Discourse and Representation in the Post-9/11 World

After 9/11, the collective representation of Muslims in the world has been mediated by a misleading, yet cogent public discourse. Underscored by a narrative of fear, this discourse is constructed and preserved by an opportunistic political class and a craven corporate media. The West—namely Europe and North America—has embraced a series of distorted representations of Muslims around the world. These distortions have perverted the language employed in the analysis of the broader public in order to make sense of 9/11 and its analogues.

While accepting the 2011 Tikkun Award from Tikkun magazine, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf of Zaytuna College, and one of the most influential Muslims in the West, called upon the religious communities to deal with the “negative externalities of religion.” An “externality” is an economic term used to refer to the unintended effects of a transaction, somewhat like how the term “blowback” is used in the intelligence community. In this case, Shaykh Yusuf was referring to those who used their religions in order to justify acts of terrorism. Like a corporation that inadvertently releases toxic waste into the river, religion—by such an approximation—when lived, is capable of emitting its own refuse. The analogy is not perfect, but one can appreciate its attempt at contextualizing the problem of terrorism.

However, when it comes to restoring the clarity, honesty, and nuance of our public discourse after 9/11, Shaykh Yusuf’s timely and appropriate proposition must be supplemented. There is nobility in trying to stop terrorism, in realizing that (in this case) the religion used to justify acts of terror is the same one that guides one’s life, and in caring about how one’s religion is perceived by the broader public. Shaykh Yusuf’s introspective gaze necessitates that Muslims look within their umma and be collectively responsible for how Islam is perceived by the rest of humanity. There is honour in such a proposal, but also a great deal of risk.

Firstly, while asking Muslims to collectively look within their own community (and themselves) is a noble attempt at warding off hypocrisy, it also inadvertently mirrors the ignorant attitude which lumps peace-loving Muslims with Muslim terrorists (not “Islamic terrorists”). One can easily fall for the assumption that collective responsibility results from collective guilt. Secondly, by characterizing the problem of terrorism as a phenomenon in which Muslims ultimately have to solve, one leaves out the real reasons for terrorism—reasons that lie beyond theological and religious justifications.

Among others, Dr. Robert Pape and the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) have researched deeply into the motives and dynamic that drive terrorism (especially in the form of suicide bombing). Documenting a period of twenty-three years (1980-2003; 315 suicide missions in total), Pape and his colleagues have warned against the tendency to label “Islamic fundamentalism” as the central cause of terrorism, and “thus [concluding that] the wholesale transformation of Muslim societies into secular democracies, even at the barrel of a gun, [as] the obvious solution.” Over this twenty-three year period, the leading perpetrator of suicide bombing was the staunchly secular and Marxist resistance organization known as the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), who are active in Sri Lanka. The data, as CPOST has collected and examined, shows that the public discourse linking terrorism with religious piety is misleading. There is no shortage of such studies, coming from all segments of the political spectrum, of which CPOST occupies a pro-establishment and rather conservative position.

The real reasons behind terrorism of the al-Qaeda type lies in its purported grievances: military occupation, foreign intervention, and state terrorism. To ignore this colossal elephant in the room is dangerous, and allows for the further pollution of our public discourse, already suffused with fear and misunderstanding. Even so, it is crucial to mention here that telling Muslims (or any other group of people) to seriously examine the issue of terrorism is not an incorrect thing to do. However, the reasons for which one should examine this issue must, in this post 9/11 atmosphere, be crystal clear. In other words, our societies cannot afford any longer to be held hostage to a collective narrative that omits the “toxic externalities” of our foreign policy and our overall political orientation. Keeping the actual, political causes behind terrorism in mind, one finds that Shaykh Yusuf’s proposal and plea completes only half of the picture. According to the most updated scholarship, terrorism in the Muslim world is more a byproduct of sociopolitical circumstance than a result of “religion gone wrong”. Religion is often used in order to excuse one’s actions, and should not be confused with the elements that induce such actions.

Of course, when Muslim terrorists are brash and misguided enough to yell loud and clear that Allah and his messengers sanction terrorist means, they are intruding on sacred ground. For conscientious and intelligent Muslim leaders such as Shaykh Yusuf, the urge to keep the image and communities of Islam clean is a noble pursuit. There is no arguing about that. But rather than treat the problems of terrorism and political violence as issues exclusive to the Muslim community (and thus “ours” or “theirs” to solve), one should look at the bigger picture and realize that these issues are intimately related to the policies and actions executed by higher political powers. Therefore, curbing the resurgence of Muslim violence/terrorism should be a collective effort incumbent upon all peoples who refer to such institutions of power as their governments.

Muslim are no doubt responsible to a substantial degree in terms of condemning the usage of Islam as an excuse to carry out acts of terror. Imagine if, say, several Chinese individuals began to rob stores and somehow saw fit to use their ethnic background as an excuse. One would expect the massive bulk of Chinese people in the world (who hear of such an absurd event) to rebuke such a ludicrous justification. The same logic applies to the Muslim communities. But the case of Muslim terrorism comes with its own social and historical baggage. It is by now obvious that terrorism will not go extinct unless the correct social and political circumstances align in order to put out its fuse. It is incumbent upon all citizens to push their governments to pursue policies that do not encourage more violence, whether in the form of Muslim terrorism or not.

This is how a just and fair society must regain the public discourse: by completing the picture that Shaykh Yusuf began to sketch out in his acceptance speech.

Steven Zhou is a Canadian student at the University of Toronto with a special interest in Western responses to “Islamic terror.” He is a regular contributor to The Canadian Charger. Read other articles by Steven, or visit Steven's website.