Tuesday afternoon, a 29-year-old Uzbek man named Saifullo Saipov, who was able to enter the United States in 2010 thanks to Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s (D-MA) pet “diversity visa” legislation carried out a premeditated vehicular attack in New York City, mowing down people at random over a mile-long stretch of bicycle path, leaving 8 dead and 11 injured.
What motivated Saifullo to do what he did?
Saifullo, to be clear, was living in the United States – also known as the “land of opportunity” – for the past 7 years, having been admitted on Schumer’s “diversity visa” program.
Saifullo, to be clear, was not in Uzbekistan but rather in the United States, the “land of opportunity,” at the actual time he perpetrated this attack.
Saifullo, to be clear, was able to do what he did because he had opportunity: Opportunity to travel to the United States, opportunity to get jobs and earn money, opportunity to have a drivers’ license and to rent a truck from Home Depot, and so forth.
Yet, for someone over at the Wall Street Journal, Tuesday’s attack is most likely a sign of the “lack of opportunity and freedom in the former Soviet region.” https://www.wsj.com/articles/new-york-attack-underlines-central-asia-as-growing-source-of-terrorism-1509508624
Perhaps the Wall Street Journal editors (1) need some help connecting some dots.
IDEAS, BELIEFS, AND THE PURSUIT OF A DEPRAVED GOAL MAKE POSSIBLE THIS KIND OF VIOLENCE
For a variety of reasons evidenced in the details of the attack, and similar to many other attacks by Muslims (2) that have been witnessed in this country and elsewhere around the world recently, this attack appears to have been motivated by Islamic religious zeal rather than nationalism or some other social, political, or economic cause.
Uzbekistan, a former Soviet satellite state, has had good relations with the United States in recent years. My own academic work even took me there for a visit two years ago, as several institutions in Uzbekistan house important early Qurʾan manuscripts. Uzbekistan’s President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has condemned Tuesday’s attack.
Meanwhile, the attacker himself, who was shot but not killed, has bragged about his actions even as he recovers in hospital, and even asked to fly the flag of the Islamic State at the end of his hospital bed.
What is in a name? In this case, since the perpetrator seems to have been seeking to live up to his name, it will be appropriate to point out that “Saifullo” is a variant of the Arabic saifullah, “Sword of Allah.” The name most usually and most prominently hearkens to Khalid b. al-Walid, a companion of Muhammad and one of the most important military generals in the early Arab/Muslim conquests, who earned the name Saifullah for his central role in bringing new peoples and territories into subjugation to Islam. To name a child Saifullah often indicates parents’ hope that the son bearing it will grow to emulate Khalid in some way. (3) Saifullah, in other words, is a pious and ambitious name and, in my observation, it is unusual for anyone but Muslim parents with dreams of a child who would advance Islam to choose the name Saifullah for their son. (4) Obviously people are all different and so I am merely making an educated guess as to why this particular Saifullo was given this name and not another.
As he was being apprehended, Saifullo shouted “Allahu akbar!” (“Allah is greater”). This phrase is called the “takbir,” and is a declaration of Allah’s greatness that is repeated by Muslims in the call to prayer, (5) in daily prayer itself, and as a pious exclamation (used similarly to how an English speaker might say “Oh, my goodness…”). (6) It also commonly precedes Muslims’ advance into battle, (7) or signals the start of a jihad. (8) On Tuesday, “Allahu akbar!” was used by Saifullo in the advance to battle and jihad sense, not the “Oh, my goodness” or call to prayer sense.
Two important facts not to miss about “Allahu akbar!” are, first, that it is a thoroughly Islamic (i.e. not Christian, not Jewish, not Buddhist, not Hindu, not atheist, not New Age, etc.) phrase going back to Muhammad himself, and, second, that its use while perpetrating violence also goes back to Muhammad’s conquests and, today as back then, is a declaration by the perpetrator that the violence being done is intended to be in service of and/or obedience to Allah. “Allahu akbar!” in conquest is, further, a rallying cry: It is supposed to strike fear in the hearts of those being attacked, and to embolden other Muslims who are already fighting alongside or who may take inspiration from it to do so in the future. As such, it is a triumphalist declaration that, in addition to being a pious phrase or worship, is a key rhetorical device in the Islamic fighter’s toolkit.
