninformed question. But it looks even stupider in the light of the revelation that it was a Senegalese Muslim, Alioune Niass, who discovered the smoking SUV in Times Square and urged a friend to call 911. That is, New Yorkers were saved from that bombing by a Muslim. See this MPAC article. (MPAC is a really great group and non-Muslims worried about bigotry against Muslims really should join it (membership link here).

Niass was interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, which noted that he got no recognition for his heroism.

And, the snarky question would look even more stupid in light of the announcement by Gen. David Petraeus, the CENTCOM commander in charge of the Greater Middle East and of the struggle against the Pakistani Taliban that Shahzad acted as a lone wolf, not as part of an organized plot. Shahzad is a Pashtun from an elite family (his father had been the equivalent of a two-star general in the Pakistani air force). He had not been a student activist of the Jamaat-i Islami, the fundamentalist party in Pakistan. If he did plot the bombing, he is as likely to have been motivated by Pashtun nationalism as Islam. Pashtuns are an ethnic group in northwest Pakistan, and often feel disadvantaged by the policies of the Punjabi-dominated central government in Islamabad. Even nationalist Pashtuns like the Awami National Party, which now rules the North-West Frontier Province (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) initially objected to Pakistani military attacks on Pashtun Pakistani Taliban because of ethnic solidarity, not religious.

And, everybody in Pakistan is upset by the continued US Predator drone strikes on Pakistani soil by covert operatives and sometimes by Blackwater-Xe contractors. (President Obama unwisely joked about the Predators last Saturday; it is not a joking matter in Pakistan). I have long worried about the unforeseen consequences of the Predator strikes, which are illegal in international law and done as a covert operation and so outside the US democratic framework. None of this in any way excuses the bloody-minded terrorism plot against civilians in Times Square. But to simple-mindedly equate such violence with “Islam,” the religion of 1.5 billion people or nearly a sixth of humankind, and to blame it on the Qur’an, is, well, I’ll say it again: uninformed and stupid.

PS For Pakistani-American anxieties over being tarred with this brush, see this report from Aljazeera English:

15 Responses

  1. A “loan wolf” is one that engages in predatory lending policies. I think what you meant to write was “lone wolf.”

  2. Thank you Professor Cole for always bringing to light the truth in controversial situations. Your insight is greatly appreciated. :)

  3. “no contemporary Muslim-majority country I can think of would launch a war of naked aggression purely on an Islamic basis” You have chosen your words carefully, yes? For there are numerous non-State terrorist “hollow organizations using ISLAM as a figleaf, I daresay “brand” ~ as cover for their violent agents provocateur anti-Western true reason -for- being; As well there exist many corrupted madrassas that “Fill [an Educational] Void, but Fuel Militancy.” Without these two features, I do not think this bogus belief, that “Islam is not a religion of peace,” would be so prevalent in modern Judeo-Christian western culture.

    • Re-reading my comment, I feel compelled to say: “To be sure, there are numerous non-State terrorist “hollow organizations” using likewise perverse interpretations of ‘Judaism’ or ‘Christianity’ as a figleaf, I daresay “brand” ~ as cover for their violent agents provocateurs; As well there exist many corrupted Temples and Churches that “Fill [an Educational and/or Spiritual] Void, but Fuel Militancy.” e.g., Gospel of Matthew 10:34 «I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword» Aggression sanctified (if not rationally justified) “in the name of our god US -vs- the godless, apparent THEM, thus” …is certainly nothing new, nor is it ~ for goodness sake! some feature exclusive to any particular faith. With bible verses engraved on their gunsights, too many of our own soldiers pervert their own faith — just as surely as the drones, mass-produced by corrupted madrassas, screaming “God is Great!” do, just before blowing themselves up in a crowd of innocents.

  4. As to: “continued US Predator drone strikes on Pakistani soil by covert operatives and sometimes by Blackwater-Xe contractors.”

    Why “covert operatives” etc.? Would they be better or different if the Army or Air Force was doing the targeting, the aiming, the trigger-pulling? Does this make the “covert operatives” or perhaps the expensive weapons they direct “illegal” (in the sense that irregular combatants — out of uniform or not under an organized military command hierarchy are illegal)? Do these “covert operatives and sometimes by Blackwater-Xe contractors” belong in a Guantanamo-lookalike somewhere constructed and run by someone for the holding of people who are “irregular combatants”?

