October  2001 
Cover Story

Fashions in atrocities

Shaikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller

In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate

someone recently in formed me that half the terrorist organizations officially listed on some or
another "terrorist watch website," were Muslim. Though Islamic law does not countenance terrorism or suicide of any sort, and I know these organizations represent an extreme splinter of an extreme splinter of Islam, I did not find the statistic particularly shocking.

Rather, if in the last fifty years world governments like the United States and Britain have somehow convinced themselves that it is morally acceptable to kill, starve, and maim civilians of other countries in order to persuade their governments to do something, it would be surprising if this conviction did not somehow percolate down to the dispossessed, the hopeless, the aggrieved, and the powerless of every religion and ethnic group in the world. It looks as if it has.

We Americans are not bombing people, young and old, whose lives, when they survive, are brutally interrupted by the loss of an arm or a leg, or a father, or a son, or a mother, or a house that the family saved for years to build. We are too civilized for that. Rather, we bomb Iraq. We bomb Sudan. We bomb Southern Lebanon. We bomb "Palestinian positions." We don’t cause the tens of thousands of birth defective and mentally retarded babies with the chemical mayhem and ten–year famine we are currently paying for in Iraq: We are "imposing sanctions."

We don’t kill actual human beings with all the explosives we are dumping on these countries. We are killing generic Iraqis, generic Sudanis, generic Palestinians. It sounds like we may now have to kill some generic Afghanis. And now the shock of all shocks, the devastation of all devastations: some crazy people this past month decided to kill a lot of generic Americans. What on earth made them think it was morally acceptable to kill people who hadn’t committed any crime, who were not combatants, and were not killed in self–defence?

The answer, I apprehend, is not to be found in Islam, or in any religion or morality, but in the fact that there are fashions in atrocities and in the rhetoric used to dress them up. Unfortunately these begin to look increasingly like our own fashions and sound increasingly like our own rhetoric, reheated and served up to us. The terrorists themselves, in their own minds, were doubtless not killing secretaries, janitors, and firemen. That would be too obscene. Rather, they were "attacking America."

The attack has been condemned, as President Bush has noted, by "Muslim scholars and clerics" across the board, and indeed by all people of decency around the world. I have read Islamic law with scholars, and know that it does not condone either suicide or killing non–combatants. But what to do about the crime itself?

The solution being proposed seems to be a technological one. We will highlight these people on our screens, and press delete. If we cannot find the precise people, we will delete others like them, until everyone else gets the message. We’ve done it lots of times. The problem with this is that it is morally wrong, and will send a clear confirmation — if more is needed beyond the shoot-em-ups abroad of the last decades that show our more or less complete disdain for both non–white human life and international law — that there is no law between us and other nations besides the law of the jungle.

People like these attackers, willing to kill themselves to devastate others, are not ordinary people. They are desperate people. What has made them so is not lunacy, or religion, but the perception that there is no effective legal recourse to stop crimes against the civilian peoples they identify with. Our own and our clients’ killing, mutilating, and starving civilians are termed "strikes," "pre-emptive attacks," "raiding the frontiers," and "sanctions" — because we have a standing army, print our own currency, and have a press establishment and other trappings of modern statehood. Without them, our actions would be pure "terrorism."

Two wrongs do not make a right. They only make two wrongs. I think the whole moral discourse has been derailed by our own rhetoric in recent decades. Terrorism must be repudiated by America not only by words but by actions, beginning with its own. As ‘Abd al–Hakim Winter asks, "Are the architects of policy sane in their certainty that America can enrage large numbers of people, but contain that rage forever through satellite technology and intrepid double agents?" I think we have to get back to basics and start acting as if we knew that killing civilians is wrong.

As it is, we seem to have convinced a lot of other people that it is right, among them some of the more extreme elements of the contemporary Wahhabi sect of Muslims, including the members of the Bin Laden network, whom the security agencies seem to be pointing their finger at for this crime. The Wahhabi sect, which has not been around for more than two and a half centuries, has never been part of traditional Sunni Islam, which rejects it and which it rejects.

Orthodox Sunnis, who make up the vast majority of Muslims, are neither Wahhabis nor terrorists, for the traditional law they follow forbids killing civilian non–combatants to make any kind of point, political or otherwise. Those who have travelled through North Africa, Turkey, Egypt, or the Levant know what traditional Muslims are like in their own lands. Travellers find them decent, helpful, and hospitable people, and feel safer in Muslim lands than in many places, such as Central America, for example, or for that matter, Central Park.

On the other hand, there will always be publicists who hate Muslims, and who for ideological or religious reasons want others to do so. Where there is an ill–will, there is a way. A fifth of humanity are Muslims, and if to err is human, we may reasonably expect Muslims to err also, and it is certainly possible to stir up hatred by publicizing bad examples. But if experience is any indication, the only people convinced by media pieces about the inherent fanaticism of Muslims will be those who don’t know any.

Muslims have nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing to hide, and should simply tell people what their scholars and religious leaders have always said: first, that the Wahhabi sect has nothing to do with orthodox Islam, for its lack of tolerance is a perversion of traditional values; and second, that killing civilians is wrong and immoral.

And we Americans should take the necessary measures to get the ship of state back on a course that is credible, fair, and at bottom at least moral in our dealings with the other peoples of the world. For if our ideas of how to get along with other nations do not exceed the morality of action–thriller destruction movies, we may well get more action than we paid for. n

(Excerpted from an article by the writer accessible on

Nuh Ha Mim Keller, American Muslim translator and specialist in Islamic Law, was born in 1954 in the north–western United States and studied philosophy and Arabic at the University of Chicago and UCLA. He entered Islam in 1977 at al–Azhar in Cairo, and later studied the traditional Islamic Sciences of hadith, Shafi’i and Hanafi jurisprudence, legal methodology (usul al-fiqh), and tenets of faith (‘aqidah) in Syria and Jordan, where he has lived since 1980. n

His English translation of ‘Umdat al–Salik [The Reliance of the Traveller] (1250 pp., Sunna Books, 1991) is the first Islamic legal work in a European language to receive the certification of al-Azhar, the Muslim world’s oldest institution of higher learning. He also possesses ijazas or "certificates of authorisation" in Islamic jurisprudence from sheikhs in Syria and Jordan.


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