Barcelona, Terror, and Muslim Identity in 2017

After ISIS attacks claimed fatalities in London, Paris, Nice, Berlin, Brussels, and Istanbul (as well as the often less discussed, often times more deadly ones throughout Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East), familiar pleas are voiced by understandably frightened citizens for something to be done.  Familiar refrains like ‘A clash of civilizations is upon us’ or ‘radical Islam is the enemy’ are often expressed, even shouted, oft-times without a semblance of a strategy moving forward to curtail this very real and ongoing deadly threat.

On Thursday, August 17th in the Spanish city of Barcelona, at least 14 people were murdered with over 120 people injured after a man believed to be 22 year old Moroccan-born Younes Abouyaaqoub intentionally drove his van along the city’s popular tourist destination Las Ramblas.  Only hours later a second van attack occurred in Cambrils, a town just west of Barcelona, where a woman was killed before police shot dead the five suspected attackers.  These vicious acts as well as another incident in Spain were all claimed by the Islamic State jihadi militant group, better known as ISIS.  And similarly afterwards, the internationally community stood perplexed.

Recently, I spoke with Pakistani-American Professor Haroon Moghul, commentator on Islam and public affairs, who has been questioned endlessly on the subject of terror and being a Muslim in the United States.  Moghul, author of the recent book How To Be A Muslim: An American Story, felt trapped becoming what he dubs a ‘professional Muslim’, forced to answer for and explain any violent actions by fellow Muslims ever since the attacks of 9/11.  This phenomenon not only fails to factor in the Muslim communities’ similar fears of this extreme and violent interpretation of Islam, but obligates them to also answer for it which ultimately serves to isolate them.

According to Moghul, one of the most common expectations you get in American media is a ritual denunciation of terrorism, where the Muslim community is time and again forced to clearly distance themselves from the attack.  “It’s offensive in so far that it assumes that just because you share a religious identify with someone that you are morally answerable for what they do.  Ultimately condemning terrorism is important, but it is woefully insufficient to actually addressing the underlying root cause of this type of violence,” Moghul says.

I pressed Moghul on his thoughts of various commentators on Islam and their solutions to issues related to terrorism. He expressed his problems with attitudes that cross into the realm of intolerance or Islamophobia, but also with those individuals who don’t speak to actual Muslims but claim they want to save them or help Islam reform.  “The Sunni Muslim tradition especially is very much bottom up and if you want to change things, you actually have to have the trust of the people you are trying to engage,” explains Moghul. “Things in the Muslim world are not going well and a lot of work needs to be done and a lot of change has to be realized but that has to come from people organically and people have to feel it is in their best interest.  If the people who are calling for reform are perceived as being hostile to Islam, then the very idea of improving or challenging things becomes feared if not distrusted and loathed.”

Moghul presses for meaningful discourse on such matters within various communities and is motivated to work without the confines of myth.  He discusses in his book the “rich, deep, spiritual traditions of Islam,” yet distances himself from the premise that Islam is purely a religion of peace.  “This is obviously false, and clearly there are a small minority of Muslims who engage in violence and believe it is justified by religion. Obviously it deserves underlining the groups like ISIS-their primary victim are other Muslims.  But it equally deserves notice that they are a genocidal movement.”

Moghul has built on the idea of “building bridges of engagement,” as he puts it, to help understand the problems that face the world today in hopes of crafting tangible solutions.  “If you are trying to build trust and bring everyday Muslims to your side, you first have to find people who will actually listen to you and are favorably disposed to idea of dialogue.  If you are hoping for a change within the Muslim world, you cannot just talk to non-Muslims.”  Moghul took the advice himself, becoming a Fellow in Jewish-Muslim Relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute after choosing to participate in its Muslim leadership initiative in Israel, a country he never imagined he would visit. The trip, he explained, “helped empower Muslims to better understand how Jewish communities understand themselves.”  Jews also got to opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue and ask questions about the Muslim world.  And even when they did not always agree or share the same narratives, Moghul says at the least there was “an appreciation and respect for different ways of looking at the world.”

With the Presidency of Donald Trump not being a particularly easy time to be Muslim in America, Moghul’s hopes are to give people the courage to rethink notions that Islam is some simplistic ideology or political program.  “Unfortunately in the last century or two and partially in response to colonialism and changing circumstances in Muslim majority societies, Islam was repurposed as an identify movement.  Or as a political program for liberation.  And probably, most famously this happened in the Arab world after the ’67 war, the failure of Pan-Arabism and secular forms of identify and ideology, and Islamism kind of stepped into the vacuum and become wildly popular.”

Issues of identity are often tricky.  And Moghul continues to explore his own as a Muslim.  “The primary function of Islam is suppose to be a means of access to God and a way of transforming yourself.  I wanted to tell the story of that struggle because I wanted to get beyond the narrative of Islam as either this amazing good thing that never does anything wrong and this incredible evil, demonic force in the world which is responsible for everyone’s problems.    And I wanted to talk about what it is actually like to be a Muslim in the world where you’re struggling with yourself and your religious tradition and the world around you and trying to make sense of all those things.”

Something certainly must be done to rein in the problem of terrorism and quell the violent ideologies that are spreading to generations of Muslims.  Beyond stepping up basic security measures and investing sizable sums to counter-intelligence methods, European leaders have struggled to find solutions.  Instability in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria has only increased radicalization across the globe, with disaffected Muslims solidifying their sense of self and purpose by taking up arms against Western invaders in Muslim lands, regimes they view as collaborators, or against secular regimes without legitimacy as they see in Syria’s strongman President Bashar al Assad.  With ISIS losing ground in Iraq and Syria, many of these youths are returning to their homes in Europe.

The attacks in Barcelona are the latest example of this particular, perverse interpretation of being Muslim leading to deadly and tragic results.  But Moghul hopes to open the door for a more complicated conversation about being Muslim, “transcending being a professional Muslim and getting beyond caricatures and getting beyond simplistic ways of looking at the world.”    Learning about various mindsets in the Muslim world will not make issues of terrorism immediately go away, but the process can serve as a steppingstone to understand issues facing Muslim communities, and what perhaps can be done to limit the spread of extreme ideas to help patch up the deep wounds they cause.  “It’s a small effort,” says Moghul, “but hopefully it opens the door to more efforts too.”

About the Author
Danny Swibel is a Tel Aviv based reporter and analyst with They Can't, an organization that tracks and fights to remove anti-Semitic & extremist content online. He researches issues related to Iraq, Syria, Islamist groups, as well as security issues related to the Israel/Palestinian conflict. He was an analyst in the counter-terrorism firm Terrogence and reporter at i24News. He holds an MA from Tel Aviv University's Middle Eastern Studies Program.