A frustrated Imam approached me and wanted help in writing an invective about the de facto Salafi monopoly on terrorism. He couldn’t fathom how Muslims could improve their public image if they call for unity with the very same orientations within Islam which are responsible for the violent acts for which Muslims face censure, violence and discrimination. Interestingly, he uses his own ‘madrassa’ students as an example.
Although I may not agree entirely, it is increasingly obvious that the very same Muslim scholars who denounce a terrorist attack when it occurs, often play no small part in feeding individuals to Salafist organisations, some of whom do indeed engage in violence against civilians. When anyone points this out, rather than absolving Islam and putting the blame on Salafist organisations, most Muslims nowadays rather allow Islam to take a beating for the idiosyncratic opinions and practise of Salafi groups, thereby normalising them and further alarming wider society, so I am glad someone in the ‘mosque community’ wanted to open up about this.
A useful companion piece is found here:https://asharisassemble.com/2015/07/05/many-muslim-leaders-denounce-isis-out-of-convenience-not-conviction/
The recent terror attacks in Paris have once again put the Muslim community under a microscope and led to inevitable questions about the role of Islam in fomenting violence in the world. Since 9-11 (and before), we have three general narratives:
- Islam is a barbaric and medieval religion that demands territorial and sexual conquest of the ‘other’. This can be stated in various ways – for example at the ‘mild’ end of the spectrum by saying that Islam needs a reformation or version 2.0 to save it from these tendencies, to the extreme end that regards Islam as a death cult which abhors life and pleasure for putative satisfaction with celestial virgins after a bloody and violent death. As a rejoinder, this orientation encourages a suitably robust response (i.e their own death cult). This group is mainly composed of people on the ‘conservative’ end of the spectrum – in the US the GOP as well as of course the far right and nationalists the world over. It is generally thought by most (but not all) Liberals and Muslims to be devoid of any intellectual or moral relevance. Yet terrorists themselves seek to exploit and invoke these forces to create a rift between ‘host’ communities and immigrant origin Muslims as well as provoke a response from and a rise of the far right which will lead to further recruitment for them from disaffected Western Muslims and from people in the Middle East and elsewhere radicalised by adventurism by these individuals in retaliation. The French National Front for example may now be poised to win the next election, helped in no small part by the terror attack (which is very curiously in time close to the election)http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34821164
- It’s all due to foreign policy: the West is always provoking and killing Muslims and Israel is a thorn in their side. If the West would only just adopt a ‘fair’ foreign policy, terrorism would not be such an issue, if one at all. If it wasn’t for the invasion of Iraq, we would not have ISIS for example. Also, Islamophobia at home causes alienation of Western Muslim youth and causes them to join foreign jihadist groups. This is the general position of (many) Liberals and Muslim apologists, for example, Asghar Bukhari and Yvonne Ridley. Despite various nuances and glosses, according to these people, terrorism and ISIS are largely the result of foreign policy.
What is immediately evident about these two groups is how everything is the opposing groups’ fault: to the Christian Right and nationalists, Islam is the answer to the problem and to the Left it is the foreign policies of the Right that is diagnosis of choice.
In reality, there is at least one more alternative that neither group finds palatable:
3. Both sides are partially wrong (or partially right if you like) – foreign policy causes instability abroad but does not mean that people have an excuse for nihilistic violence against their own civilians: Muslims exacting ‘revenge’ on the civilian population of their own countries is not wholly or largely explicable by foreign policy. The wanton targeting of civilians was absent from earlier campaigns such as that of IRA or Baader Meinhoff group. It isn’t ‘just the same thing anyone else would do’ if they were ‘angry’. In fact, the only time you find this kind of violence perpetrated against random people is in riots, sectarian or otherwise. Furthermore, ISIS type groups and recruits are not exactly all International Relations graduates (any more than they are theologians) yet they frame their justifications in religious terms and not as part of some kind of international class or anti-capitalist struggle. And there are no non-Muslims joining ISIS.
It will often be pointed out to the right, who are very fond of quoting violent hadith and fatwas from Muslims, that all religious people and especially Christians, have much worse verses in their scriptures or equivalents of ‘fatwas’ or religious rulings.
But there is a problem here too: Muslims are generally rather proud of being more ‘practising’ than today’s Christians. But this cuts both ways. Although Christians have genocidal violence in their scriptures, both Old and New Testament, they simply tend to ignore these and in most cases Christians in the West at least are thoroughly secularized. Take Ireland for example – most people there are Catholic by their own confession but at the same time have no issue supporting gay marriage. So they are more able to reinterpret (or perhaps rather disregard) scripture. The situation with Muslims is very different and this has been brought to the fore by the problem of ISIS using religious texts and rulings to support its well publicized and self proclaimed actions of burning prisoners, sexual slavery and mass murder. In this they are only following Osama Bin Laden and too many others to mention in adducing religious textual evidence for their actions. Refutations of ISIS by both Muslim scholars and their friends in the West focus on the fact that most ‘normative’ Muslims do not follow these beliefs. Although this is true and is often further emphasised by opinion polls and signed petitions by lists of Muslim scholars, they do not have the impact that one might expect.
