Assessing Sept 11 - Paradigms in conflict

Jay Smith - Jan. 2002

Airliners, flown by 19 young men, crashes into buildings, killing thousands; plastic explosives hidden in trainers with the hope of taking hundreds more to their deaths, all in the name of an Arabic sounding God; how are we to make sense of it all? Like most of you, over the last few months I have been watching the news concerning the events of September 11 and its aftermath. I have noticed the remonstrations by countless Muslim pundits on our television screens against what they claim are the atrocious actions by a small minority in their midst. I have experienced the resultant anger by many Americans to the bold act of terrorism so close to home, shocked by the rising mood for revenge, leading to war; and during it all I have tried to understand what we, those of us who work with the more radicalized Muslims, need to say in response.

Before I begin, however, it may be wise to define and identify who the Muslims are that hijack our jets and seek such wanton destruction for their god, and ask whether they represent the larger Muslim community. Unfortunately, regardless of what I say, I will be accused of stereotyping Muslims, a common accusation, as anyone who works with them can well attest to the difficulty we have in defining what Islam is or what Muslims think on any given issue, particularly when the ‘underbelly of Islam’ is exposed against their will in such a public way, as the events of September 11 have so well demonstrated. It is not my intention to stereotype any religion, and I hope I will not be guilty of that in what I am now going to say.

Who are these ‘fanatical’ Muslims?

Who, then, are the Muslims who carry out attacks like the ones witnessed on Sept. 11th? Let’s be clear; they represent only a small minority of Muslims living in the West. About 15% would be categorized as fanatical or fundamental, amongst whom are those who attack our planes and public places. Conversely, the much larger group, or 'nominal' Muslims represent around 70% of the Western Muslim world. It is this group that we come in contact with on a daily basis, representing most of those in our schools or work places here in the West. This leaves the latter 15% represented by those whom I categorize as assimilated Muslims, the intellectual elite, many of whom have given up Islam, or choose to reinterpret it for the Western, ‘politically correct’ mindset (these statistics are not mine, but taken from Philip Lewis - an authority on the issue in Europe, who himself extrapolates for British Muslims Ishtiaq Ahmed’s statistics for Muslims in the city of Bradford). Unfortunately, it is the 15% fanatical or fundamental element of Muslims who are causing the predicament for the majority of others living in the West today, as they are presenting to the world a face of Islam the larger majority either do not know about, or would rather the world not know about. It might be helpful to note that this radical group has larger followings in many Muslim countries, which could possibly grow as a reaction to the US war and humiliating defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

How will Muslims react?

The actions of those 19 young men on September 11 will probably be interpreted by most Muslims living in the West in either of two ways. The majority will consider their atrocities exactly that, and therefore un-Islamic, something to be denigrated and rejected, for as they constantly remind us, Islam is a religion of peace. Their predicament lies in trying to convince the rest of us that indeed, Islam rejects such violence, and always has, sourcing their positions from scripture, or in the example of their prophet. A few of their western advocates, such as Karen Armstrong (see her article in Time, Oct. 1st, 2001, page 48) have come to their aid by introducing a revisionist spin on the history of Islam through sanitising, or simply disregarding the sword verses in the Quran, as well as the violence evidenced not only in the biography, or Sira of the Prophet, but in much of the history of Islam since the 7th century. As a corrective see Fregosi’s book on Jihad in the West, which presents a contrasting catalogue of the violence perpetrated in the name of Allah in the last 1400 years, yet, until Prometheus Press agreed to take it on, was refused by 17 other publishing houses out of fear of retaliation (note: this book is summarized on our web site at:

There will be other Muslims, however, who, though they are ashamed by the loss of life on September 11th (particularly those of women and children), will be caught up by the sheer brilliance of the act perpetrated on that day, especially the resultant destruction of the twin towers, which no-one could have foreseen, and thus, for a growing number of them, demonstrates the existence and greatness of Allah, as only he could have humiliated the ‘great Satan’ (as the US is referred to in much of their literature) so soundly and comprehensively. What's more, though they might genuinely abhor what happened in New York, and claim it extreme, they will eventually have to admit that it models what their prophet did 1400 years ago, the same prophet who as their paradigm, they are required to follow in order to know how they are to live and act today. Their difficulty lies in convincing the rest of us that such a paradigm is relevant for the 21st century.

