Taking Back Islam

Taking Back Islam

Parvez Ahmed says it’s time to declare a jihad on extremism

interview by David Schimke
November-December 2005
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In the wake of the terrorist attacks that shook London’s transit system on July 7, a proclamation against all things extremist was drafted by a group of North American Muslim scholars and signed by some 250 Islamic organizations. It was not the first time mainstream Muslims had issued such a condemnation. In the aftermath of 9/11, a similarly worded statement barely registered a blip on the mass media’s blood-soaked radar screen.

The difference, it seems, was a matter of vocabulary. The authors of last summer’s document emphasized that their decree was a fatwa, or religious edict. And while no body or person in Islam can issue a binding religious ruling, the Western media in particular glommed on to the terminology.

Besides revealing a newfound savvy among Muslims about how the news cycle spins in the English-speaking world, the fatwa did in fact signal a fundamental shift in the way many Muslims have begun to regard the spread of extremism. “Before [the London bombings], people thought, ‘We have nothing to do with the terrorism, our religion is clear and it should be obvious to everyone else,’” Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, told The New York Times in early September. “Now, we can’t afford to be bystanders anymore, we have to be involved in constructive intervention.”

In this interview, we talk with commentator and writer Parvez Ahmed about Islam, how radicals have twisted its central message, and what can be done to prevent impressionable Muslims from turning to violence.

Parvez Ahmed is a board member for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which, according to the organization’s Web site (http://cair.com), was set up to “enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.” His writing, published on the op-ed pages of American newspapers coast to coast, addresses common misconceptions about Islam and Muslims and, more recently, has focused on the fight against extremism. In 2002 the American Civil Liberties Union recognized Ahmed’s work with a regional Civil Liberties award.

What are the most common misconceptions non-Muslims have concerning mainstream Islam?

Common misconceptions include the following: Muslims worship a different God. Muslims do not have respect for other religions. Muslims do not treat women properly. Muslims are violent. People also forget about the spiritual nature of Islam. Often, it seems that this religion is just a matter of following certain rules. But all things ritualistic have a spiritual meaning.

Like many religions, it’s about fortifying the soul to help a person navigate the day to day.

Yes. And that guidance is, first and foremost, doing things that earn the pleasure of God, which in turn helps your fellow human beings. Because, on a very basic level, no one can live well if somebody else is not living well.

What about extremists who cloak themselves in the Islamic faith? What do they commonly misunderstand or misinterpret about the Muslim religion?

The central misinterpretation is the lack of understanding about how the Koran talks about living with others. There is also a tendency to take religious verses completely out of context or take them too literally. The Koran is not just a series of literalisms, and that’s why people have to be guided by religious scholars. None of the people who are extremists or terrorists—and who claim the Muslim faith or the Islamic faith—are scholars of the religion.

Ultimately, the motivation is not spiritual but political.

That’s absolutely correct. They use religion as a crutch, hoping that some people will identify with them. If they stood up and just said the things that they’re saying and took the religious context out of it, I would contend that they would have no followers. The central aspect of the Prophet Muhammad’s life is that his life was an open book. He talked about everything he did, sometimes in intimate detail. How do terrorists operate? They work in the dark recesses of society, hidden from people, not knowing who they are, who they’re interacting with, what they are teaching, or what they really think.

What about the concept of jihad? That word is thrown around a lot in the Western media, and it’s obviously a very powerful, loaded word.

The literal meaning of jihad is to struggle, to strive. There is a famous saying of the Prophet Muhammad, after he was returning from a battle: We return to the greater jihad from the lesser jihad. The Muslim understanding has always been that the greater jihad is the struggle of the thriving within one’s soul. It’s from the struggle to not succumb to base desires, like greed, material want, bodily pleasures. Muslims do understand that jihad can sometimes entail war. But what is often misunderstood is that war in Islam cannot be a war of aggression. War in Islam is defined only as a defensive war. And even in the context of a defensive war, there are elaborate rules of engagement.

Are those rules outlined in the Koran?

Some of them are outlined in the Koran; some of them are outlined in the practices of the Prophet Muhammad. And they have been codified in Islamic jurisprudence. I think there are 10 major rules. I may not be able to recollect all 10, but the major ones are these: You cannot kill old people, women, and children. You cannot kill someone who is not engaging directly with you in the battlefield. You cannot poison wells. You cannot destroy crops in the field. You cannot touch places where people worship. You have to treat prisoners of war with compassion; you have to give them the same level and the same style of living that you afford yourself. And on and on.

Given these very specific rules, how do extremists rationalize their behavior?