WHY IT MATTERS
Returning to the question of whether poverty or lack of opportunity causes terrorism, remember this: There are millions of very poor people in the world who would never resort to violent attacks on others in order to achieve the desired end, and further that many people of great means and/or education have been behind some of the worst terrorist attacks and genocides of the past century.
So, journalists like those at the Wall Street Journal who allege lack of opportunity as a cause of terrorism – in this case as in others – are clearly barking up the wrong tree.
There are ideas in this world that have led to violence. Some beliefs lead to violence more often than others. To cite a few examples:
1) the belief that human life has no inherent value, or
2) the belief that God has ordered violence, or
3) the belief that God does not exist at all and therefore there is no objective right and wrong in the first place, or
4) the belief that some group of people don’t deserve to live
Some beliefs less often lead to violence than others. To cite a few examples:
1) the belief that murder is morally wrong because God has said so,
2) the belief that one should love his enemies and repay evil with good, or
3) the belief that humans are more than mere animals and that their individual lives are inherently valuable, or
4) the belief that my life is meaningful regardless of whether I have abundance of possessions at this particular moment
The 100 million victims of Communism in the past century, the millions of victims of the Nazi regime, the victims of Boko Haram and the Islamic State, the victims of socialism in Venezuela and elsewhere, and the victims of mass-shootings or of millions of unborn babies in the United States in recent decades are some current or recent examples of the consequence of ideas. These things all have one thing in common: All are the outworking of theology. (9)
Now, I am not privy to any more information in Tuesday’s tragedy than that which has been reported in the news. Obviously there are many more details that will come to light in this case.
LIBERTY AND DISCERNMENT
My purpose in this article is to encourage those reading to embrace clarity of thought and analysis, and to reject the idea that all belief systems are morally equivalent and at root basically the same. They are not. What people believe affects how they live their lives and how they interact with other human beings. Beliefs are not neutral. They have consequences in the real world, sometimes good and sometimes bad.
In the United States of America, a Republic self-governed by its sovereign citizens, we affirm as a God-given right freedom of speech, which really means freedom of thought and conscience. This of course requires that we recognize people have a right to explore even offensive ideas, to express them, to advocate for them, and so forth, within the context of a general affirmation that every other person also has such a right.
This is at the root of what we call “liberty,” and liberty is a precious and consequential thing. It is highly to be prized but it must also be maintained, and it must not be changed for a counterfeit.
The counterfeit of liberty that many “progressives” advance today is called multiculturalism. Multiculturalism asserts that all ideas are equal and that no moral system is objectively better than any other. But such an assertion is a logical absurdity because it is self-defeating. What I mean is that, in order to be true, the assertion itself would have to be better than its negation, but if this were the case, the assertion would be false.
So no, the affirmation in a free society that all ideas may be freely considered or held must not keep us hostage in a desert of moral equivalence.
The impact of ideas on actions, clearly, should be one factor among several considered when deciding whether a foreign person should be granted a visa to immigrate to the United States. This is probably more complex than a simple litmus test and usually won’t mean the exclusion of broad categories of immigration candidates, although such a determination (i.e. regarding limitation, not expansion, of immigration) is left by current law entirely to the President’s discretion.
As we spend our lives on a wide open sea, let us give thanks to God for the liberty to choose our individual path in life, but let us remember that icebergs and shoals do exist, and that not every course is worthy and safe for us or others. While we protect the right of each person to chart their own path, we must remember that true love also pleads with others to avoid or to abandon known dangers and also works vigilantly to protect innocents from those who would do them harm.
In order to warn people from wrong ideas and call them to better ones, we must first accept the premise that true and false, good and evil, exist in the first place.
(1) The Wall Street Journal article itself is good, so I assume the unfortunate sub-head is the work of an ideological editor working to guide readers away from WrongThink.
