Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Sun, Nov 15th, 2015

Opinion: “Excommunication Functions as Moral Catharsis”

My deepest sympathies go to the victims and families of victims of the heinous crimes against humanity, in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad.


While writing this, I specifically think of Adel Tormos who lost his life while attempting to tackle one of the suicide bombers in Beirut. Thanks to this, the terrorist never entered the mosque which was his goal, and it is likely that many lives were saved due to Tormos’ bravery.

I mention this to show that Muslims in many cases are victims as well as heroes. It must never be forgotten, just as Tormos’ sacrifice must never be forgotten. This article, however, is not about that. This article is about the tendency of some to strip the perpetrators of their religious identity. This is known in Islam as takfīr, and it is most often translated into English as excommunication. The one performing the action, calling someone a non-Muslim against their will, is called takfīrī.

Using the Quran

The arguably most common way the terrorists are stripped of their muslimhood is by referring to a specific passage in the Quran (Sūrat al-Mā’idah 5:32) which says that “whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely.” This would mean that the terrorists acted in direct opposition to the message of the Quran when they took the lives of innocent people.

Unfortunately, there are several problems with this claim. Firstly, this verse begins with a declaration that those addressed are “the Children of Israel”; that is the Jews. It is not a decree to Muslims. The usage of this verse, therefore, reminds me of a common Arabic proverb, referring to another verse, from Sūrat al-Nisāʾ (4:43), stating that one should not pray while intoxicated. The proverb then states that it is as if you say that one should not pray. In other words, you are not considering the entire verse, or its context.

Secondly, I take issue with the usage of this verse, as it is followed up with this:

Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment. (Qur’ān 5:33)

Seeing how ISIS, of course, view themselves as following “the true Islam,” it could be inferred that from the perspective of the terrorists, France is involved in a war (in Syria) “against Allah and His Messenger”. This means that not only is it permissible to kill, it is ordained by the sacred text.

There are certainly many Quranic verses that speak against acts of terror, but it is equally undeniable that there are also many verses the perpetrators can use for support. To say that they are not driven by their religion is simply false. This terrorism is about a specific Islamic extremism, sharing much of its doctrine with orthodox Saudi Arabian Salafi-Wahhabism. It is their fundamentalist ideas that are being supported by oil money world wide. Thus, there is support for similar illiberal ideology, even outside the relatively small group who commit these crimes against humanity. Many Muslims are clear about this, including Irshad Manji, Asra Nomani and Maajid Nawaz.

Similarily, Omid Safi, Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, writes about confronting ISIS:

If we are to confront ISIS, we have to confront the sources of their funding as well as their ideology, which will force us to ask difficult and challenging questions from many of their Wahhabi and Gulf area supporters — who are also American allies.

Representing religion, all or nothing?

Some name the Crusaders as an example of how a few Christians are not seen as representatives of Christianity as a whole, while ISIS is seen as representative of Islam as a whole. It is obviously wrong. The Crusaders do not represent Christianity, and ISIS does not represent Islam. But it is equally wrong to say that the Crusaders had nothing to do with Christianity. They have something to do with Christianity, just as ISIS has something to do with Islam. That is not to say that Islam is a monolithic entity, no religion is, but that specific beliefs and doctrines that are connected to the religion are being used, successfully, by groups like ISIS shows how there is a connection, whether or not it is acknowledged.

I am sure that it is done with good intention, when it is claimed that “these terrorists are not Muslims.” The thing is that it is not true, at least not if we believe in freedom of religion. Terrorists, like everyone else, are the only ones who can define their own religion. They call themselves Muslims, and they follow Islam as they understand it, just like Adel Tormos followed Islam as he understood it. Believing that Islam is so sacred, so sacrosanct that its followers could not possibly be bad people, is an illusion.

In fact, all religions are at risk to inspire mass murder in this way, perhaps particularly Jihadi-Islam. This is because the promise of an afterlife, one in which the one who does the will of God will be rewarded, means that the end justifies the means. Thus, there is nothing to fear.

It is surely this which also inspires heroic deeds, such as Tormos’ tackling of the suicide bomber outside the mosque in Beirut. The problem is that the suicide bomber also, in his belief, ends up in heaven. He views his own deeds as heroic, just like Tormos.

Distancing as escapism

In my view, this excommunication is about moral catharsis. To cleanse oneself from responsibility. It is absolutely understandable. No one is personally responsible for someone else’s act of terrorism. But collectively we risk letting this catharsis replace critical inquiry and scrutiny. In doing so, we, liberal freedom lovers and Muslims, avoid having to discuss and question the religious sources that terrorists are using. We avoid seeing the structures that allow terrorists to recruit young people to their cause. We can continue to misquote Sūrat al-Mā’idah and feel satisfied that we certainly do not have anything to do with the violence.

Maajid Nawaz, who himself previously was a member of a Muslim terrorist organization and now leads the counter-extremist think-tank Quilliam, writes about this problem:

Recognizing this is not to stigmatize every European or Western Muslim—the vast majority of whom are not, of course, jihadists—but it means being realistic about exactly where the challenge is coming from, and what the challenge is called: Islamism. Up until now the bitter truth that our Muslim populations have been subjected to decades of sustained Islamist propaganda by those who live among them has gone almost totally ignored. The long term solution cannot continue to ignore this truth, and cannot continue to neglect those few Muslims, and others, attempting to take on this threat within their own communities.

It surely requires courage in times like this, but the job done by Maajid Nawaz and other Muslims to counter extremist violence is terribly important. Truth is seldom simple, and particularly so in fighting extremism. Do not trust simple solutions. We cannot bomb ISIS away – that is emphasized both by Nawaz and others, such as the journalist Robert Fisk  – but we can not kill them with silence either.

Maajid Nawaz speaking at LibDem campaign event (image: eregis / Wikimedia).

Maajid Nawaz speaking at LibDem campaign event (image: eregis / Wikimedia).

We need to support liberal reformists

We do well to remember that terrorism is not something that is bound to a single religion or a single ideology. We also do well to remember, as I already mentioned, that Muslims are victims and heroes, as well as perpetrators and supporters. In short, Muslims are people too. That should not have to be said.

But that’s not what this is about. This is about the tendency of not daring to support the reformists who tackle the illiberal ideas that support Islamist violence. Those who see the connection and deal with it, rather than take refuge in a personal moral catharsis.

Let us therefore stand by liberal Muslims and reformists, and jointly combat the violence.

About the Author

- Contributor and co-founder of, and former Director of Studies for Middle Eastern Studies at Stockholm University. Graduate student at the University of Cambridge, researching feminist activism in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Mostly writes about Arab media, gender, politics and popular culture.

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