Muslim moderates have to figure out how to defend equality and democracy against religious arguments for hierarchy and theocracy.
There is a growing desire to understand the root causes of Islamic extremism. This is a natural reaction to the unspeakable horrors that transnational terrorist groups, including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Boko Haram (translated as western education is forbidden) and Daesh or the Islamic State (IS) are carrying out against innocent people, the majority of whom are Muslims. It is recognised that extremism now poses the greatest challenge to universal human values and world peace.
President Obama has suggested that economic and political grievances are responsible for violence and terrorism in the Muslim world. Mocked by his Republican opponents, Obama encouraged democracy and prosperity to combat militancy. Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious seat of learning, linked extremism to “bad interpretations of the Quran and the sunnah”, which have led some people to embrace a ‘misguided’ form of Islam. Al-Tayeb’s rare and candid admission was diluted when he went on to blame unrest in the region, on a conspiracy of “new global colonialism allied to world Zionism”.
Unfortunately, the facts are that the forms of Islam gaining ascendancy — certainly those most influential world affairs today — are the extreme, intolerant forms. It is no longer sufficient to just blame longstanding injustices and twisted ideologies for the brutal atrocities committed by ‘fringe’ Islamic groups. Many (but not all) of the problems facing the Muslim world are indeed self-inflicted, and blaming the west for all of them has set Muslims back from the path of enlightenment.
A major issue is that Islam lacks the traditions that encourage questioning and scepticism, and the test of knowledge through the prism of rationality. Muslims easily succumb to pre-dominant, irrational discourse and actions. Perhaps we can draw hope in the words of linguist and translator Thomas Cleary who said: “Islam does not demand unreasoned belief. Rather, it invites intelligent faith, growing from observation, reflection and contemplation, beginning with nature and what is all around us.” Sadly, most Muslim societies do not allow the freedoms necessary for public introspection and dialogue. At this point it is very difficult to envision reform in the Muslim world that focuses on the maturity and reason of humankind.
It is unhelpful that, for political reasons, partly, rulers of Islamic kingdoms (like past Christian kings) describe themselves as “shadows of God on earth”. This sends out an unequivocal message: anyone contradicting the ruler is also contradicting God. In order to make sure that the populace remains compliant, they construct the image of a God for whom obedience is paramount. To this very day, this plays an important role in dictatorial Islamic states, where any opposition is not only held up as a secular opposition, but also as a movement against God. People defer to the rulers when they have questions about what they should and should not do. Repressive structures intermingle as a result. Christianity has succeeded in overcoming this incapacitation of the faithful. That has not quite been the case in Islam.
Also, most Muslims do not concern themselves with the true essence of the Quran. That is why many Muslims often base the faith on what they are told. We hark back to statements made by theologians in the ninth and 10th centuries. Muslims need to fight the literalism and obscurantism being promoted in many mosques, in religious schools or during courses of theological instruction. It is also too often the case that the lives of Muslims are cloaked with a fatalism based on a misunderstanding of God’s will. In the closed, fearful world of Islamic discussion, a discourse on these issues is considered offensive, dangerous or both. Muslims who mention it are branded disloyal and subjected to intimidation and violence. Reformers who interpret the Quran differently, who say Islam is more than just a religion of rules and regulations, have so far not succeeded in asserting themselves.
Muslim moderates have to figure out how to defend equality and democracy against religious arguments for hierarchy and theocracy. The appeal of radical religious doctrine and practice is obvious today, and needs to be understood if we are to persuade people that religious zealotry is frighteningly unappealing. We should recognise the power of the extremists and the extent of their political reach. We should clearly name the fanatics our adversaries and commit ourselves to an intellectual campaign against them; that is, a campaign in defence of liberty, democracy, equality and pluralism. If Muslims expect religious tolerance, we must ourselves enforce a zero-tolerance policy against hatred and bigotry.
All the great religious civilisations are capable of producing violent fanatics and all faiths in their extreme form carry the possibility of tyranny. However, Islam today seems most susceptible to this malady. Muslims have to step up to the forefront of the struggle for political and religious tolerance, social cohesion and inclusiveness. As a start, this process should consist of two parts. First, do not blame external forces for all your ills. Second, be inclusive and compassionate towards other human beings regardless of their faith because that is what our beneficent and merciful God has willed the believers to do.