By Habib Ali al-Jifri
October 18, 2014
The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shawqi Allam, hit the nail on the head by urging people to refer to ISIL as QSIS or Al Qaeda separatists in Iraq and Syria. The world previously fought Al Qaeda and that led to the creation of numerous offshoots of the organisation, such as Jund Al Islam (Egypt), Ansar Al Sharia (Egypt, Libya, and Yemen), Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis (Egypt) and, most recently, ISIL.
These groups came into existence in part because the erroneous beliefs they espouse are deeply rooted in our education systems, our mosques, the media and even in the way we think, react and live our lives.
School curricula in some Muslim countries are filled with the virus of fundamentalism and extremism resulting in a generation of extremists. These schools are now trying to exonerate themselves for producing these graduates.
Similarly, other institutions provide ineffective and feeble education. The amount of knowledge about Islam that these students gain is not enough to protect them from falling into the spider’s web of extremist recruitment. We see doctors, engineers and mathematicians – all graduates of these institutions – fighting in the ranks of ISIL. We have also seen graduates of regionally-based foreign institutions and American universities enlist for ISIL.
After the September 11 attacks, most Muslim countries removed the rulings on jihad from their school curricula. The result is that a generation of young people has no understanding of the correct rulings about jihad under Islamic law. Thus, extremists were able to easily convince them that the crimes they were perpetrating under the guise of jihad were truly “jihad” for the sake of God.
Likewise, mosques in many countries tend to fall into two categories: we have mosques whose preachers fill the minds of their congregations with extremism and intolerance, their hearts with hatred and rancour, and their souls with anger and arrogance. Their sermons are fiery, their lectures are cunning and even Quran-memorisation classes act as a means to recruit youths from an early age.
Another category of mosques is the kind whose preachers are merely doing their jobs. They have no genuine desire to call people to God, to serve them and to renew their faith. Their sermons are feeble and superficial. People only attend because they wish to perform their religious obligation. Those who come to pray leave in the same state as they entered, only more bored and disaffected.
Then there is the role played by satellite channels. They can also be divided into two categories: those that promote a religious discourse that stirs up hatred, closes minds and encourages sectarianism. A religious person is shown to be someone devoid of any beauty, love and reflection. They use faith as a marketing tool to sell products that are no different from the ordinary ones except that they have religious labels such as “Mecca Cola”, “Zam Zam Cola” and “Kaa’ba Perfume”. They even market herbal remedies that are erroneously labelled “Prophetic medicine”.
A second category of channels plays with the community’s emotions by claiming that anyone is able to issue legal verdicts or fatwas. They make light of sacred topics, attack religious values and spread hard-line secular beliefs. They justify this by saying they are exercising their right to freedom of expression, their freedom to enlighten people and their freedom to cause change. All of this is while showing no respect for values, ethics or societal norms.
They merely widen the mental and emotional deficits felt by many youths: the genuine feelings of concern and guardianship that the young feel towards their religion and their values – and the anger they feel when their religious symbols are mocked. Extremists take advantage of this situation by offering them an outlet for these feelings by joining their armed struggle to “defend” their religion and values.
Before the proponents of enlightenment, liberation and regional change dispute these claims, let us make it clear that every society on Earth agrees that freedom of expression is subject to laws and limitations that govern the fine line between the Harm Principle – that “actions of individuals should only be limited to prevent harm to others” – and what is unlawful.
Societies vary. Some are regulated by legal principles, others by religious principles and the rest by an unspoken code that is generally interpreted to be common sense. All of this means that each speaker should be aware that he or she will be held to account for what they say. To talk about a society that has absolute freedom of expression is naive. We should get beyond that and strive to build a society governed by some of the aforementioned principles.
There is something more subtle, however, than the problems with our educational institutions, mosques and media. Many of us have ISIL-like mentalities. There are men, for example, who are excessively harsh in their dealings with their wives and children. They include control freaks who neither tolerate discussions at home nor reconsider their decisions, because they think it to be a perversion and denial of their patriarchal right.
They might even cite scripture as evidence to assert their rights while ignoring that others have rights too. They can be equally harsh and domineering in their interaction with their employees and subordinates, even if the only people who work for them are their drivers and maids.
The shameful, criminal ideology of ISIL is the natural consequence of these factors. If we do not possess a bold and comprehensive strategy to remedy this illness, a thousand other organisations will emerge after the destruction of ISIL.
The military option should be used like a surgeon’s scalpel – performed in conjunction with a comprehensive programme of treatment. If that is not done, the war on ISIL will only cause the ideology to splinter – including strengthening the attachment of some youths to it. This treatment has to encompass the spiritual, intellectual, moral and educational realms.
Fighting those who have taken up arms should not be condemned. In fact, it could be obligatory when the situation is critical. However, there must be a comprehensive vision to deal with ISIL and its representative ideology and thoughts.
Religious scholars, faith-based leaders, intellectuals and the media must work together to find a sensible solution. Governments must do their duty in developing the minds and souls of the youth.
They must realise that vocational training and creating jobs, although important, are not enough to solve the problem, as the current situation shows. Too often we have seen efforts in countering violent extremism that were successful in putting out the fire. But they were essentially based on knee-jerk reactions to unfolding daily events. The time has come to get beyond mere short-term solutions to our problems.
Habib Ali Al Jifri is a religious scholar and founder of Tabah Foundation, a research institute in Abu Dhabi