A Muslim Apology for 9/11?

By Irfan Khawaja

Kamal Nawash is a Palestinian immigrant to the US, an attorney, and founder and president of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism (FMCAT), a Virginia-based non-profit organization “made up of American Muslims and Arabs of all backgrounds who feel that religious violence and terrorism have not been fully rejected by the Muslim community in the post 9-11 era.” The organization’s website describes FMCAT’s purpose as follows:          

The Coalition was created to eliminate broad base support for Islamic extremism and terrorism and to strengthen secular democratic institutions in the Middle East and the Muslim World by supporting Islamic reformation efforts.

The Coalition promotes a modern secular interpretation of Islam which is peace-  loving, democracy-loving and compatible with other faiths and beliefs. The  Coalition’s efforts are unique; it is the only mainstream American-Muslim organization willing to attack extremism and terrorism unambiguously.  Unfortunately most other Muslim leaders and organizations believe that when it  comes to terrorism, the end justifies the means.

On the one hand, one wants to applaud the sentiment: Muslims, one thinks, have to combat their own extremism from within, and FMCAT has, in principle, made an admirable start in that direction.

On the other hand, however, one cringes at the obvious self-contradictions embedded in the group’s statement of purpose (and by implication, in its purposes). “Secularism,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the doctrine that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life, to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from belief in God or in a future state.” But Islam teaches that the present life is a mere “play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting” in comparison to the next (Qur'an, 57:20), and that morality consists in complete submission to the will of God. So the idea of a “secular interpretation of Islam” amounts to a worldly, non-theistic interpretation of an other-worldly monotheism. It is, in other words, a contradiction in terms.

As for Islam’s “compatibility” with other faiths or beliefs, far from being ecumenical or tolerant of other religions, Islam regards itself as the one “perfect” religion, uniquely revealing the will of God. Unsurprisingly, the Qur'an rails ceaselessly against the errors of every non-Muslim belief-system it discusses: Judaism, Christianity, atheism, and polytheism. Consider this passage:          

Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day nor hold that forbidden which has been forbidden by God and his apostle, nor acknowledge the religion of             truth, even if they are People of the Book [i.e., Jews and Christians]—until they pay the tax [jizyah] with willing submission and feel themselves subdued…Fain  would they extinguish God’s light with their mouths, but God will not allow but that his light should be perfected, though the unbelievers detest it; for it is he who  hath sent his apostle with guidance and the religion of truth, to proclaim it over  every other religion…(Qur’an, 9:29, 33-34).

How can a call to “fight” and “subdue” the two faiths closest to Islam be regarded as an expression of compatibility with them? Apparently, God writes in mysterious ways.

One reluctantly comes to the conclusion, then, that the FMCAT endeavor is doomed from the start. But if this seems too premature or rationalistic an inference, a confirmation of it comes with a recent essay by Nawash on the group’s website, published on the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and entitled “We Are So Sorry for 9-11.” The article castigates Muslims for excusing the 9/11 attacks (and Islamic terrorism generally), offers an “apology” for 9/11 and several subsequent attacks, and demands that all Muslims join in the “apology.” The essay’s last paragraph conveys its style and substance:               

As to apologizing, we will no longer wait for our religious leaders and  “intellectuals” to do the right thing. Instead, we will start by apologizing for 9-11.  We are so sorry that 3000 people were murdered in our name. We will never forget the sight of people jumping from two of the highest buildings in the world   hoping against hope that if they moved their arms fast enough that they may fly and survive a certain death from burning. We are sorry for blaming 9-11 on a  Jewish or right wing conspiracy. We are so sorry for the murder of more than three hundred school children and adults in Russia. We are so sorry for the murder of train passengers in Spain. We are so sorry for all the victims of suicide bombings. We are so sorry for the beheadings, abductions, rapes, violent Jihad    and all the atrocities committed by Muslims around the world. We are so sorry for a religious education that raised killers rather than train people to do good in the world. We are sorry that we did not take the time to teach our children tolerance and respect for other people. We are so sorry for not rising up against the dictators who have ruled the Muslim world for decades. We are so sorry for allowing  corruption to spread so fast and so deep in the Muslim world that many of our youth lost hope. We are so sorry for allowing our religious leaders to relegate women to the status of forth [sic] class citizens at best and sub-humans at worse.

Though I understand and at some level can appreciate the spirit of Nawash’s “apology,” I’m hardly the first to notice its embarrassingly groveling tone and remarkable illogic. 

They say that the Devil quotes Scripture for his own purposes. Perhaps—but that doesn’t stop the Devil from getting Scripture right, and of reminding believers from time to time of what Scripture actually says. And so, despite being an apostate Muslim, I’m inclined to remind Nawash of a few passages from the Qur’an that I find poignant, essentially true, and incompatible with his “apology.” 

