The Need for Intellectual Jihad

28 04 2013

jihad                      Islam Rational Thinking

The Islamic world has been suffering an intellectual crisis in the modern era since the decline of the Ottoman Empire.  This has accounted for the intellectual malaise and stagnation found internally within the Islamic umma, or community at large.  While this stagnation has occurred, those voices of reason and intellect that have tried to stimulate and resuscitate an ‘intellectual jihad’ within the umma have not only been stifled, but outright repressed and marginalized by the orthodoxy.  They’ve been silenced, bullied, and threatened.  Rational thinking has been banished; unquestioning compliance with the orthodoxy and blind dogma have become the order of the day and the status quo, even today.  Intellectual jihad has been defeated, but it has not been tossed in the dustbin just yet.  Intellectual jihad must be revived.  The Boston bombings are only one of many ominous signs of the dangers of repressing intellectual jihad and rational thinking.

One voice that strongly urged the Islamic umma to undertake the ‘intellectual jihad’ was the late Professor Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988), originally from Pakistan.  He was exiled for speaking for rational thinking and against fanaticism and fundamentalism, which were on the rise in Pakistan.  Professor Rahman wrote many books and articles, and his book, Islam (1979), in particular explains the sources of fundamentalism and fanaticism in puritanical Islamic movements, since early Islamic history to the post-colonial era.  His advocacy for ‘intellectual jihad’ remained marginalized, while the voices and power of the puritanical orthodoxy in the umma became popularized.  Violent jihadism has managed to eclipse what used to be considered “the Greater Jihad,” that of struggling for self-improvement.  Intellectual jihad is yet another vein in Islamic exegesis and the need for reinterpretation in order to adjust to modernity, which has for too long remained suppressed.

The puritanical orthodoxy, then, has perpetuated intellectual stagnation and impeded the much-needed Islamic renaissance and reformation in the modern era.  The spread of harmful, intolerant ideologies, such as Wahhabism and Salafism, are documented sources of indoctrination into violent jihadism.  Online and satellite TV self-proclaimed clerics, who are usually uneducated in Islam and Classical Arabic, have easy access to impressionable Muslims, appealing to their emotions.  Rational thinking never enters their spheres and domains.  Counter-terrorism strategies need to address the source of the problem – these clerics, their messages, and the dangerous emotive ideologies they profess – rather than dealing reactively with just the symptoms.

Islamic schools usually teach rote memorization of the Quran, without understanding the meanings of the verses.  Classical Quranic Arabic is difficult even for native Arabic speakers, because it’s an obsolete and extremely difficult language.  Religious seminaries do not encourage questioning.  Memorizing verses, but failing to understand them, and also authoritatively forbidding any questioning of the curricula, all constitute a recipe for disaster.  Such curricula will never lead a student to a comprehensive education with competent skills for a viable career, nor would such students be contributing anything to social progress.

Muslims and Islamic religious authorities bear the responsibility to support and promote intellectual jihad and rational thinking.  This is imperative, and without such reformation those embracing the violent form of jihad will continue to capitalize on its use of violence and terror.  Hence, the proponents of violent jihad will continue to perpetuate insecurity, and governments will continue to react with harsher constraints on civil liberties and rights.  The vicious cycle will revolve indefinitely.

Religious reform is embodied in the intellectual form of jihad.  Given that religion and politics are not separate in Islam, such reform is imperative for facilitating progressive intellectual, spiritual, and political discourses.  One of the methodologies of Islamic jurisprudence is ijtihad, which is ‘reinterpretation,’ or ‘original thinking,’ applying reasoning and analytical thought to Islamic laws and principles.  Ijtihad allows for change and reform, without modifying the essence of Islamic principles and laws.  In modern history, ijtihad has been static, as the ultra-orthodox religious authorities and institutions have suppressed the process of change, which has been urgently needed in order to adjust to modernity.  In the field it’s said, “the gate of ijtihad has closed.”  Hence, Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism have predominated in modern history.  But is the gate truly closed, or is it blockaded by unsavory forces?  And if it’s closed, at least it is not locked!

It’s worth examining Fazlur Rahman’s forthright assessment of Islam and the roots of fundamentalism and fanaticism, and heeding his caveats and recommendations.  Otherwise, violent jihadism will continue to hijack Islam and perpetuate the worst that criminal behavior can offer.  It’s in no one’s interest to allow that to happen.

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the US Naval War College.  The views expressed are personal.

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Islamic Extremists’ Propensity for Violence & Intolerance

31 10 2012

The shooting of the brave Pakistani teenager, Malala Yusufzai, underscores a reality, without exaggeration, about the degree and severity of misogyny of Islamic extremists.   The shooting, which the 14-year-old activist and campaigner for girls’ education survived, is an ever-growing stain on Pakistan’s fabric of militancy and mindless misogynist orthodoxy.  The list of threats and violence against women and liberal voices is long.  This week BBC profiled an Afghan female rap artist, who is a proud patriot, yet receives regular threats by militants, including threats of acid attacks.  In Dagestan, militants murdered the fourth Sufi cleric this year.

