Why Should an Academic Course on Islamist Terror Rile Muslims?

Sometimes back, there was a proposal in JNU to teach a course on Islamic terrorism. There was severe criticism from different sections of society as to why such a course was proposed in the first place. The academic world argued that the course should be more inclusive and therefore should teach about uses of terror in various religions not just Islam. Now there cannot be any argument with the historical fact that various religions have used terror in one way or the other. To single out Islam, as the course did, lent credence to the perception that the course was ideologically prejudiced.


On the other hand, when so much of contemporary terrorism seems to be happening in the name of Islam, then it makes sense to engage specifically with this phenomenon. And what better way to do it but within the academia. It also must be kept in mind that clubbing all religions together will de-focus the entire program. If what one is interested in is the linkage between Islam and terror, then the entire focus should be on that particular linkage itself.

 Moreover, in this particular instance, the sound liberal position to take would be to leave such academic matters in the hands of the university or the teachers concerned. The problem is that liberals in India have come to believe that while freedom and autonomy of teachers and educational institutions should be paramount when they are in power, others should be denied such freedoms.

Another level of problem was with the very word Islamic itself. Critics were quick to point out that no religion sanctions violence and therefore using the word ‘Islamic’ for a course on terrorism was going too far. After all, the argument continued, we don’t use Christian terrorism or Hindu terrorism so why should we use the term Islamic terrorism.

This narrative is historically uninformed. Christians, Muslims and Hindus, acting out their belief system have all used violence at some point of time in their histories. If not then how do we understand the crusades, the burning at the stakes and the persecution of Buddhists? The problem is not so much that religions have used terror; rather the bigger problem is that there is no consensus on how to define terror.

For example, the history of independence of third world countries is replete with example where our prominent freedom fighters have used terror and violence as a viable and respectable means to achieve their ends. But then we do not have a problem with this kind of terror. Terror has also been used by various states in the developing and developed worlds on their own population but then since the state has a monopoly of violence, we do not understand this as terror. So it is the word terror which is very difficult to map and define because one’s terrorist might well be the other’s martyr.

 However, this should not deviate us from the more fundamental question of religious terrorism. If acts of terror are carried out in which religious motivation is the prime motivating factor, then why should we shy away from calling the name of religion associated with the terrorists. And more importantly, if those who are carrying out such attacks in the name of Islam, then who are we to say that they are no truly Muslims? 

Disparate Muslim groups opposed the proposed course simply because it would bring a bad name to Islam. They were quick to point out that Islam means peace and that there is no place for violence in this religion. Nothing can be further from truth.

Firstly, it has become fashionable these days to start with the faulty premise that Islam is a religion of peace. No religion is completely about peace or violence. With Islam in particular, the history of the religion is filled with violence right since its inception. What is worse, Muslims started fighting each other over political power soon after the death of its prophet. It is not that Muslims are unaware of their own history. Rather the problem is just the opposite: they are too aware of their violent historical past. And that’s the reason why they now want to proclaim it as a religion of peace.

Properly speaking, Islam should mean submission more than anything else and the Muslim in one who submits. There is no need for Muslims to deny their past: all religions have been violent at some point in their history. The point is to accept the problematic history and see to it that it is not repeated. Merely saying that Islam is a religion of peace will not make Islam into one; Muslims have to actively construct an alternative hermeneutic tradition if they want to proclaim Islam as a peaceful religion.

Against this backdrop, it was rather rich of AMU students Union and the Delhi Minority Commission chairman to write to JNU to change that particular course. The AMU needs to answer some tough questions in this regard. Why is it that it is taking interest in the affairs of another university? Shouldn’t the job of AMU students union be to take care of the needs and interests of student community in their own university? Granted that they have a right to political critique, but then when will they start critiquing the situation in their own campus? If they demand from JNU that it respects ‘their’ sentiments, isn’t it about time that AMU shows the same sensitivity towards its own diverse student population.

How about starting a course on Hinduism in AMU? Similarly, it shouldn’t be the business of a minority commission to seek clarification from a university over the contents of an academic course. Muslims are facing far serious problems in this country and it will be better if the commission actually focuses on the daily humiliations which Muslims are facing today. It is better to leave academic matters to the concerned university.

After a huge uproar, JNU decided to drop the course and even denied that they were planning to introduce any such course at all. However, it is now learnt that they are planning to introduce it as a research theme by altering the title from ‘Islamic’ terrorism to ‘Islamist’ terrorism. But even the research theme has run into trouble. Muslim critics have been quick to point out the ‘nefarious’ designs of the university behind introducing the research theme. Even if we grant that given the political discourse in the country, the usage ‘Islamic’ terrorism might have disturbed Muslims, one doesn’t understand why ‘Islamist’ terrorism should have the same effect.

We need to differentiate between Islamic and Islamist: the latter only attests the political use of Islam to capture state power where violence is indeed one of the many options. Isn’t this the ultimate aim of Islamists the world over and isn’t it that they have used terror as a method to achieve that end? How do we understand the Taliban and more recently the ISIS except through the lens of Islamist terror? Worldwide, even amongst Muslim scholars, there is now a consensus that it is the ideology of Islamism which needs to be resisted.

 So what’s the problem in a course or a research theme which is intends to teach and research different aspects of this phenomenon and why should Indian Muslims resist it? The only reason seems to be lack of clarity to differentiate between Islam and Islamism. Additionally, Indian Muslims seems to have a problem with any usage or reference of Islam made by others which is non-flattering.

This is a huge problem and the sooner Muslims address it, the better it will be for them. They should have the willingness to openly debate any existing criticism of Islam. Without this self-introspection, it is difficult to see how we as Indian Muslims, can come to terms with the world around us. Not accepting that Islam, like any other religion, can lend itself to terrorism will only push us towards a dystopic worldview where Muslims become the perpetual victim and terrorist incidents like 9/11 appear to be the handiwork of the Zionists. 

Arshad Alam is a NewAgeIslam.com columnist  

Courtesy: New Age Islam



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