Giving Islam a Bad Name

Date posted: May 09, 2007
By Joharah Baker for MIFTAH

This morning, Palestinian and Arab media sources reported that the Gaza-based Islamic Army announced its responsibility for the abduction of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston almost two months ago. In a videotaped message distributed in Gaza, a spokesman for the Islamic Army demanded the release of, “Muslim prisoners in British prisons, namely Abu Qatada, the Palestinian.”

The tape did not show Johnston, in contrast to other videotaped hostages, who are made to repeat the abductors demands for their release before the camera. Apparently, only Johnston’s press card was displayed along with a picture of Abu Qatada, who is accused of being a key Al Qaeda figure in the UK.

Johnston is the first foreign journalist to be held in the Gaza Strip for such a lengthy period of time. While other foreign journalists have been abducted over the past few years amidst the growing security chaos and lack of rule of law in the Palestinian territories, they were all released in a matter of days if not hours. Johnston, who was in his last stint as BBC correspondent when he was abducted, has been in captivity since March 12. Both international and Palestinian journalists have demanded his release, putting pressure on the Palestinian Authority to exert more efforts in locating him.

Unfortunately, this is not the first incident of violence perpetrated by the more extremist Muslim groups in the Strip. Just days ago, a group calling themselves the Salafi Group charged into an UNRWA-run school in the Rafah Refugee Camp during a sports festival and pelted the audience and children with rocks and empty bottles before opening fire. One man was killed and six children injured in the melee. The group claimed the festival “went against Islamic traditions” and aimed at incorporating corrupt western values into Palestinian Muslim society.

The Salafi group derives its name from the Salafists, strict adherents to the literal word and letter of the Quran and Prophet Mohammed’s sayings. They follow the most austere interpretation of the religion and fervently reject any perceived influences from non-Islamic sources, in particular western values.
Still, even the most pious of Muslims would never be able to find anything in the Quran, the Prophet’s sayings or elsewhere that could justify an attack on innocent children out for a day of fun and sports.

The kidnapping of a British journalist, keeping him hidden away from his family, friends and work in an unknown location is also clearly not an act rooted in Islamic beliefs, a religion whose fundamental doctrine is “submission to God.”

Having said this, the current escalation of extremist Islamism in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank must be viewed in context. Such developments have hardly occurred in a geo-political vacuum. This devastating and erroneous interpretation of the religion has manifested itself in several ways and in a number of places where Islam has been made to take the rap for brutal acts of violence.

September 11 must, for all purposes, be considered the starting point for this snowball effect. Just as the United States and the western media in general brutally vilified Islam both in words and action, this created a “not-so-equal” but opposite reaction among Islamic fundamentalists. While US President George W. Bush may have been trying to “protect” America, what he inadvertently succeeded in doing was help to create the very adversary he claimed to be trying to expel.

Hence, the more the US pushed into Muslim territories such as Afghanistan and Iraq, killed innocent Muslim men, women and children and ultimately caused massive wreckage in their countries, the seeds of extremism were inevitably born and nurtured.

In Palestine, the situation is eerily similar. As Israel was more than keen to hop on America’s bandwagon of its “war on terror”, it found itself with a free hand to crack down on Muslim patriots without discrimination. Thus, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad were branded as “terrorists” even though the former joined the government and largely softened its positions towards Israel. However, Israel had, and still has, no reason to loosen the noose around Hamas’ neck because the international community has blindly rallied around it.

Nonetheless, it is not Hamas or the Islamic Jihad, which have become our main concern as of late. Rather, these vigilante groups, which claim to be operating under the pure morals and doctrines of Islam, are who have set off alarm bells throughout society.

We have all witnessed the scenes of carnage coming out of Iraq. While we can reasonably argue that the United States is primarily responsible for the mayhem and lack of order in post-Saddam Iraq, we must also realize that this situation has bred extremely dangerous mentalities, which find it acceptable to shed the blood of fellow countrymen and fellow Muslims.

This is a path the Palestinians must avoid at all costs. Until recently, our people have been a model of political and religious pluralism in the Arab world, which is how we must remain if are ever to have a chance at overcoming the Israeli occupation. It is the duty of our Authority, no matter how fatigued, disconnected or impoverished it is, to reign in these extremist groups. This is not only for the sake of foreign journalists or even young Gaza children trying to enjoy one fun, carefree day in an otherwise suffocating atmosphere. It is also for this Authority’s own survival, because if groups like these believe they can pelt children with stones in the name of Islam, what will stop them from overthrowing the PA if they do not believe it is operating according to the Quran?

The most recent developments in the Gaza Strip are evidence that our society is at the brink of a potentially dangerous abyss where Islam is not only maligned by western foes such as Israel and the United States, but is being exploited by its own followers. It is a perilous and frightening possibility and one which must be quelled before it’s too late.

Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org.

Source: MIFTAH

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