(2) In this article I am talking about attacks motivated by a form of Islamic belief that takes a generally more studied approach Muhammad’s example. Although I am quite familiar with the Qur’an and the classical sources, as a non-Muslim it is not my place to say with anything more than an educated outsider’s authority that this approach to Islam any more, or any less, “Muslim” than that of another person who takes a more sanguine view and would not do such a thing. (To understand the varieties of Islam, see Rippin, Andrew, Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Routledge, 2005.) Nor is it to say that the only people in the world who perpetrate violent attacks in the world are a subset of those who call themselves Muslim, nor again am I suggesting that calling oneself Muslim implies automatic sympathy for the sort of thing that we witnessed Tuesday; clearly in some cases it does, but in most it does not. By noting the religious affiliation I am merely asserting that at this time it is a relevant part of the picture in this case, most notably because the perpetrator has by now himself stated so in no uncertain terms.
(3) See Brubaker, Daniel, “Khalid b. al-Walid,” in War and Religion: An Encyclopedia of Faith and Conflict, Shaw, Jeffrey and Tim Demy (eds.), ABC-CLIO, 2017; Guillaume, Alfred, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1955, 373 (where before becoming a Muslim, he fought against Muhammad at the Battle of Uhud), 484 (where he became a follower of Muhammad), 537 (where Khalid is lauded in a poem: “I did but imitate Khālid and Khālid has no equal in the army.”), 549, 561-5 (where a people under attack by the Muslims are told by Khālid, “Lay down your arms, for everybody has accepted Islam,” but were warned by another man, “This is Khālid. If you lay down your arms you will be bound, and after you have been bound you will be beheaded.” The people, however, trusted Khālid and laid down their arms, at which point it is reported: “As soon as they had laid down their arms Khālid ordered their hands to be tied behind their backs and put them to the sword, killing a number of them.” It is reported relating to this, “I was with Khālid’s cavalry that day when a young man … who was about my own age spoke to me. His hands were tied to his neck by an old rope and the women were standing in a group a short distance away. He asked me to take hold of the rope and lead him to the women so that he might say what he had to say and bring him back and do what we liked with him. I said that that was a small thing to ask and I led him to them. As he stood by them he said, ‘Fare you well, Hubaysha, though life is at an end.’” The captive man recited a bittersweet love poem to the woman. After this it is reported, “Then I took him away and he was beheaded.” Another witness reports. “She went to him when he was beheaded and bent over him and kept on kissing him until she died at his side.”), 645-6 (where Khālid had been sent out by Muhammad to force a tribe of people to either accept Islam or be fought and killed. Khalid did so, they accepted Islam and were brought back to Muhammad, whereupon Muhammad told their representative frankly, “If Khālid had not written to me that you had accepted Islam and had not fought I would throw your heads beneath your feet.”).
(4) Obviously, a child does not have control over the name he is given by his parents. Children sometimes live up to their names, which often represent the dreams their parents had for them; at other times they do not.
(5) The use of “Allahu akbar” in the call to prayer was first suggested to Muhammad by a man named ʿAbdullah, and was first employed by Muhammad’s slave (later freed by Abū Bakr) Bilāl. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, 143 (on Bilal as slave, later freed), 236 (on the call to prayer).
(6) See Glasse, Cyril, The Concise Encyclopædia of Islam, Stacey International, London, 2008, 510.
(7) See Cook, David, Understanding Jihad, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005, 18, 200, 205-6, and Cook, David, Martyrdom in Islam, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007, 38, 177. The words allahu akbar occur together three times in the Qur’an but never with allah as the subject; the use of the phrase as a battle cry rather comes from the example of Muhammad and the Companions.
(8) Sami al-Suwaylam recounts, for example, “When I saw the Chechen bands covered in slogans saying: ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and crying Allahu akbar!’ I knew that there was a jihad in Chechnya and I decided that I would go there.” Cook, David, Martyrdom in Islam, 177.
(9) I am well aware that I could just as well have said “the outworking of ideas,” and this would also be true. However, “outworking of theology,” no matter how unfashionable, cuts more directly to the heart of the matter. What people believe to be true about God (Does he exist? Does he not? If he does, what is he like? etc.) and thus also about humanity (What is a person, really? What has God said about how I should treat others? Has God specifically commanded a particular violent action? etc.) is really, in my view, the determining factor governing whether or not people are willing to engage in violence against fellow human beings.
DANIEL A. BRUBAKER, Ph.D.