An “apology” is an admission of guilt or contrition for one’s own acts; to make an apology is to admit moral responsibility for what one has done, to admit that it was wrong, and to pledge not to do it again. The closest cousin of the notion of “apology” in the Qur’an is that of “repentance,” described very clearly at Qur’an 6:54: “Your Lord had inscribed for himself the rule of mercy: verily, if any of you did evil in ignorance, and thereafter repented and amended his conduct, lo, God is oft-forgiving and merciful.” Though this statement doesn’t entirely make sense (how can evil be done in ignorance?), its point is clear enough: God forgives those who commit wrongdoing if and only if they genuinely repent for what they have individually done.

In other words, according to Islam, to repent, you have to be guilty of the relevant act and then repent in your own voice of having done it. No one can repent for you, nor does repentance count for or mean anything if it comes from someone besides the perpetrator of the act. 

This squares with the Quranic conception of Divine judgment, as well. On the Day of Judgment, the Qur’an tells us, each person will be judged for his or her own actions, and credited or punished accordingly down “to the atom” (99:7-8). Though the text leaves a few cryptic loopholes for intercession by God’s specially-appointed agents (20:109), it says unmistakably that apart from that, there will be no intercessors between man and God: each soul will stand on his own before God, and no soul will bear the burdens or assume the credit of another (40:17-18). “What will explain to thee what the Day of Judgment is? It is the Day when no soul shall have power to do aught for another…” (92:19). 

Putting aside the supernatural form of its claims, I agree wholeheartedly with the Qur’an on this issue: we are responsible for all and only what we individually do, and we should reap praise, blame, reward, and punishment accordingly. There is no such thing as irreducible “collective responsibility.” Nor are there free-floating acts for which just anyone can assume (or shirk) responsibility. Responsibility comes with name-tags attached, and apologies only make sense on that assumption. Contrary to the Qur’an, however, the best exemplification of this principle is neither to be found in another realm, nor at the hands of a supernatural deity. If you want to see it in action, spend some time in the courtroom of a competent judge, in the halls of a competent political tribunal, or in the pages of a report like that of the 9/11 Commission .  (For that matter, try grading a semester’s worth of term papers.)

These considerations should lead us to the following questions. What admission of guilt is Nawash making, and asking others to make? And on what basis does he make his admission and demands?

Look again at the passage I quoted above. If Nawash means that he and the Muslims he is addressing are responsible for 9/11 because they were literally part of the terrorist plot to attack the United States, it’s obvious that an apology would be a laughably inadequate response. But obviously, that isn’t what he’s admitting.

If Nawash means that while not literally part of the plot, Muslims are guilty because Islam itself encourages terrorism, then once again, it’s obvious that an apology would be inadequate. The appropriate response would be a public repudiation of Islam. But this isn’t what Nawash is admitting, either: while Nawash apologizes for what was done in the “name” of Islam, he rejects the idea that terrorism is an exemplification of Islamic principles. If so, one wonders, in what respect are Muslims as a whole responsible for 9/11?

Some of Nawash’s essay suggests that Muslims were responsible for 9/11 because they created a climate of belief that legitimated Islamism, excused terrorism, and let terrorists off the hook. This is a fair point, but we need to distinguish two very different ways of creating a “climate of belief”—by active incitement to violence, or by a passive failure to condemn violence and its incitement. Nawash is not particularly clear which of the two he means, but I think it’s fair to read him as intending both: some Muslims incited terrorism, while others were silent in the face of the incitement. Let’s take these two cases in turn.

In the case of those who actively incited terrorism, Nawash has a point: they should apologize for having done so, and join in the fight against terrorism. The problem is that Nawash is not himself admitting guilt on this matter. He is apologizing for others to whom he is imputing guilt. But what should be obvious is that not having personally admitted to inciting violence, Nawash is not in a position to speak for those who have, and in acting as though he could speak for them, he falsely creates the impression that the authentically guilty parties are apologizing for their guilt via his apology. The gesture is doubly wrong: it amounts to an admission of guilt on Nawash’s part where none is warranted, and it conveys the sense that an admission of guilt is forthcoming from people who have no interest in making one. In this context, Nawash’s “apology” merely serves to confuse the issue.

In the case of those who passively allowed Islamism to flourish, Nawash seems to be personally admitting moral failure, where the failure consists in his own silence in the face of incitement, irrationality, and the like. It’s undoubtedly true that many Muslims are guilty of this, and if Nawash would like to make a public confession of guilt, that’s fine. If his confession leads to substantive reform among Muslims, all the better. But before we get carried away by the magnanimity of this gesture, we should be clear about what it means—and cannot mean. An apology for passively allowing Islamism to flourish cannot conceivably be an apology for 9/11. To equate the two things, you have to believe that Muslim passivity is the basic causal explanation behind 9/11.  

But that claim is grotesquely absurd. The 9/11 attacks were an act. Silence, by contrast, is an omission. Special contexts aside, omissions don’t explain acts, and don’t imply responsibility for them. Acts explain acts, and acts imply responsibility. (Examples: My refusal to give to charity neither explains world hunger, nor implicates me in it. My failure to report a crime is not equivalent to the commission of the crime. My refusal to act as a Good Samaritan at the scene of an accident is not equivalent to causing the accident. And so on.) To confuse these two categories—acts and omissions—is worse than the silence that Nawash condemns.

