A world mired in a clash of extremes?

30 September 2014

Amin Saikal is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia), and author of Islam and the West: Conflict or Cooperation?

Muslims are once again coming under pressure all around the world to defend their religion and religious identity because of the actions of a tiny minority who have abusively acted in the name of Islam. Irrespective of the assurances given to Muslims by Western leaders that the United States-led military campaign against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is in no way directed against the religion of Islam and its peaceful decent followers, the spectre of a clash of extremisms is on the rise. Those who promote Islamic militancy are mirrored by those poorly informed elements in the West who are opposed to Islam and who view Muslims as a threat to their way of life and values.

This does not bode well for the future of relations between the world of Islam and the West, which have grown very tense, especially since al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001.

Islam, like any divine or earthly belief system, is open to a wide range of interpretations. It can be interpreted to justify virtuous or indecent existence and ways of operating. However, Islam places a very high premium on the sanctity of life. Only God is empowered in Islam to give and take life. Islam prohibits suicide and shuns any action that could result in the loss of innocent lives or in the terrorisation, displacement or violation of the dignity and honour of an individual or a community. By the same token, it does not recognise any form of compartmentalisation of life, and therefore any kind of racial, ethnic and cultural divisions.

A great deal is debated in the West about jihad in Islam. Jihad is a very complex concept, and is often over-simplified, misused and abused. Literally, jihad means exertion. It is frequently mentioned in the holy book of Muslims,The Koran, but in the predominant sense of one's engagement in self-purification to be a better human being; this is called the greater jihad.

Jihad is also designated as a combative method for self-defence, but under very strict conditions: that is, only when your religion or religious community is seriously threatened or violated by an outside force. This is referred to as the smaller jihad, which is conceptually defensive and equates with the Western concept of 'just war'.

Not everyone in Islam is empowered to declare combative jihad. The most qualified is the one who is credibly versed in the religion of Islam and who commands widespread respect across the multi-faceted and socially divided Muslim world. In our time, there is no such person. Neither the self-proclaimed ISIL's khalifa, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, nor the al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, nor the nominal head of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, fit the bill. They are all disregarded by an overwhelming majority of Muslims.

It is important to note that, while the violent jihadis have resorted to a very narrow and xenophobic view of Islam, the alternative, which conforms with the legacy of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, prescribes the application of Islam according to the changing times and conditions in the course of history. In other words, Islam is a religion to be practiced in 'time space', not 'frozen in time'. Evolving from this has been a reformist and non-confrontationist or Ijtihadi interpretation of Islam, based on independent human reasoning, to which the great bulk of Muslim thinkers, scholars and activists belong.

Although the violent jihadis have gained prominence in the discourse with the West, the Ijtihadis are locked in a serious struggle with these jihadis within the Muslim domain. It is now important for the West to shape its policy behaviour in ways that could assist the Ijtihadis to succeed in their efforts to marginalise those jihadis in their midst.

One way to do this is to adopt policy actions which are not primarily premised on the use of brute force, but are also embedded in a comprehensive political strategy to address those root causes of jihadis' extremism that defy military solutions. These causes include not only social and economic disaffection and alienation, but also dictatorial rules and Western support for them – rules that have become a permanent feature of most of the Muslim countries in the Middle East and the double standard that the West has pursued: one for Israel and another for the Arabs, the Palestinians in particular.

What is required is to change the conditions that help give rise to such Muslim extremist groups as ISIL, al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, Boko Haram and the like. If this strategy is complemented with a wider and better education of Western extremist elements, the violent jihadis will have little space to provide oxygen to their Western counterparts and vice versa. Otherwise, the two sides are in for very difficult times ahead.

This article was originally published on www.smh.com.au.

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