In November 1995 President Bill Clinton sent 20,000 troops to enforce the Dayton Accord, and to protect Muslim populations in the former Yugoslavia. Sometime later, an adolescent Bosnian male, emigrated to the U.S. and became a U.S. citizen. Earlier this month he was charged with plotting a series of terrorist bombings of night clubs, bridges, police stations and with a plan to kill as many Americans as possible. Questioned about his behavior he said, “We all have to die. Why not die the Islamic way.”
Sami Osmakac, 25 years old now, is just the latest in a continuing line of young Muslim terrorists committed to killing Americans in the name of Islam. Why would Americans, who in 1995 reached out to protect vulnerable Muslims then accept them as fellow citizens, now be targeted for killing? Because most Americans are not Muslims. They are referred to as infidels. They are citizens of a nation that threatens the social order of Islamic nations. America is seen as a threat to Islamic values, Islamic political systems and Islam itself. The response to this threat can be violent because there is a violent component in Islam and in the life of Muhammad himself. This possibility is increased when the young terrorist is a loner, disposed to violence, and wants to become an imam.
Islam cannot be disengaged from the life of Muhammad any more than Christianity can be separated from the life of Jesus. Muhammad was born in 570 in Mecca. As a young man he was a military cadet. He was trained to wage war. When he moved from Mecca to Medina he united his followers into a military unit and then united different Arabic military groups into a powerful army. After his death in 632 his military units began a military and religious conquest in Arabia and across Northern Africa. Islam began as a military unit and expanded by military conquests. Today’s young terrorists from all over the Islamic world see themselves as following the example of Muhammad himself. This is what Sami Osmakac meant when he said, “We all have to die. So why not die the Islamic way.”
Islam is one of the largest of all religions with over a billion followers. It is a world religion and includes many different trends. There are traditionalists and reformists, fundamentalists and secularists, violence-prone and pacifists. It would be impossible to list all the different versions of Islam, let alone to explain their differences from one another. To consider Sami Osmakac representative of all Islam would be like taking a KKK member as representative of all Christianity.
The word Islam is Arabic and means surrender. The religion is also referred to as Muhammadanism, but Islam is preferred. Believers are called Muslims, meaning persons who are surrendered to God. The deep bowing that takes place during prayer symbolizes this surrender. Predominately Muslim countries are in Arabia, the Middle East, Northern and Eastern Africa, Western and Southern Asia. Islam is considered the fastest growing religion in the world, expanding especially in Africa, Europe and the U.S. Many contemporary Muslim heads of state act as if they were gods and respond violently to democratic movements (e.g. Syria).
European colonization of Islamic territories going back centuries generated opposition to Western culture and united diverse groups around an anti-Western agenda — a Pan Islamism. By the 20th century, most of the colonial occupiers had been expelled. The most common forms of Islam behind the freedom from colonialism movements were fundamentalists. One example of such a freedom movement based on fundamentalistic Islamic beliefs is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, probably the most powerful political force today in the country.
Israel’s establishment and then expansion has created militaristic Islamic revivals among Palestinians and throughout the Middle East. Islamic violence is advocated as the only response. The U.S. bond with Israel and U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan means that the U.S. is considered colonial again and therefore an enemy, indeed the major target of Islamic terrorism today. The U.S. is seen as a threat to Islamic religion, culture and values.
What to do? The U.S. spends more on its military than all Muslim countries combined but our security remains fragile: continuously exposed to fundamentalist Muslims like Sami Osmakac worldwide, with access to all sorts of destructive devices. In current election discussions we hear about interest in organizing our nation differently. What has not yet made it into the political discussion is the possibility of a move toward more peaceful dialogue and communal charity as a way of responding to Islamic radicals and making our world less violent.
A peace agenda rather than military protection would be revolutionary. More dialogue and charity would have to begin with better understanding of those who threaten us. No dialogue is even possible without respect for Islamic believers and without understanding the enormous diversity within Islam. Understanding the other is critical. Respect is critical. Urination on a corpse is the definition of disrespect. Moving toward peace rather than toward more and more military interventions would be our nation’s giant leap of faith: both Christian and Jewish.
Drane chairs the James F. Drane Bioethics Institute at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.