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In Defence of a Moderate yet Critical Islam

07/04/2011

As a Muslim, I am sickened by the events of Afghanistan where UN personnel attempting to aid ordinary Afghans are senselessly butchered by those ostensibly acting in defence of Islam. I am horrified at the callousness of these so-called defenders of the faith. Perhaps more importantly, they betray the very tenets of their faith which is one of peace and moderation.

Indeed tolerance and respect for the beliefs of others lie at the very core of Islam. Such tolerance stems from a profound sense of humility that Islam encourages amongst Muslims – that there is no one truth that one people possesses. The Qur’an categorically states, ‘God gave each people a prophet speaking in its own language’. Moreover, Islamic tradition, Karen Armstrong notes, ‘… asserts that there had been 124,000 such prophets, a symbolic figure suggesting infinity. All had brought their people a divinely inspired scripture; they might express the truth of God’s religion differently, but essentially the message was always the same’. It is precisely for this reason that the Qur’an implores Muslims not to argue with followers of earlier revelations and to state: ‘We believe in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, as well as that which has been bestowed upon you; for our God and your God is one and the same; and it is unto him that we [all] surrender ourselves’. These Qur’anic injunctions were reinforced by the Prophet Muhammed who said that he had come to bring a “middle way” of religious life that shunned extremes. The traditions of the Prophet Muhammed also emphasize this important truism. It was reported that when confronted by two extremes, the Prophet always chose the middle. For this reason Khaled Abou El Fadl stated, ‘… the Prophet of Islam was always described as a moderate man who tended to avoid falling into extremes. Hence the term moderate has roots in the Islamic tradition, and it conveys the normative position that the vast majority of Muslims are supposed to have’.

In addition to a rejection of extremism; mercy, compassion and peace are the three most emphatic values taught by Islam. As El Fadl has also noted, ‘… these are the values that each practicing Muslim affirms in prayer at least five times a day’. Perhaps these values are best illustrated upon the Prophet Muhammed’s triumphant return to Mecca when he forgave all who had previously persecuted him and other Muslims.  Instead of retribution, there was the Quranic verse: ‘Let no reproach be on you this day. May Allah forgive you. He is most merciful of the merciful’. Amongst those pardoned by the Prophet that day was a woman who had eaten the liver of the Prophet’s own uncle. Very importantly, Abdul Hadi Palazzi notes that where jihad is waged it is by one regular army battling against another. As he goes on to further note, ‘Terrorist acts against a civilian population are simply not included in the definition of jihad’.

Moreover where war is waged, strict limits are placed on what constitutes legitimate war. According to Yusuf da Costa Islam prohibits the deliberate killing of children, women and the aged as well as those with whom a covenant has been made. The fact that Islam had already developed a humane war code in an age of barbarism was phenomenal and once more underscores the peaceful nature of Islam. In addition, various Muslim scholars are of the opinion that war is only permissible in self-defense. The justification for such a view emanates from the very first verse revealed in the Qur’an on the issue of jihad:

‘To those against whom war is made,
permission is given to fight, because they are wronged,
and verily Allah is most powerful for their aid”.

Despite the abundant evidence pointing to the fact that Islam is a tolerant faith stressing moderation as opposed to extremism, forgiveness as opposed to retribution and peace as opposed to war, why does radicalism continue to make huge inroads amongst the faithful? Despite the fact that funding has been secured for Islamic institutions promoting a moderate Islam why couldn’t these seem to reach the young men who attacked London’s transport system in July 2005? Despite the creation of alternative publications and websites promoting moderation as well as the establishment of platforms for moderate clerics, why did this fail to prevent youth in Minnesota from joining Al Shabaab in Somalia? In attempting to answer these questions, we have to admit that religion has historically always been co-opted to serve particular socio-economic and political purposes. Wahhabist Islamism serves the Saudi royal family. Similarly, the form of Shiite Islam existing in Iran serves the ruling elite in Tehran and Qom. Indeed across the Middle East, corrupt and despotic elites have attempted to co-opt the ulema to serve narrow political purposes. Similarly Western governments have also been complicit in using Islam to serve political ends. A case in point is President Carter’s former National Security Advisor – Zbigniew Brzezinski, who coined the phrase “The Great Jihad” as Washington supported jihadis across the world to assist their co-religionists in Afghanistan to drive out the godless Soviet Union. Similarly, radical Islamism serves a political purpose and provides an outlet for the expression of real grievances of a particular constituency within the broader ummah. Hamas, after all, was only strengthened with the weaknesses within Fatah and the fact that negotiations did not alleviate the plight of the Palestinian people.

A moderate Islam which does not acknowledge this truism is doomed to fail to make inroads amongst the disaffected, the marginalized and those angry with the status quo both domestically and internationally. A moderate Islam which criticizes violent extremism but which does not articulate an alternative non-violent route to address real grievances is bound to fail. A moderate Islam which is deemed to have been co-opted by Western interests or Arab despots will have little resonance on the Arab street. A moderate Islam is not a quiescent Islam. It articulates the interests of the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed and exploited by providing a powerful counter-narrative to hegemonic discourses. It is critical of prevailing orthodoxies. It challenges the status quo domestically and internationally. But it is also a moderate Islam which rejects extremism and violence and provides alternative constructive avenues to improve the plight of its constituency through real change for the better. The future of Islam and our peaceful coexistence may well depend on the success Muslims have in striking a balance between articulating a critical discourse yet one which is non-violent.