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As the Director-General of Mercy Mission and AlKauthar Institute, which now has over 14 instructors and over 50 courses running in 10 countries in 5 continents, the safety and travel convenience of the Institute's instructors are serious considerations for me. We can prepare proficiently for the classes, market them, fill the class with hundreds of registered students, but a simple visa or entry issue into a country for an instructor can destroy all this good, and can destroy da‘wah organizations in the eyes of the unforgiving Muslim communities. Recently a couple of extremely well known speakers, very popular in the da‘wah scene around the world, were not allowed to come to Australia because they were accused of being 'wahhabi'!
I am sure everyone realizes the systematic attempt by a variety of lobby groups these days to discredit Muslim speakers, daees and mashaikh in an attempt to close avenues of da‘wah by these people of knowledge. Scholars and speakers alike are being harmed and negatively portrayed in the media, wherein the underlying argument seems to be that Islam is the problem and so those who preach Islam are the main un-indicted co-conspirators in extremism and terrorism. Based on this, some categories of Muslims speakers and preachers are supported by anti-extremism programs and shown to be the more tolerant and acceptable versions of Islam and everyone else is portrayed as an aberrant wahhabi!
This dangerous escalation needs to be challenged.
An alternative argument that is the more logical and the more in conformity with reality must be presented, which is that Muslim scholars are natural allies of the West, specifically in fighting extremism and terrorism. Islam and its knowledge and education must be allowed to flourish if extremism is to be curtailed and removed.
Along these lines, I gave a talk at a dinner organized by the Muslim Council of Wales, which was attended by some of the nation's top anti-terrorism chiefs and prevention of extremism experts. It was delivered in early December 2008 in the city of Cardiff, UK. My goal was to present the intellectual side of the argument that Muslim scholars should not be harmed in their work. Note that the lecture was delivered after the 26/11/08 incidents in Mumbai and before the recent Gaza events – so reference is only drawn to the Mumbai events.
As the Gaza events and decades of horror in Muslim lands have shown, terrorism is not an Islamic monopoly. However, what should be of concern to Muslims – is not that 'islamic terrorism' is a contradiction in terms, but rather that the term is and has been coined and is being used widely. So rather than use this opportunity to correct people's understanding as to how broad based terrorism really is, I chose to focus on an achievable outcome that was more important given the limited opportunity and time. So before you read the below, remember the audience, the desired outcome, and the gravity of the problem and the danger that lies ahead for Islamic speakers and instructors.
And before some self-righteous individual paints my actions as being done in fear, know this: I did not deliver this lecture with nifaq and hypocrisy in my heart, rather with absolute izzah and honour and passion and conviction and arguing for our right to preach our pristine and pure religion.
I acknowledge the help of my friends Amir Butler, Dr Salman Qureshi and a couple of other unnamed close friends from UK, who gave me invaluable advice in preparing for this lecture:
[Opening: for 2 minutes, speak in Bengali or another language that the audience doesn't understand]
Ladies and Gentlemen,Did you understand that? No?
Now you can understand the ineffectiveness of our prevention strategies if we do not speak the language of extremism and use the right people and the right vehicles to address its perverted ideology.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the recent incidents in Mumbai only a few days ago, are a testament to the fact that we have not been successful in our war on terror. We cannot with any degree of certainty say that we are safer today than we were yesterday. Terrorism continues to draw fresh recruits, more determined and well trained than before and unleashing a wave of fear and uncertainty in the hearts of all humanity.
However, the greatest tragedy from this is not the loss of human life, but to the reality to which I wish to draw your attention to today. It is, that the war on terror has feathered the arrows of terrorists around the around, just like the eagle in Aesop's Fables. Aesop, the slave and story teller of ancient Greece writes: An Eagle was soaring through the air when suddenly it heard the whiz of an Arrow, and felt itself wounded to death. Slowly it fluttered down to the earth, with its life-blood pouring out of it. Looking down upon the Arrow with which it had been pierced, it found that the shaft of the Arrow had been feathered with one of its own plumes. “Alas!” it cried, as it died, “We often give our enemies the means for our own destruction.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is certainly true about the manner in which the west has waged its war on Terror. In the mistaken equation of terrorism with mainstream Islam and denigrating it with labels of radical or fundamental, the war on terror has sidelined and marginalized one of its greatest allies – Independent Islamic Scholarship. Worse still, the war on terror has failed to recognize that those that we have come to call fundamental Muslim scholars are precisely those that have long been fighting the war on terror – long before September 11 and long before the Gulf War. For example, the former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia was of the opinion that hijacking airplanes was “an extremely great crime” and that it was obligatory on governments and scholars alike “to exert themselves as much as possible in ending this evil.” The Grand Mufti also condemned the 'Jamaa'atul-Jihaad', a terrorist group, saying “they are to be cut off from, and the people are to be warned against their evil since they are a tribulation and are harmful to the Muslims, and they are the brothers of Satan.” The present Grand Mufti was quoted to have said about the September 11 incidents: “It is nothing but oppression and tyranny.” There are also numerous such quotes from the Grand Muftis of various countries. These are not sophisticated PR campaigns – rather, they are verdicts spoken in the language that the people would understand, in those media channels that the right group would tune into and understand.
