Violent extremism is the combustible outcome of a cocktail of ingredients including, but not restricted to, identity crisis, perceived grievances, sense of stigmatisation and helplessness, past criminality, charismatic recruiter and ideology. In the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, Obama refused to label the Isis and Al-Qaeda “ideology” as “Islamic”, causing a significant debate to ensue. I do not deny that “ideology” plays a part and that it lubricates the wheels of justification for violent extremists; rather, I dispute its nature.
Terms such as “Islamic”, “Islamism” or “Islamist” are offered to distinguish Islam – the peaceful religion, from Islamism – the extremist ideology. The problem, of course, is that all of these terms are derivatives, by way of suffixes, of the word “Islam.” If the term created to describe the ideology is a linguistic derivative of the word “Islam,” then the ideology concocted to inspire the act must also be a theological derivative of the religion Islam; such is the underlying messaging at play here, however inadvertent.
The other problem of mislabelling this ideology is the missed opportunity to find the real culprit. I would argue that it is absolutism, the self-perpetuating belief in one’s own truths with the self-supposed right to impose them on others while being closed to reason, logic and doubt. Absolutism is a very human problem. Since we are not by default immune to it, neither is anything else. A religion does not need to be inherently violent for inherently violent acts to be justified through it. Communism, Nazism, Fascism are examples of secular absolutist world-views terrorising millions. Likewise, terrorists claiming Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist motivation exist today as they did yesterday.
That does not mean to absolve the terrorists or their ideology; it means we re-focus our efforts on them, their ideology and all other determinant factors without providing labels that pre-judge the outcome of our enquiry before it is completed or that we acknowledge the implication of the labels more openly so that a more honest and frank debate can be had about the matter. If we believe that Islam is somehow at some level to blame let us make that case so that it can be addressed head-on. That we lack alternative bite-size terms to distinguish one group of terrorists from another does not negate the point about the implications of the terms currently in use or the deeper cause at play. Even acknowledging that point may lead to a more considerate use of language, especially at the popular level.
But is Islam more amenable to absolutism by way of being a religion or by virtue of its own idiosyncratic nature? I would argue the opposite. The spirit and letter of Islam works against absolutism. Islam teaches us that while people can believe that their religion represents ‘the Truth’, our access to it is limited by our limitedness; hence, the need in Islam for ijma (consensus) on religious issues to ascertain the weightier (not absolute) interpretation at that point in time. The same principle applies in worldly affairs, including Islamic activism, with the Qur’an emphasising shura – consultative and collective decision making – as often as it does salat (prayer) and infaq (charity). In that vein, Turkish/Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen says, “He who is certain of himself is almost certainly at loss,” drawing attention to the constant need to doubt one’s subjective grasp of one’s subjective belief in one’s objective Truths. Doubt of one’s grasp of, is not the same as doubt of belief in.
Completely at odds with absolutism and encouraging doubt in oneself and one’s own opinions are the many Qur’anic references to thinking, enquiring and reflecting; the Qur’an explicitly conceiving belief in the plural (“Had your Lord willed, all the people on earth would have believed. So can you [O Prophet] compel people to believe?” Yunus, 10:99); the Qur’anic guarantee of freedom of belief; the Prophetic sayings that no one has the right to enter heaven on account of their good deeds except by the mercy of God, that all perish except those who believe and act with pure sincerity, and records of Prophetic practices such as the drafting and signing of the Medinah charter, which created “an ummah” comprising the Medinan Muslims, Jews and polytheists; that stories of the Prophet’s companions found crying on their deathbeds either on account of being uncertain of their decisions since the Prophet’s passing and/or due to fear of dying in a state of disbelief; the numerous statements by leading companions such as Abu Bakr and Umar who expressed almost exasperation under the sheer weight of the human responsibility of knowing and doing what was right at all times; the Islamic codes of practice such as muhasebe (self-criticism), muraqaba (self-supervision), tafakkur (reflection), huzn (sorrow), khawf and raja (fear and hope) and ikhlas (pure sincerity); and the in-built Islamic tools to ensure Islam’s continual re-reading and re-understanding over time through mechanisms such as ijtihad (reinterpretation) and tajdid (renewal).
Islam in total emphasises meaning over form, balance over extremity and reflection over reactionaryism, countering the absolutist mindset that seeks comfort in the simplicity of fixating on outward signs, symbols and labels. Doubt is not shunned in Islam but in fact encouraged and welcomed. Accordingly, based on this reading, the purpose of Islam is to counter man’s absolutist tendency, which, in my estimation, is the main pillar of violent extremist ideology. Giving it other names, especially those associated with its greatest antidote, is a double confusion that pleases the absolutists most and confounds the problem further.
Published on Today’s Zaman, 20 March 2015.