The reason is simple: most of the hadiths and scholars’ opinions that ISIS uses to justify its actions are held as sacrosanct by the very same scholars denouncing their actions. For instance, if we take the hadith which maintains that there is no punishment for the killing of a non – Muslim,
‘A Muslim will not be killed in retribution for the murder of a Non-Muslim’ (Bukhari and Tirmidhi)
we see that it is found in the canonical collection of Bukhari and accepted into law by three of the Four classical legal schools of Islam (the Shafis, Malikis and Hanbalis). In fact, these schools go even further and to varying degrees trace opinions to their founders, the venerable imams, that even Muslim women, slaves and children are not ‘protected’ from homicide by a legal sanction. There is a very obvious problem with denouncing ISIS and yet sanctifying the same texts and scholars they use to justify their actions, and Islamophobes and even not-so Islamophobes have picked up on this inconsistency.
What this usually comes down to is a bit of a fudge from the Muslim side: they argue over the application of these narrations, seek excuses (in the case of the lack of earthly punishment for killing babies for example, we are reminded of the fact that it is still ‘bad’ and will be punished in the hereafter). However, the group this works on most poorly is the Muslim youth: ISIS recruiters are quite straightforward in justifying their actions: you believe in Bukhari and Sahih hadith right? Check. How about the opinions of the Imams? Check. Then they say that no earthly punishment for killing non-Muslims in peacetime and here we are at war with the kufaar brother!
Of course, in following certain heretical orientations of the past which have now become ‘accepted’ into the Muslim community, ISIS is also at liberty to ‘abrogate’ any verses of the Quran it finds to be inconvenient or conciliatory.
It is really a bit fresh for many leaders and scholars in the Muslim community to insist that everyone accept certain hadiths such as those that say, in essence that bloodshed of non-Muslims is not a big deal and then act alarmed when some people act on this.
The reality is that in Classical Islam there was a robust debate on these issues and common sense and the moral message of the Quran prevailed, as well as an understanding of ethics as opposed to the blind imitation of legal opinions no matter how flawed. In the case of no punishment for killing non-Muslims and slaves, this was rejected by Hanafites and others (unsurprisingly that school went on to be the most popular in lands with lots of non-Muslims, a situation that continues to this day).
Yet today Muslims are so paralysed by the need to pay homage to a certain hadith methodology, the various strands of Salafism and to not offend the coffers of ‘petro-Islam’ that they cannot even bring themselves to say that rape is bad – as we saw in the dismal case of Jonathan AC Brown who could recently only bring himself to say that coercive sex was not rape because in Islamic law a female slave ‘doesn’t have agency over her own vagina’ https://asharisassemble.com/2015/08/21/isis-and-the-theology-of-rape-and-the-rubbish-responses-by-muslims/. Yet if this individual was to grace our shores, young, educated Muslims would flock to his talks (you can see the denials and fanboyism prevailing over common sense in response section of the article above, where most Muslim responders were more interested in defending Brown than the rights of slaves or captives).
If this is the best we can come up with, then I fear that the ISIS recruiters will win the day – or at least enough of our youth to keep themselves in cannon fodder for years if not decades to come. We have in Jonathan Brown as a sample case; an academic who is too paralysed by his fear or by kowtowing to certain Salafist orientations to bring himself to say that forcing people to have sex is bad. Likewise, people just cannot bring themselves to say that Bukhari was wrong to include a certain hadith or that Imam Shafi was having an extremely off day when he gave that fatwa based on it.
With interlopers like these then, who needs enemies?
In fact the issue is not defending Islam from these accusations – that is easily done. It is rather that Muslims are trying to do it with both hands tied behind their backs: if you want to be ‘cool’ with the Salafis and various other groups, then you can’t deny a hadith in Bukhari (you’ll be labelled a modernist), or the opinions of certain (favoured by them) scholars (you’ll be labelled a modernist) or actually think for yourself about ethical issues as the Quran tells you to (yes, you’ll be labelled a modernist). What is in fact ‘modernism’ is how Islam has been homogenised to conform to the latter day developments in the various strands of Salafism (literal approaches, excessive inclusion of certain opinions and scholars as well as an emphasis on hadith and puritanical Hanbalism and a concern with state building with one eye on funding from Qatari and Saudi interests – themselves the purveyors of the type of ‘Islam’ that is on display in it’s unrestrained form by ISIS )
One searches in vain for Sufi or traditional Muslim terrorists (I am still awaiting news of the Sufi Taliban and the Maturidi ISIS . I suspect I will be waiting a long time yet) and yet terrorism is an ‘Islamic’ problem as opposed to a Salafist or Wahhabi one (indeed in the US it is often argued that extremist and heterodox Shi’ite equivalents of Sunni jihadists such as Hezbollah are ‘Islamic’. Sunni Muslims recognise this for the nonsense it is but fail to see the normalisation of Salafism and its exclusive dominance of the jihadi movement as being in anyway problematic).