I ask you the question: Why alienate the message of such people? Why not use these Muslim scholars that are credible in the eyes of the Muslim masses to achieve the common goal of prevention?
Ladies and Gentlemen, hundreds of years before the anti-terrorism policies of the West, approximately 1400 years ago, Muslims were fighting the intellectual battles that terrorism presented in the battle between the Khawarij of the past and companions of the Prophet. This continued throughout the ages – where independent Muslim scholars presented the best defense against distorted terrorist ideologies. Today, this is also seen in the manner in which Saudi Arabia has tackled their terrorism problems by putting independent credible Muslim scholars at the forefront in the intellectual battle for disproving terrorism. By equating these Muslim scholars representing orthodox Islam with religious extremism, the war on terror will lose its greatest ally in this long drawn saga.
If we make a search for the causes of extremism and terrorism, some suggestions come to light, such as social injustice or terrorist ideation or political disenfranchisement. But not all people who suffer from these disillusionments become terrorists. The stronger argument is that these conditions are merely the fertile plain, but the common pathway or the motivating context for raising terrorists is through ideological persuasion. It is this ideological distortion that is the cause of extremism and violence perpetrated in the name of Islam, and it is best tackled by those who are the most qualified to deal with it.
The best strategy for prevention is to dismantle terrorist ideologies using the same Qurʾān and the same narrations of the prophet that are misunderstood by them. This is a task that can only be accomplished by established independent credible Muslim scholars. The war on terror therefore is as much a war on ignorance and misguidance, as much as it is a war against the terrorists themselves. Modern anti terrorism strategies need to do more to tackle the greatest draw card for extremism – that of the terrorist ideology. This is an intellectual academic war before it is a battle with bullets and bombs. Who better to fight the war than Muslim scholars who:
- Speak the language and refer to the same evidences and jurisprudential sources
- Those who understand the textual distortions that led to extremist ideology
- Those who can dismantle the misunderstanding and the deviated logic
- Who are themselves pinnacles of goodness and mercy to all men and women – whether Muslim or not.
- Those who uphold the common shared values that both the Islamic and Western civilizations agree to.
- Those who appreciate that we can all live together with understanding and tolerance.
To illustrate my point, allow me to share with you the example of 2 simple arguments frequently used by terrorists to justify their deviation:
- For example, how would you respond to a young man who says – how can I be a good citizen of a country that is one of the very nations committing acts of violence in Muslim lands? They continue: Rather, their participation in the wars on Muslim lands is a testament to the fact that we are in a situation of war with them.
- So how could we address this?
- What could we do to refute this mistaken argument?
- Who better to argue this than Muslim scholars who can tackle this on the same grounds?
- Another example, how would you respond to an extremist that says – you want us to integrate, but how can I integrate with a society that has so many social ills? Rather, the people of vices were destroyed by God, so should those of today.
- So who better to address this argument than through Muslim scholars?
- Who better to clarify the correct way to view this matter?
So who are these independent Muslim scholars?
They are scholars from the broad spectrum of Muslims possessing authentic religious credentials that support the prevention of terror and extremism. They are not adherents to one specific brand of Islam, belonging to this or that group – rather any scholar and every scholar that supports the prevention of terror and is working towards defusing any such tension. For America, 7 years of fighting terror around the world and conflating orthodox Islam with fundamentalism and terrorism – with little progress – truly demonstrates that alienation of key allies in the ideological battle ground is a costly mistake. It is imperative that we avoid this mistake as we look for a fresh strategy to tackling terrorism and its challenges into the future. There should be an active attempt to identify scholars from the broad spectrum of Muslim groups that support the cause.
The US Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr in his address to the Pacific Council on International Diplomacy to the American Academy of Diplomacy on Oct 4, 2007 remarks in his speech entitled: “Diplomacy in the Age of Terror” says:
We must stop inadvertently undermining the efforts of mainstream Muslims to oppose our common enemies and to expose these enemies as the deranged and immoral fanatics they are. Our ignorant and blundering equation of terrorism with Islam has overshadowed and impeded their efforts to regain control of their own moral space. To help them do so, we must restore respectful relationships with Muslim scholars and the governments they advise. Only then can we work with them to discredit Al Qaeda's aberrant doctrines.
