Mohamed Abushahab, the Ambassador of the UAE to the United Nations (UN), recently made a statement at a UN Security Council Briefing on the threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist attacks. Abushahab talked about the continued threat of Da’esh (Islamic State) and its affiliates as well as the fight against al-Qaeda remaining a global priority.
The Ambassador also took this opportunity to emphasise a curious point: that “there is nothing Islamic about terrorism” and to end to the use of ‘Islamic State’ in reference to Dae’sh. This is an ill-conceived statement that ignores the widely available violent Islamic doctrines relied upon by the very groups he is talking about. Not only that, it also plays directly into the hands of Islamists in the West who have long wanted to control language when it comes to Islamic inspired terrorism.
The first point that should be made is that Islam is a religion that has been left to Muslims to interpret how they see fit. As a result, there are many sects within Islam, the two largest being Sunni and Shia. The Sunni sect have a sub-sect of conservative Muslims known as Salafis — the word deriving from salaf al-sahi — the first three generations of people since the death of the Prophet Muhammed.
Salafis themselves can be categorised into a further three sub-sects: quietest, activists and jihadists. The first two, quietest and activists do not engage in violence themselves, but the latter does support it in principle if it is to benefit the ‘Ummah’ (global Muslim community) or to spread Islam. The Jihadists on the other hand, actively use violence for this very purpose and can be considered violent rejectionists.
But the Salafis didn’t just wake up one day and declare themselves jihadists; instead they produced a whole doctrine which provides the justification for their violence. Shiraz Maher, the Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) posits that there are five essential and irreducible features of the Salafi-Jihadi movement: 1) tawhíd (belief in the oneness of God), 2) hákimiyyah (the absolute rule of God), 3) al-walá wa-l-bará (loyalty and disavowal), 4) jihad (holy war) and 5) takfír (excommunication). The first two features are used to promote the faith whereas the remainder three features are to protect it.
The key point to note here is that while these features are needed to form the Salafi Jihadist ideology, these ideas exist in normative Islamic traditions nonetheless. They do not exist because of Salafis — they exist despite Salafis. Therefore, to assume that there is nothing Islamic about terrorism ignores the very history of ideas in Islamic theology that have existed since its conception 1400 years ago.
But there are also wider implications to making statements that do not fully appreciate the history of ideas in Islamic theology and to exonerate the religion of Islam from any aspect of violence. Islamists in the west have, for many years, attempted to control the language used to describe acts of terror when the perpetrator is found to have been Muslim.
The National Association of Muslim Police (NAMP) was looking at proposals to drop the word ‘Islamist’ or ‘jihadi’ when describing attacks from individuals claiming Islam as their motive. Instead, they were seeking to replace these terms with “faith-claimed terrorism”, or “terrorists abusing religious motivations” and even more strangely, “adherents of Osama bin-Laden’s ideology”.
This move garnered support from Islamist organisations who have claimed that it would mark a “milestone in undoing the harms the counter-terror apparatus has inflicted upon Muslim communities.” What harm is being inflicted on Muslim communities by accurately describing Muslim perpetrators of terrorism as Islamist or Jihadis is anyone’s guess. But the Ambassador to the UN gives these groups legitimacy by making statements that serve a shared purpose with them.
Mohamed Abushahab is clearly mistaken if he believes that there is only one interpretation of Islam and that it is a peaceful one. To make such a statement, not only ignores the well-established theology of violence within the Islamic tradition, but it also places him in a position that he, nor anyone else, can take, which is to declare what Islam is.