A Conversation With Yasir Qadhi on Paris, Terrorism and Islam
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Yasir Qadhi, one of America’s most influential Islamic theologians, clerics and intellectuals.
The attacks in Paris highlight the deep complexity and uncertainty that surrounds the 21st century. War and terrorism seem to be ubiquitous, and the competing narratives of politicians, pundits and experts have only further obfuscated our understanding of these situations. In the week since the Paris attacks, however, there has been a torrent of commentary focusing almost exclusively on the effects of Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State or ISIS), and how it might impact on foreign policy and security. Yet there has been almost no conversation about the root causes that drive such violence and extremism in Europe or the Middle East.
Until that conversation has been exhausted, this kind of terrorism will inevitably become part of the status quo. As a result, the recent epidemic of terrorism linked to Daesh in France, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey is hardly coincidental and should be balanced against wider social, political and economic failures that are rarely discussed.
To make sense of these complicated issues, Fair Observer met Dr. Yasir Qadhi, one of America’s most influential Islamic theologians, clerics and intellectuals. Qadhi is the dean of Academic Affairs at the Al-Maghrib Institute and an associate professor at Rhodes College. He is also one of the organizers and signatories of the “Letter to Baghdadi,” a global campaign organized by Muslim scholars condemning Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Daesh.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Yasir Qadhi about a range of subjects not traditionally addressed in the aftermath of such devastating terrorist attacks. They are all at once provocative and challenging, which is exactly the kind of frank and honest discussion that is needed to shape our perspective in the wake of such tragic events.
Landon Shroder: I thought it was important to conduct this interview with you, because after such tragic events—like those in Paris—the global media seems to intentionally omit the Muslim perspective, which I personally view as being critical to understanding things like terrorism and the politics that surround it. In fact, one might go so far as to say that it is the essential perspective needed to defeat terrorism. So, let’s start with the attacks in Paris: What is your take on the situation? What do you think ISIS’ goal was in launching these attacks?
Yasir Qadhi: Thanks for interviewing me, and it is always a pleasure to speak with you. Obviously, I begin by making an unconditional condemnation of this attack, and I state that as a Muslim preacher, theologian and cleric that I firmly believe with every fiber of my body that the interpretation of this group is antithetical to my religion. I do not at all sympathize with what they have done, and [I] believe what they have done is a grievous offense, and in fact, their interpretations are outside the scope of mainstream Islam.
I make this disclaimer because the problem comes every time we want to discuss the causes and motivations of such groups; automatically there is this attempt to portray the person who brings up these causes as sympathizing—or worse, maybe even justifying these attacks. So, I have to begin any discussion with that disclaimer.
With that prologue being said, the causes of this terrorist attack should be linked to what ISIS has said, and it is reasonable to at least pay attention to what they themselves are saying. Typically, terrorists are extremely explicit about the causes of their terrorism. ISIS released a statement after the attacks claiming responsibility and explaining and clarifying why they did it. The fact of the matter is—from their perspective, not ours, not mainstream American or European Muslims—they feel they are at war with France. As justification, they mention France’s involvement with the bombings of Syria and getting involved in the tragedies that are taking place in the Middle East.
There are also other factors that need to be looked at, such as rising Islamophobia and the alienation and disenfranchisement of European Muslims, in particular. It is not a coincidence that some of the main people involved in the attack were coming from families and places in France and Belgium where the unemployment rates and the ghettoization of Muslims is quite pronounced. Now, again, there is no justification, but when you have large segments of unemployed youth loitering around unable to find jobs or get educated, it is only natural that they will gravitate toward a militant, utopian version of a faith that seems to give them a sense of purpose and glory to their lives.
I will also point out that it is not a coincidence that radical Islamist movements seem to have more sway in Europe than in America. One of the simplest explanations for this is: American Muslims, by and large, are better integrated, better welcomed and more a part of society, whereas European Muslims, especially in France, suffer from discriminatory practices.
