Coastal Post Online


November 2001

Understanding the Roots of Muslim Rage

By Muqtedar Khan, Ph.D.

The catastrophic attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have raised several questions about Islam and militant Muslims. The chief among them are, why are some Muslims so angry at the US that they would perpetrate such an inhuman act? An even more puzzling question is how could Islam or any religion be a source of motivation or justification for such an act?

Before we answer the above questions, it is important to clarify that in spite of its gross inhumanity, the attack on America is certainly not the most egregious of crimes against humanity. The Spanish inquisition, the holocaust, the genocide in Bosnia, the systematic elimination of the native American population, the ethnic cleanings in Africa, and Cambodia, and even the atrocities against the Bosnians are in sheer number of casualties much bigger crimes. One may also recall that in India nearly 50,000 Sikhs were slaughtered in less than a week as revenge for the assassination of Indira Gandhi in early 1980s. The attack on American is significant because of its spectacular nature, its target, "the world's sole superpower" and the fact that a part of it was caught on tape.

Why are Muslims Angry at the US?

There are several theories being advanced by various commentators explaining why Muslims generally hate the United States. The silliest of them is the one that the Bush administration and the conservative elements in America entertain. They insist that Binladen and other Islamic militants hate American because they hate American values of freedom and democracy. Nothing can be further from the truth. Indeed most Muslims are great admirers of democracy and freedom and insist that these values are not only consistent with Islam but were the bedrock of the glorious Islamic civilization. They point to the diversity, tolerance and harmony at the peak of Islamic civilization to substantiate their claims.

As Islamic awareness increases in postcolonial Muslim societies and Islamic activists try to rebuild their civilization they find that the economically motivated alliance between secular authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world and the West, in particular the US, is the biggest barrier to freedom, democracy and self determination. Turkey, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait are just a few examples of states were non-democratic regimes thrive and repress popular movements with US support.

In 1956 a CIA coup replaced the democratic government of Mossadeq Hussain in Iran with a monarchy so that Iran could become a client serving US interests in the Middle East. In Algeria the west financed and legitimized a military coup that prevented Islamists from coming to power after winning an election. In the 1960s, and again in 1990s Turkey forced Islamists out of power, even after they had won popular mandates, with the tacit support from the US. Even now all that Americans can think of, as an alternate to the Taliban in Afghanistan is the reinstatement of a senile monarch, not the establishment of democracy.

The utter lack of peaceful channels for protest and dissent in the entire Arab world has slowly radicalized most moderate Islamic oppositions. The use of brutal force by secular regimes has further incited reactionary violence from Islamic militias such as the Jamiat al-Islamiyyah in Egypt. There is also a false notion circulating that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Today nearly 800 million Muslims live in democratic societies. As of now there are two Muslim nations with over a 100 million people that have women heads of state, Indonesia and Bangladesh. The US has not had one in over 220 years!

It is not a hatred of democracy and freedom but the desire for one that has made many Muslims hate the US whom they blame for the perpetuation of undemocratic polities in their world. Surely there are some Muslims who argue that democracy like everything Western is UnIslamic and evil. Fortunately such misguided people are few and have very little influence in the Muslim World.

Many Muslims also believe that the US is inherently opposed to Islam and Muslims. Binladen for one has claimed that by maintaining troops in Saudi Arabia (to protect the monarchy from any popular revolutions) the US actually occupies the two most important Muslim holy sites, Mecca and Medina. And through Israel, which is seen as an outpost of Western imperialism in the Arab world, the US occupies Jerusalem the third most holy Muslim city.

Add to this the systematic destruction of Iraq, the death of over a million Iraqi children through US sponsored sanctions, and the daily atrocities, assassinations and dispossession of the Palestinians by a US armed and funded Israeli army, it is not difficult to imagine why US is not seen as a beacon of freedom and virtue in the Muslim World.

Does this mean that angry Muslims are allowed to perpetrate collateral damages that include over 7000 innocent Americans? Certainly not. The purpose of this article is not to condone what happened on September 11th. I What happened was horrible, inhuman and unIslamic. But reflection over Muslim grievances can help us understand how even devout people can be driven to commit themselves to terror. Systematic repression dispossesses people of their humanity, inciting them to commit inhuman acts.

How Can Islam permit/incite terror?

Any observer of the Palestinian problem who does not nurse malice towards Islam, will understand why many Palestinians would resort to suicide bombings against Israel. Surely, if we were to equip them with F-16s and Apache helicopters they would also fight fair and square with Israel. As far as killing of innocent civilians is concerned, the Israeli army kills ten times more Palestinian children than the casualties caused by suicide bombers. Islam is merely used by Hamas and Islamic Jihad as a rhetorical instrument for mobilization of resistance. The important point is that it is not the Islamic belief of Palestinians that leads them to suicide bombing but rather the logic of the circle of violence in that conflict. Also remember that Japanese pilots in World War II and Tamil Elam Tigers (of Buddhist and Hindu religions) have used suicide bombing more often than Muslims. Long before Hamas emerged, a suicide bomber had assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, India's Prime Minister.

Islam, according to Max Weber, Freidrich Nietzsche and Hegel is the most practical, rational and realistic of all religions. It is this realistic element in Islam that does not fully advocate pacifism, permitting the use of force. The theory of Jihad (Struggle in the path of God) forbids violence except when 1) Muslims are not allowed to practice their faith (freedom of religion is threatened) 2) when people are oppressed and subjugated (in pursuit of freedom) and 3) when people's land is forcibly taken from them.

Islam allows a range of responses. One can forgive the oppressor or one can respond in kind. There are Quranic sources encouraging both positions.

And slay them wherever you find them, and drive them out of the places from where they drove you out, for persecution is worse than killing (2:191).

Tell those who disbelieve that if they cease persecution of believers that which is past will be forgiven them (8:38).

There is no hierarchy of verses in the Quran. Those who privilege the first verse over the second will wage war to fight injustice. And most militant Muslims invoke this verse in the defense of their actions. But then there are Muslims who privilege the second verse and seek diplomatic end to persecution through forgiveness. The two verses above are exemplary of the tension between realism and idealism in Islam. But in the final analysis Islam is what Muslims make of it.

While war in search of justice and to escape persecution is permissible in Islam, what happened on Sept. 11th certainly is not. I wonder how those Muslims responsible for the slaughter of American civilians would rationalize their actions in the light of this Quranic verse:

He who has killed one innocent soul, it is as if he has killed all humanity. And he who has saved one soul, is as if he has saved all humanity (Quran 5:32).

Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Director of International Studies at Adrian College in Michigan.

Dr. Khan is on the Board of the Center for the Study of Islam and

Democracy and the Association of Muslim Social Scientists.

His work is archived at






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