By Thomas L. Friedman
December 6, 2014
THE Islamic State has visibly attracted young Muslims from all over the world to its violent movement to build a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But here’s what’s less visible — the online backlash against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, by young Muslims declaring their opposition to rule by Islamic law, or Shariah, and even proudly avowing their atheism. Nadia Oweidat, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, who tracks how Arab youths use the Internet, says the phenomenon “is mushrooming — the brutality of the Islamic State is exacerbating the issue and even pushing some young Muslims away from Islam.”
On Nov. 24, BBC.com published a piece on what was trending on Twitter. It began: “A growing social media conversation in Arabic is calling for the implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law, to be abandoned. Discussing religious law is a sensitive topic in many Muslim countries. But on Twitter, a hashtag which translates as ‘why we reject implementing Shariah’ has been used 5,000 times in 24 hours. The conversation is mainly taking place in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The debate is about whether religious law is suitable for the needs of Arab countries and modern legal systems. Dr. Alyaa Gad, an Egyptian doctor living in Switzerland, started the hashtag. ‘I have nothing against religion,’ she tells BBC Trending, but says she is against ‘using it as a political system.’ ”
The BBC added that “many others joined in the conversation, using the hashtag, listing reasons why Arabs and Muslims should abandon Shariah. ‘Because there’s not a single positive example of it bringing justice and equality,’ one man tweeted. ... A Saudi woman commented: ‘By adhering to Shariah we are adhering to inhumane laws. Saudi Arabia is saturated with the blood of those executed by Sharia.’ ”
Ismail Mohamed, an Egyptian on a mission to create freedom of conscience there, started a program called “Black Ducks” to offer a space where agnostic and atheist Arabs can speak freely about their right to choose what they believe and resist coercion and misogyny from religious authorities. He is part of a growing Arab Atheists Network. For Arab news written by Arabs that gets right in the face of autocrats and religious extremists also check out freearabs.com.
Another voice getting attention is Brother Rachid, a Moroccan who created his own YouTube network to deliver his message of tolerance and to expose examples of intolerance within his former Muslim faith community. (He told me he’s converted to Christianity, preferring its “God of love.”)
In this recent segment on YouTube, which has been viewed 500,000 times, Brother Rachid addressed President Obama:
“Dear Mr. President, I must tell you that you are wrong about ISIL. You said ISIL speaks for no religion. I am a former Muslim. My dad is an Imam. I have spent more than 20 years studying Islam. ... I can tell you with confidence that ISIL speaks for Islam. ... ISIL’s 10,000 members are all Muslims. ... They come from different countries and have one common denominator: Islam. They are following Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in every detail. ... They have called for a caliphate, which is a central doctrine in Sunni Islam.”
He continued: “I ask you, Mr. President, to stop being politically correct — to call things by their names. ISIL, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab in Somalia, the Taliban, and their sister brand names, are all made in Islam. Unless the Muslim world deals with Islam and separates religion from state, we will never end this cycle. ... If Islam is not the problem, then why is it there are millions of Christians in the Middle East and yet none of them has ever blown up himself to become a martyr, even though they live under the same economic and political circumstances and even worse? ... Mr. President, if you really want to fight terrorism, then fight it at the roots. How many Saudi sheikhs are preaching hatred? How many Islamic channels are indoctrinating people and teaching them violence from the Quran and the hadith? ... How many Islamic schools are producing generations of teachers and students who believe in jihad and martyrdom and fighting the infidels?”
ISIS, by claiming to speak for all Muslims — and by promoting a puritanical form of Islam that takes present-day, Saudi-funded, madrasa indoctrination to its logical political conclusion — has blown the lid off some long simmering frustrations in the Arab Muslim world.
As an outsider, I can’t say how widespread this is. But clearly there is a significant group of Muslims who feel that their government-backed preachers and religious hierarchies have handed them a brand of Islam that does not speak to them. These same authorities have also denied them the critical thinking tools and religious space to imagine new interpretations. So a few, like Brother Rachid, leave Islam for a different faith and invite others to come along. And some seem to be quietly detaching from religion entirely — fed up with being patronized by politically correct Westerners telling them what Islam is not and with being tyrannized by self-appointed Islamist authoritarians telling them what Islam is. Now that the Internet has created free, safe, alternative spaces and platforms to discuss these issues, outside the mosques and government-owned media, this war of ideas is on.