As a display of faithful dedication, the document is inspiring. It contains injunctions to pray continuously, exhortations to purify one’s soul and reminders that the rewards of paradise far surpass the trials and tribulations of this mortal coil.
And then it says this: “If you slaughter, do not cause the discomfort of those you are killing, because this is one of the practices of the Prophet, peace be upon him.”
The document is a four-page set of instructions found in the baggage of terrorist ringleader Mohammed Atta, who allegedly piloted the plane that slammed into the World Trade Center’s north tower. It is a recipe for mass murder with prayers and passages of the Koran for each step along the way. This is the reality behind Sept. 11. These are the convictions that made men kill. These words—these deranged doctrines of death—are what the hijackers actually believed.
In the face of this awful reality, it is understandable that devout Muslims wish to defend their faith against the charge that it made so much suffering possible. And in an important way, their defense is correct. We have no reason to believe that, when properly interpreted, Islam’s teachings are consistent with acts of terrorism. I am no expert in Islamic theology, and so when the entire American Muslim community assures me—as Saif I. Shah Mohammed ’02 and Zayed M. Yasin ’02, writing recently in The Crimson, so passionately assured me—that anybody who reads the Koran in context would condemn the killing of innocent people, I believe them.
But these apologetics miss the broader point. What alarms me about the fact that people want to murder me in the name of Allah is most assuredly not some question about whether the tenets of Islam justify that position. Rather, what alarms me is that so many Muslims believe such a justification exists. They believe it wrongly, of course, but they believe it. And their sympathizers number in the millions, with the Dow Jones Newswire reporting that in Pakistan alone, bin Laden supporters account for 15 percent of the nation’s 144.6 million people.
When the fanatics who use an erroneous reading to profane their faith come to kill us, calm assurances that the Koran contains no doctrinal support for their position start sounding just a bit academic. But instead of confronting the brutal fact of religiously inspired anti-American hatred, Islam’s Western defenders limit their message to endlessly repeating that Islam, as an abstract body of thought, is blameless.
The teachings of the Koran are incompatible with acts of terrorism. But when the World Trade Center fell, thousands of Palestinians shouted for joy and praised the greatness of Allah.
The teachings of the Koran are incompatible with acts of terrorism. But Pakistani officials report that 8,000 volunteers have gathered near the Afghan border to enlist in the Taliban’s jihad against America.
The teachings of the Koran are incompatible with acts of terrorism. And yet all over Pakistan, students in Islamic seminaries known as madrassas—which, according to The New York Times, number 7,500 and have a total student body of 750,000 to a million—learn to distrust and hate the United States. Many of their scholars have already left to fight America. “They have gone for jihad,” exulted one student. “It is our moral and religious duty.”
The teachings of the Koran are incompatible with acts of terrorism. But acting largely out of fear that support for America would trigger a fundamentalist backlash, Saudi Arabia—our “ally”—has refused to block terrorist assets. “It is time for the United States and Saudi Arabia to look at their separate interests,” the Saudi crown prince wrote to President George W. Bush last week, offering a revealing glimpse of the Saudi sentiment. “Those governments that don’t feel the pulse of the people and respond to it will suffer the fate of the Shah of Iran.”
The teachings of the Koran are incompatible with acts of terrorism. Yes, they are. I can believe that hate-filled war cries from the Middle East are misguided. I can even believe that millions of people suffer from a profound misunderstanding of their own faith. But what I cannot believe is that there is no connection between the practice of Islam—no matter how divorced that practice is from what the Koran really says—and the fact that so many Muslims harbor so much hatred of United States. The “pulse of the people,” as the crown prince put it, provides too much evidence to the contrary.
What is most disturbing of all is the fact that within the Middle East—where untold multitudes of people espouse beliefs that America’s now-familiar Muslim apologists insist are unrepresentative of mainstream Islam—there is a dearth of institutional voices condemning the fallacies of fanaticism. And yet such condemnations are precisely what is needed. The principled Muslim leaders of the West can do nothing to sway public opinion in Kabul or Karachi, Khartoum or Cairo. Absent a coordinated, concerted and continuous effort on the part of the Middle East’s clerics and political leaders to explicitly condemn terrorism in all its forms as fundamentally incompatible with the teachings of the Prophet, terrorists will continue to rise from Middle Eastern soil like a cloud of locusts in a field.
I am heartened that the words of the Koran would be nothing to worry about if only people read them properly. But the defense of Islam as a system of doctrine cannot defend Islam as a political and cultural reality. The apologetics of Western Muslims will never win the hearts of the crowds who cheered the shedding of so much American blood and the maddened throngs who would shed so much more. They will never persuade Osama bin Laden. And they wouldn’t have persuaded the hijackers of Sept. 11, either.
On the morning of Sept. 11, you see, it didn’t really matter whether Mohammed Atta and his cohorts should have found in the Koran a justification for their sins. The fact is, they did. And those whose words could have stopped them choose to keep a deadly silence.
Jason L. Steorts ’01-’03 is a philosophy concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.