What drives these hyenas to commit senseless acts of violence against innocent civilians and even children?  Are they so threatened by girls that they have to resort to such tactics as acid attacks and shootings of school buses?  Is this what their seminary curricula have taught them, to hate everyone who doesn’t conform to their own way of thinking, and to fear girls, especially educated ones?  I once reprimanded my students for using the word “barbaric” for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, but now I lament my actions.  The behavior of these militants and extremists, which are not restricted to the Af-Pak region, is beyond barbaric.  They transcend the Dark Ages in their regressive madness and extremes.  They make me hate the news and cringe every time I reach for BBC or NPR.  They are a dark cloud hovering ominously over the “modern” Muslim world today, and sadly many Muslims remain defensively in denial or apologetically rationalize the existence of these ugly elements, or re-frame Shariah (Islamic law) to distance themselves from such ideologies.

If so called moderate and liberal Muslims fail to acknowledge the reality of these extremists and their agendas, and, more importantly, fail to counter these militant and extremist forces in their midst, dire consequences await Muslim communities worldwide.  Some of these consequences are already occurring, including:

  • Hijacking and undermining children’s education systems, in the guise of “religious education,” by the infiltration of extremist and ultra-orthodox ideologies that promote intolerance and potentially militancy.  Such ideologies include Wahhabism and Salafism;
  • Stifling of liberal and Sufi voices and practices, as well as destruction of religious sites, as in the case of Salafi destruction of Sufi shrines and UNESCO heritage sites in recent months in Mali and Libya;
  • Attacking and killing non-Muslims in the name of Islam, as in the case of Boko Haram killing Christians and attacking churches in Nigeria;
  • Increasing the oppression of girls and women and religious minorities, as well as religious pariahs (e.g., sectarian groups like Shiites, and religions like Bahaism), and denying their rights and freedoms;
  • Stoking anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism, anti-modernism, and anti-Jewish and Christian sentiments, again in the name of Islam;
  • Undermining democratization and socioeconomic progress, especially by means of suppressing segments of society like women and minority groups;
  • Repressing intellectual freedoms and the arts;
  • Arbitrarily invoking takfir (calling someone a non-believer, or an apostate) and blasphemy labels, resulting in excommunication or even death of the targeted individual;
  • Questioning modern secular ideas, education, and progressive lifestyles, and seeking to repress them;
  • Locking entire communities in cycles of religious authoritarianism and totalitarianism by use of force or threats of violence, peer pressure, and excommunication;
  • Killing anyone who opposes them;
  • Focusing on nothing but their own myopic concepts of “jihad” and manipulations thereof;
  • Pursuing agendas of territorial expansion, areas of operation, recruitment, and cooptation of local government, law enforcement, and religious officials, where possible;
  • Blaming everything on the US, Jews, and Israel;
  • Interpreting religious laws and principles literally;
  • Attempting to superimpose 7th century ideas and practices on the present;
  • Bullying innocent people into submission and conformity, resulting in religious fascism that does not tolerate dissent, nor does it tolerate women’s rights to choose how they dress, live, acquire an education, work, and marry or divorce.

The end result of this religious fascism is nothing but destructive, oppressive, intolerant, and violent, authoritarian male-dominated communities living anachronistically in a 7th century time warp.  In fact, that itself is an untruth, because much of these extremists’ attitudes and behaviors pre-date Islam.  Yet, they insist on attributing their take on Islam as replicating the time of the Prophet Muhammad in 7th century Arabia.  Still, even the latter was not such a shining example of women’s emancipation and rights, certainly not by modern standards, nor was it brimming with religious tolerance and harmony.  Pre-Islamic Arabia fared even worse of course, but to compare these historical contexts to modern times is a non-starter.  Hence, the extremists’ backward regression is far worse than anticipated.  We all thought the Taliban were the worst when they emerged in the 1990s, but now they have parallel groups and ideologies that mirror them in many respects.  And we have the Saudis to thank for the proliferation of Wahhabi / Salafi ideologies that are inspiring these extremists and militants.

Last year and even earlier this year, I had high hopes for post-revolution political and socioeconomic development in Tunisia, where the 2011 Arab Awakening began.  Now, Salafist thugs are threatening to derail stability and security in Tunisia, while continuing their violent agendas and attacks.  Even as recent as October 31st, there have been fierce clashes in Tunis, as Al Jazeera reports:

“Wielding sharp tools and swords, the protesters went on the attack in the Tunis suburb of Manouba after police arrested a Salafist suspected of assaulting the head of the suburb’s public-security brigade, Khaled Tarrouche, interior ministry spokesman, said.

‘There has been a reinforcement of security, of the National Guard, of the army to prevent any retaliation’ by the Salafist movement, Tarrouche said on Wednesday.

‘The response by the security forces led to the death of an attacker who was hit by a bullet.’

Two security force members were also seriously injured, he said.”

These extremist elements are enemies of knowledge.  They are haters of peace and harmony.  They are the most intolerant towards tolerance.  Muslims must not bury their heads in the sand about this.  There is way too much at stake.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views