I was surprised last week to learn how easily some Westerners believe terrorism can be explained. The realization unfolded as I looked into the sad face of a student at Oxford University. After giving a speech about Islam, I met this young magazine editor to talk about Islam's lost tradition of critical thinking and reasoned debate. But we never got to that topic. Instead, we got stuck on the July 7 bombings in London and what might have compelled four young, British-raised, observant Muslim men to blow themselves up while taking innocent others with them.
She emphasized their "relative economic deprivation." I answered that the lads had immigrant parents who had worked hard to make something of themselves. I reminded her that several of the 9/11 hijackers came from wealthy families, and it's not as if they left the boys out of the will. Finally, I told her about my conversation three years ago with the political leader of Islamic Jihad in Gaza. "What's the difference between suicide, which the Koran condemns, and martyrdom?" I asked. "Suicide," he replied, "is done out of despair. But remember: most of our martyrs today were very successful in their earthly lives." In short, there was a future to live for--and they detonated it anyway.
By this time, the Oxford student had grown somber. It was clear I had let her down. I had failed to appreciate that the London bombers were victims of British society. To be fair to her, she is right that marginalization, real or perceived, diminishes self-esteem. Which, in turn, can make young people vulnerable to those peddling a radical message of instant belonging. But suppose the messages being peddled are marinated in religious rhetoric. Then wouldn't you say religion plays some role in motivating these atrocities?
The student shifted uncomfortably. She just couldn't bring herself to examine my suggestion seriously. And I suppose I couldn't expect her to. Not when Muslim leaders themselves won't go there. Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general for the Muslim Council of Britain, is an example. In the midst of a debate with me, he listed potential incentives to bomb, including "alienation" and "segregation." But Islam? God forbid that the possibility even be entertained.
That is the dangerous denial from which mainstream Muslims need to emerge. While our spokesmen assure us that Islam is an innocent bystander in today's terrorism, those who commit terrorist acts often tell us otherwise. Mohammed Atta, ringleader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, left behind a note asserting that "it is enough for us to know that the Koran's verses are the words of the Creator of the Earth and all the planets." Atta highlighted the Koran's description of heaven. In 2004 the executioners of Nick Berg, an American contractor in Iraq, alluded on tape to a different Koranic passage: "Whoever kills a human being, except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land, shall be regarded as having killed all mankind." The spirit of that verse forbids aggressive warfare, but the clause beginning with except is readily deployed by militant Muslims as a loophole. If you want murder and villainy in the land, they say, look no further than U.S. bootprints in Arab soil.