Keith e Rice : why is the west ignoring a leading moderate muslim?

12 Apr 10

Are Western leaders and the Western media missing a critical opportunity to exacerbate the divisions in our Muslim communities, between the minority who advocate the use of terrorism to achieve the establishment of an Islamic hegemony and the majority who do not support such tactics and may even abhor them…?

For about 5 hours on 2 March it was hot news: Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a leading Islamic scholar, had issued a detailed 605-page fatwa against suicide bombings and terrorism. He said that terrorism cannot be justified under any pretext through allusion to any real or alleged instances of injustice and there is no space for terrorism in Islam.

He regretted the fact that the Islamic teachings, which are based on love, peace and welfare, are being manipulated and quoted out of context to serve the designs of vested interests (such as al-Qaeda). He said that Islam spelled out a clear code of conduct during the course of war and gave complete protection to non-combatants including women, the old, children, etc – with trading centres, schools, hospitals and places of worship deemed to be ‘safe places’.

Ul-Qadri’s fatwa is far from being the first to condemn terrorism. As a reaction to 9/11, just days later Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi of Qatar, Tariq Bishri, Muhammad Awwa and Fahmi Huwaydi, all from Egypt, Haytham Khayyat of Syria and American imam Shaykh Taha Jabir al-Alwani issued a combined statement: “All Muslims ought to be united against all those who terrorise the innocents, and those who permit the killing of non-combatants without a justifiable reason. Islam has declared the spilling of blood and the destruction of property as absolute prohibitions until the Day of Judgment. … [It is] necessary to apprehend the true perpetrators of these crimes, as well as those who aid and abet them through incitement, financing or other support. They must be brought to justice in an impartial court of law and [punished] appropriately. … [It is] a duty of Muslims to participate in this effort with all possible means.” Their statement was just one of many condemning fundamentalist terrorism at the time. In July 2003 Grand Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi of the Al-Azhar mosque of Cairo – considered the highest authority in Sunni Islam – said groups which carried out suicide bombings were the enemies of Islam. In January 2004 Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti Shaykh ‘Abdul-’Azeez Aal ash-Shaykh told 2 million pilgrims: “Islam has forbidden violence in all its forms. It has forbidden hijacking airplanes, ships and other means of transport and has forbidden all acts that would undermine security.” Later that same year a group of prominent scholars (including ash-Shaykh and ul-Qadri) got together to issue ‘The Amman Message’ and a number of scholars, including ul-Qadri, have issued shorter, simpler denunciations since then. What makes ul-Qadri’s new fatwa different is the sheer depth and breadth of religious and legal scholarly argument it goes into to support its pronouncements. Also it declares someone who undertakes terrorist activities to be an unbeliever who cannot go to Heaven.

Ul-Qadri has effectively refuted all the fundamentalist arguments that the radical imams put forward to support terrorism. These arguments essentially cluster around 2 key ideas:-

It is a Muslim’s duty to use violence to relieve fellow Muslims from oppression by unbelievers (Sura 2: 191, 193). What tends to get twisted or ignored, though, is the ending of 193: “…if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression.”

‘Oppression’ clearly is the tricky word here. Civilian Afghans being slaughtered by American helicopter gunships is unequivocally oppression…while the act is taking place. Is it still oppression when the act is stopped and the American military apologises and takes measures to try to ensure it doesn’t happen again? Living by choice as a minority under a government which allows you freedom to worship but doesn’t espouse your religious values in its social policies – the position of the Muslim communities in the UK, for example – is that oppression?

The belief that a warrior slain in battle for Allah will go to Heaven and be wedded to 72 beautiful virgins. This last highly-effective meme is created by putting together disconnected verses – eg: Sura 9:111 with Sura 55:46-78. This running together of different concepts to create a new idea is typical of the way religious philosophers manipulate ‘holy book’ text to create something the original writer(s) may not have intended. Radical imams certainly do it – but they’re not the only religious leaders who do it or have done it in the past. From the Crusades and before through to World War II and after, Christian leaders have manipulated Bible text in a similar same way to justify slaughter of the ‘enemy’ (including civilians).

Sura 4: 29-30 makes it clear that suicide is wrong for a Muslim. So the imams have to twist it that a ‘suicide bomber’ blowing themselves up to destroy the ‘enemy’ (civilians) is not actually deliberately ending their own life (suicide) but is a martyr dying in battle in the service of God. Otherwise, the suicide bomber can’t expect to go to Heaven and claim his virgins.

Ul-Qadri can’t rule out jihad but he can and does hedge it about with teachings about how war is to be fought in a way that protects the innocent and preserves the integrity of both the cause and God’s will.

Ul-Qadri’s fatwa is the unequivocal Islamic denunciation of terrorist tactics Tony Blair called for from Britain’s Muslim leaders in the wake of 7/7. (Ul-Qadri’s choice of London to launch his fatwa was undoubtedly a deliberate part of his strategy.)

So how come the Western media has paid it so little attention? And, by largely ignoring it, are Western governments missing a key opportunity?

