Yawning Bread. June 2007

The peace faction has got it wrong




The announcement that yet another person has been detained under the Internal Security Act seems to have triggered another wave of articles in our media about how Islam is misinterpreted.

Abdul Basheer Abdul Kader, a 28 year-old lawyer, was detained without trial earlier this year, but his capture was only announced this month. He had planned to travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan to join the war against what he saw as enemies of Islam. The new twist from his case was how he had not been recruited by any terrorist network, but was "self-radicalised" through surfing the internet, in the words of the Singapore government.

Predictably, newspaper columns were found or commissioned to once again press home the point that Islam is a religion of peace. Exactly what good these will do is an open question. If people have serious grievances and wish to act on them, they will anyway find the reasons they need to do so.

Perhaps however, such articles may still serve two other purposes -- to prevent Muslims who are wavering from tipping over to the extremist side, or at least not to extend sympathy to those on that side, and to counteract a tendency in non-Muslims to look suspiciously at Muslims. Frankly, I am doubtful if even these can be achieved, because firstly, people read what they want to read, and secondly, when so many articles all say essentially the same thing, they acquire the feel of propaganda. The more you print, the more credibility you lose.

Worse, the article by John L. Esposito, (Straits Times, 21 June 2007, 'Hijacking Islam for terror purposes') contained quite a few internal contradictions, such that even a teenager would have been be able to poke holes in his arguments. His main point was that overworked one: "mainstream and normative doctrines and laws have been ignored, distorted or hijacked and misinterpreted by a radical fringe."

The real motive behind violence and terrorism, he argued, often springs from politics or socio-economic conditions, but this "is often obscured by the religious language and symbolism used by extremists." So far, so good.

He then tried to show how Islamic teaching does not support what the extremists are doing, and it is here that his case starts to fall apart. He wrote:

But what of those verses, sometimes referred to as the 'sword verses', that call for killing unbelievers, such as: 'When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush' (9:5)?

This is one of a number of Quranic verses cited by critics to demonstrate the inherently violent nature of Islam and its scripture. These same verses have also been selectively used (or abused) by religious extremists to develop a theology of hate and intolerance and to legitimise unconditional warfare against unbelievers.

During the period of expansion and conquest, many of the ulama (religious scholars) enjoyed royal patronage and provided a rationale for caliphs to pursue their imperial dreams and extend the boundaries of their empires. They said the 'sword verses' abrogated or overrode the earlier Quranic verses that limited jihad to defensive war. But in fact, the full intent of 'When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them' is missed or distorted when quoted in isolation. For it is followed and qualified by: 'But if they repent and fulfil their devotional obligations and pay the zakat (the charitable tax on Muslims), then let them go their way, for God is forgiving and kind' (9:5).

Far from proving his argument, it seems to me that his last quotation suggests that it is fair to wage war against non-Muslims UNTIL they become Muslims.

Esposito gets into more trouble with his next example:

The same is true of another oft-quoted verse: 'Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and His Apostle, nor hold the religion of truth (even if they are) of the People of the Book.' This is often cited without the line that follows: 'Until they pay the tax with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued' (9:29).

Same thing. Fight the unbelievers until they submit to Allah.

If Esposito and others wish to convince anyone, they're going to have to do a better job than that.

Zakir Hussain took another tack in his column, (Straits Times, 22 June 2007, 'Fight extremism by demolishing us-versus-them world view'). It looked more promising. He argued that so long as Muslims see themselves as a people apart, some among them will be tempted to take that view to its logical conclusion, especially if they view Islam as under siege.

Those who hold an exclusivist view of Islam will "find it easier to see others as less worthy of respect. And that is a short step away from viewing the life of others as somehow worth less than that of a fellow believer's."

Hence, Zakir wrote, "the way forward is for religious leaders to articulate a more inclusive definition of the ummah -- one that includes all of humanity, Muslims and non-Muslims alike."

I chuckled when I read that. Fat chance, I said to myself, even when Zakir added, "Muslim scholars have said the ummah can be defined in this manner, but it is not a definition cited very often."

This is a foundational issue. Like many other religions, Islam posits to its followers that it is the revealed Truth and therefore, the adherents as a community share something special. If you strip away this very basic concept, then there is no case left why anyone should be Muslim. It would also undermine the social reason for a religion, which is to feel anchored within a unique faith community.

This is not to say that Zakir does not have a grain of a good idea, but his idea cannot be credibly advanced by appealing to Islam. In fact, this illustrates a problem that Esposito faced as well, which is that in trying to appeal to people to take a certain interpretation of Islam, these writers must invoke the authority of Islam. Logically speaking, the argument that "Islam is a religion of peace" is no different from "Islam is a religion of war". Both rely on the listener accepting that whatever "Islam" says, goes. But authority in Islam is highly decentralised, and there will always be the problem of "you say, I say". The texts themselves are ambiguous, as Esposito's examples show, which means the "peace" faction may call for selective reading even as they accuse the "war" faction of doing the same. A small band of Muslims intent on being extreme can just as logically choose their own authority and their own reading of the texts and feel equally validated in their views.

But can appealing to Islam convince the broad stream of followers not to sympathise with the extremists? Perhaps. Most people's approach to religion -- any religion -- is not to critique it for themselves, but to follow the shepherd. If enough shepherds repeat the state-sanctioned mantra enough, presumably, the flock will know no other interpretation.

Such a process however is less likely in individuals who are intellectually critical. They are the ones most capable of seeing through the weakness of the peace faction's arguments, and come to their own conclusions. Among the possible conclusions they could reach might be their own extremist interpretation of Islam; in other words, they might self-radicalise.

The problem is that we can never isolate these small groups who feel totally legitimate in holding extremist conceptions of Islam. There will always remain the risk that they will be able to influence and recruit from the mainstream since the difference between them is only a matter of degree. Both, after all, have been taught that Islam's authority is paramount and the Muslim community is a people apart. It's just one imam's or columnist's word against another's.

To truly inoculate people against extreme Islamist appeal, we may have to question the habit of investing so much in the primacy and authority of Islam. Zakir's call to "debunk exclusivist and intolerant interpretations of the faith" and to embrace diversity might be better framed in a different way: an injection of secular humanist values as antidote to total reliance on religious teaching. Yes, I am saying it: less religion, more secularism. The best antidote to crazies appealing to religious loyalty is to teach people to be sceptical of the whole she-bang.

In a nutshell, countering religious extremism requires us not only to deal with extremism, but also with the "religious" end of the beast.

Yawning Bread