It’s Eid - a time to be happy.
But today, like the last Eid, me and most of my friends have to read and write about another tragic terrorist attack. On Eid-ul-Fitr, it was the butchering of two dozen in northern Pakistan. This Eid, it’s the massacre of forty in northwestern Afghanistan. The killers keep reminding us about who they are by chanting, “Allah o Akbar” before - and if they are alive - after the massacres. Then we sit back and wonder as we have for the past decade and a half about how to stop them.
Ever since the arrival of the Taliban into the scene, we’ve all been grappling with how to fight these terrorists. Our overwhelming response on the state front has been to fight them militarily. We’ve seen where that’s taken us in Afghanistan, Northwestern Pakistan, Somalia… you name it. While strides have been made in several places, especially in Afghanistan, to combat them, the war is essentially a gridlock at this point. They roam free across much of the territories they’re present in and our efforts to combat with guns are not totally successful.
By and large, this is our problem. The killers are our people as are the overwhelming majority of the ones being killed. And if we can’t solve this ourselves, neither America, nor the EU nor China or Russia can solve it for us.
I’m not trying to say we’re all doomed, but they’re pretty successful. And the key to their success among other things has been their ability to attract new recruits to replace fallen comrades. This has been especially true along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. No matter how many you kill and capture, more pop out of ‘nowhere’. Obviously by now most of us have accepted the fact that the the overwhelming majority of these terrorists are recruited from within Islamic countries’ populations.
Hence, many of us have understood that to solve the terrorist problem, we must stop our brothers from being attracted to their ideology. However, we have mostly failed to achieve this. The major reason in my opinion for our failure has been our slightly self-righteous response to dissuade people from joining them.
The best way to get the point across to the reader requires me to recount to you a conversation I had with a Muslim friend who is highly intelligent and went to a prestigious school in the United States.
We were sipping coffee at a Starbucks in Washington D.C. and I was telling her about the terrible state of refugees from Pakistan in the wake of the encroaching Taliban militants in FATA a few years ago. She was listening intently until I uttered the words, “Muslim terrorist”. She suddenly turned angry, “Shahryar, of all the people I know, you should know that they are not Muslim!”
She went on to lecture me about how it’s an American and Israeli conspiracy to paint them as Muslims in order to malign Muslims etc. Well, then how do we stop them, I asked. She put her hands down and with all the world’s certainty in her voice said: “It’s simple. We just have to make a compelling argument to young Muslim men that terrorism is terrorism. That this has nothing to do with Islam. Basically, we have to tell them that these terrorists are not Muslims!”
I’ve heard this being echoed by others over the years - online, in real life, on TV. Every time you open your mouth about this topic, you get slammed with, “They are not Muslims!” I’ve heard it on the street, I’ve heard it in cafes and homes… on the phone… on Skype… Ordinary civilians are enamored with it as much as intellectuals and politicians. In my opinion, to a large portion of the public in Islamic countries where this exists, our best argument to dissuade people from joining the extremists has been telling young, poor, uneducated and politically disillusioned men who admire these terrorists that the terrorists are not Muslim.
And it’s an argument we simply cannot win, because in our societies, the general public is not the one who makes the decisions on who is Muslim and who’s not.
Let me illustrate.
Suppose I encounter a young, poor, poorly-educated Muslim man in Jalalabad or in Karachi - let’s say his name is Yusuf. He, I feel, has inklings of joining the extremists. Suppose I sit him down and try to persuade him to not fall into their trap. Now if I’m going by the “They are not Muslim!” argument, I’d explain to Yusuf how destroying the places of worship or religious icons of other religions is wrong or Prophet Mohammad explicitly told Muslim on Hujjat-ul-Wida that spilling the blood of Muslims is worse than defiling the Kaaba or how children, even if they are Christian or Hindu, simply cannot be killed under even the harshest Islamic laws because they are “masoom” (without sin).
All good and bon, right?
So after hearing all my arguments, Yusuf is approached by a Taliban recruitment party and is asked to join them. He wants more information and is taken to a Mullah for it. Let’s say I was a bit successful and Yusuf is curious about the Muslimhood of these men so he asks the Mullah questions about what I told him. The conversation is almost certainly going to go something like this.
Yusuf: “So I heard from this guy that you cannot kill children even if they are Christians. Your bombs are killing children.”
The Mullah will say something along the lines of: “They are liars. They support America and Israel and those people killed thousands of Iraqi children and are killing Palestinian children every day!”
Yusuf: “Hmm, what about destroying Muslim places of worship? You’ve bombed some mosques…”
The Mullah will again turn it around masterfully, “Yeah? And what about all the Muslim places of worship destroyed in India and Palestine and Iraq by these infidels?”
Yusuf: “But those mosques belong to Muslims. And The Prophet explicitly said that you can’t kill Muslims. This guy Shahryar told me this is wrong.”
Have you guessed the Mullah’s response? Here it is: “He is not Muslim!”
Now please tell me Yusuf is going to take my word over him. That he’ll believe a clean-shaven, jeans-wearing, English-speaking young guy like me over a bearded, turban-wearing, 40-50 something Mullah who pronounces all the Arabic letters of the alphabet correctly and who has a flock of Muslims praying behind him five times a day.
It is far easier for the Yusufs to believe that my friend in DC is not a Muslim because she doesn’t wear a hijab, lives in America and doesn’t pray five times a day as opposed to say a Mullah, who’s lived his entire life in a little village south of Kabul, has three wives and hates the Jews. The reason the extremists have been successful so far in attracting these men is precisely because these young men view them as more Muslim than the rest of us. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this article and you wouldn’t be reading it.
The terrorists most likely want us to stick to this argument because they know we cannot win it.
In our societies, the mullahs, mowlanas, khateebs and imams are the ones who decide who’s Muslim and who’s not - not the general public. And I have a feeling, even some of them would prefer the terrorists over us.
If we are to stop this tide, our strategy should be to provide these young men with arguments the Mullahs cannot successfully and clinically counter with their hateful rhetoric. There are economic arguments, political arguments, even humanitarian arguments that we can use. We can appeal to their emotions. To their better nature. To nationalism. Tribalism. There is so much that we can throw at them that they’ve been raised with and they value that I could probably turn this article into a book.
“They are not Muslims!” simply cannot work because the minute a Mullah opens his mouth guess what: we are *not* Muslims either.