Debates on the general media channels seem to take the religious motivation behind the recent attacks in Brussels for granted. Often the nuance is added that the perpetrators adhere to a specific extremist interpretation of Islam, which isn’t supported by the majority of Muslims. At the same time, however, op-eds and analyses also seem to start from the (often unexpressed) premise that something dangerous lurks deep within the tradition of Islam which forms the taproot of Daesh’s ideology.
In the wake of the Paris attacks I wrote two articles in which I argued the opposite. I proposed that the current religious radicalisation is more the consequence of violence than the cause and that the theological problem of groups like Daesh (ISIS) isn’t a literalistic reading of the Qur’an but rather a militaristic interpretation.
Can these proposals still be maintained after the recent attacks in Brussels?
To answer that question I turn to Daesh’s own statements. These statements received surprisingly little media attention so far. Yet a critical analysis can be very informative.
The first statements
On the 22nd of March Amaq News seems to have published two similar statements claiming the Brussels attacks as the responsibility of Daesh.
“Islamic State fighters carried out a series of bombings with explosive belts and devices on Tuesday, targeting an airport and a central metro station in the center of the Belgian capital Brussels, a country participating in the international coalition against the Islamic State. Islamic State fighters opened fire inside Zaventem Airport, before several of them detonated their explosive belts, as a martyrdom bomber detonated his explosive belt in the Maalbeek metro station. The attacks resulted in more than 230 dead and wounded.”
Now, there is some dispute as to how trustworthy Amaq News really is. It’s seemingly impossible to track whether it’s indeed a news agency which is officially related to Daesh since there’s only a very flimsy wordpress site to turn to or supposed channels on an encrypted app like Telegram, although the Daesh-related channels are actively removed by the company behind the app. Even more so, most public information we have about the news agency comes from the somewhat controversial private terror-watch organisation ‘SITE’. Yet most international media don’t seem to investigate these matters much further. They simply take it for granted that Amaq is a genuine Daesh related press agency, they copy each other’s quotations and they don’t add any verifiable sources to the statements that by now circulate the net.
Nevertheless, let us perhaps follow the accepted narrative and simply suppose that these messages indeed portray the stance of Daesh officials until proven differently. And if we do so, what then can we learn from those statements?
In any case, there’s no mention of the will to submit the whole world to Islam or killing every person with a different faith simply because of their faith. The eventual motivation behind the attacks is quite straightforward: according to the first statement, Brussels is the capital of “a country participating in the international coalition against the Islamic State” and, according to the second statement, “crusader Belgium (…) has not ceased to wage war against Islam and its people.” This statement goes on to warn for further violence in a similar manner: “We promise black days for all crusader nations allied in their war against the Islamic State, in response to their aggressions against it.” In the final sentence, Allah isn’t mentioned as a ‘motivation’ but rather as an invocation for help.
A few days after the initial statements a video emerged in which a Daesh fighter from Antwerp discusses his view on the Brussels attacks in Flemish. The video first shows the young man standing in a busy street where people simply mind their business. A following shot shows him in the middle of some rubble of bombed houses. A last and shorter scene, which is suddenly filmed in a studio setting, ends with the execution of a prisoner (dressed in the typical Guantamo referencing orange jump suit).
When we don’t get distracted by the gruesome ending (and I’ll leave it to the conspiracy theorists to debate whether he really shot the prisoner or not) and have a more thorough look at the four minute long message, we see exactly the same content. It’s one protracted explanation about the manner in which “the Belgian people, the Belgian government, Europe, the whole world and the whole coalition that fights the Islamic State” is constantly attacking them “with all the rockets (…) the iron and the fire that you can find.” It eventually ends with:
“I want to tell you that the attack in Brussels is simply reaping what you sow. And I will use clear words – and there are no words clearer than those of the Almighty when he says in the Holy Book: “And kill the idol worshippers and kill the unbelievers, all together, like they kill you.” Like you bomb us with F16’s, in a similar manner, we will kill you. As long as you make our women widows, we will make your women widows. As long as you make our children orphans, we will make your children orphans. And know that the Almighty only is with the God fearing.”
Once again then, we see the same political motivations of retaliation. When God is brought in, he’s only mentioned in a general sense. On top of it, the Qur’anic quotation is not a literal quotation. It’s a contraction of several possible verses.
One possibility is a reference to ‘the verse of the sword’. Yet, as I have explained in a previous article, this verse is immediately followed by the imperative to leave alone those who don’t wish to do any further harm, to give protection to those who seek asylum and to escort them to a place of safety because God is merciful.
Another verse he might refer to is 16:126: “If you [believers] have to respond to an attack make your response proportionate”. This verse, however, clearly speaks of proportionality in the context of a specific battle and is preceded by a verse calling for ‘courteous’ behaviour.
A last possibility could be 42:40 “Let harm be requited by an equal harm.” At first it seems like a typical ‘eye for an eye’ statement, but that very same verse continues with the words “though anyone who forgives and puts things right will have his reward from God himself” and three verses later we read: “If a person is patient and forgives, this is one of the greatest things.” (42:43)
Whatever verse he wishes to quote, he does so completely out of context and he’s contradicted by the sentences that immediately precede or follow his quotation. In short: his only direct reference to the Islamic tradition is nothing more than an aggressive one-liner that might bolster his military exposé but that has little to do with the tradition.
If the various quoted statements are indeed official statements of Daesh, it can lead us to a couple of conclusions.
- The initial premises (that religious terrorism is more of ‘an answer’ to previous violence and that this terror is not legitimized by a literalistic but rather by a militaristic reading) can easily be upheld.
- They aren’t really concerned with giving proper justifications from the Qur’an or the Sunnah.
- They try to legitimize things that any normal religious person in the world quite spontaneously considers abhorrent and unlawful. Their twisted sense of justice, which brings them to kill innocent people, makes them a type of criminals like the political leaders they so vehemently accuse. (Three days before the Brussels attack, for example, the university of Mosul was bombed by American planes, killing around 100 civilians and injuring at least as much.)
- Be it in Mosul or Brussels, innocent people aren’t so much the victims of religious fervour. They’re above all the victims of crazed war mongers. Whether these are religious or secular, is of little importance.