Islamic terrorism remains a global issue – with the horrific bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, which claimed over 250 lives, just the latest example. In that case, Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, but the extent of its direct involvement remains unclear.
What we know for certain is that murdering innocent people in their homes or places of worship, or as they go about their daily business, yields outrage, fear and grief. It turns people against one another, and invites retribution. Terror is a vicious cycle, always a catastrophe for its victims, inevitably a calamity for its perpetrators, and unavoidably a cost for humanity.
But can community leaders help mitigate this? In ongoing research, partly funded by the University of Portsmouth, we asked more specifically how Muslim leaders should respond in communities simultaneously blamed for and victimised by terrorism.
Who are Sri Lanka’s Muslims?
Many Muslims leaders condemn such attacks outright. And in May 2017, 70 Muslim clerics from three Muslim countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia – issued a Fatwa against violence and terrorism in all its forms. The Fatwa said:
We reaffirm that violence and terrorism cannot and should not be associated with any religion, nationality, civilisation or ethnic group, as violent extremism and terrorism in all its forms and manifestations including violence against civilians and suicide attacks are against the holy principles of Islam.
Despite these and other public pronouncements, however, Muslim leaders are often held accountable. They are expected to rein in terrorists acting according to radical interpretations of Islam, or, even worse, stand accused of being terrorist sympathisers themselves.
Earlier research suggests that a key problem is that Islam is commonly treated as an “other”, something in opposition to the “Western world”. The upshot is that Muslim leaders in the West face prejudice when they attempt to speak for themselves and their communities, particularly if their message doesn’t chime precisely with the majority view.
Over a century ago, W. E. B. Du Bois called out the “othering” of black Americans in the early 20th century. In his seminal text, The Souls of Black Folk, he argued that the problem is not only how the dominant group categorises minority groups in stereotypical ways, but also how these communities come to see themselves from the dominant group’s perspective.
Indeed, when Muslim leaders respond to terrorist attacks, they are faced with a double bind. In the eyes of wider society, either their community is to be pitied as collateral victims of violence enacted by a few radical ideologues in their midst, or they deserve to be shamed as complicit by virtue of several shared beliefs.
A condemnation of the attacks by Muslim leaders, alone, does not redeem Muslims, as it still portrays them as an “other”, collectively responsible for, and somewhat complicit in, the actions of a few. Similarly, appealing to victimhood merely reinforces prejudices of weakness, depicting Muslims as unable to resolve their own matters, and therefore in need of “rescue”.
But such marginalisation of a group could itself sow the seeds of further violence. The leader of the biggest Muslim party in Sri Lanka, Rauff Hakeem, warned that feelings of marginalisation among Muslims may be exacerbated if crackdowns are overzealous. If Muslims, a minority community in Sri Lanka, are more widely seen as “others”, it is less likely that distinctions will be made between terrorists, criminals – and ordinary followers of the religion. Tensions will likely rise. As Hakeem said:
That’s a worrying factor for all of us. The vulnerability can result in serious feelings of insecurity. We should not build up fertile ground for radicalisation further.
Our investigation into how Muslim leaders responded in the aftermath of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three and injured hundreds, shows that leaders of minority communities can create alternative narratives that can help reshape the dominant perspective.
Instead of just condemning terrorism or highlighting their victimhood, they can emphasise the recovery, healing and development of both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Following the Boston Marathon bombings, for example, Muslim leaders doubled their efforts in community development and outreach to other groups. And when responding in the media, they discussed what they had been doing to contribute to broader society.
Muslim leaders in Boston refused to merely condemn the attacks but went further by mourning the victims alongside other individuals and communities who had been affected by the attack. They also organised counselling and support sessions for the victims of the attacks. Going beyond the immediate aftermath of the atrocity, they now participate in campaigns to control illegal guns, broaden healthcare access and tackle the problem of homelessness in Boston.
This endeavour has been picked up by the local press which since then has provided a different kind of coverage of the Muslim community in Boston, recognising its efforts to combat different social problems.
By following this example, Muslim leaders can help to make Muslim identity, not “other”, but part of the mainstream. And this would allow whole societies to respond collectively to terror, and resist the temptation to find scapegoats in their midst.