Therein lies the dilemma for modern Muslims from either camp; on one side denouncing violence in the name of their God and his revelations, yet forced then to source their position within scripture, while on the other admiring the acts perpetrated in the name of their God, yet forced to convince us that such a belief is relevant for the world today. Ironically, such positions provide a great comparative for us as Christians, since we have a paradigm which stands in direct contrast to both camps. But before I explain, it might be best to delineate from where the radical element of Islam derive their authority.

Where does their authority lie?

On television we have seen Muslims from every quarter of their community publicly denouncing the events of September 11, reminding us that Islam is a religion of peace, which never advocates offensive violence, that the prophet was a man of peace, and that their scripture, if it does speak of violence, it is uniquely defensive. Our president Bush paid lip service to the same in his speech before Congress. I believe the majority of Muslims genuinely believe what they are saying, and genuinely despise what they saw take place in the name of their god, Allah. Yet I find it curious that few ever go to their scriptures to source what they say, while even fewer look to the example of the prophet to substantiate their claims. It is at this point, I believe, that we must demand an authority for such a claim in their scriptures, and more importantly, in the life of their model and paradigm, the prophet Muhammad. Otherwise what they say becomes nothing more than personal opinions and conjecture, setting themselves up as their own highest authority.

We would all agree that the actions of those nineteen men on September 11 was dastardly, and some of us would assume not representative of Quranic writings, nor of the prophet Muhammad. Yet it is to those two sources we need to look, for they are the foundations for everything Muslims, whether conservative, nominal or otherwise are to believe and follow. Unfortunately, the great majority of Muslims with whom we have contact, those who belong to the nominal group, never read the Qur’an as we read our Bibles, and so are not aware of many of the verses within, or of how to apply them today. They are perplexed when they hear that the Qur’an advocates violence against the unbeliever, or against those who are ‘the people of the book’, the Jews and Christians.

Looking at the Qur’an:

It is only when we take a close look at the Quran that we find a number of ayas (verses) which indeed advocate a particularly strong use for violence, and therefore could be easily appropriated by those from the more fundamentalist camp in advocating the same today.

The full impact of the invective against Pagans, for instance, can be found in sura 9:5 which says:

But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay those who join other gods with Allah wherever you find them; besiege them, seize them, lay in wait for them with every kind of ambush...

Similarly, referring to Christians sura 9:29 states:

...Make war upon such of those to whom the scriptures have been given as believe not in Allah, or in the last day, and who forbid not what Allah and his apostle have forbidden...until they pay tribute...

Concerning the unbelievers we can refer to sura 47:4 which says:

When you encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads, until ye have made a great slaughter among them...

In sura 8:39 we find a similar admonition:

And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression. And there prevail justice and faith in Allah altogether and everywhere; but if they cease, verily Allah doth see all that they do.

There are many other ayas we could refer to, in fact a total of 34 ‘sword verses’ (Jihad Qital) can be found which propose the use of violence. What is more, they are mostly situated in the more authoritative and later ‘Nasikh’ suras (chapters), revealed to Muhammad in Medina, at a time when he could dictate how the minorities in his midst, to whom these verses were directed, were to be treated. These verses do not refer to a defensive posture at all, as many current pundits on the TV would have us believe.

How should these verses be exegeted?

