Debating Islam after Paris

Amira Howeidy , Thursday 19 Nov 2015

Al-Azhar was nationalised under Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1961, a move that followed after several attempts to limit the independence of Muslim scholars in the 1950s

It isn’t the first time Muslims have had to explain, in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in a western city, that Islam is not a religion of violence. After attacks in Paris, claimed by ISIS, which killed at least 129 on Friday evening, Islamist parties across the Middle East and Muslim groups in Europe and the United States were quick to condemn the assault. They denounced them as “a violation” of the principles of Islam and “far from religion”.

In a column published on the Al-Arabiya English website Egypt’s Mufti, Shawki Allam, argued: “None of these extremists have been educated in Islam in genuine centres of Islamic learning.” Instead, they subscribe to “distorted and misguided” interpretations of Islam which have no basis in traditional Islamic doctrine.

The assailants may have changed since the 1980’s when Islamist militants in Egypt expanded their argument with the government to include the murder of tourists, policemen and officials.

While Islamist militant groups have continued to grow, developing their tactics, discourse and cross-border targets in the name of Islam, the counter discourse, from both Muslim governments and scholars, has remained largely the same, whether applied to Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and Jihad in Egypt and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or, almost three decades later, to ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

This counter discourse, typified by Allam’s argument, focuses on denying any link between Islam and terrorism committed in its name.

Not that there haven’t been attempts to articulate more nuanced arguments refuting ISIS's discourse and its laboured citing of Islamic scriptures to justify violence.

“Hey so-called Caliph. Try reading the rules of war established by the first Caliph. You know, the guy you named yourself after,” religious scholar Reza Aslan tweeted in September 2014, addressing ISIS leader Abou Bakr Al-Baghdadi after the declaration of the so-called Islamic State.

To make his point Aslan published the rules of engagement which Abu Bakr, the first Muslim caliph after Prophet Mohammed’s death, dictated to his army: “Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone.”

The tweet was revived this week but received only 15,000 interactions, a modest total for a social network such as Twitter on which 100 million users login daily and evidence, albeit anecdotal, that efforts to refute ISIS discourse by citing scripture has little traction on negative perceptions of Islam, Muslims and Arabs in the west.

According to a Reuters poll on Monday 52 per cent Americans think accepting Syrian refugees will make their country “less safe”. By Tuesday 27 US governors had said they would not accept Syrian refugees.

Although any final decision falls to the federal government, the announcements reflect the prevalence of anti-Syrian sentiments in the US despite there being no evidence of the involvement of Syrians in the Paris attacks apart from an immigrant’s passport, which experts say is fake, found on one of the crime scenes.

Repeated condemnations by Muslims of Islamist violence or efforts explaining Islam appear to have had little effect on the rise of Islamphobia in Europe.

According to a report published in September by “The Collective Against Islamophobia in France”, physical assaults against Muslims in France increased by 500 per cent, and acts of degradation and vandalism jumped by 400 per cent, in the six months following the attack in Paris by Al-Qaeda affiliates on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January for their portrayal of Muslims, where 11 people were killed.

Frustrations within Muslim communities, where a shift in the counter discourse seems to be taking place, are running high. After the Paris attacks an increasing number of Muslim voices are saying the argument that Islam is innocent of violence is not only ineffective but fails to address the bigger problem.

“Stop saying Islam has nothing to do with this. And stop saying imperialist wars have nothing to do with this,” said Dyab Abou Jahjah, a Lebanese-Belgian political commentator and leader of Movement X, an organisation which fights racial discrimination in Belgium.

ISIS’s version of Islam, he wrote on his Twitter account, is an “offshoot of Wahabism” which originated in Saudi Arabia. “Mainstream Islamic theology is still archaic” regarding violence, he added.

In an article published in the London-based Al-Araby Al-Jadeed under the title “Is Islam Innocent of Them?” Bilal Fadl, a prominent Egyptian columnist and satirist, called for a critique of the discourse of Muslim clerics who wouldn’t commit violence themselves but share IS’s extremist views when it comes to exterminating “the other”.

“Are mainstream contemporary interpretations of Islam on the popular and official level really innocent?” he asked.

The question becomes ever more difficult to avoid in the wake of each terrorist attack, wrote Fadl. And it is now being posed by Muslims who are “rebelling” against their faith as a result of the actions of extremists and terrorists.

“This phenomenon can’t be ignored and it’s not enough to shout or spit at them on talk shows.”

The debate is antagonising Muslims who, critical of the mainstream discourse on Islam, refuse the conclusions it suggests. “Any narrative that claims Islam is a religion which provokes such acts of violence, ultimately strips Muslims of any agency. It leaves them with no choice but to follow,” says Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, a researcher on Islamist groups and political philosophy.

“As a faithful Muslim this discourse points the finger of accusation directly at me.”

Equally provocative, El-Houdaiby argues, is the narrative of religious institutions, neo-clerics and “defenders of Islam” who endlessly repeat that terrorist attacks do not represent the real Islam.

It is problematic, says El-Houdaiby, because these institutions are affiliated with authoritarian regimes which produce civil violence and hatred, but never denounce them.

“They will speak up when it’s about Islam’s image in the ‘civilised’ west but only whisper when such attacks take place in Lebanon or Ankara, for example,"El-Houdaiby said.

Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious institution, could do more, says HA Hellyer, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council in DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London.

When ISIS immolated captured Jordanian pilot Moath Al-Kasasba in February the group’s clerics justified it as Islamic, citing verses from the Quran.

“And what did Al-Azhar do?” asks Hellyer. “It turned the justification around and said this is wrong, they don’t understand Islam.”

“They need to do more than that. They need to explain why such acts are wrong, why the religious arguments are bankrupt.”

The reason why this isn’t happening, says Hellyer, is because a lot of Islamic scholars don’t think they need to explain; the public should just take them at their word. There is also a problem in that “a lot of Al-Azhar graduates are not as well trained as they once were, say 50 years ago.”

Al-Azhar was nationalised under Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1961, a move that followed after several attempts to limit the independence of Muslim scholars in the 1950s.

Despite the brutality of their carefully choreographed propaganda (Kasasba’s immolation, like other ISIS atrocities, was filmed in a long, high definition, professionally made video) experts argue it is ISIS’s narrative, and the group’s mastery of social media strategy, and not moderate Islamist discourse, which has the most impact today.

The question who should craft a counter narrative is left largely unanswered. An important aspect of the debate, the “essentialising of Islam”, is often overlooked, says Amina Elbendary, professor of Middle East history at the American University in Cairo.

“We can’t say Islam is this or that. It’s a very complex tradition: there is scripture, interpretation of scripture, jurisprudence, theology, etc. and then how various Muslims practice all of this; what they make of it.”

People want “clear-cut black and white questions and answers like Buzzfeed lists. They want someone to tell them Islam is 1,2,3 and 4. Those are the wrong questions to ask; it’s a very different paradigm to begin with.”

That the counter narrative is still viewed as the responsibility of religious institutions like Al-Azhar compounds the problem.

“The target audience doesn’t want any connections with authority because they see authority as the problem,” says Hellyer. The fact that religious institutions are more than ever associated with the state gives them no credibility with those who want to blow themselves up and don’t want to listen to Al-Azhar."

The only way to confront this is for governments to lift their grip on religious institutions, he added.

“If you want counter narratives to be successful you need to give religious scholars independence, and be able to expect that they will sometimes call you out for abuses. Why would this target audience listen to a guy constantly declaring how evil ISIS is but who doesn’t say a thing about abuses committed by dictatorships in the region?”

* A version of this article was published in the 18 November 2015 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly

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