Atlanta, Georgia - Last summer, following the London underground and bus attacks, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in an op-ed piece: "If it's a Muslim problem, it needs a Muslim solution." Almost immediately, his call spread across the global media network. Muslim leaders were summoned to offer answers. Many leaders simply offered that "true Islam" does not stand for such acts of violence and cowardice. Many recognise that Friedman's call was not truly directed at a Muslim audience, but rather at a Western audience frustrated with what it saw as Muslim complacency with so-called jihadism. Such thinking neglected the fact that it was Muslim, not Western, societies that have been most adversely affected by Islamic radicalism, and failed to recognise the great efforts Muslims have taken to challenge these dangers.
While Western societies have only recently fallen victim to Islamic militancy, it has been Muslim families, schools, cities and cultures that have been dealing with the much more insidious day-to-day challenges of curbing the enticing persuasions of Islamic militant ideology. In the wake of Cold War policies where Muslim societies like those in Somalia, Afghanistan and Palestine were treated like pawns in a game of chess, trying to argue against an ideology that deceitfully promises empowerment, dignity and eternal reward has for decades been the courageous and consistent work of Muslim religious leaders and the overwhelming majority of their constituents. By recognising these efforts, the Western world might find allies in the fight against this perverted jihadism.
The first step in this direction is to recognise that Muslim societies have fought extremism in general within their tradition for centuries and have made such efforts central to the overall vision of creating a just and "God-conscious" social order. Enshrined in the ethical obligation to "enforce the good and eradicate the evil," Muslims in the founding days of Islam succeeded early on in overcoming extremist sects, such as the Kharijites, whose unbridled zealotry threatened the Prophet Muhammad's overall mission. In such cases, sincere Muslims combated these evils with both their hands and their pens. Many sections of the Muslim world today now stand poised to do the same: it is through this aspect of Muslim faith, accompanied by proper Western engagement, that Islamic radicalism will find its greatest threat.
In places as insular as Saudi Arabia, whose religious authorities produce some of the most myopic interpretations of Islam, the duty to stop extremist violence has been taken up with a noticeable degree of success. In 2004, the Saudi royal family, backed by the leading Islamic scholars in the kingdom, offered a month-long amnesty to terrorists to turn themselves in or thereafter suffer extermination. The effort led to the surrender of some of Osama bin Laden's top officials within days. What made the amnesty possible was the mediating role of Sheikh al-Hawali, a former senior-ranking theologian at one of the country's leading seminaries, Umm al-Qurra University, who was, ironically, also imprisoned for five years on account of his views against the U.S. military presence in the region. Militant extremists respected al-Hawali as a credible scholar whose words carried the weight of the hereafter.
Those regarded as the most authoritative curators of Islamic law - imams, mullahs, sheikhs and scholars - should be employed in the ideological struggle against terrorism, precisely because it is their voices that may be the only ones heard by renegades.
Al-Hawali's role might be compared to that of Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s in Iraq and his successful effort at defusing the Muqtada al-Sadr standoff in Najaf in 2004. The creation of a national Muslim council in France designed to codify Islamic law and hold French Muslim citizens accountable to it might serve as yet another example. These cases highlight the fact that the Muslim world has at its disposal institutional resources, the foremost being clerical and legal authority, to curb extremism. These should be considered by all parties concerned about preventing further violence. By recognising that Muslims the world over have strong and sincere ethical commitments toward the eradication of all forms of corruption, vice and extremism, Western leaders and thinkers might find successful partners in places they never imagined.
* Abbas Barzegar is a graduate student at Emory University. His research focuses on the complexity and cultural, religious, and political diversity of the American Muslim community. This is the third of six articles in a series on religious revivalism and Muslim-Western relations commissioned by the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 26 September 2006, www.commongroundnews.org
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