The West, led by the United States, has made a major mistake in its diagnosis of the roots and characteristics of fundamentalist theocratic ideology afflicting every corner of the world and the reasons for its emergence. Up to now, the West has neglected to look at the intellectual and ideological side in the production of this terrorism.
The dominating intellectual framework in Islamic societies now is in general a retrograde, theocratic framework that does not accept living and coexisting with the values of modernity, and it is only reconciled to its material products. It is a framework that seeks to wall up the values of communities and their political, social and legal concepts and institutions within the confines of what they were 1,000 years ago.
It is true that the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims want to live in peace and seek to interact with the world positively, but in light of present-day reality the prevailing intellectual framework is to a great extent too weak to carry out its role as catalyst for the adoption of the values of modernity or to strengthen its presence in the mindset and the current collective conscience.
Nor does it provide an appropriate antidote for severing the ties of extremism and terrorism from its basic sources: the intellectual infrastructure whose roots go back centuries. The ideology of extremism and terrorism have not emerged from a vacuum or outside the founding conceptual framework of Arab-Islamic culture.
Terrorism is a mindset not a state
From the reactions of the Western leaders and politicians following the bloody events in France during the month of November 2015 and their determination to fight and defeat ISIS militarily, it is evident that there is a glaring ignorance of the fact that ISIS represents an idea and not a geographical entity or a political organisation with clear targets for sea fleets and air squadrons.
The simplest evidence for what we are saying is that ISIS has created for itself a territory and state in the geopolitical sense in a very short period of time, through amassing together people who have no connection at all to that land, in much the same way as its sister-organisation al-Qaeda and its allies, who were a hairsbreadth away from seizing control of the entire Republic of Mali, thus decisively changing the balance of power in North and West Africa were it not for resolute French military intervention in early 2013.
Terrorism, then, is capable of influencing the average Muslim and turning him into a bomb within a very short space of time as is evident from the examples, illustrated by the media, of suicide bombers who only shortly before were alcoholics or drug addicts or with criminal backgrounds. It is capable of creating a state or quasi-state in a brief period of time when the simple conditions for this are available. Accordingly, the direction of our gaze must be turned from the ground upwards and focus on what is going on in people’s heads!
It is clear that there are arguments, repeated thick and fast by most researchers, politicians and activists, suggesting that these extremists are very few in number and represent only a small sector of Muslims, and that Islamic societies should therefore not bear responsibility for these abnormalities that they evidence.
This interpretation, for all its apparent accuracy, hides a more important truth: those responsible for acts of extremism and terrorism are not the ones who shape these communities, rather it is the intellectual climate prevailing in these communities, which impels young people towards walking the path of extremism and terrorism.
In fact, the most striking feature of this environment, one which we consider to be the nub of the problem, is the reliance of Muslim communities upon specific concepts of Islam that have been adopted at both the official and popular levels, concepts whose foundations have remained unchanged for almost a thousand years. These concepts reinforce in the collective mind of contemporary Muslims these following perceptions:
- The providing of solutions to all human issues, including aspects related to the natural and social sciences, is an integral part of the religious system;
- The fundamental criterion for determining one’s standpoint on social phenomena resides in the concept of halāl (“permissible”) and harām (“forbidden”) and not in the process of weighing up in the mind as to what is the likely correct or erroneous solution, or may be judged to be beneficial or harmful;
- The relationship between Islam and Disbelief is one of competitive conflict.
The general mindset of the majority of the Muslim community and their behavior tend towards sticking to the regular performance of religious rites and taking general religious values such as morality, honesty and distancing oneself from well-known taboos such as theft, adultery and the consumption of alcohol. These things reconcile with the realities of the modern age and its general values.
But this does not negate the existence of an influential minority, numerically and intellectually speaking, that tends towards harsh rigidity. Some of this rigidity is confined to matters such as a backward view of womankind and democracy, or to an adherence to issues of form such as the growing of long flowing beards and the shortening of the thawb [robe] above the ankle.
Unfortunately, the upward curve is numerically and intellectually oriented toward hardline rigidity in its various flavours, and this is something that does not need much effort to prove. It is enough for us merely to point out that, up to now, there has been no popular movement (even of limited scope) in the Muslim world to condemn the barbaric behavior of a minority sowing terrorism throughout the whole world, and which have even targeted Sunni communities whose values are consistent with their same general principles of Salafist Islam, such as in the case of the explosions in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
One need only reflect on the scene at the early days of the Syrian and Libyan revolutions, during in their peaceful phases, to see that the political discourse was almost all of it based upon religion in its Salafist form. It is enough just to see what is taking place in the social media where the vast majority of ordinary Muslims condemns terrorism but seeks explanations for its existence outside the intellectual framework that creates it, such as by saying that it stems from Israel’s killing of Palestinians or the French massacres of Algerians, and so forth.
All this without tasking themselves to explain the reasons why Jews shunned the approach of suicide attacks against Germany (now the most important supporter of Muslim refugees today), despite the massacres the Nazi state perpetrated against them at the time and which are incomparably greater than what is happening to the Palestinians.
Why did the Japanese, victims of the worst military ordeal wiping out hundreds of thousands in a horror not seen in human history, not take this same direction? Why did the unjust war against Vietnam not lead to the Vietnamese people seeking revenge over innocents in America by blowing up their planes, for example?
And why are Eastern European countries co-existing peacefully with the Turks who humiliated the Armenians and Bulgarians for many long years, or with the Russians who severely oppressed them and crippled for decades their economic and political development? And there are many other examples too numerous to mention.