In our natural preoccupation with American suffering on 9/11 or on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, we often forget that Al Qaeda's aim is the overthrow of what it calls “the near enemy” – the Saudi monarchy and the Egyptian government – and that its attacks on us – “the far enemy” – are merely a means to that end. The successful vilification of Saudi Arabia and newly disparaging attitudes toward Egypt as well as the rise of “Islamophobia” in our politics represent major victories for Al Qaeda. They are defeats for our natural allies against the novel and perverted interpretations of Islam that Al Qaeda purveys. They are therefore setbacks for us. We need to rebuild key alliances in the Arab and Muslim worlds that the diplomatic reductionism of “either with us or against us” has destroyed.
Fourth, we need to work with these allies to intercept and rehabilitate those tempted onto the road to terrorism and to help them to return to the straight path of Islam. Saudi Arabia has created a very successful program to do this; it is now helping the United Kingdom apply its program of religious rectification in British prisons. Enabling the misguided to reject the perverted and immoral religious interpretations they have mistakenly accepted is the key to preventing would-be recruits to terrorism from actually engaging in it. Islam is not the problem. In this context, it is the answer.
If this is clear, then I propose a more proactive, collaborative strategy for dealing with extremist ideology.
I propose that Muslim scholars that are credible in the eyes of mainstream Muslim populations – and not only those scholars who come from a particular viewpoint – be used to educate the masses. Our anti terrorism strategy should be to build – theological resilience within the Muslim youth. Such a clear focused program would develop the necessary firmness in susceptible sections of the community towards distorted ideology. There is therefore a deep need for establishing a concerted medium for education that aims to build this inner resilience in our people.
My own attempts at educating young Muslims worldwide in 5 continents, has been through an organization that I started called: AlKauthar Institute. AlKauthar provides tertiary level weekend courses in 5 countries and 10 cities with a combined base of over 6500 students. We provide professional intensive courses on a wide variety of Islamic topics. My main aim is to educate and enrich people's lives through knowledge. Such a comprehensive application of Islamic knowledge will build resilience in these students, inoculating them and achieving natural herd immunity against extremism and terrorism.
I suggest the countering of media hostilities against mainstream Muslim organizations, since it plays directly into the hands of extremists and makes the moral position of these same organizations that are proactive in fighting terrorism – all the more difficult. I suggest the formation of a concerted marketing campaign to help push out the key messages of independent Muslim scholars to the vulnerable sections of society. Since the war on terror has been a very visual and digitally laid campaign, the best way to counter this is with a profile based marketing campaign that gets the right message to the right person at the right time. A mass media campaign to general Muslim public would not be very successful since 99% of the Muslim population is not interested in terrorism and not directly drawn to it. It should be targeted at the most vulnerable sections of society. With modern technology at our disposal these days, we can ensure that proactive positive messages can reach the right people.
I suggest that a strategy be developed to engage the average Muslim towards becoming proactive participants in their community. This can be achieved through an emphasis on knowledge followed by a focus on engaging them in their local problems. A person that has ownership of their society and community will never act in contravention of that trust. I call for the support of grass roots Muslim organizations that are proactively working to build ownership of community issues.
My own attempts at establishing such a program is through a grass roots community development organization which I founded in Australia, UK and now in Canada and is hoping to open elsewhere. This organization is called Mercy Mission. The vision is to achieve a world whereby Muslims can live faithfully to their religion and where by their beautiful example, humanity appreciates the beauty of Islam. Our intention is to create Muslims that are pious, confident, self sufficient and self less back to their greater community. The strategy is to channel the thousands of students of AlKauthar worldwide, into a proactive program of helping develop their community. Our central projects are “MyNeighbours” project which aim to achieve social cohesion by energizing the average Muslim, Water conservation projects, Energy efficient Mosques projects, Health awareness projects, Islamic awareness programs for training police and security personnel in Muslim sensitivity training, Muslim scouts, Muslim community financial cooperatives – the aim being to engage Muslims in all walks of life into those projects that build ownership of their community – the aim being to defuse any attempts at disturbing the peace and harmony that such projects will create and turn the average Muslim into a contributing citizen of their religious fraternity as well as country.
Muslims have a long history in Wales and Cardiff where Muslim migrants settled in previously. Utilizing the principles that we have put forward tonight, this is yet another opportunity to make Cardiff the centre of excellence in addressing the problems of extremism. Both London and Glasgow have experienced terrorist incidents – let us use every avenue and every opportunity to reduce any possibility of violent extremism in Cardiff.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Islam is a religion of peace and enough is history – world history over the past 1000 years a proof of this fact. Terrorism and extremism is not a result of attachment to Islam, rather it is entirely due to a long seated detachment from it! The earlier that we realize this point, the better we can all prepare to cooperate and collaborate in making this world a safer place for us and our children.
I thank God for this opportunity to share these words with you and my deepest regrets for any inconveniences for the delay in my arrival.
AlKauthar Institute and Mercy Mission
3rd December 2008