Category - Islam

Sommes-nous Charlie Hebdo?
Abu Zayd: face terrorism with thinking, not fragility, in religious discourse
Muslim leaders challenge ISIS
In Defense of Separation of Mosque and State
Pakistan By the Numbers
Tunisia’s history of harsh secularism yields fertile ground for Islamist radicals
Afghan mullah jailed for rape, while Iran executes woman who killed her alleged rapist
Countering Violent Extremism Needs Local Focus
Islamic Scholars to ISIL: Islam Forbids Your Actions
The Daesh Caliphake and Why They Resemble Marxist-Leninists

Sommes-nous Charlie Hebdo?

It may be narcissistic, and in poor taste, to talk so soon about how the Charlie Hebdo massacre relates to the rest of us. But of course American pundits are doing it anyway, and I’ll join the fray long enough to note four things.

First, although freedom of speech and of the press have been in the U.S. Constitution since the beginning, and were adopted in European countries at various times, religious blasphemy has not always been protected speech in the West. It is only in recent decades, as our societal elites have become more skeptical of religion, that courts have come to protect speech that ridicules religion.

Second, it took many people in the West a long time to make peace with the right to lampoon religion. Here is a fascinating video clip from 1979 of some of my favorite Englishmen – Malcolm Muggeridge, John Cleese, and Michael Palin – arguing vehemently over the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, whose final scene is taken by many (me included) to be ridiculing Christ’s crucifixion.

Third, one can agree with Muggeridge, who was a fearless journalist, and the Bishop of Southwark in the video that the Monty Python film is blasphemous and ought not to have had the crucifixion scene, and at the same time maintain that Monty Python must be allowed to make and distribute that film without fear of state prosecution or private violence. The same goes for Charlie Hebdo and the lampooning of Muhammad. We have arrived at a point in Western culture where almost nothing is sacred, and maintaining our constitutional freedoms requires that we not carve out exceptions for blasphemy.  We must not flinch.

Fourth, as David Brooks notes in a brilliant column today, this goes for campus speech codes as well.  As we have de-sacralized religion, we have sacralized the tender feelings of students, and censorship is rife on campuses.  The horrific events in France and our reactions to them expose our silliness and incoherence.

Abu Zayd: face terrorism with thinking, not fragility, in religious discourse

Today 12 people were murdered, including four cartoonists, in Paris in an attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Muslim scholar Nasr Abu Zayd (1943-2010) experienced persecution in Egypt when he tried to exercise intellectual freedom. In a 2009 interview conducted by James Le Sueur, Abu Zayd talked of the importance of not being terrorized by those who use aggression to oppose other viewpoints to the point that people “give away any kind of academic integrity.”

Abu Zayd and Le Sueur in Holland, 2009

Abu Zayd and Le Sueur in Holland, 2009

In the interview he also discussed the problem of some Muslims responding to art, cartoons included, with violence today. Starting at 1:50:17 he comments on the Salman Rushdie case and similar situations today.

Abu Zayd saw the core of the problem as the “fragility” of religious discourse among Muslims.  This, he argued, is what must change. He said, “The religious discourse in the Muslim world are [sic] so fragile that a nothing would present a threat to an entire civilization called the Islamic civilization.”

Abu Zayd rejected this fragility. He instead saw challenge and thoughtful response to challenge as integral to healthy, robust, rich engagement by people of faith with their own religion. When facing differing, even opposing, views in arts and cartoons, Abu Zayd wanted to see fellow Muslims,

respond in a civil, rational way to any kind of challenge. Muslims should take this as a challenge, not a threat. [When] it is a threat, you immediately, you know, make retaliation. But in case of a challenge, you have to think about what was said. Criticism of religion, criticism of religious figures, is something that is very important to the development of religious ideas themselves, and the history of every religion is the history of…going beyond the challenge of the dogma, and only when the dogma is challenged, only after being challenged it is able to reconstruct itself. Otherwise it would be frozen. This is the history of the development of all religions.

Similarly the former Prime Minister of Indonesia Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009) rejected the idea that God is so weak, so fragile, that God would need human defense against blasphemy. He too did not fear challenge. In his essay, “God Needs No Defense,” he argued, “Defending freedom of expression is by no means synonymous with personally countenancing or encouraging disrespect towards others’ religious beliefs, but it does imply greater faith in the judgment of God, than of man.” (And by the way “God Needs No Defense” is available in Arabic too.)

Press releases today denouncing this terrorist attack in Paris will not suffice. Active rejection of fragility and embrace of challenge are needed.

Muslim leaders challenge ISIS

In an earlier post I wrote that “although Obama and other Western leaders must keep their countries safe from terrorism, and join with Muslim leaders in defeating ISIS, in the end it is up to Muslims to destroy this virulent branch that is now attacking the trunk from which it grows.”  I’ll have more to say about this soon, but for now I’ll note that one practical reason why is credibility.  Muslims who are with ISIS or are nonplused will — all else being equal — take more seriously arguments from their fellow Muslims, particularly those who are devout.