Well, I think they are so consumed by their outrage about a specific political situation that they’re willing to strike out at anything and anyone. And in that anger and that rage, they are completely forgetting the code of conduct. The hallmark of Islam is to constrain people from their base desires. Some of those desires, as I mentioned, could be worldly desires, but sometimes, if you’re in a political conflict, some of them could be desires of revenge. And those have to be constrained. When a group is oppressed, that’s when they need spiritual guidance the most, that’s when they need to be constrained the most, and that’s precisely what the radicals and extremists either forget to do or ignore altogether.

You’ve written that young Muslims must be presented with an alternative ideological discourse to counterbalance radical influences. What are the first steps in this process?

There is a concept in Islam called itijihad. The root word of itijihad is jihad. Itijihad simply means a struggle or striving to reinterpret and reunderstand the traditions in the context of contemporary times. I think Muslims are beginning to do that. We are beginning to see how religion can play essential roles in the life of a Muslim without sacrificing any of the modern context. In other words, Muslims do not have to live in isolation to be good Muslims.

What role can Western governments play in this shift?

A first step would be for Western governments, the United States especially, to embrace and amplify mainstream Muslim voices and give them credibility by engaging them—inviting them to the United States to speak with policymakers, interfaith leaders, scholars, and the public. Once those voices find that they are being embraced by mainstream society, I think they will be amplified. One of the fundamental grievances that many Muslims have would be that we are not given importance. That is the feeling that really alienates the youth. We are not given respect. We do not have a situation of hope. Once that changes, the extremists will be increasingly demarginalized.

Does the Bush administration’s foreign policy, specifically in Iraq, need to change for this kind of strategy to take root? Or is it just the way foreign policy is articulated that needs to change?

Both. The Bush administration and, to a certain extent, the Clinton administration, have not engaged American Muslims, not solicited the help of American Muslims in articulating their policies to Muslims around the world. If American Muslims champion U.S. policy, then those policies will resonate in the Muslim world. The chances of misperception would be far fewer. Of course, the policies themselves have to be based on justice and developing mutual understanding and enhancing the voice of the poor and the dispossessed.

There is a public relations campaign under way in the Muslim world encouraging young Muslims to pay closer attention to normative values. How far along is that campaign?

I do anticipate that it will get larger. Before the London bombings, the understanding was that terrorists are marginal people: We don’t know who they are; they operate within the fringes; they’re isolated and cut off from society. But when it was revealed that the perpetrators were homegrown boys, that they were operating within the society, and that they had a seemingly normal life, it jolted people. Yes, we have always condemned this; yes, we have always spoken out against this; yes, normative Islam has always denounced terrorism and extremism in all their forms. But we all need to do a better job. We are seeing a tremendous amount of activity at all levels: posters, public service announcements, ads, official condemnations, and conferences for religious leaders and youth. The message is, and has to be, that we live in an interconnected world where societies are not homogeneous. Even within one religious faith, there is great diversity of understanding. We have to evolve into a realm of understanding that there are shared destinies. It is not just that we are living on a shared planet; our destinies also are shared. Where we go is interlinked with what others do. I can’t ignore that. I cannot live in isolation. I have to engage. I have to develop common values. Once we start talking in this language, this momentum of interfaith dialogue and understanding is going to assume a greater space in public life.

Radicals have a charismatic figure in Osama bin Laden. Does normative Islam need a charismatic voice of its own to emerge?

I don’t think that is necessary, because Muslims rarely have had so-called charismatic leaders. What is more important is the development of systems that can sustain reform. Not just give people a short-term fad to hold on to these ideas, but a system that can ingrain these ideas.

What can average Americans do to assist in this effort?

They can start by refusing to accept the connection between religion and terrorism. When Timothy McVeigh [bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City], we did not describe that as Christian terrorism, and justifiably so. When a Jew assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Israel, we did not describe that as Jewish terrorism, and justifiably so. Islam has nothing to do with terrorism. It’s just terrorism. Second, I urge people to visit mosques and Islamic centers. There is no substitute for actually going out and meeting Muslims and spending some time with them and learning about their faith from them directly. Most mosques that I know of have an open-door policy, especially if you go there on a Friday afternoon, which is the day of congregation for Muslims. You will be able to meet a broad cross-section of Muslims; you will be able to interact with men, women, and children. That will be much more meaningful and fruitful than simply reading something on paper or on an Internet site. Third, invite a Muslim community leader or an Islamic scholar to speak at your church or at a community organization gathering or wherever you and your friends meet. That dialogue will make its way back to the Muslim community and reinforce our view that we are on the right path.