How can moderate Muslims battle extremism in Islam?
The consequences of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s war on terror may be responsible somehow, albeit not directly, for the emergence of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It may be an exaggeration to say that the situation is out of control and that it has become difficult, if not impossible, to contain the danger or overcome the consequences of the jihadist phenomenon, with those involved competing to see who can be the most violent.
There can be no argument that the majority of Muslims are peaceful and want to live in peace, coexisting with others and interacting with other cultures on the basis of mutual respect, for even cultural differences are the creation of God. This, however, does not negate the fact that the peaceful majority of more than a billion Muslims is suffering from a cancerous condition that has reached an advanced stage, to the point where it is bordering on terminal. In other words, it could kill the patient unless it is removed.
It is now clear that Muslims are facing the threat of this growing cancer, which must be removed quickly before it can eliminate centuries of Islamic enlightenment during which Muslim scholars excelled in various fields, building bridges of communication with the world’s various cultures and civilizations. As for those who sow the cancerous seeds of division, they want to take the Islamic world backwards, deluding themselves into believing that their version of Islam—which relies on the sword—must prevail across the world.
On the other hand, it is high time for the elite of the Muslim world to wake up. There has been enough lingering in the delusion this is not a serious issue simply because Islam is greater and stronger than groups such as ISIS and its ilk. Yes, this is a fact that nobody can deny; however, it is also important to destroy the falsehoods of the self-righteous. This calls us to confront them with a force far greater than their own, and on whatever battlefield they choose, even on the front lines of Sudan, Somalia, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq or Syria.
With the escalation in armed confrontation, intellectual argument must also continue on all levels. This, by the way, is the task of the enlightened religious scholars who are experts in their profession and who know what they are talking about, not the op-ed writers or television pundits—and this particularly applies to those who make it their business to issue fatwas and explain Qur’anic verses.
Entering a minefield
At this point, I am going to risk entering a minefield—albeit with advance knowledge of the risk that I am taking—and say that it is time for revered Muslim scholars, who are known for their brilliance, logic and wisdom, to take all criticisms of Islam seriously. They must place particular focus on those parts that seem to strengthen jihadists’ claims that they are acting in the name of Islam—including the slaughtering of Muslims and calls for non-Muslims to choose between the jizya [tax paid by non-believers to Muslims in Islamic states in ancient times] or the sword. This would be especially effective if it were to come from people of stature and knowledge with respected positions in their communities, and who are renowned for their objective opinions and their respect for Islam as a religion and a culture.
To be honest, it is no longer useful to express disappointment, anger or even ignorance towards criticism of Islam, which arises as a result of the actions of those who fan the flames of hatred. It is also no longer enough to hold complementary seminars that avoid delving deeply into the issues and shy away from taking the decisions that would deprive ISIS and the like of any excuse to present their murderous actions as being holy. It would be much better for Islam and Muslims to deal quickly with the problem before the cost becomes prohibitive, and to acknowledge the existence of this malignant tumor that must be removed as soon as possible.
Others may prefer to choose the easier way out in dealing with the problem. They are no less anxious about events, but believe that time will put an end to the jihadist phenomenon, as it did to other phenomena that came before. However, with all due respect, I think that this opinion trivializes a dangerous problem by making us believe that we can brush it under the carpet. No, reality and experience prove that this solution—the solution of waiting for a solution to emerge—is like trying to seek shelter from the sun under a sieve, as the Arab saying goes.
For instance, the Islamic world, in particular the Arab region, tolerated the atrocities of the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria during the early days of the spread of its horrors in the early 1990s. Back then, it seemed everyone was saying, “As long as the fire burning my next door neighbor’s house has not reached my house, I do not have to do anything.” This is not just incorrect, it is a sin.
Another, less serious, example is thinking that Islamic extremism will not develop into bloody jihad but will disappear as soon as a solution is found to historic disputes, mainly a just solution for the Palestinian cause, or by putting out the regional fires from Sudan in the south to Lebanon in the north. That is a belief I once held myself.
Now, however, I am convinced—and maybe others are as well—that this is shortsighted. Of course, the belief that a just solution to the Palestinian cause is a prerequisite for stability in the region, and even for world peace, is absolutely true. And had that solution been achieved when the opportunity was present, the region would probably have been in a better state than it is today. However, if fantasy were to become reality now—by which I mean if the Palestinian issue were resolved at the touch of a magical button, which is impossible—it would still not make ISIS or other groups like it disappear.
The hole has only grown bigger and harder to close. It may be better to imagine jihadists ruling Gaza, for instance, or controlling part of Lebanon or the Sinai Peninsula, and then to formulate plans on how to confront this, than to dream that the fire that has engulfed our neighbor’s house will not reach our own. On March 24, an Arab Summit is set to be held in Kuwait. Will it make plans to remove the tumor of ISIS and other jihadist groups before it is too late? Let us wait and see.
By Bakir Oweida