Thomas Friedman: A few years ago I was visiting Bahrain and sitting with friends in a fish restaurant when news appeared on an overhead TV about Muslim terrorists, men and women, who had taken hostages in Russia. What struck me, though, was the instinctive reaction of the Bahraini businessman sitting next to me, who muttered under his breath, “Why are we in every story?” The “we” in question was Muslims.
The answer to that question is one of the most important issues in geopolitics today: Why are young Sunni Muslim males, from London to Riyadh and Bali to Baghdad, so willing to blow up themselves and others in the name of their religion? Of course, not all Muslims are suicide bombers; it would be ludicrous to suggest that.
But virtually all suicide bombers, of late, have been Sunni Muslims. There are a lot of angry people in the world. Angry Mexicans. Angry Africans. Angry Norwegians. But the only ones who seem to feel entitled and motivated to kill themselves and totally innocent people, including other Muslims, over their anger are young Sunni radicals. What is going on?
Neither we nor the Muslim world can run away from this question any longer. This is especially true when it comes to people like Muhammad Bouyeri – a Dutch citizen of Moroccan origin who last year tracked down the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, a critic of Islamic intolerance, on an Amsterdam street, shot him 15 times and slit his throat with a butcher knife. He told a Dutch court on the final day of his trial on Tuesday: “I take complete responsibility for my actions. I acted purely in the name of my religion.”
Clearly, several things are at work. One is that Europe is not a melting pot and has never adequately integrated its Muslim minorities, who, as The Financial Times put it, often find themselves “cut off from their country, language and culture of origin” without being assimilated into Europe, making them easy prey for peddlers of a new jihadist identity.
Also at work is Sunni Islam’s struggle with modernity. Islam has a long tradition of tolerating other religions, but only on the basis of the supremacy of Islam, not equality with Islam. Islam’s self-identity is that it is the authentic and ideal expression of monotheism. Muslims are raised with the view that Islam is God 3.0, Christianity is God 2.0, Judaism is God 1.0, and Hinduism is God 0.0.
Part of what seems to be going on with these young Muslim males is that they are, on the one hand, tempted by Western society, and ashamed of being tempted. On the other hand, they are humiliated by Western society because while Sunni Islamic civilization is supposed to be superior, its decision to ban the reform and reinterpretation of Islam since the 12th century has choked the spirit of innovation out of Muslim lands, and left the Islamic world less powerful, less economically developed, less technically advanced than God 2.0, 1.0 and 0.0.
“Some of these young Muslim men are tempted by a civilization they consider morally inferior, and they are humiliated by the fact that, while having been taught their faith is supreme, other civilizations seem to be doing much better,” said Raymond Stock, the Cairo-based biographer and translator of Naguib Mahfouz. “When the inner conflict becomes too great, some are turned by recruiters to seek the sick prestige of ‘martyrdom’ by fighting the allegedly unjust occupation of Muslim lands and the ‘decadence’ in our own.”
This is not about the poverty of money. This is about the poverty of dignity and the rage it can trigger.
One of the London bombers was married, with a young child and another on the way. I can understand, but never accept, suicide bombing in Iraq or Israel as part of a nationalist struggle. But when a British Muslim citizen, nurtured by that society, just indiscriminately blows up his neighbors and leaves behind a baby and pregnant wife, to me he has to be in the grip of a dangerous cult or preacher – dangerous to his faith community and to the world.
How does that happen? Britain’s Independent newspaper described one of the bombers, Hasib Hussain, as having recently undergone a sudden conversion “from a British Asian who dressed in Western clothes to a religious teenager who wore Islamic garb and only stopped to say salaam to fellow Muslims.”
The secret of this story is in that conversion – and so is the crisis in Islam. The people and ideas that brought about that sudden conversion of Hasib Hussain and his pals – if not stopped by other Muslims – will end up converting every Muslim into a suspect and one of the world’s great religions into a cult of death.