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Letter from the Editor

John L. Esposito, Editor in Chief

One of the most renowned scholars in the field of Islamic studies in the United States, Editor in Chief John L. Esposito provides a regular commentary for visitors to the site. These letters discuss topics pertaining to this resource and the Islamic world, developments on the site and other issues.

John L. Esposito

The recent attacks in Paris and Copenhagen by terrorists that killed and injured innocent civilians rightly provoked moral outrage and fear. The Paris attacks in particular—which targeted the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo—hit a deep nerve in the Western psyche not only because it killed civilians, but also because it struck at one of our most fundamental freedoms, freedom of speech, regarded as integral to Western civilization and identity.

Why did the terrorists do what they did? We rely on civic and sacred symbols as markers of our identity, and feel most threatened and outraged when these symbols are violated. The terrorists behind the attacks were banking on that. Thus we witnessed the ability of a handful of actors to terrorize a nation and spread that terror beyond its borders, as evidenced by the response of France's allies. Shortly after the incident, the United States, Great Britain, and many other countries immediately announced increased security measures, and some 50 global leaders travelled to Paris to march in solidarity in a million-person march. During a speech in the town of Évry, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared war against radical Islam—a global war in the eyes of some. With that, the terrorists had achieved their overarching goal: framing a global conflict along cultural and religious lines, in which they would serve as its first "martyrs."

These attacks, like many before them and regrettably those to come, aim to provoke a kind of asymmetric war in which a small number of people can grab worldwide attention as well as provoke anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim hate speech and hate crimes, all of which play into the victimhood and martyrdom scenario that terrorists use to mobilize support and legitimate their attacks.

Violence in the name of religion is quite simply a crime against humanity committed by murderers, not holy warriors or martyrs. The perpetrators should be labeled and remembered, if at all, as common criminals, thugs, and terrorists who, though dangerous, constitute a very small minority of extremists. Using this tiny fraction of Muslims to generalize about all adherents of Islam is not only wildly inaccurate, but plays into the hands of the terrorists who need this legitimacy in order to claim to speak for the religion. Before making these generalizations, it is important to ask: Do the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib, and the torture regimen administered in overseas rendition programs, represent all of America? Did the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist represent mainstream Judaism? Or, for that matter, the atrocities committed by militant settlers like Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 worshipers and wounded another 125 at the Hebron mosque, and whose gravesite became a pilgrimage site for Jewish extremists? Do the crosses displayed at lynchings by the Klu Klux Klan, and more recent violence and bombings by Christian Identity movements and their white supremacist theology, represent Christianity?

What if instead we isolated the perpetrators as criminals rather than anointing them as representatives of a faith community of some 1.6 billion people? The terrorists responsible for attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, much like ISIS and al-Qaeda, represent organizations that lack massive public support—no doubt because so many of their victims are Muslims themselves. In that way, these groups are similar to other fringe ideological movements claiming to represent a wider community that rejects both their philosophy and tactics. The perpetrators in Paris and Copenhagen were criminals with criminal records long before and after they became self-proclaimed religious warriors. Stripped of their "religious" rhetoric and symbolism, they can be seen for who they are: terrorists whose atrocities deliberately aim to provoke their version of a clash of civilizations.

It remains imperative that Muslims continue to condemn terror in the name of God and to promote programs that both marginalize and delegitimate extremists and emphasize religious pluralism and freedom of speech. The US and Europe are challenged to partner with Muslim leaders and communities in the fight against religious extremism. At the same time, they must protect the security and civil liberties of all their citizens; in doing so, they will respond more effectively to the root causes of terrorism as well as to ultranationalists who view the attacks as a justification for perpetual war and isolationism.

For European Muslims especially, ISIS and domestic extremists exploit the feeling of second-class citizenship, of marginalization, alienation and a lack of human dignity due to their identity as Arabs and/or Muslims. Until economic and social programs—so vital for integration, pluralism, equality and mutual respect—address these conditions, the far right (and, as in France, some on the far left) will continue to promote their politics of fear. France has in fact announced a long overdue economic relief program for chronically underdeveloped ghetto areas on the periphery of Paris. But so much more can be done. Along with development efforts, aggressive anti-Islamophobia awareness campaigns and policies are needed to counter anti-immigrant political parties (often a cover for targeting Muslims), similar to what many Western countries have done in fighting anti-Semitism.

Amidst all the difficulties outlined above, German Chancellor Angela Merkel set a good example for her colleagues. A day after walking arm-in-arm with French President François Hollande in the march in Paris, Merkel met with Turkish Tayyip Erdogan to discuss efforts to promote dialogue between religions. In a public statement, she said that Islam "belongs to Germany," a clear repudiation of the anti-immigration demonstrators gathering in Dresden and other cities. As Merkel suggests, this moment in history has forced the secular states of the West to live up to the ideals that they claim to uphold: equality, pluralism, the rule of law, civil liberties, and open dialogue.


John L. Esposito
Editor in Chief
Oxford Islamic Studies Online
March 2015

*Adapted from the article "Let's Not Fall for the Terrorists' Trap (Again)" that appeared in the Huffington Post, 13 January 2015.

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