Global Muslim communities urgently need to condemn the agenda of political Islam that distorts religious scriptures to legitimise violence. This ideology of Islamism is threatening to replace a moderate and spiritual Islam, leading to the destruction of many societies and, in particular, oppression of women and minorities.
Muslims have a moral responsibility to engage in the social, political and economic development of the societies they live in. Global Muslim societies would do well to imitate the exceptional efforts of Indian clerics in denouncing terrorism and delinking it with Islam.
Sincere moral outrage needs to be expressed at Taliban atrocities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, political kidnappings and assassinations, militancy in Kashmir, Shia-Sunni killings in Iraq and Pakistan, fatwas condoning suicide bombings in the Israel-Palestine conflict and other atrocities affecting innocent lives. Muslims require an international consensus on combating extremism. Our credibility is lost when we express selective outrage, as in the aftermath of the Danish cartoons controversy.
Political Islam draws its lifeblood from the ideology of fighting the oppressor, but has clearly become the oppressor itself. Though some Islamist groups have renounced violence, accepted the principles of democracy and marginally improved their stand on women and minority rights, they remain socially conservative. In Jordan, the Islamist party does not support the rights of women to file for divorce.
In Kuwait, the Islamists fought against the right of women to vote. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will not allow a woman or a person from a minority community to become head of state. Unfortunately, militant Islamist groups thrive in the political vacuum created by oppressive regimes in most Islamic countries.
Muslims must stop blaming the problem of extremism on catastrophic policies of foreign countries. For, two wrongs simply do not make a right. It is primarily a Muslim problem, threatening both Muslim and non-Muslim societies. We need to acknowledge that there is a problem of theology when extremists talk of going straight to heaven after taking innocent lives.
The roots of all modern militant Islamic movements can be traced to one man, Abdul Wahab from Nejd in the Arabian Peninsula. He set out to ‘purify’ Islam, believing that Muslims had drifted away from true religion. Wahab’s followers destroyed many sacred sites that he considered linked to idolatry.
Attacking the arts for being frivolous and dangerous, Wahab sanctioned the rape, murder and plunder of those who refused to follow his injunctions. He was considered a heretic by most, for Mecca and Medina were then centres of contemplative Islam, inhabited by Sufis from all over the world.
In 1774-75, Wahab negotiated a deal with the then nomadic tribe of Saud, forebears of the current royal family, in exchange for support to their quest for political domination. Most Saudis reject the name Wahhabi; they either call themselves Muwahuddin Unitarians or Salafi, referring to salaf, the venerated companions of the Prophet. In this blinkered view, no other version of religious truth can exist. This new face of Islam has nothing to do with Sufis, music, poetry, miracles or the countless devotional customs of Muslim cultures across the world.
Under the patronage of Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism went from strength to strength. Abul Ala Mawdudi, a journalist who translated the Quran outside the classical paradigms, propagated the Wahhabi ideology. He founded the political party Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, making jihad central to Islamic discourse. Addressing non-Muslims as infidels, he grouped Muslims into ‘partial’ and ‘true’ Muslims.
Mawdudi’s ideas of Islam as a revolutionary doctrine to take over governments and overturn the whole universal order deeply influenced Syed Qutub of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. These groups have been motivated by political upheavals and the rejection of traditional scholars. Syed Qutub’s brother happened to be among the teachers of Osama bin Laden.
The extremism now found in Mecca and Medina, the heartland of Islam, is the Wahhabi ideology that the Saudis have spent millions in promoting through their outreach programmes. There is no tolerance for Shias, Sunni Sufis or other Muslim traditions, leave alone non-Muslims.
Unfortunately, there is no collective Muslim protest against the Saudi regime for bulldozing graveyards, destroying the cultural and religious heritage of the holy cities, imposing a certain segregation of the sexes inside the Prophet’s mosque at Medina, radical sermons or distribution of radical literature outside Saudi mosques, many of them issuing calls for death to whoever they view as infidels or innovators of Islam. The problem of Muslim extremism began in the Muslim world and the responsibility of resolving it lies with us.
The inability to present Islam as a peaceful religion is a collective failure of the global Muslim communities. We could begin by increasing the decibel in condemning violence and sectarianism and standing up for women’s rights. We should stop demonising the ‘other’ as infidels and show increased support for democratic movements in Muslim countries. It is time for the devout, silent and peace-loving Muslim majority to speak for Islam. Let our voices be louder than the radical voices claiming to represent us.
The writer is a Delhi-based commentator. This piece was first published by Times of India