On Non-Violent Islamic Extremism (1/3)

I have a problem with two arguments in this whole debate on the rise of ISIS and Islamic extremism. One says Islam is not the problem and the other says Islam is the problem.

Both fail to look at the roots of extremism. The first avoids taking responsibility and with it the necessary and painful measures to tackle the problem and the second insists that whatever measures will be taken are futile; you cannot change a religion after all, can you? Yet, as long as we refrain from challenging the ideological basis of extremism, Islamic extremism will not go away. It will persist within our societies, Western and Islamic alike.

The first argument tells us that Islam has nothing to do with what ISIS is doing. It insists that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance; that we are dealing with a group of sick people, who twisted the message of Islam and are committing these atrocities in the name of religion. Most of those using this argument are often of Islamic heritage, are truly convinced of its merit, and engage in a defensive discourse to dispel the 'bad image' of Islam, caused, as they believe, by the 'biased media coverage'. The lack of a critical discourse on the Islamic religion, its holy texts, gender equality, plurality and secularism, the shameful record of Islamic states in violating basic human rights and citizen rights in the name of Islam, and the role of political Islam and Islamic states in mainstreaming ISIS ideology is conspicuously absent in their argument.

Some social scientists join in in this discourse and add a sophisticated touch to this argument. They often argue that 'there is nothing special about ISIS in its behaviour and atrocities'. In fact, all revolutionary movements engage in similar behavior. This group is comfortable with comparing ISIS with other revolutionary movements yet rarely compares their ideologies nor looks closer at ISIS' ideological foundation and how it shapes its actions. Imagine looking at the Nazi movement without looking at its ideological foundation of social nationalism and race theories!

Western politicians, fearful of a racist anti-Muslims backlash and eager to gain the support of their citizens of Islamic faith in addition to Muslim societies in their campaign against ISIS, join in and enthusiastically support this first argument with their statements. Barack Obama made a point in his UN speech that Islam is a religion of peace and called on Muslims to explicitly, forcefully and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS).

David Cameron argued similarly in his speech asserting that 'ISIS perverts the Islamic faith as a way of justifying their warped and barbaric ideology'. His choice of the word ideology was accurate; yet tackling this ideology within Britain itself (a daunting task as my research reveals) will need more than a military campaign (necessary as it is) and hastily designed laws.

The second argument insists that religion is a force of destruction; that Islam as a religion is a bad/evil religion; that what ISIS is doing is a true manifestation of the spirit of this religion, and that Muslims are either a) disoriented and blinded by their religion or b) inherently extreme and can not be trusted.

Those supporting this argument or aspects of it come from different backgrounds. Some can be described as devout/hard core atheists, who strongly believe that religion, any religion, is a force of domination and destruction. Faith, using the words of Jerry A. Coyne, is "belief in the absence of convincing evidence, and hence isn't true or false, but simply irrational." Within the same group albeit from a polemic camp, others will go further when describing Islam. Sam Harris -- a star among the New Atheism movement -- calls to our attention that "the truth about Islam is as politically incorrect as it is terrifying: Islam is all fringe and no center. In Islam, we confront a civilization with an arrested history. It is as though a portal in time has opened, and the Christians of the 14th century are pouring into our world."

Though harsh and sometimes polemic in its critique, it is important to emphasize that this group's motive is derived from a defence of rationality and a desire for the protection of human and civil rights. Their call is not meant to violate human rights of people of Islamic faith; it is a critique of what they consider Muslims' lack of intellectual honesty and the destruction caused by dogmatic extremism.

Nevertheless, while their argument about religion is accurate when religion becomes the basis for a political and legal order; in other words, when religion and politics merge and intertwine in a political state and shape the social order. They tend to ignore that faith, however irrational it may seem from their perspective, has a spiritual dimension, which many in this globe tend to resort to. To ignore the perspective of believers is to undermine the very plurality they cherish so much.

Moreover, to insist that Islam is all fringe ignores that one could also say the same about Christianity in the middle ages, which at the time launched religious wars, crusades and inquisition. The fact that we can not say that about Christianity today (without ignoring modern Christian fundamentalists, who are trying to make inroads into politics and education) is a testimony that this religion went through a process of necessary reformation, which led to an enlightenment that paved the ground for a separation of religion and state. Islam is yet to go through a similar reformation. In other words, just as Christianity needed to be tamed and brought back to the private domain of the individual, so does the Islamic religion.

Moreover such sweeping generalizations disregard the diversity within Islamic tradition, which was often shaped by the people believing in the religion. It does not come as a surprise that the first measures taken by Islamists is to destroy any signs of that diversity. Along with diversity, religiosity is not synonymous with extremism. I dare say and insist that being a devout Muslim is not and should not be equated with extremism or fundamentalism.

There is another kind of group, which supports the totality of the argument that Islam is evil and Muslims cannot be trusted, namely far-right groups. This type should not be conflated with the previous one. What motivates them is an ideology of racism and a belief in the superiority of their own race/religion. Just as they are anti-Muslims, they are too anti-Jews! They see people of different faiths and color as inherently different and inferior, whose presence only corrupts their own societies. Their aim is not rationality, enlightenment or protection of human and civil rights, rather the opposite.

As I told you, I have a problem with the two arguments. Both ignore the contexts of this phenomenon and the human factor in shaping it. The first refrains from taking responsibility and the second insists that measures are futile given the 'nature' of Islam.

But to ignore the problem will not do any more. We have to act, call the problem by its name and tackle it by necessary measures. It is us, people everywhere, who are paying a high price for the inaction in dealing with this extremism. We see its face in the girls still kidnapped and sold by Boko Haram in Nigeria; we see its face in Iraqi and Syrian minorities, fleeing for their lives because of an ideology that treats them as subhuman and inferior on account of their religious affiliation; we see its face in laws in Islamic countries that violate citizen and human rights with impunity and uphold religious beliefs by force; we see it spreading like a cancer in failed states all over the MENA region and South Asian countries; and we see its face in the radicalization of young men and women within Western societies turning them against their new homelands.

We have to act.

But to act requires identifying the roots of the problem. I see it from two perspectives. The first acknowledges the necessity of a theological reformation of the Islamic religion. Such a long-term project will enable us to tame the religion and bring it back to the private spiritual domain of the individual. It is an indispensable step for the separation of state and religion, which is key for the neutrality of the state towards its citizens. It entails the painful process of admitting the human nature of Islamic holy texts, including the Quran.

The second recognizes the political context within which Islamic extremism came about and emphasizes that non-violent extremism set the stage for violent extremism. Both Islamic and Western countries have a responsibility in confronting non-violent Islamic extremism and its institutions prevalent within their societies.

I will discuss the two elements in details. (to be continued) ----

This article in its three parts was written by author for Middle East Transparent and published here: http://www.metransparent.com/spip.php?page=article&id_article=29443&lang=en