Shroder: After these attacks, the West is usually predisposed to retaliate via bombs and bullets, and we’ve already seen the French launch a series of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. For lack of a better term, I guess we can call these “revenge attacks.” The Americans, Jordanians and now the French have all gone down this path. How do you view this kind of response?
Qadhi: This is the irony. Forget learning from history—what happened post-9/11 isn’t even history; it is living memory. We do not even learn from living memory.
If we are not going to learn that bombing entire civilizations and cities is not going to solve the problems of terrorism, then we are in for a very grim future. Here is the point: The cities in Syria controlled by ISIS—99.999% of them are just civilians trying to eke out an existence between the brutality of Bashar al-Assad [the Syrian regime] and the fanatical militarism of ISIS. It is these civilians who are going to take the brunt of these bombs, not ISIS. And as you kill more and more civilians, inevitably you are going to generate more sympathy for the terrorist groups. You might also see the spawning of groups even more radical than ISIS. Frankly, it is terrifying that al-Qaeda was our biggest enemy—no one could have ever imagined that a group could be worse than them. Now, al-Qaeda looks like a group of pacifists compared to ISIS.
We need to recognize that we have caused this kind of fanaticism. So, if ISIS is the result of a post-al-Qaeda world of regional destabilization and the destruction of an entire country, I shudder to think what the potential permutation of ISIS might look like.
One day before the French blast, ISIS attacked Beirut [in Lebanon]. Dozens of people were killed and wounded—all of them civilians. What was the reaction of the world? Hardly a blip registered on our moral consciousness scales. How about when innocent civilians are killed by our own misjudgments and tactical mistakes? How much outcry is raised? Not that much. The problem then becomes: Is all human life equal? The visceral rage that some of us feel to attack back and kill them—from their perspective, they are feeling the exact same rage and that is the scary part.
Shroder: There seems to be a lot of talk about military action, but little in the ways of actual political solutions, which I find ironic since political failures created the space for ISIS to metastasize. Is ISIS a political issue, a military issue, a religious issue or a combination of all three?
Qadhi: I have no problem if we included strategically targeted ISIS leadership and made sure we eliminated them without harming civilians. But the fact of the matter is: There are no surgical strikes; this is a figment of Western imagination. You cannot target the leadership of an organization that is living among the civilian population without bringing about casualties that are more civilian than actual leaders of ISIS. You cannot militarily target a group of 400 or 500 people who are living in a city of a million. If you think this is justified as collateral damage on their side, then guess what? You are quoting [Osama] bin Laden’s justification for 9/11; ISIS’ justification for attacking targets over here.
Additionally, even if you could eliminate ISIS, why is there such palpable anger and hatred against certain societies? Those answers are political. It is not that they hate us because of our freedoms. They hate us because of what we have done to their countries, and that has a political angle that needs to be dealt with as well. Religion comes in at the end to justify their actions and to drum up more recruitment. The religion is not the cause of these terrorist actions; the religion of Islam is brought in at the very end to give it a veneer of acceptability.
The fact of the matter is [that] if the Muslims of the West were sympathetic to such acts, we would see this on a daily basis. The mere fact that nothing like this has occurred for 15 years [in the US] clearly demonstrates that ISIS and al-Qaeda are bankrupt organizations when it comes to popular support [in the Muslim world].
Shroder: And that is a desperately overlooked as a narrative in the West, isn’t it?
Qadhi: Totally overlooked. If Muslims were inherently so violent and terroristic, then we would really be in trouble. Even the FBI has acknowledged that we have more to fear from right-wing racists groups and militias than we do from Muslim groups.
Shroder: That is a great lead in for my next question. From my perspective, Muslim involvement in preventing terrorist attacks is obviously a critical component of global security, without which there is no real hope in defeating something like ISIS. So, from a Muslim point of view, what is the most efficient way for countries to deal with attacks such as these? There needs to be a balance between state security and sensitivity to Muslims—can these two things be reconciled?