Helping out a different perspective on religious leadership

Unlike the Christian churches, there is no clear and rigidly defined hierarchy of leadership in either Sunni or Shi’a Islam. Rather leadership is envisaqed as a trust (Rafik Issa Beekun & Jamal Badawi, 1998). Leaders have to win and maintain the trust of their followers and their leadership is then recognised – eg: ‘Ayotollah’ is a Shi’a term of recognition for an expert in Islamic studies who will usually hold a teaching post. ‘Mullah’ and ‘immam’ are terms that roughly equate to ‘priest’; but there is no hierarchy equivalent to, for example, curate, vicar, deacon, archdeacon, bishop, archbishop in the Church of England.

Islamic scholars and teachers tend to gain influence from the numbers of their followers and the respect the followers show for the cleric’s teachings, rather than simply from the position they hold.

Thus, Ul-Qadri’s fatwa is not to Muslims like the edict of the Pope to Catholics. He is but one of hundreds, if not thousands of Islamic scholars, seeking to establish influence from their interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith. So it is not a case of Ul-Qadri has pronounced; now all Muslims will oppose terrorism. Those Muslims who follow Ul-Qadri should now take his position as the definitive statement on the matter. Those who are unsure whether terrorism can be justified from scripture now have a very powerful voice giving them the soundest theological arguments as to why it can’t possibly be. Other open-minded scholars, hopefully, will test Ul-Qadri’s arguments and find they can support them and disseminate his messages through their own followers.

Since Ul-Qadri’s position is not like the Pope speaking to millions upon millions of Catholics through a hierarchical route of command expected to produce obedience, surely it is in the West’s interests to help Ul-Qadri spread his message and increase his influence?

For all we know, the intelligence agencies (CIA, MI5, etc) may be working covertly to support anti-terrorism Islamic leaders; but in public at least there is the proverbial deafening silence. There has been scant media coverage of Ul-Qadri’s fatwa and its reception in the Islamic world – which is where it really counts – beyond the day of its launch. To me, this is decidedly puzzling.

Other Muslim-sponsored events which take an anti-terrorist stance also tend to go unreported on in the West – eg: the Anti-Terrorism/All India Conference of February 2008, the National Peace Conference in Pakistan (April 2009). And attention is rarely given to Muslim anti-terrorism web sites such as the Free Muslims Coalition.

The general impression given in much of the Western media is that the majority of Muslims go along with or are indifferent to the extremists. In fact, there is real evidence that there are distinct anti-terrorism movements amongst the Muslim communities around the world and that there is an intellectual and spiritual battle on for how Islam deals with its relations with both ‘oppressors’ in particular and unbelievers in general.

So, why, oh, why are Western leaders and the Western media largely ignoring these movements when they offer ways to engage with peace-supporting Islamic leaders with the means of influencing millions of Muslims around the world and isolating the extremists?

Just think: if the news bulletins covering last month’s suicide bombings on the Moscow Metro had carried interviews with ul-Qadri quoting the Qur’an to denounce the terrorists as ‘unbelievers’ and stating that they would not go to Heaven…. How powerful a message would that have been?!?

The likes of Ul-Qadri being consulted on TV would increase their influence – especially amongst the millions of Muslims living in the West. Surely we want their views to be more influential than, say, Osama bin Laden’s?!?

If the neo-Christian West wants a peaceful relationship with Islam, both within and without its own domains, then we need to engage actively, supportively and publicly with Muslim leaders who are anti-terrorism in their views.

Seeing the likes of Ul-Qadri denouncing terrorists on TV will also help to ‘normalise’ the concept of Muslim leaders airing their views via a national medium and will present a much more positive image of Islam to the non-Muslim majorities in the Western countries.

Isolating the Extremists

At the beginning of this Blog post, I talked about exacerbating the divisions in the Muslim communities. This means isolating the extremists and shrinking their numbers while boosting the standing of Muslims who want to pursue their faith in a manner which allows for co-existence with unbelievers and at least tolerates, even if in disgust and seeking change through peaceful means, the laws of a country in which they are clearly the minority population.

This inevitably means that the extremists will attack the non-extremists as ‘traitors to the cause’ and will force the non-extremists to defend themselves.

The Assimilation-Contrast Effect (ACE) Don Beck (2003) developed from running the vMEMES of Spiral Dynamics through Muzafer Sherif & Carl Hovland’s Social Judgement Theory (1961) demonstrates that the more extreme someone’s position on a policy or philosophy the more likely they are to see moderate positions on their own side as being more like positions on the other side. From the extremist perspective, this Contrasting Effect puts greater distance between extremist positions and more moderate positions on the same side, even to the point of demonising the moderates as effectively being in league with the other side. (The Assimilating Effect is seen when moderates from different sides minimise or turn a ‘blind eye’ to very real differences between them, in order to accentuate their commonalities. An example of this are the inter-faith movements.)

