Countering Islamic extremism

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 11.24.16 PMOn Tuesday, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a conference on Islamic extremism, reformism, and the war on terror, which included a panel entitled Options for the Islamic World and the United States. Panelists included: Zainab Al-Suwaij, American Islamic Congress,
Husain Haqqani, Hudson Institute and former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States and Mohamed Younis, Gallup.  Danielle Pletka, AEI, moderated.

Pletka spoke of the need to be more frank about Islamic extremism.  Political correctness has dominated our national conversation. Both parties say Islamic extremism is not Islam.

The Great Mosque in Bahrain
The Great Mosque in Bahrain

But ISIS is a form of Islam, just not a positive form.  There is also bigotry.  There needs to be an intelligent debate.

Al-Suwaij noted that President Obama states that the US is not at war with Islam, but doesn’t distinguish between Islam as a religion and Islamism driven by ideologues and extremists.  We need to address these issues wisely, but firmly.  The majority of the problems in the Muslim world come from the lack of human rights.  Authoritarian rulers are the basis of extremism and support extremism.  The Muslim public realizes that radicalism is the biggest threat to them. If they see the US doing nothing about it, they assume that the US works with these groups.

The 9th-11th Century Khoja Mashad Mosque and Mausoleum in Shahrituz, Tajikistan, 20 miles from the Afghan border.
The 9th-11th Century Khoja Mashad Mosque and Mausoleum in Shahrituz, Tajikistan, 20 miles from the Afghan border

Haqqani explained that Islam is not monolithic.  We are dealing with a problem of those Muslims who are engaged in a war.  Muslims in the West are sensitive to criticism of their religion, but Western publics are not criticizing Muslim piety; they are criticizing beheadings.  The US made a critical error in the Cold War by using Islamic fundamentalism to counter Communism.  It worked in the short-term but backfired.

On Monday, David Cameron outlined a strategy for countering extremism, in which he stated: “We’ve got to show that if you say ‘yes I condemn terror – but the Kuffar are inferior’, or ‘violence in London isn’t justified, but suicide bombs in Israel are a different matter’ – then you too are part of the problem.”  Haqqani wants a similar statement from President Obama. Islamic extremism has to do with Islam because the extremists self-identify as Muslims.  An ideological counter-narrative is needed. US policy must include military, intelligence, ideological and law-enforcement components, but the ideological component is missing.  Haqqani argued that Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Muslim community of India don’t produce extremists because these countries allow more freedom for Muslim scholarly debate.  The West needs to give a voice to unheard Muslim voices and protect pluralism.

The ceiling of the mosque in Abu Ghosh, Israel.
The ceiling of the mosque in Abu Ghosh, Israel

Younis said there is not a war on Islam, but a war within Islam.  The US needs to support diversity of opinion in the Islamic world. There is a need to increase jurisprudential literacy among Muslim masses; there are plenty of Muslim scholars who counter extremism.  People have been convinced that joining the Muslim Brotherhood will get them into heaven, but this is not in the Quran.  There is a conflation of sharia (the ideals of Islamic law) and fiqh (the worldly implementation of sharia).  The premise of Islamic schools of thought has been debate; ISIS is antithetical to this and takfirism (excommunicating fellow Muslims) is not a traditional approach.

When Gallup polled Muslims about 9/11, the the minority who felt it was justified gave political reasons, not religious ones.  Younis has observed three main grievances:

  1. The perception of US political hegemony–the US doesn’t support self-governance for Muslims.
  2. Conflicts in the Middle East, including Iraq and Israel-Palestine.
  3. The perception that Islam is not respected in the West.
The 13th Century Sheikh Maslihaddin Mausoleum, Khojand, Tajikistan
The 13th Century Sheikh Maslihaddin Mausoleum, Khojand, Tajikistan

Younis asserted, however, that increased jurisprudential literacy cannot come from the the US government because it is not expert at reforming religion.  If we openly support pluralist voices, they will be accused of working for the West.  We need to  address the ecosystem that breeds extremism.  The Brotherhood appealed to Egyptians because it was the only group addressing the needs of much of the population.  We should focus on job creation, human capital, and youth engagement.

Al-Suwaij claimed that the US can help since we spend millions annually on promoting civil society, helping to catalyze the Arab Spring.  That did not turn out well, but we could use a similar mechanism to bring religious reform.

9th Century Minaret in Ayni, Tajikistan
9th Century Minaret in Ayni, Tajikistan

Haqqani thought extremism comes partly from grievances and partly from conspiracy theories.  The works of Sayyid Qutb argue that the West is corrupt and controlled by Jews.  The narratives that the Islamic world declined because of colonialism or that Islam is under threat are false.  The Islamic world was colonized because it was already weak.  The West must fight conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, and sectarianism; American academia, NGOs, and think tanks, can play a role.  The US government can facilitate.

Al-Suwaij asserted that a few years ago, the American Islamic Congress discovered that curricula at many Islamic schools taught hatred, anti-Semitism and violence.  Many Islamic groups on college campuses encourage Muslims to be more extreme or join radical groups abroad and encourage non-Muslims to convert.  Younis asserted that on one side, there are those who ask Muslims to condemn radicalism, despite the fact that Muslim groups have been doing so for years.  On the other side, there is the “Islam is peace” argument, which ignores the fact that some commit violence in the name of Islam.  This “food fight” is unhelpful.  Al-Suwaij noted that many of the condemnations that Islamic groups make in public don’t apply in small groups behind closed doors.  Even though Muslims have equal rights in the US, there is still anti-Western rhetoric.

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