It is important, however, that we do not rush to conclusions and take these verses out of context. As with any scripture, in order to understand the context of the verses it is vital that we exegete them correctly, and try to find what the author intended. The Qur’an purportedly has no author (sura 85:22), so we need to appreciate how the prophet, as their paradigm, their model, and to whom the Qur’an was revealed, exegeted these verses. To do that we will need to read his biography, the ‘Sira-t-ul rasul-Allah’, and in particular, the oldest amongst this genre, the Maghazi manuscripts (his exploits in war), where we find that Muhammad himself is known to have conducted 29 battles and planned another 39 (see Sira Halabiyya, Ibn Kathirs Bidaya Wa Nihaya, and Ibn Hishams Sira).

The popular apology that Muhammad, and later, the Muslims after him, acted only in self-defence is highly unlikely. What was Muhammad defending when he attacked without provocation the Meccans travelling north during the month of peace, at the battle of Badr in AD 624? What was he defending when he threw out of Medina two of the Jewish Kahinan, the Kaynuka, and the Banu al-Nadir families? What was he defending by executing all 800 of the men belonging to the last remaining Jewish Kurayza clan, taking their wives, and children as possessions, so that within five years of his movement to Medina, no Jewish families remained within that once proud city? There is no documentation that any of these Jewish families ever attacked him, or were ever at war with him, though there is ample evidence that they did not accept his authority, nor his claim to prophethood.

It wasn’t only the Jews he attacked. What was Muhammad defending when he ordered a blind disciple named Umair to stab and kill a woman named Asma while she slept suckling her baby? Her crime: she had criticized Muhammad in poetic verse. And Muhammads response upon hearing of her death: Behold a man that hath assisted the Lord and His prophet. Call him not blind, call him rather Umair, the seeing (Nehls 1987:122).

What were the Muslims defending during the conquests of North Africa, or Spain, France, India, Persia, Syria, and Anatolia up until the middle of the 8th century, or of Constantinople in 1453, or the Balkans, Hungary and Vienna in 1526-1529 and 1683? These countries all had previous civilizations, many of which were more sophisticated than that of the Arabs, yet they all (outside of France) fell during the conquests of the Arabs in the first hundred years and later, with their cultures soon eradicated by that of Islam. Does that not evidence a rather offensive and violent interpretation for Jihad, as against the more popular and politically correct inner struggle being offered by Muslims today?

If Muslims continue to publicly claim their religion is based on peace, then let them publicly repudiate the sword verses found in their holy book, the Quran, and then let them publicly condemn the actions of their prophet, and those of the rightly guided Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali), during whose time most of the conquests of the Sassanid and Byzantine empires occurred, followed by the decimation of the church right across North Africa. We know they cannot, so why then do they continue to call this the religion of peace, when they refuse to reject the violence perpetrated by those who were its first adherents, or that perpetrated by their paradigm, the prophet himself?

What is our Paradigm?

Often I am challenged by Muslims here in the West for my seeming duplicity; willing to condemn the violence committed by Islam, yet refusing to condemn our violent Christian history, evidenced in the Crusades, and the Spanish Inquisition, or by the colonial powers, or more recently, manifested by the Catholic/Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. Yet, ironically, I am the first to condemn them, for one very obvious reason because my authority, and my paradigm, the Lord Jesus Christ, would have done so. He, who was violated against, unjustifiably, to the point of death, categorically condemned the use of violence throughout his life and ministry. In Matthew 26:52, he demands that Peter put away his sword, and stated emphatically that He who lives by the sword must die by the sword, and exemplified it in his own life, by neither advocating it nor practising it (even to the point of refusing to save his imprisoned cousin, John), and then provided us with our best model concerning how we are to act towards our enemies in Matthew 5:38-44.

But I don't stop there, for I then ask Muslims to do the same, to condemn any form of religious violence, whenever and wherever it is perpetrated in the name of God. It is this that I find so many Muslims unable to do, though they continue to call that which they believe a religion of peace, and desire it for themselves today.