Extremism is not new in the Islamic world
If we seek to read the current situation and its close connection with the a mindset founded upon a particular religious interpretation, set down nearly a thousand years ago, it must be emphasized that militancy and extremism, which can get to the stage of equating death with life, is nothing new to the history of the Islamic world. It could even be said that its seeds were sown in the intellectual and cultural component of the Islamic Arab state at its very inception.
To give examples closer in history, we could cite the experience of the Wahhabi victory over the Arabian peninsula in the 18th Century or the Mahdist War in Sudan in the 19th Century; these were no less violent and bloodthirsty than ISIS today, and exhibited the same conception of the entire world as the Dār al-Kufr (“Abode of Disbelief”) that has to be fought until brought to its knees and made forcibly to enter the Dār al-Islām (“House of Islam”).
The fight against terrorism and Islamic extremism is a strategic battle. It requires the international and regional community to understand the true mechanism for the emergence and development of these groups, and before that, to convince itself that it is in the first place an ideological issue. If these conditions are in place, the international community can overcome it in the shortest possible time and with the least possible pain. This is possible, from our point of view, through the following axes additional to the currently active military and security axes:
(1) The intellectual axis
We have already pointed out that the Islamic discourse – we do not say the Islamic religion – prevailing now was drafted almost a millennium ago. At the level of its founding principles, that are based on prioritising narrative over knowledge or repetition over the intellect, it is responsible for all the negative phenomena in the Muslim world today: the absence of good governance, weak participation in any aspect of human civilization, the effort to destroy this very civilization. Among the concepts forming its founding principles are: “There is to be no independent reasoning with respect to the Scripture”, “Precepts are derived from the universality of the expression, not the specificity of the context”, “Follow the majority consensus” and similar views and concepts that have nothing to do with religion so much as they are the ideas of scholars and the jurists of past centuries that have come to be established and considered a fundamental part of the religion itself, despite the fact that the Qur’ān specifically forbade giving any consideration for anything that was not the word of God:
Follow that which is sent down unto you from your Lord, and follow no protecting friends beside Him. Little do ye recollect! [Qur’ān VII,3]
It is also despite the fact that in the experience of the Orthodox Caliphs there are examples that confirm that the concept of “There is to be no independent reasoning with respect to the Scripture” which has closed off the mind of Muslims, is actually not true.
Fortunately the last few decades have seen the emergence of hundreds of courageous voices, which have taken on the task of reviewing the Arab-Islamic heritage and critiquing it by employing its own tools. More importantly, they have laid the foundations of a new Islamic discourse, one that has the ability to create a consensus and the required balance between the requirements of the religion and the requirements of the times.
For the first time in recent Islamic history there is a real possibility of refuting the Salafist school by using the religious text itself. Luckily also, some political leaders in the Middle East, whose allegiance to the faith cannot be questioned, have put her finger on the source of the wound, examples of this are the statements of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai and of Prince Salman bin Hamad, Crown Prince of Bahrain.
The political axis
The Salafist ideology is directly responsible for extremism since it furnishes the jihadist current with the founding concepts which we detailed earlier, and which can be easily adapted to serve the objectives of extremism and terrorism. This Salafist thinking is the only Islamic thought that is given free rein in Islamic countries, the only one inculcated to the youth and to adults, and the only one allowed expression in mosque pulpits. Given that this is the case, heavy political pressure must be brought to bear in order to create the right climate for disseminating and alternative religious thought that is based on the Message itself, one that is in line with the times, and is consistent with general human values, those attained to by humanity and embraced for the most part by Muslim states.
Political pressure must be directed towards returning the mosque to its natural position as a place of worship and not of politics or the mobilisation of views disseminating hatred. The mosque today plays a very dangerous, negative role in spreading political discourse and constitutes a free meeting point where advocates of Salafi ideology can listen to the instructions of preachers and organise their activities.
In this we see that the examples set by European jihadists provide living proof of the danger presented by the mosques in furnishing the appropriate environment for the growth of extremism and terrorism, since it is clear that the vast majority of them formed their convictions through the mosque in one way or another.
The media axis
It is one of the ironies of fate that the greatest achievements of modern man, such as live television broadcasts and the internet, have been turned into what is the most important and the most dangerous weapon in the hands of extremists and terrorists. Just taking a passing glance at the broadcast channels in the Muslim world, we find that the content of the overwhelming majority of these are a platform for the dissemination of the Salafi ideology in all its various flavours, and are the stage for broadcasting calls for individual and social backwardness.
Equally, the overwhelming majority of materials circulating on the social e-media are dedicated to the same task. Hundreds of new messages are launched daily laying siege to the Muslim with written and audio-visual materials excerpted from antique, traditional religious books and seminars of “scholars” and jurists in such a way that a Muslim individual is not granted the opportunity to think rationally and independently.
It is very clear from any monitoring and analysis that broadcast material is being highly professionally prepared so that even minor events are presented in such a way as to send a message, in an inflated form and with different angles, so as to yield the desired effect.
To give an example, in conjunction with the recent attacks in France, dozens of clips focusing on the horrors committed by the French during the war for independence in Algeria were broadcast, and presented in such a way as to cancel out any feelings of sympathy with the victims of the attacks in France, on the grounds that such attacks were a natural and legitimate retaliation. At the same time, there is a total silence concerning the bombings that affect Muslims of a religious sect such as the explosions in mosques in Saudi Arabia, or on buses in Tunisia.
It is incumbent upon any powers seeking to combat extremism and terrorism to take into consideration the need to establish strict laws howsoever and wheresoever these are available, to close off these windows through which the extreme mindset can penetrate. At the same time powerful media organizations should be established for the purpose of refuting the basic ideas underpinning the Salafi ideology, and transmitting an alternative, enlightened, thought.
Gamal Abd al-Rahim Arabi is a Sudanese activist for enlightenment and religious reform. This article has been abridged from the original at the Almuslih website.