Last Friday afternoon, a twenty-two-year-old Iranian student named Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar drove an SUV onto the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, deliberately trying to kill people and succeeding in injuring nine. After the incident, he seemed singularly pleased with himself, smiling and waving to crowds after a court appearance on Monday, at which he explained that he was “thankful for the opportunity to spread the will of Allah.”
In a 911 call he made to turn himself in, Taheri-azar said that he wanted to kill people on the UNC campus in order to “punish the government of the United States for their actions around the world.” Specifically, he wanted to “avenge the deaths of Muslims around the world.” According to some who know him, Taheri-azar recently gave up his heavy marijuana and alcohol use and became more religiously observant.
Controversy over the incident has so far revolved around the reluctance of officials to label it “terrorism.” On Monday the UNC College Republicans, Americans for an Informed Democracy and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies held a demonstration against this at The Pit, the campus gathering area where Taheri-azar ran down students on Friday. Jillian Bandes of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies declared: “This is innocent people being attacked by an SUV, driven by a man who was doing it for retaliation for treatment of Muslims around the world. To me, that spells terrorism.”
Those who shy away from that classification point to the apparent facts that Taheri-azar acted alone, and that he had no ties to any terrorist groups. He doesn’t even seem to have been a member of the local chapter of the Muslim Students Association, which said that he was not a member and added in a statement: “Regardless of what his intentions prove to be, we wholeheartedly deplore this action, and trust that our fellow classmates will be able to dissociate the actions of this one disturbed individual from the beliefs of the Muslim community as a whole.”
Nevertheless, it seems clear from his own words that Islam motivated Taheri-azar. The question of whether or not he was a terrorist hinges on several false assumptions that have led to widespread misconceptions. Many seem to assume that someone who struck alone and has no ties to terror groups is just a lone nut, a John Hinckley, and as such his actions need not be fit into a larger pattern. But in fact, we face today not so much a matter of organized crime, but of ideology. A single individual can act upon that ideology as easily as a group can. Thus it matters less that Taheri-azar was not a member of a terrorist organization than that he at some point came to hold the belief that to kill people would “spread the will of Allah.”
Investigators should be focusing on that ideology as much as they are on other details of the crime. It is not outside the realm of possibility that he heard praise of such actions in a local mosque; after all, on the same day the College Republicans and their allies were demonstrating in The Pit, the New York Times ran one segment of a laudatory multi-part series profiling Brooklyn imam Reda Shata -- which noted that when the murderous Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin was killed, Shata told Muslims at a memorial service that a “lion of Palestine has been martyred.” He also praised suicide bomber Reem Al-Reyashi. The Times dismisses this as Shata’s zeal for what he believes is a just cause, reassuring its readers that Shata doesn’t hate Jews, and even has friends among New York rabbis. Nonetheless, his support for Yassin, who oversaw and glorified the murders of numerous Israeli civilians, raises nagging questions. If one can justify such attacks in one context, one can in another. If Shata can praise one who sponsored attacks against Israeli civilians because of the alleged enormities of the Israelis, cannot Taheri-azar justify attacks against American civilians because of the alleged enormities of the United States government? And if support for such attacks can be preached and believed in New York, can it not be preached and believed in North Carolina?
Of course, in his mosque in North Carolina Taheri-azar may not have heard anything like what Reda Shata preached in New York. He could have picked up the ideology on his own -- the ideology of Islamic jihad and the permissibility of violence against any and all unbelievers who are considered enemies of Islam. The fact that that ideology has not been identified as the fundamental enemy of the United States and the Western world in general is the single gravest omission and failure of the war on terror up to this point. Law enforcement officials should be calling upon American mosque leaders like Reda Shata to declare their loyalties on this basis. They should be calling upon imams to preach against this ideology -- to conduct seminars for adults and children, ongoing classes, and other organized programs to combat it.
Religious freedom? Not an issue. Muslims should be perfectly free to worship and live as Muslims unless and until they begin to preach or act upon the idea that the United States Constitution should ultimately be replaced by Islamic Sharia. Then they have placed themselves outside the bounds of the legal protection offered by those sworn to uphold that Constitution. Self-proclaimed moderate Muslims should be asked to demonstrate their moderation by initiating and leading an active campaign among Muslims against the jihad ideology in all its forms. This will include inculcating the idea that non-Muslims and Muslims should coexist as equal citizens in society, without any aspiration for Islamic supremacism in the future. It should also include active repudiation of the idea that killing or trying to kill innocent people -- or even civilian non-combatants whom one considers to be part of a war machine -- does not spread the will of Allah.
It is unlikely that any such programs will ever be implemented in American mosques. There is no impetus from within those mosques to do so, and no one in government or law enforcement is putting any pressure upon Muslim leaders in America to do so. Whether Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar learned the ideology of violent jihad at a mosque or on his own, there is one clear lesson to be learned from American Muslims’ failure to combat that ideology in any effective or meaningful way: before this particular age of jihad draws to a close, there will be many more Mohammed Reza Taheri-azars.
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