March 11, 2014
When, last week, Saudi Arabia declared the Muslim Brotherhood, Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as terrorist organisations, it also highlighted one of the current problems with religious teaching in the Middle East and beyond: the lack of a “majority understanding” of Islam.
The years of political stagnation in the big republics – Egypt, Iraq, Syria especially – hollowed out the role of religion in public life. Centres of learning like Al Azhar in Cairo, which traditionally represented the moderate centre of the faith, lost their public role and retreated to the margins.
That left the field clear for either supranational organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood or small radical fringe groups like Al Qaeda. In both cases, these groups were able to preach a version of Islam that sounded plausible and thus garnered wide appeal in some circles. Crucially, though, there was no counterweight to their views, no moderate Muslim Vatican to at least provide an alternative, and mainstream, opinion.
That is the value of scholars like those who gathered this week in Abu Dhabi for the Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies forum. Those in attendance were heavyweight scholars from diverse Islamic disciplines, but what they had in common was that they genuinely understood the faith and its principles. Too often scholars such as Dr Mohammed Al Rouki, president of Qarawiyyin University in Fes, Morocco, are not heard above the malice-filled rhetoric of radical groups.
Two elements are required here. The first is a forum or organisation that could promote the type of Islam practised by the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world. An organisation that could provide a counterweight to some of the organised dissemination of wayward ideologies that we see even in the GCC.
The second is a change in language. Radicals such as Al Qaeda speak to young people in powerful colloquial language, not the careful caveats of scholars. That makes them easy to understand and consequently appealing.
Those two changes will go a long towards reiterating “majority Islam”, the religion followed quietly and proudly by more than a billion and a half people. It will also help wean a small number of people off the harmful ideologies they have too often been fed.