    Does this make the US a terrorist state, in the sense that it supports and employs irregular combatants in warfare? And who cares. really? Are the Pakistani villagers any more or less dead or maimed on this account than if bombs were dropped upon them by a regulation Air Force airplane flying at 30,000 feet, its pilot wearing a uniform (invisible from 30,000 feet) and responsive if following orders carefully to a military command hierarchy? Even if the target was specified by, oh! dreadful thought, “covert operatives etc.”?

    If by “covert operatives” is meant CIA-types, then perhaps they, too, are mercenaries, spies-for-hire — it is not only soldiers whom the USA hires in order to replace part of the expensive “big government” that some Americans say they dislike with a far more expensive replacement by non-civil-service “temps” as the military mercenaries and CIA replacement folks surely are.

    And maybe the US strategy of fighting a war in Afghanistan (or fighting it in this way) is a decision made by mercenaries (or by the people who believe that American decision-making is best made by corporate decision-makers).

    • Predator drones are just bombers. Bombers are not new in aerial warfare, having first been deployed on a large scale in WW I. They should be operated by the Department of Defense, because that is the arm of the US government that is in charge of military action. Its actions, moreover, can be interrogated by Congress and the public. If it has to be done, it should be done under the terms of a declaration of war or a SOFA and in accordance with international and US law. Covert bombing is just civilian assassination. It cannot even publicly be admitted or talked about by elected officials. Covert bombing is incompatible with democracy, whereas democracy has long since made its peace with military bombing raids. It may not matter to those bombed, but it matters to the US Republic. We have never believed as a nation of laws that the ends justify the means.

      • This issue needs exploring, there has been too little written. It has been said that especially according to the reasoning that arrived at “enemy combatants”, the CIA types behind the drones are enemy combatants and thus could legally be subject to the kind minisrations of a Guantanamo-like setup. Since Bush has set a prescedent, it would be the ultimate irony if these CIA tyes cold be charged under the “enemy combatant” rule.

      • Thanks for clarifying some differences between a declared war in a democratic country vs. a covert killing action by mercenaries and civilians in the name of a “democratic” country. Alas too may American think that the end justifies any means. In this regard at least can we say anymore that we are better than the terrorists?

      • I have to agree with Mr. Cole here.
        Just as “Do as I do, not do as I say” makes for ineffective parenting, the example we set by continuously disregarding international law will soon rob us of all credibility.
        Diplomatic relations with not only our adversaries, but also our allies will slowly but surely collapse.

  5. What is very surprising to me is that an apparently normal – well educated, well-off immigrant from Pakistan suddenly turn radical.

    But, as LAT says, his family has ties to militants. A lot of Pakistani defence people do – afterall they have used terrorism as state policy in Kashmir for over 3 decades now.

    link to

    Reporting from Washington
    Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, grew up in a Pakistani family whose circle of acquaintances included two future militants — a Taliban leader and one of the participants in the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, a government source said Friday.

    • If all these would-be bombers have been “trained” by the Taliban et al, how come none of them was taught how to really set off a bomb? There doesn’t seem to be any problem with bombs going off in Afganistan or Pakistan. Or does a diversion create just as much confusion as the real thing and is much more cheaper?

  6. I think the last world census put the world population at about six billion. So the 1.5 billion Muslims would be about a quarter of the world population. That’s kind of a nit-picky but it’s better that I point that out here than someone critiquing an article or book.

    You comments on Islam are correct, of course. And nut cases will always try to hang the terrorism in the world on Muslims or some other movement that they hate.

  7. As some pundits and politicians stir the pot for justifying racial profiling and rescinding citizenship of naturalized Americans we might as well have some discussion on the criteria for such profiling. How about profiling countries that have been (are) invaded, attacked or illegally interfered with militarily by the US?

    I understand that will not cover all potential terrorists, but certainly a large part of it.

    (disclaimer: I am not proposing racial profiling, but just trying to focus the light back on real cause)

  8. Hmmn. I just read the latest world population figure and it’s 6.82 billion so 1.5 billion Muslims are a little less than one seventh of the world population.

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