It is encouraging, then, that on September 24 a distinguished international group of Muslim leaders published an open letter to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, and to the Islamic State’s “fighters and followers.” The letter is an impressive document, covering proper rules of exegesis of the Quran and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) and engaging in a great deal of its own exegesis that counters the textual interpretations of ISIS.  This is all to the good — for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  That said, Ayman S. Ibrahim puts some probing questions to the document, including its ambiguity regarding Muslim violence against non-Muslims and its attitude toward restoration of the caliphate per se. This kind of probing is important, and one hopes that the signatories of the letter will consider them and issue some kind of postscript.

Pakistan By the Numbers

One of the world’s great voices for religious freedom today is Knox Thames, a researcher for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.  See Knox’s piece for the Foreign Policy blog on Pakistan’s religious freedom travesty.  It’s a colorful and succinct presentation of an acutely bleak picture.  May it motivate action on behalf of Pakistan’s minorities.

Tunisia’s history of harsh secularism yields fertile ground for Islamist radicals

Tunisia, the birthplace of the 2011 Arab Spring, is now the largest source of foreigners fighting with the Islamic State.  Prior to the Arab Spring, the Tunisian government maintained a half-century of aggressive secularism, banning the veil and most displays of piety, as well as jailing thousands of suspected Islamists.  After the uprising, the moderate Islamist-led government introduced new religious freedoms, which were then exploited by Islamist radicals to incite violence.  The government has responded by emphasizing public security, and this in turn appears to be generating repression and anger that further fuels the cause of the radicals.  The lesson to be learned here is not that religious freedom is a cause of radicalization in Muslim-majority countries, but rather that when populations are denied religious freedom for extended periods of time, they become more susceptible to the destabilization of peaceful religious practice in favor of violent religious extremism.

Afghan mullah jailed for rape, while Iran executes woman who killed her alleged rapist

In what is being hailed as a rare victory for female victims of sex crimes, a judge in Kabul has sentenced an Afghan mullah to 20 years in jail for the brutal rape of a 10-year-old girl in a mosque.  Although the mullah threatened to kill the girl and her family if she told anyone, she suffered wounds that could not be hidden.  In a country where victims of sexual assault can themselves be prosecuted and sent to jail, this is a notable and important win for justice.

Meanwhile, in Iran, a 26-year-old woman sentenced to death for the 2007 killing of her alleged rapist has been executed.  The woman, Reyhaneh Jabbari, claimed that the killing took place in self-defense during a sexual assault.  The sentence had been protested by human rights groups and Iranian activists, and the U.S. State Department condemned the execution, questioning the fairness of the trial (including reports of confessions made under severe duress and possibly torture).

Countering Violent Extremism Needs Local Focus

The Globe and Mail reports that the young man identified as the shooter in Ottawa at a war memorial and at Canada’s Parliament building had “caused frictions with the elders at the house of worship, who asked him to stop attending prayers” at the mosque in Burnaby, British Columbia. This is exactly the opposite of what one would hope for when a young person is heading off the rails. It is precisely the local community which has the best chance to identify and work with such individuals.

Yet engaging young people who begin to be disruptive in a local community is no easy task. More needs to be done to provide local communities with encouragement, education, and resources for engaging youth who are troubled and troubling, and who may at a point of starting to find extremist ideology attractive.

Counter-terrorism researcher Dr. Clarke Jones at Australian National University has criticized a new “Team Australia” campaign, urging the Australian government instead to support “community based” programs.  “The government has to knuckle down and dedicate funds to interventionist programs,” asserted Dr. Jones. This includes developing programs which can provide role models and address issues of identity. Also Dr. Jones maintained, “”If you are talking to these people you’ve got to address some of the reasons why they feel disenfranchised in the first place.”

In the U.S. the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC) has launched a program to provide thoughtful resources to local communities.  The MPAC effort is called the “Safe Spaces Initiative“. MPAC explains, “We believe that, in order to keep our nation safe, the American Muslim community must take a proactive approach to identifying and intervening individuals who may be susceptible to violent extremism.” With its Safe Spaces Initiative, MPAC seeks to foster greater understanding of violent extremism in local Muslim communities and provide these local communities with tools to counter this. MPAC deserves credit and support for this excellent initiative.

Violent extremism comes in many forms. This need for encouraging and assisting local community engagement applies to various types of movements. Overall more effort, resources, and research need to go into finding ways for local communities to be the dead end, not the starting point, on the (hopefully only would-be) road to violent extremism.


Islamic Scholars to ISIL: Islam Forbids Your Actions

ISIL claims to be Islamic. Now, a letter signed by over 100 highly respected Muslim scholars has decisively condemned ISIL’s rhetoric and behavior, and urged the ISIL leader to desist and repent. The signatories describe their views as representative of the “overwhelming majority of Sunni scholars over the course of Islamic history”. Given that ISIL draws some recruits from Sunni Muslims in its fight with Shii Muslims, this letter has the potential to dissuade some recruits, provided that media outlets and social networks help publicize it.

