Times Square Bombing Suspect Faisal Shahzad

An email purportedly written by Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad four years ago reveals that he was motivated to attack the U.S. partly by radical Islamist ideology.

In the email, Shahzad questions democracy (which he refers to as “human made laws”) and favors an Islamic system of governance in which the state is ruled by Islamic law.

He further criticizes U.S. policy for allowing Pakistan to be ruled by “dictatorship.” (Never mind that under former President Pervez Musharraf — who was leading Pakistan in 2006 — the Islamist political parties thrived more than ever). Shahzad then goes on to quote several verses of the Koran and seeks to motivate his readership to rise up against Western powers with violence.

We do not yet know which organizations or individuals may have contributed to the development of Shahzad’s violent Islamist worldview, or whether he may have been largely self-radicalized through the internet. What is clear, though, is that we must understand and take more seriously the Islamist ideology and narrative that he spells out and that drives much of the terrorism directed at the U.S. and other nations.

At the same time, we should not confuse Islamism (political Islam) with the religion of Islam itself. Many Muslims would not associate themselves with Islamist ideologies. In Pakistan, for example, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), an Islamist political party, has received less than 5 percent of the vote in most elections held in Pakistan over the last three decades. The JI was established in the 1940s by Maulana Maududi, an Islamic scholar who came of age as British colonial rule was ending in the Subcontinent and Hindu-Muslim communal tensions ran high. Maududi believed the only way Muslims could safeguard their political interests was to return to a pure and unadulterated Islam. He denounced nationalism and secular politics and held that the “Islamic state” was a panacea for all problems facing Muslims.

By contrast, Pakistan’s founding father and leader of the Muslim Conference, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, supported the idea of Islam serving as a unifying force, but envisioned the country functioning largely as a secular and multiethnic democratic state.

Before Shahzad’s attempt to bomb Times Square, most would have said the history of Pakistan’s birth and its struggle with Islamist narratives had little to do with U.S. national security. Shahzad’s email reveals, however, that even as other troubles may have been brewing in his life, the Islamist narrative helped motivate him to commit terror and thus will likely compel others to follow suit.

Rather than brush under the carpet the fact that these ideologies exist and motivate terrorism, we need to understand them. The next step is to engage them with a different narrative that highlights the values of personal freedom and responsibility, civic engagement and peaceful protest, and religious pluralism and dialogue. This must be done both abroad by Muslim communities themselves and at home where Americans need to better understand the differences between political Islam and the religion of Islam.

Only by raising awareness on these issues will we be able to combat the threat of terrorism and reduce the appeal of violent Islamist ideologies.