Breaking Stereotypes in Fearful Times

Posted on June 27, 2017 By

by John Whitehead

John Whitehead

Several incidents of terrorism that occurred in the United Kingdom this spring—the suicide bombing of a concert in Manchester, two attacks in London by men using trucks and knives—have understandably received much attention and provoked much horror and outrage. Along with such appropriate responses as sympathy for the victims and their families and anger at the perpetrators, the terrorism has also elicited negative responses. Because the terrorists were motivated by a strain of ISIS-affiliated Islamic extremism, some people have reacted by attacking Muslims generally. US President Donald Trump renewed calls for a ban on people from six Muslim-majority nations being allowed into the United States. Negative attitudes toward Muslims have prompted violent incidents such as a man harassing a Muslim woman in Portland, Oregon and killing the men who tried to protect her or an attack on worshippers at a London mosque that killed one man.

Given such a backdrop of terrorism provoking further terrorism, as well as religious stereotyping, certain important facts about Muslims and violent incidents such as the recent UK attacks need to be remembered. Bearing this stereotyping-breaking information in mind can prevent responses to terrorism from being marred and undermined by bigotry.


Islam contains traditions that discourage terrorism and promote limitations on violence.

 While Islam is not formally pacifist and holds that violence can be justified (a characteristic it shares with most major religions and notable secular ideologies such as Marxism), Islamic tradition contains elements that encourage the restraint of violence. The Qur’an, the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, and the interpretations of Islamic jurists offer support for limitations on the conduct of soldiers in war. Such limitations directly contradict the indiscriminate violence of terrorism.

A Qur’an passage reads “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors” (2:190). Some scholars interpret this passage as meaning that Muslims can validly fight against enemy combatants (such as soldiers) who are directly engaged in waging war but not non-combatants such as children, women, or the elderly.

In the same way, a hadith (a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) states “Do not kill an elderly [person], or a child, or a woman.” Muhammad gave more detailed instructions on conduct in war when he told his troops, before battle, “In avenging the injuries inflicted upon us molest not the harmless inmates of domestic seclusion; spare the . . . female sex; injure not the infants at the breast or those who are ill in bed. Refrain from demolishing the houses of the unresisting inhabitants; destroy not the means of their subsistence, nor their fruit-trees and touch not the palm.”

Later, Abu Bakr, the first Khalifah (successor to Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community), commanded his army “Do not mutilate the dead, nor to slay the elderly, women, and children. Do not inundate a date palm nor burn it. Do not cut down a fruit tree, nor to kill cattle unless they were needed for food. Don’t destroy any building. Maybe, you will pass by people who have secluded themselves in convents; leave them and do not interfere in what they do.”

Various Islamic jurists have laid out differing rules of war, but the notion that certain people, particularly women and children, should be classified as non-combatants and protected from harm is a common theme. The notion of treating wartime captives (what today we would call prisoners of war) well is reflected in the Qur’an’s passage “And they feed, for the love of God, the indigent, the orphan and the captive” (76:8). Muhammad also stated “I command you to treat captives well.”

More recently, some Muslims took a stand against the most indiscriminate killers of all, nuclear weapons. In the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War arms race, Inamullah Khan, secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), condemned such weapons, saying “Nuclear weapons are not weapons of war. They are instruments of mass extermination.” Khan endorsed “universal and non-discriminatory” nuclear disarmament. Major General Rahim Khan, a retired Pakistani military officer, wrote a similar critique of nuclear weapons at this time and also called for disarmament. Muhammad Munir, a law professor at the International Islamic University, interprets Islamic tradition to reach the conclusion “the use of nuclear weapons and WMDs is totally prohibited in the Islamic [laws of war].”

Last, and perhaps most directly relevant to contemporary concerns about terrorism, 126 Muslim scholars and leaders signed in 2014 an “Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi.” Addressed to the head of ISIS, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the letter is a lengthy condemnation of the terrorist organization for departing from Islamic tradition. The letter condemns ISIS for killing innocents, emissaries (such as journalists and aid workers), prisoners, and fellow Muslims, as well as abusing the concept of jihad. The letter’s condemnation of ISIS’ killing Muslims points to another important consideration.


Muslims are the main victims of extremist groups such as ISIS or Al Qaeda.

A review of ISIS-linked terrorist attacks that took place outside Iraq and Syria between June 2014 and July 2016 reveals a striking statistic. The majority, by far, of people killed in the attacks came from Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt, Libya, Niger, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Not all the victims were Muslims (some were tourists or members of religious minorities) but many were—indeed, several attacks took place outside mosques. A similar study of al Qaeda attacks between 2004 and 2008 concluded that the “overwhelming majority of [al‐Qaeda] victims are Muslims living in Muslim countries, and many are citizens of Iraq, which suffered more al‐Qa’ida attacks than any other country courtesy of the [al-Qaeda in Iraq] affiliate.” The May bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed 150 people and may have been the work of a Taliban-linked group, also shows that extremists have no reservations about killing fellow Muslims.

The significant Islamic traditions that support restraint in war and respect for non-combatants, as well as the practical realities of terrorism’s devastating effects on Muslim communities, should act as powerful antidotes to the dangerous “Muslims as terrorists” stereotype. Moreover, such traditions and realities show that those wishing to counter terrorism should make common cause with Muslims in that struggle.

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