The letter makes 24 points on ISIL’s assertions and activities. Taking a traditional jurisprudential approach, the document cites religious reasoning forbidding virtually all the abhorrent acts feeding ISIL’s notoriety, such as mutilation, killing emissaries, enslavement, torture, desecration of graves and shrines, and ill treatment of women, children, and other religious groups (especially Christians and Yazidis). In these alone, the letter is noteworthy.

Yet this document does more: it addresses the extraordinarily consequential question of who can interpret Islam, and what assertions count as religiously authoritative interpretations. To better explain this, consider that Islam in general, and Sunni tradition in particular, is decentralized in religious authority structures: there is little in the way of a clerical hierarchy. Social conflicts and new communications technologies have added to the crowded field of self-proclaimed religious voices.

Decentralization means that it is hard to mobilize an authoritative response to misguided religious claims. However, decentralization does not necessarily mean interpretative anarchy. There are established norms governing religious interpretation. The first point made by the signatories is that fatwas (religious legal opinions) cannot be offered without the necessary learning requirements, and must be grounded in Islamic legal theory. From this follow points about specific prerequisites for religious legal interpretation, such as mastery of language and refraining from “cherry-picking” sacred texts, and several points related to ISIL’s wrong assertions about jihad.

Religious vigilantes are those with rudimentary Islamic education who arrogate to themselves to the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. Religious vigilantes like ISIL deviate from the norms that guide traditional religious deliberation.  By condemning ISIL’s behavior, this document condemns vigilante brutality in the name of Islam. By affirming the prerequisites of religious interpretation, this document demands a more elevated religious deliberative community.

In one religious ideal, a non-coercive setting would permit the coexistence of different religious interpretations, with people effectively agreeing to disagree. This would allow for thoughtful public deliberation where diverse views are aired and carefully examined. The reality is that some refuse the ground rules, and disputes can turn into shouting matches, where the biggest megaphones and fists prevail. To work for long-term peace, the wider community should breathe life into norms of public deliberation, opening avenues for the redress of grievances, and ensuring that all injustices are held to account.

The Daesh Caliphake and Why They Resemble Marxist-Leninists

In order to understand the thugs trying to control northern Syria and Iraq today we need to recognize that they themselves consider what they are doing Islamic. Yet trying to make sense of their self-understanding does not mean one has to grant them the recognition, especially religious credibility, they crave. The ongoing name-jumble in the media for trying to find a way to refer to this group indicates that these thugs are failing to establish the prestige they crave in their claim to speak for Islam and in their claim to be a new player in the international realm of states. Muslims and non-Muslims alike scoff at the claims that they represent either the religion of Islam or a state, to say nothing of a budding empire.

Here is a guide to this name-jumble.

ISIS: Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (often mistakenly called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). “Sham” refers to the Levant, a region larger than just the modern state of Syria. I admit to schadenfreude with the name ISIS, enjoying the irony that radical Islamists would found a “state” named after a pagan goddess from a polytheistic era.

ISIL: Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Same as above, with Levant being the English translation of the Arabic term Sham.

IS: Islamic State. This is the name these thugs prefer, but mainstream Muslims reject the claim that this is “Islamic” and not a soul in the international community recognizes this as a “state”. I think National Public Radio has been wise to establish a policy of referring to this as “the so-called Islamic State”. Also the Associated Press has chosen well in calling them “the Islamic State group”; calling them a group cuts them down to size – they are just a group, no more. I await the day  we can put “IS” in the past tense and call them “WAS”.

DAESH: This is the Roman script adaptation of the acronym from the Arabic name of ISIS. AP reports the fighters hate being reduced to an acronym and even have threatened those in the territory they control who use this acronym. In this we see a reminder of the totalitarian nature of their enterprise: they are obsessed with trying to control language in order to control thought. They feel they need to control language because they cannot win over hearts. This reminds me of my experience as an undergraduate at the Karl-Marx-University in Leipzig, in the former East Germany, where I studied in 1986-1987 during my sophomore year abroad from Stanford. I chose to enroll in the core Marxism-Leninism curriculum, a six-semester core required of degree-seeking students. Some of the students, the habitually rebellious Polish students and me among them, referred to these classes as “M-L,” since after all the German phrase “Marxismus-Leninismus” is a bit of a mouthful. Yet some of the students who were loyalists to this ideology took offense at this and considered our use of the acronym “M-L” an insult. They wanted to drill into our heads that this was about Marx and Lenin by constant repetition of these names. But when living in a dictatorship one savors every moment of rebellion possible, no matter how small it might seem. We stuck with M-L. I tip my hat to those reducing these thugs to the acronym Daesh.

Caliphate: Those controlling this territory across Syria and Iraq have declared that they have created an, or perhaps the, Islamic Caliphate, or what Sister Maureen Fiedler, SL, in her informative interview about the significance of this has dubbed “Caliphate Fantasy.”

Caliphake: A clever friend of mine suggested the best name I have seen yet, namely a riff on the term caliphate combining it with fake: call them a Caliphake. Or for a double-jab call them the Daesh Caliphake.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.