Qadhi: If governments fall for this narrative that Muslims are a potential fifth column, then ISIS has won, because that is exactly what they want. This is the main recruitment tool that ISIS uses: disenfranchised, young, angry men. If racism increases and Islamophobia is on the rise, what is going to happen if the narrative of ISIS actually gains more traction? We need to be very careful about not falling prey to what ISIS wants us to do. Muslims are not sympathetic to ISIS or al-Qaeda, because we suffer doubly.
Firstly, we live in the same society that the terrorist attacks take place in, so we die as well. During 9/11, at least 92 Muslims were also killed, so we suffer like everyone else. Secondly, we suffer the backlash from the larger society who thinks we are complicit, and then if we try to contextualize and explain that it does not come from the religion, but from political grievances, we are then somehow being complicit or sympathetic—when we are not at all.
Just because the American Muslim community is sympathetic to, let’s say, the Palestinians does not at all triangulate to them being sympathetic with these radical groups that claim to be fighting on behalf of these oppressed people. There is a world of difference. You can sympathize with the causes and be very much opposed to the tactics of particular groups who support those causes.
Shroder: In terms of state security and how it relates to their own Muslim populations after events such as Paris, how can governments be better engaged with the Muslim community in working together to prevent further attacks?
Qadhi: At some stage, we really do need to take a step back and ask ourselves: How ethical are our foreign policies? How legitimate are they? Is there something we are doing wrong, or do we really firmly believe that what we are doing across the world is legitimate and fair and valid?
That is the conversation we never talk about. We immediately jump to, “How do we control the Muslims?” Before we even get there, let’s take a step back ask the very difficult question: Are all people actually equal? Let’s talk about that.
In our case [the US], is our foreign policy ethical and fair? Is this something we are proud of? Let’s have this conversation even as we have the other difficult conversation: What can the American and European Muslim community do to combat terrorism? Let’s not concentrate on one element without taking a step back and asking ourselves: What is it that causes a young Muslim man to sympathize with radical groups?
The causes are not reading the Quran. The causes are, and here we can bring the long list of grievances that they have: drone attacks, Guantanamo, Islamophobia, or in the European case, it would be racism, discrimination and ghettoization. These are very legitimate economic and political causes that have nothing to do with the religion. Now we have to ask ourselves, are we going to disenfranchise the Muslim community of France even more? Are we going to increase the ghettoization and the scrutiny and make them feel even more like a fifth column and then assume that crime and terrorism is going to go down? I think that is very naive.
It is falling prey to the narrative of ISIS. And there is some very basic human psychology at play here as well: The more you make them feel like the “other,” the more likelihood they have of being the “other.”
Shroder: Switching direction slightly: The regional refugee crisis post-Paris attacks is going to become a global issue, and the usual knee jerk reactions are already being called for: a closing of borders, refusal of entry to people fleeing the very same violence. Is this what ISIS wants? Is this part of the chaos they are hoping to fuel as part of a wider global agenda?
Qadhi: This is obviously twofold for ISIS. Number one, they do not want Syrians fleeing from their own land because ISIS is controlling some of that land. Number two, they want to exacerbate the tension between Muslim immigrants and the West. What people need to realize is that these people [refugees] are fleeing from ISIS, and to blame the refugees and deprive people of the freedom that we as immigrants all enjoy is horrible. That is not the American way; all of us are immigrants to this land, and to deprive people who are facing such difficult circumstances is wrong.
I have to mention another point, which really is poignant here. The French prime minister said this was a new type of war, and that they need to amend their constitution and change their laws. This is exactly what we did in America, yet I find it ironic that our freedoms are so fragile that one attack can cause us to restrict those freedoms, which we cherish the most.
What this means is that people of Muslim backgrounds will be treated in a different manner. We have already seen this in America post-9/11. This is exactly where we are headed, but where are we going to be two or three steps down the line when fear and paranoia develops about a minority population and a stigma is attached to them?
So here’s the point: It has become mainstream to talk about getting rid of Muslims. This is a precursor to any action the government could take against us, and one wonders are we going to see the re-emergence of internment camps like with Japanese Americans [during WW2]? Is that the way it is going to go? Because we are projecting our own fears and insecurities onto a group that is not by and large supportive of what is going on.