I believe we have the moral authority to ask them to do so, as I did publicly in my debate with Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad in 1999, because as Christians we are obliged to condemn violence whenever we see it, especially that found in our own church, or the history of our church. And from where is such an authority derived; from the same source Muslims derive their authority: from scripture, as well as our paradigm, the Lord Jesus Christ who never used violence, even when violence was perpetrated against him, to the point of allowing himself to be sacrificed, rather than calling the host of angels who could have protected him. What a corrective the example of Jesus is for us today.

Is our Paradigm consistent?

Many have suggested that it is too simplistic to assume one’s revelation can explain the actions of those who adhere to it, that we need to look beyond revelation to the reasons behind the use of violence by Muslims in the past, or even that used today, before we condemn its practice; implying this might absolve them of guilt. The Palestinian situation is often used as an example. Some of my Christian friends have expressed anger at the injustice perpetrated against the Palestinians by Israel, and even suggested that were they in their shoes they might likewise choose the bullet. This, I feel is fuzzy and dangerous logic. By suggesting there is room to reciprocate with violence we eradicate whatever moral authority we may have had in our initial criticism, and leave ourselves open to the use of violence as a possible tool whenever injustice raises its ugly head.

We must remember that every group believes their grievances are genuine. Even the Catholics/Protestants of Northern Ireland, whose example many of us abhor, can both point to personal injustices rather convincingly. They have chosen violent revenge ... look where they are today.

My paradigm has to be my Lord Jesus Christ, who, though he had all the right to complain about the unfairness of his situation, never reciprocated with violence, but went as a lamb to the slaughter. The disciples and the early church lived daily with persecution, yet they never reverted to violence to solve their problems. In fact they were all killed, except for one, for what they believed; yet look at all they accomplished, despite their weakness, because they allowed God to work mightily through them as weak ‘earthen vessels’. Why should it be any different for us today?

What weapons will we use?

What then was their weapon to bring about justice? The Bushes and Blairs of this world have chosen to use bullets and bombs to bring the Osama bin Ladens to justice. Much of the world, including most of my Christian friends, would agree with such tactics. That is a solution, however, I feel is insufficient, because I am well aware that though the West may eliminate the Taliban from Afghanistan, and seriously incapacitate Al Qaeda, they will never eradicate fundamental thought from Islam, for one can never defeat religious ideas with bullets, especially if those ideas are founded in revelation. In fact, the West’s militaristic response may have simply created a catharsis for an even larger pool of like-minded suicide volunteers to hit our shores in the future.

The weapons the early church used were much the same that we use at Speakers Corner in London every Sunday afternoon, or on the university campuses, or at the book tables within the many Muslim quarters: not bombs and bullets, but our mouths and our minds. Often we use them to attack the scriptural foundations of those who are dependant on such to substantiate their cause; knowing that by decimating their scriptural authority, we eradicate whatever credibility they might now enjoy. We don't stop there, however, but provide an alternative by applying a similar critique to our scriptural authority, and then argue for principles and ideas based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and his disciples found in those scriptures, and against that which stands in opposition to it. It makes for a great comparative, one which finds it precedence in the early church itself.

As Paul said so eloquently to the Corinthian church:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they are divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

If it was good enough for Paul in the 1st century, then why should it be any different for us in the 21st? Granted, such a methodology will not be popular during a time when the national mood is that of revenge, nor will it provide a quick solution, especially in a society which thrives on such. Yet, unless we take to our hearts the model of our Lord, and the early church, a model which Islam cannot readily claim to understand, I feel we will bring to our shores, not just 19 volunteers bent on destruction from the air, but hundreds of newly galvanized ‘Talibes’ bent on destruction on the ground, following the only example they know, that of their prophet and his revelation, in stark contrast to my Lord and saviour Jesus Christ, and his gospel.

Therein lies my example, my paradigm, one which condemns the actions so recently witnessed on our shores, yet correcting the false perceptions of our critiques, while simultaneously providing the only legitimate model I know which can truly give them a model for the peace they so eagerly desire. After all, it is peace, is it not, which we desire; then let that be our primary recourse.

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