It is good to be clear about how the world really is, rather than how we would like it to be. One easy mistake to make is to conflate radical Islam with Islam. Islam does not have a moderate form and an extreme form. Indeed, neither do Christianity or Judaism. All three religions are large social structures with deep roots in history and with a large wealth of inherited experience and tradition. They are big projects which have evolved to meet the needs of their adherents, and like all human creations they have high points and low points, triumphs and tragedies, heroes and villains. As a secular atheist I am inclined to be skeptical of the claims of organised religion, but it is what it is and it isn’t entirely bad. It offers many people a community to belong to, and that is no small thing and not something I would deprive them of.
I don’t think that the radical groups we see in the form of terrorist organisations can really claim to have any connection with the historic faith communities whose trappings they adopt. Islamic groups get the bulk of the media coverage, but Jewish settlers and messianic Christian survivalists follow the same mould.
These are rootless novel creations. They bear as much relationship to the traditions whose names they adopt as a fast food chain does to the tradition of fine dining. People who want to pin the blame for so called Islamic terrorism on Islam itself by cherry picking verses from the Koran are missing the point. The Jihadists haven’t read the Koran, and wouldn’t have the traditional understanding of it if the did.
People were surprised when they heard a London accent on an Islamic State Youtube video. It was entirely predictable. In fact it wasn’t even the most remarkable example. The prosaic Anglo-Saxon name Richard Reid would be much better known if his half baked attempt to blow up a plane by putting explosives in his shoes had succeeded.
Radical religious extremism is a phenomena of the modern world and its easy communication and globalisation. Al-Qaeda is much more like Starbucks than the armies of the original prophet. It even operates a franchise system. The real aim of Starbucks is not to bring coffee to the world but to make money for its shareholders. The real aim of Jihad is not to bring Islam to unbelievers but to bring power to the Jihadists.
It is important to keep a clear mind about this. Radical Islam is a threat and a menace to our way of life in the West. But it is a calamity of the highest order to muslims. The extent to which this is the case is brought home by the examples that Karima Bennoune highlights in this book. She has interviewed over 300 victims of radical terror to capture an idea of what it is like to live with ruthless power hungry barbarians on your doorstep.
The most moving example is the work of Faizen Peerzada, a Pakistani puppeteer whose Rafi Peer Theatre festival in Lahore in 2008 was bombed by Islamists. The next day, they festival went on and was attended by huge crowds of parents bringing their children to see the puppets in defiance of the attacks.
You marvel at the courage of people who stand up to the terrorists whose arsenal of weapons is not as frightening as their inhumanity. They are not only heedless of harming women and children, they are quite prepared to use rape and torture as a weapon. Indeed a woman simply seeking an education makes herself a target. The only female prosecutor in Afghanistan, Maria Bashir, needs a bodyguard of 23 to carry on her work. And this is not over caution. In one of many attacks one of her bodyguards has lost a leg.
Bennoune has done a great service by helping clarify the problem. She doesn’t have much to say about solutions but maybe the first stage is to acknowledge that radical religion is a problem for you if you are secular or follow a traditional religion, if you are female or if you have relatives who are female, you believe in education rather than ignorance and if you a politically progressive or conservative. Surely we can do something about it if we work together?