If we want to be frank, there have been more mass murders by young Caucasian kids than by Muslims in America.
Shroder: Well there is that. In conversations I always try point out that juxtaposition, but usually to no avail. People seemingly forget that the levels of gun violence in the US far outweigh any potential threat that terrorists might pose. Let me ask you something else. We talked about why European Muslims become marginalized and feel the need to join ISIS, but you only touched briefly on the problem in the US. Do you think the US has a similar problem? Is the potential for seduction the same?
Qadhi: No, not to that level, which is why we have far fewer cases of American Muslims flipping over. It is much more pronounced in Belgium and France given the demographics and socioeconomic difference, and that is a very palpable difference between European Islam and American Islam.
Shroder: Can you explain that a bit more—the differences? I feel like that is very interesting for readers, because so many Americans assume the playing field for Muslims in Europe and America is exactly the same.
Qadhi: OK, let me put this in a very crude way. Certain demographics in America—let’s call them, for lack of a better term, “Fox News viewers”—they fear three distinct issues: number one being-immigration; number two being racial issues (blacks or Latinos); and number three being Islam. This is true for a large segment of this country—a segment that is not as educated as I would like them be.
Well, imagine those three fears being combined in one group. That is essentially what is happening in France. The immigrants are Islamic, who are also socioeconomically depressed, so the problems we have in America, which we split into three, are all combined in France. Muslims are stigmatized, stereotyped, under-educated and made the “other.” As one example, Muslims represent 5% of the total population in France, yet in prisons Muslim account for almost 60% of all inmates.
In America, those demographics are somewhat similar to the African American community.
Additionally because of the way European cities are structured, there is a lot more ghettoization. What I mean by this is that there are entire areas in many cities that are predominately Muslim. So there is a physical ghettoization of Muslim communities—not in every city, but in some cities and Paris is an example where there are parts of the city that are entirely North African.
These areas are underdeveloped and underprivileged, and that does not exist in America. Most Muslims in America live in suburban capitals and are engineers, lawyers and doctors. The average Muslim is upper middle-class in America and educated, whereas in England, the average Muslim is from the labor class.
Most Muslims who came to the US came for the sake of education, and automatically that changes the entire dynamic. That in and of itself is enough to belie the concept that Islam is the cause of radicalization. There are social and economic causes, as well as political grievances and yes, at the end, as I said, there is an element of Islam.
Shroder: Let me bring it back to America for a second, and I am sure you followed the news today. US governors [31 of them] have gone public in their refusal to take Syrian refugees for fear of terrorist attacks. And as we know, leading presidential candidates have also called for monitoring and potentially shutting mosques. How does this impact the perception of the millions of Muslims living in America? Because a “Syrian refugee” is really just a code word for Muslim.
Qadhi: It is sad because this is a veiled form of racism, where it is assumed that these refugees are responsible for these kinds of terrorist attacks. Whereas the fact of the matter is, in all likelihood, there was probably not a single Syrian refugee involved. To further stigmatize people who are fleeing for their lives and to shut our borders is about the most un-American thing we can do. Have we not learned from the 1930s when we shut the doors to the Jewry of France and Germany fleeing? We all regret that now, and we never seem to learn from our own history. American is a land of immigrants.
By the way Steve Jobs’ father was a Syrian immigrant—so to deny Syrian immigrants, we wouldn’t have Apple.
What this means is that people of Muslim backgrounds will be treated in a different manner. We have already seen this in America post-9/11.
Shroder: After attacks such as these, we constantly require condemnation of extremists from the Muslim community. Do these kinds of statements do damage to the Muslim community? To have to constantly deny your association with ISIS given that it has nothing to do with you.
Qadhi: So again, this is one of those nefarious paradoxes that ends in an infinite loop where nothing we ever do is enough. We do condemn ISIS; I just released a statement on behalf of my mosque where we unconditionally condemned what happened—no ifs, ands or buts. After having condemned it, is mere condemnation going to solve the problem? Because we are going to have to get to the root cause.
