How to talk about terrorism committed by Muslims

Mohammed Amin is Chairman of the Islam & Liberty Network Council. He is writing in a personal capacity.

At the end of my article “Why does Islam have such a terrible reputation?” I promised that my next ILN post would answer the question “What can we, as individual Muslims who care about the reputation of Islam, do to improve the position?”

Sadly, procrastination affects all of us. Also, I have realised that my question was too big to be answered by a single post. Since I consider terrorism to be the largest single cause of Islam’s poor reputation, this article focuses entirely on how to talk about it.

My personal experience started shortly after the 7 July 2005 London bombings. At that time, as a member of the UK PricewaterhouseCoopers Supervisory Board, I was the most senior Muslim in the firm. A group of PwC Muslim staff contacted me, wanting to put out a statement within the firm disassociating themselves from the 7/7 bombers.

Instead, I spoke with the UK Senior Partner to explain how the firm’s Muslim staff felt. He then published a voicemail to all UK personnel explaining how mortified PwC Muslims felt. He asked PwC’s non-Muslim staff to show sympathy to their Muslim colleagues who were feeling terrible. This message from the Senior Partner had a much more positive impact than any statement that PwC Muslims could have put out themselves.

Since then, I have regularly observed how Muslims often get their communications wrong. When I was Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, I also had to write statements myself after particularly serious acts of terrorism. I provide two examples.

What not to do

Attempt to explain motivations

A good definition of terrorism is unlawful violence carried out by non-state actors pursuing political or ideological goals. That means terrorists always have goals. If they don’t (for example an angry man shooting co-workers) then it is not terrorism. However, after your relatives, friends, or fellow countrymen have been killed, you don’t want to hear instant analysis before you hear anything else. After the 7/7 bombings, the Muslim Council of Britain in my opinion seriously harmed its reputation by being too quick to talk about British foreign policy as a motivating factor without first laying out the groundwork of strong, unequivocal, condemnation for an extended period prior to raising any analytical questions.

Claim that the terrorists are not Muslims

When someone declares the shahada, prays, fasts, reads the Quran, they are clearly a Muslim no matter how evil they might be. Claiming that the terrorists are not Muslims (and therefore nothing to do with you) merely damages your own credibility. Indeed, contending that the terrorists are not Muslims merely invites your listener to compare the terrorists’ religiosity levels to your own, decide that the terrorists are more “authentically Muslim”, and then conclude that Islam really does encourage terrorism since the most “authentic Muslims” are the terrorists. I have seen some non-Muslims, typically anti-Muslim bigots, take this line in their writings.

Claim that the terrorists are not motivated by their religious beliefs

Many Muslims wrongly think that if they concede that the terrorists are motivated by their understanding of Islam, that is tantamount to accepting that Islam promotes terrorism. While anti-Muslim bigots regularly assert precisely that, knowledgeable non-Muslim political leaders do not. For example, Prime Minister Tony Blair was, and still is, categorical that the terrorists have a perverted understanding of Islam. (I still remember hearing some silly Muslims in the media criticising Tony Blair for expressing an opinion about Islam while being a non-Muslim, rather than simply saying that they strongly agreed with him! That is another example of how Muslims themselves regularly damage the reputation of Islam.) When you deny that the terrorists are motivated by their understanding of Islam, you look as if you are trying to hide something bad about Islam. You also damage your own credibility because your listener can watch the terrorists themselves saying in their video recordings how Islam motivates them.

Use the phrase “Islam is a religion of peace”

The phrase is undoubtedly true. Islam as understood by me and by many other Muslims is a religion of peace. However, that is not how Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other Muslim groups think about Islam. Use of the phrase merely invites derision. Indeed, there is a website promoting strongly anti-Muslim views which calls itself TheReligionofPeace.com I recommend spending just a few minutes glancing at it. If you are going to talk positively about Islam, it helps to know what your most extreme opponents are saying.

Point out the bad things done by non-Muslims

This response has a formal name and its history is set out in the Wikipedia article “Whataboutism”. Trying to change the subject in this way always makes you look worse, and Islam look worse.

What to do

Learn how the terrorists understand Islam

This requires serious, but perfectly manageable effort. I recommend reading two books, both by authors who I know personally:
  1. “Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea” by Shiraz Maher. He is Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and a member of the War Studies Department at King’s College London. See the ICSR website for a biography. Although I read the book several years ago, I have not yet had time to write a review.
  2. The Genealogy of Terror: How to distinguish between Islam, Islamism and Islamist Extremism” by Matthew L.N. Wilkinson. The link takes you to my review.
Afterwards, you will be equipped to talk about the subject with credibility. One of the key things you will learn is that this understanding of Islam is a new twentieth century concept rather than something deeply embedded in the history of Islam. I made this point in my talk at Brigham Young University in Utah: “Do Muslim religious texts cause religious persecution?” In passing, the title I chose for my talk demonstrates the importance of not shying away from challenging questions.

Condemn unequivocally

After a serious terrorist incident, unequivocal condemnation is the first thing that your interlocutor needs to hear from you. I have illustrated this with two statements that I wrote on behalf of the Conservative Muslim Forum immediately after terrorist attacks. Attack on the Paris offices of French magazine “Charlie Hebdo” yesterday [ January 2015] CMF statement: The terrorist bombing in Manchester [May 2017]

Talk about what ordinary Muslims need to do differently

The evening of the Charlie Hebdo attack, I wrote a piece “Charlie Hebdo – Condemnation is necessary but not sufficient” which the Conservative Home website published the following day. The link takes you to the same article on my website where it is accompanied by some additional material. Similarly, three days after the November 2015 Paris attacks, I wrote another piece for the Conservative Home website “It is not enough for Muslim organisations simply to condemn terrorism.” Again, I have linked to the piece on my own website. In passing, you can see that my views have been consistent over the last seven years!

The terrorists hate you too!

Remind your listener that most people killed by Muslim terrorists are other Muslims. People like yourself are hated by the terrorists for your liberalism, since for them no Muslim is ever a “good enough” Muslim. This helps to change the focus so that terrorism committed by Muslims is not seen simply as a conflict between Islam and the rest of the world, but rather as a conflict inside Islam between Muslims with awful views, and the overwhelming majority of Muslims who do not share those views.