In any case, the 9/11 attacks were part of an elaborate covert operation planned by a global terrorist network which was itself nurtured by at least three (and possibly four) state security agencies, namely those of Sudan, Iran, and Pakistan (the possible fourth being Iraq). The plot succeeded despite the counter-terrorist efforts of the world’s only superpower and all of its allies. It is sheer fantasy to imagine that the plot would have been prevented if only Muslims had been louder in their condemnations of bigotry, Islamism, and the like. There is little if any causal relationship between the 9/11 plot and the run-of-the-mill bigotry that one encounters in the Muslim world. There is not even a clear causal relationship between run-of-the-mill Islamism and that particular plot. In any case, to the extent that such a relationship exists, it is hardly comparable to the causal role of the attackers, those who sent them, those who supported them, and those who incited them.  

I should emphasize that Muslims’ failure to speak out against Islamism for the past several decades does imply widespread moral culpability on their part. So Nawash is right that such Muslims ought not to be let off the hook. My point is that culpability for silence cannot be equated with culpability for mass murder.  And since the two sorts of culpability cannot be equated, the previously-silent have no business apologizing for the acts of the murderers. Contrary to the fatuous slogan of the AIDS activists, “silence” is not “death.” What is deadly is the confusion that leads people to equate them.

Muslims, I should add, are not the only ones confused by such issues, as the following news item from the Times of Trenton, New Jersey makes clear:             

The Mercer County prosecutor yesterday dismissed a defiant trespassing   complaint against the Hopewell Township woman who interrupted a Thursday speech by first lady Laura Bush by protesting the death of her son in Iraq. 

Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph L. Boccherini Jr. said he exercised his             prosecutorial discretion to dismiss the charge against Sue Niederer, who was  detained by Hamilton police after disrupting Laura Bush’s speech inside the Colonial Volunteer Fire Co.

Skipping a bit:             

Niederer was wearing a shirt emblazoned with a photo of her son, Army 1st Lt.   Seth Dvorin, who died in February [2004] in Iraq at age 24 when he was trying to disarm a bomb. Niederer’s shirt said, “President Bush You Killed My Son.”
(Tom Hester Jr., “Heckler of Laura Bush Will Face No Charges,” Trenton Times, Sept. 18, 2004).

Asked in the same article whether her slogan didn’t exploit her son’s death for partisan purposes, Ms. Niederer responded: “Why shouldn't we exploit the suffering? We're the ones going through it. Not them.” 

There’s a certain logic to Niederer’s claim: if there is no distinction to be drawn between acts and omissions, there’s little distinction to be drawn between President Bush and an Iraqi terrorist. Granted, the terrorist killed Lt. Dvorin, while Bush didn’t, but once you start blurring moral distinctions for purposes of "exploitation," the difference between causing death and not causing it evaporates into thin air—as do the distinctions between Iraq’s defying an obligation to disarm and the US’s enforcing it; between Iraqi aggression and American retaliation; between Iraqi responsibility and American non-responsibility; between Iraqi guilt and American innocence; between the Anglo-American liberators of Iraq and the “insurgency”; and for that matter, between grieving over one’s son’s untimely death and exploiting it for purposes of emotional blackmail. Such distinctions, of course, have no place in the morally indiscriminate “Anything But Bush” universe in which Bush was to be defeated though the heavens fell. (For a powerful riposte to Niederer’s claim to being “alone” in suffering, see the courageous essays of Debra Burlingame here and here.) 

To be sure, Nawash’s apology has a different context and purpose than Niederer’s, but it belongs to the same counter-causal universe, in which acts are to be divorced from agents, and consequences from those actually responsible for them.

It’s been depressing to watch non-Muslims hail Nawash’s apology as though it were some sort of moral victory over terrorism. One gets the sense that there are people out there who would rejoice at the sight of any Muslim groveling for any reason, however irrational or counter-purposive. The governing attitude seems to be, “We’ll accept any apology for 9/11, however senseless. It’s better than nothing.” 

Gratifying as it may be to watch Muslims grovel for what happened on 9/11, the gratification is emphatically not worth the price. The aim of the current war is victory over an enemy, not emotional satisfaction in the self-abasement of those quixotically inclined to engage in it. If Muslims are sufficiently ashamed of their religion to regard its tenets as implicated in terrorism, they should stop apologizing and abandon it. If they insist that Islam is not implicated in 9/11, they should practice it in a way that is compatible with individual rights, and fight those who practice it differently. But in neither case do they have any business “apologizing” for 9/11.   

Nawash’s apology is a pointless attempt to occupy the middle ground between a mortified rejection of Islam and an unapologetic allegiance to it. But there is no such ground. The apology is also a perhaps unwitting subversion of what an apology is actually supposed to be. It should, with all due respect, be marked “return to sender.” 

Irfan Khawaja is adjunct professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, and Felician College.