Certainly there is a double-standard because we are asked to condemn when a Muslim does it, but we do not expect the same condemnation from any other demographic. In particular, when it is the mainstream Christian or Caucasian demographic who commits a crime. When the Catholic pedophilia scandal took place, we did not expect every Catholic to go and say, “That’s not my Catholicism, I’m not guilty of this.” But when it comes to Islam, unfortunately the entire faith is suspect and guilty.
We can apologize until we are blue in the face, but mainstream America will never be happy with us no matter how much we apologize.
Shroder: It just makes people feel good, right? And that is about it.
Qadhi: It is diverting attention away from the real problem, and the real problems are political and economic, not religious.
Shroder: You helped organize the global Muslim response to ISIS by being one of the more well-known signatories of the “Letter to Baghdadi” in September 2014. What were you hoping to accomplish by this? Do you feel it has had an effect so far?
Qadhi: So, the main reason for that letter was to demonstrate to the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world that the bulk of us are opposed to this. We laid out the detailed reasons of why we are opposed to ISIS from a theological and a jurisprudence point of view. What we wanted to demonstrate was, “Look you might be quoting religious texts, but we know those texts better than you do.” We have presented the mainstream body of the Muslim world, all different strands of Sunni Islam and even some Shia clerics. We all came together to showed our unity and opposition to ISIS. The letter, very frankly, was not aimed at Baghdadi himself because he is not going to change his ways.
It was really aimed at young men and women who might not understand where ISIS is coming from and [who] might possibly sympathize. But it also demonstrates to the broader world that we are all opposed to this fanatical group.
Shroder: There has been lots of talk in the news and on the campaign trail about how to identify groups like ISIS: jihadist, radical Islam, Islamists, fundamentalists, extremists, etc. But I am cognizant that perception often equates to power, and the unintended consequences of that can be far reaching. As a Muslim, what is the best way to refer to a group like ISIS?
Qadhi: I would call them Daesh because that is their [Arabic] acronym. The reason I do not like using ISIS or Islamic State is because the name Islam is in there, and as people of other faiths keep reading “Islam,” it can lead to a misunderstanding of the entire faith and tradition. Imagine if the KKK [Ku Klux Klan] was the only exposure to Christianity that a group of Muslims ever had, and every time the KKK did something it was always “Christian this or Christian that.” Understandably, that segment of the Muslim population might start thinking that the entire Christian world was the KKK.
That is the main reason I do not like using the term Islamic, but we have to call them something though. They are radicals, they are jihadists, but they have perverted jihad obviously. Jihad is a concept that can be interpreted in a positive manner, as the mainstream Muslim world does.
You can call them radical jihadists. I don’t have a problem with that per se, but I think we should call them by their first term: Daesh.
Shroder: Any predictions moving forward—for the US, Europe, or the Middle East? It all seems very cynical these days, and there seems very little to be optimistic about. Any final words of optimism to part on?
Qadhi: Unfortunately, I totally agree with you. It seems that we are locked in a vicious loop where we don’t seem to learn from our own living memory. We are uncomfortable discussing the possible causes of the existence of such groups, and we simply think it is more convenient to keep on blaming the Muslims entirely and stigmatizing an entire religion—and not thinking about the political or economic causes which are the underlying symptoms of these types of tactics.
Until we take a step back and rationally and calmly learn from our own mistakes and begin to wonder about why such groups exists beyond a simplistic view of, “Oh, Muslims are so radical and backward,” I’m afraid I do not see much hope. Especially if we continue down this vicious line of bombing and counterbombing, and bombing yet again and then invading.
At this stage, I have to admit, I am pessimistic. I am worried about the future; as a father and parent, I am worried about my own children living in a land that is more and more Islamophobic and wants to blame them for something that they have nothing to do with. I worry about the future of Islamic minorities across the Western world and the Middle East. This is just a very difficult time to be living in, and as a religious person I can only say: May God help us.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.