To some considerable extent the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan have already demonstrated the Contrast Effect by carrying out ‘takfir’ on moderate Muslims opposed to them. Takfir is the act of declaring another Muslim to have committed aposotacy and become a ‘kafir’ (unbeliever); since apostacy is punished by death (Qur’an 5:32), this enables the Taliban (and al-Qaeda) to justify killing moderate Muslims. (In ACE terms, this is the ‘Zealot’ punishing those who deviate from what it decrees is ‘the one true way’.)

Since Islam is a brotherhood and Muslims are obliged to support and protect one another (Sahih Bukhari Volume 3/Book 43/Number 622), from a theological point of view takfir is necessary for one Muslim to kill another. However, ul-Qadri’s fatwa effectively declares takfir on terrorists and suicide bombers. Thus, moderate Muslims who subscribe to fatwas such as ul-Qadri’s, can now legitimately kill terrorists and suicide bombers because they are apostate.

To further this division between the extremists and the moderates, the neo-Christian West must increase the commonalities with the moderate Muslims – thus, increasing the Assimilation Effect between moderate Muslims and Westerners willing to engage with them as respected equals. As those commonalities are increased, so a common identity needs to be developed - as per Samuel Gerner’s Common In-Group Identity Model (1993) – which separates the moderates from the extremists in conceptual terms.

Western ignorance, Western arrogance or Western scheming?

With ul-Qadri’s fatwa having the potential to change the entire relationship between Islam and terrorism, it remains a baffling mystery why so little attention seems to be being paid to it.

Could it be that potential is not recognised?

In which case, people in high places and their advisors are not paying attention. Perhaps their attention is elsewhere – Barack Obama fretting over his health care bill; Gordon Brown consumed with how to salvage the general election…? Perhaps, after nearly 9 years of the ‘War on Terror’, there still aren’t enough senior figures in the White House or Whitehall who understand Islam and how it works, to recognise the significance of ul-Qadri’s fatwa…?

As for the media, as we know all too well, bad news sells more newspapers than good news – and it’s a lot easier to drag a story about ill-equipped British troops in Helmand out for several days than it is to explore the subtleties and nuances of a scholarly and religious exposition day after day.

Perhaps it’s due to arrogance – the West can sort it out without understanding Islam?

The invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) displayed the West at its most arrogant and foolhardy. Well over a million Muslim lives and the lives of several thousand Western military personnel have been lost since 2001 because so little detailed consideration was put into the follow-throughs. As military operations, both invasions could hardly have gone better; but the soldiers have paid the price since because the politicians and the strategists didn’t understand. They didn’t understand Islam and they didn’t understand tribal cultures; they simply thought they could impose Western-style Democracy and that it would work more or less smoothly from the off. Just how many lives might not have been lost had those politicians and strategists not been so arrogant and bothered to understand before they decided…?

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the first signs of acknowledging diversity and wanting to understand the local varieties of Islam and to get to grips with local tribal cultures are coming from frontline intelligence officers in the US Army. In their paper, ‘Fixing Intel: a Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan’, Major General Michael Flynn, Captain Matt Pottinger & Paul Batchelor (2010) describe pilot schemes of bottom-up engagement with local tribal elders in Southern Afghanistan which have transformed relations between the tribespeople and the military and seriously disadvantaged local Taliban. And now Colonel Fred Krawchuk – a commander in the Baghdad ‘Surge’ (2007-2008) who used Spiral Dynamics for insight into dealing with local factions – has asked Don Beck to go to Afghanistan to advise the intelligence effort.

But, as Flynn et al argue, this new, developing approach has to go right up through the chain of command to the top – to president and prime minister. We simply can’t afford for the arrogance which led to years of failure in post-invasion Afghanistan and post-invasion Iraq to continue to blind us to on-the-ground realities. (No wonder both Clare W Graves and Abraham Maslow considered 1st Tier ways of thinking to be delusional!)

Is the West scheming – do Western leaders actually want there to be moderate Muslims?

Perhaps there is an agenda suited by the term ‘Muslim’ equaling the term ‘terrorist’? In which case, moderate Muslim leaders who have the influence to undermine the arguments of the fundamentalist clerics are not people Western leaders would wish to support and promote.

We’re clearly on the verge of conspiracy theories here – George W Bush’s use of the term ‘crusader’ in 2001 was a parapraxis (‘Freudian slip’) – there really is a crusade against Islam; the 2003 invasion really was all about getting control of Iraq’s oil; etc, etc. I’m not about to indulge in such speculation but there are numerous instances in recent history of democratically-elected governments manipulating information and the way it is presented to sell dubious ideas to their populations.

While it’s every government’s job to put the interests of its people above all others, in today’s interconnected world, with economic meltdown triggered by overlending banks halfway around the world, plagues able to travel around the globe on passenger aircraft and nuclear obliteration of the planet still a real (if probably receded) possibility, the days of Bismarckian scheming to set one lot warring against the other for your own national advantage should be long gone.

Which leads us back to the central question: why then so little attention paid to Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri’s 2 March fatwa?

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