Indeed, it is most sad that the same youth who are radicalised by the foreign policy excesses of the West such as Iraq are largely radicalised and funded by countries such as Saudi and Qatar who were complicit in those excesses both financially and militarily (not to mention their own adventurism in places such as Yemen and Bahrain). The very fomenters of jihadism and instability in Libya and Syria fail to accept a single refugee from these countries whereas NATO members have at least taken many from the conflicts they helped create 
Tragically, radicalised Western Muslim youth are being sent to fight and die in foreign lands in revenge for acts supported and perpetrated by the very people radicalising them.
I have been teaching in mosques in and around the Northwest for nearly twenty years now and I often find students asking me (or worse, discussing amongst themselves) hadith and fatwas which are problematic. I confront the problems head on. Why did Imam Bukhari narrate that hadith? Because he messed up. He made a serious error. And why did Imams follow suit? They likewise messed up. God never promised that any of these people are protected from gaffes and even the most serious errors.
In issues as serious as rape or killing it is already alarming that some of our youth (and Jonathan Brown) lack the moral compass to tell them what is right and wrong and instead have to be guided by ‘scholars opinions’ or ‘ijma’ (consensus) rather than by glaringly obvious moral imperatives and the Quran. But it is even more alarming that for the sake of sparing the reputations of these Imams we are unwilling to say ‘Yes, the scholars did narrate what ISIS claim they did but it is rejected because it is wrong. Those scholars are not infallible and Islam is not a personality cult but a religion’. For that is what actually works. But Muslim scholars are too busy worrying about being labelled modernists or ‘soft’ on the West to say what needs to be said.
We never hear this: in convoluted and weakly constructed glosses and apologia for quite frankly nonsensical opinions attributed to the scholars, the strong denial that is needed is lost and the Islamophobes are left empowered and the children confused.
Confusing the matter with excessive diatribe about foreign policy does not help: most of the people in the Stop the War coalition and most of the prominent anti-Zionists are non-Muslims: they achieve plenty without resorting to murder. The fact that campaigners like Asghar Bukhari need to wake up to is that challenging the global hegemony is a lot harder than sorting out our own community. Just because the Islamophobes would like us to take responsibility does not mean that we should not. And frankly, it is entirely conceivable that the emphasis on controversial hadiths, narrations and fatwas as well as the alienation and exclusivity created by Salafist groups and scholars (the vast majority now) is in large part contributing to the factors pushing idiotic Muslim youth into the arms of ISIS from the West. These campaigners know very well that there are no recruits ending up in ISIS after reading the books of Said Nursi or Gai Eaton and yet they pretend that the entire Muslim community is ‘one body’ (after their corruption of a hadith attributed to the Prophet) under siege in a burning house. But who set fire to the house?
It is well known to everyone (but likewise denied by everyone) that all jihadis and terrorists operating in the European arena are from Salafi groups. However, no such identification let alone accountability is asked for in the Muslim community. In times of crisis, the call is for ‘Muslim unity’, usually with the same people who caused the crises. It is rather like arguing that catching an STD should bring a couple closer together. Rather Muslims should be more wary about Salafist infiltration of mosques and universities given their exclusive ‘rights’ to jihadis – but this also never happens.
I am not arguing for a ban on Salafism, but it is absurd to have ‘scholars’ such as Akram Nadwi and Haitham Haddad, who anathematise people for rejecting the same narrations that ISIS use to justify their acts, coming out and ‘denouncing’ terrorism. Regardless of their personal stances on civilian casualties and bombing, the fact remains that these types of people, by telling students at well funded retreats, lectures and courses that people such as me who question violent hadith and reject them (as per classical Islam) are nonetheless ‘modernists’ and ‘sell outs’ and not part of Sunni Islam, are making the job of guiding the youth to non-jihadist versions of Islam impossible.
After two of my students had attended a weekend session of one well known speaker, they immediately attacked me in class for saying that the hadith of Bukhari where it says that killing non-Muslims deserves no sanction is incorrect and conflicts with the Quran. They sent a group email to the students and even went so far as leafleting parents asking them not to send children to the class of a ‘hadith rejecter’. I immediately lost nearly half of my students before I could even mount a defence – and this was despite the fact that the class was Hanafi Brelwi and I quoted the relevant classical sources instead of rejecting it on my own. If this is the response one gets, then no wonder scholars are ineffective and would rather not deal with the problems. Again, I’m not saying that people like Haddad and Nadwi are radicalisers or encouraging people to join ISIS. But they certainly are not helping the problem either by deliberately and wantonly labelling Sunni, Brelwi and Sufi Imams who want to tackle these problematic narrations as ‘heretics’ and ‘modernists’ and positioning everyone who is simply not a Salafi as tantamount to the Quilliam Foundation. But they are being allowed to do so.
So yes, there is a problem with Muslims (but not Islam): on the one hand vilifying ISIS for using fatwas and hadith to denigrate the name of Islam and encourage nihilistic violence and on the other insisting that we accept all hadith in Bukhari and all of the opinions of the scholars. If we do that, then ISIS has a good pair of legs to stand on. You can’t refute the devil by agreeing with his evidences.