‘First step to counter extremism is to fight poverty’

Shaykh-ul-Islam Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri has been one of the most unreserved voices against terrorism. The 61-year-old Pakistani Sufi scholar is the founder of the Minhaj-ul-Quran International, an NGO, which works for the welfare of Muslim youth the world over and particularly in Pakistan. In 2010 he decreed the Fatwa on terrorism to widespread attention and international coverage. It was released in India in the form of a book Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombing, last week at the India Islamic Cultural Centre. Dr Qadri, candid and erudite yet determinedly apolitical, talks to Aradhna Wal decoding the cause of anger among Muslim youth, “true” Sufism and effective ways of combating extremism.

What is the premise of your work?
The problem of extremism and terrorism started in the last decade or two. Statements of condemnation were given, but they were soft statements, containing ifs and buts. There was not a single book written on this subject in a comprehensive way, consisting of Quranic evidences, juristic evidences from the great Islamic jurists. There has been no comprehensive, theological, jurisprudential perspective of this subject in the light of the Quran. This is the first book of its nature in the history of Islamic literature.

Who made these statements of condemnation?
Various scholars around the world have been giving these statements. Some were soft, some were very brief. Some were just declarations. They were messages of peace, but none of them contained any evidence. The youth, who are brainwashed, given distorted versions of Islam, and are exploited for ulterior motives, parrot these teachings and verses with wrong meanings; without any context. So the ones who had made these statements were not in a position to change their minds. They couldn’t refute the teachings these youths were given. This book not only refutes, but also provides evidences, without any conditions, that any act and manifestation of terrorism is unconditionally forbidden, prohibited and against Islam. That’s the theme.

Fatwa was issued in 2010 and hailed by many prominent thinkers. How effective has it been since?
I’ve seen it become very effective. It’s created ample impact. When it was issued in London in 2010 there was a very big resistance on YouTube, on websites. The story started with massive opposition. The youth, who I am primarily concerned with, was a little shy or weak in responding. But as time passed, the graph changed. The minority became the majority. The supporters of extremism became the minority. And hundreds of thousands of websites and blogs showed support for the Fatwa. Support came from multiple languages such as Arabic, English, French, Norwegian, Danish, even Chinese. We received a lot of comments from the youth, those who didn’t even belong to our organisation, saying that we had changed their minds, and even saved their lives and their faith.

If the youth were slow to respond, whose was the most immediate positive response?
The youth online was a little hesitant to reply. But within two weeks the response was overwhelming. Now that they had this concrete reference book in their hands they had something to refute extremism with. The best thing is that in the two years that have passed, not a single scholar among the extremist camp has been able to refute this book or fatwa. Not a single booklet or pamphlet has been written with evidences which could discredit it. This has created a further impact on the youth who were exposed to the extremists. They have started questioning the ideology and asking for answers from these camps. Their silence on an intellectual, theological, jurisprudential level has caused a great damage to their ideology. I won’t say that the acts have stopped, but this is still big, because ideology is the first thing with which they brainwash the young Muslims.

The softest target group for recruitment is the unemployed Muslim youth, who are angry at their socio-economic situation. This is prevalent in a lot of countries. How do you and the Minhaj-ul-Quran deal with such a problem?
I’ve always maintained that religious extremism is only one aspect of the problem of terrorism. There are others too. I haven’t discussed them in this book as I didn’t want to expand the subject so much so as to dilute the main point. But yes there is anger, there is poverty, there are socio-economic conditions. Those exposed to them are easily accessible to extremist recruiting camps. The boys are easily picked up because they have nothing to eat, no money, no schools. They have lost their loyalty to the law, to the land and to the system. These groups provide them monthly scholarships and allowances. The first step to counter extremism is to fight poverty. The most important is reforms in the education system. Minhaj-ul-Quran invests and spends in education. We are recognized as an NGO, we’ve received the special consultative status with the UN. We try to establish schools in various parts. We encourage people to establish schools in their own districts. And we have not established a single Madrasa. We combine secular and religious discipline, for boys and girls. Duly recognized syllabi of the government and then scriptures are taught as disciplines. Now we have 600 schools in Pakistan alone, and they are all giving top ranking results. We have established colleges, and technical education and vocational centers to train and provide for jobs. We’ve established the Minjah International University, which is chartered by the government of Pakistan. Its degree is equivalent to a degree from Jamia al-Azhar of Egypt. It has all disciplines.

We’ve also established mass education centres and adult centres in rural areas. They are set up for six months to a year for the local community that couldn’t go to school. We get people of all ages. Then there are our welfare centres, which work with juvenile delinquent boys, trying to reform and integrate them. They work on improving family relations, between parents and children and husbands and wives.

You employ methods of Sufism while working. Could you elaborate?
I believe and practice Sufism. But my Sufism is not what is found commonly in different places. I believe in true Sufism, as taught by Khwaja Muinuddin Ajmeri. Not as practiced by the caretakers now. I follow the saints, who taught self purity, purity of the soul, mind and heart, to try to do spiritual acts in service of god and mankind. These are the basic spiritual values that connect the mind with the creator. And these are what I employ in the teachings in our schools. This Sufism teaches love, tolerance, and patience. It counters anger, extremism, frustration—the elements that lead to terrorism.

There has been a growing Wahabi influence in South Asia. In the last few years many Sufi shrines across Pakistan have been under attack. South Asian Islam has primarily been Sufi Islam. How do you ensure that it continues?
I will not comment on Wahabism, or South Asia. As far as Sufi principles are concerned, I will give this message to followers of Sufism. If they practice the true values of Sufism, as I have mentioned, it will never die. Sufism is not a tradition or a hodgepodge of certain acts. It is just something that deals with the purification of the soul. Traditions and conventions cannot do that. And the spirituality is universal.

Considering how the Islamic community has become dangerously stereotyped in the contemporary world, how do you plan to spread more awareness about the true non-violent nature of Islam?
We have to work with both sides; to teach the Muslim community and also the Western world. Words have to change. We cannot call it Islamic terrorism or Islamic extremism. Attaching the word Islam or Islamic with these criminal acts provides the perpetuators with legitimacy, to ground their acts within the tenets of Islam. And tell the youth that they really are Islamic. As if terrorism has a place in Islam. We have to de-link terrorism from religion.

How do you plan to reach out to the Western world and other countries?
Wherever I go, my audiences always include non-Muslims. Just last year, on the 24 September, we had a huge conference on Peace for Humanity at the Wembley Arena. It was attended by 14,000 people. World leaders were on stage in their traditional dresses. We all collectively prayed for peace under a single roof. We try to promote commonalities, not difference, to promote an atmosphere of dialogue. People who promote differences and disputes do a disservice to religion.

How do you reach out to the man on the street dealing with these stereotypes in his everyday life?
It is a slow process. It will take some time. But the more you do the better it is. The practices I have started in certain areas can be adopted in different areas. For example in Pakistan, people from different practices come to Minhaj-ul-Quran and we sit together and have joint functions in our mosque. We participate in the holy activities of other religions, with the Naulakha Church of Lahore, and the Nila Gumbad Temple, the famous Hindu temple in Lahore. We go to them and they come to us. If you practice these things at the grassroot level, it will slowly spread awareness among people that different religions are not there to hate one another.