By H A Hellyer
May 3, 2015
Questions on religiously inspired radicalism have been raised for years. The rise of ISIL has made the questions more pertinent, as the Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies Forum held in Abu Dhabi last week, underscored. What’s the solution?
There have been calls over the past few years for an Islamic reformation that would effectively address the crisis within the faith created by ISIL. Almost invariably, these calls have been made from outside the religious establishment. The fact is that a religious reformation has already taken place in Islam. The purist Salafi movement that came about in the Arabian Peninsula more than 200 years ago was precisely that – a reformation process – and it did not work out very well.
Indeed, one could argue that an element within the neo-religious ideology of ISIL dates back to the rebellion against classical religious authority that Salafism promoted.
There have also been calls for a “religious revival”, or “revivification”. They’ve not been particularly convincing, despite many in the media getting excited about any notion that smacks of a “reformation”. Historically, Muslim communities that have gone through religious “renewal” (as Muslim history books describe it) have had such processes sustained through scholarship.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, the widely respected Mauritanian religious authority behind the forum, isn’t a typical scholar. He’s described in the global Muslim establishment as a “scholar’s scholar”. When he speaks of something akin to religious revival, it’s serious. Many of his works have stood the test of time.
Over the past week, Sheikh Bin Bayyah convened meetings attended by hundreds of people, including many senior religious scholars. Some gave presentations that noted the other factors – social, economic and political – in the radicalisation process. These factors are often far more important than the neo-religious ideology that ISIL and other terrorist groups propagate. All of these factors do need to be taken into account because even if they do not directly lead to extremism, they can destroy the fabric of communities.
Important to the success of these conferences, nevertheless, is the operational follow-up that takes place. Refreshingly this year, diverse groups of young Muslims engaged in developing technological tools to interrupt the extremist narrative online, thereby promoting positive messages and an understanding of their faith. The Haqqathon programme, as it is called, is meant for a certain type of young audience. Such projects have great potential, and it is to the credit of the organisers and their partners that they considered this element.
It is not just technological engagements that are relevant, however. Religious scholars, as well as civil society groups, should be more proactive in promoting positive and deeply thought-out alternatives in their own communities, rather than waiting for the state to lead them.
For the valiant efforts of the likes of this forum to be genuinely successful, Muslim communities require four things in a follow-up by participants. The first is the practical institutionalisation of the ideas of the likes of Sheikh Bin Bayyah. They need to be given practical application by participants. Otherwise, participants may simply return to another forum next year with little or no change in their communities. Second, the network of those trying to push back radical ideas has to be extended, irrespective of political disputes – both within and outside religious establishments – while remaining clear about Sheikh Bin Bayyah’s vision and its basis in normative Islamic teachings.
Third, there must be a willingness to accept criticism. Even at this conference, it was clear that some participants rejected criticism. If the situation in Muslim communities is as dire as it appears, then there should be no question that cannot be asked and no issue that cannot be raised. On the contrary, there must be an emphasis on engaging with any topic. The absence of that in the past has led to a void in religious and civil-society leadership, which has been exploited by the likes of ISIL.
Last, the old independent endowment or waqf system should be used as a way to sponsor much of this work, if governments are truly serious about it. Discreet and genuine facilitation, without interference, will lead to greater capacity and independence.
Sheikh Bin Bayyah’s work is important and a necessary element in the struggle against extremism. The critical question is how to put into effect his scholarship and that of others with similar or complementary visions. Now is the time to find that answer.
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC