“Reform” of Islam is not the only answer to extremism

A delegate in Mogadishu reads the Koran ahead of the start of a National Conference on Tackling Extremism in Somalia in 2013. The conference drew imminent Somali scholars, elders and imams from both within the country and internationally. (Photo by Stuart Price for AU-INST photo via AMISOM Flickr.)
A delegate in Mogadishu reads the Koran ahead of the start of a National Conference on Tackling Extremism in Somalia in 2013. (Photo by Stuart Price for AU-INST photo via AMISOM Flickr.)

As the so-called “Islamic Fundamentalists” plan and execute large scale tragedies like the recent ones in Kenya, France and Lebanon, many voices are rising in demand of what they call an “Islamic reform.” “To defeat ISIS, Muslims must reform Sharia,” Emory University law professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im wrote in Newsweek, two days following the recent attack on Paris. “In wake of violence, it’s time for a new version of Islam,” British commentator Shakeel Hashim wrote in The Sun.

The list goes on and on. But is “reform” the cure-all for extremism?

Such calls for an Islamic reform are not entirely new. In 2002, Thomas Friedman in the New York Times praised a student-led push for democracy in Iran as a “most promising trend in the Muslim world … a combination of Martin Luther and Tiananmen Square.”

I find it troublesome to hear such calls for reform coming from Friedman, who later defended the invasion of Iraq by saying Americans needed to teach a lesson about American exceptionalism, telling everybody from Basra to Baghdad to “suck on this.”

A more recent call for Islamic reform came from Somali-born ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as part of her marketing campaign for her newest book “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.” In the Wall Street Journal, Hirsi Ali presented the argument that Muslim reformists should unite behind a Muslim Luther, adding that reformists “stand no chance without support from the West.”

The problem with such calls for Muslim reform is not limited to the misreading of Lutheran history, as Al Jazeera presenter Mehdi Hasan wrote an article in The Guardian, drawing attention to the similarities between Luther’s call to adhere to literal interpretations of the Bible and ISIS’ interpretation of Islam.

Such Western demands for religious reformation place each and every Muslim accountable for the actions of other “Muslims.” Such a superficial world view deals with the symptoms, not the real causes behind what now has become known as “Fundamental Islam.” This simplistic argument suggests that we would enjoy world peace if only Muslims changed Islam. That argument fails to reach the core of the problem and treats terrorism without context, neglecting all the other factors that make it possible for extremists to interpret ancient texts for their ends.

This view of the Middle East demonizes Muslims as if they were an exotic human species “Homo Islamicus.” This in itself is precisely the ultimate goal of Islamic Fundamentalists.

Moreover, this view overlooks the fact that Muslim communities have been targeted by this plague of religious extremism more often than anyone else. Many Muslims struggle to reclaim their faith from the rising evil, their efforts come to no avail when crushed by the iron fists of the dictatorships that rule over the Middle East.

How exactly are Muslims supposed to reform Sharia, while living under the rule of theocracies and dictatorships? And, what role is the West really playing in backing Arab/Muslim reformists? 

In addressing the problem of jihadism — a phenomenon closely tied to fundamental Islam — one word in particular keeps popping up: Wahhabism. Wahhabism is the doctrine that justifies fatwas of takfir (decrees of apostasy) and their consequential punishment: beheading.

By definition, Wahhabism is a form of puritanical Sunni Islam that calls for a literal interpretation of the Koran. David Commins in his book “The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia” calls it “a misguided creed that fosters intolerance, promotes simplistic theology, and restricts Islam’s capacity for adaption to diverse and shifting circumstances.” The Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World even defines Wahhabism as “a conservative reform movement.”

It should be no surprise when an official government adopts such a doctrine, it’s scarce to find a Muslim voice calling publicly for reform. This is the case in Saudi Arabia, where political activist Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for criticizing Saudi clerics. More recently, a death sentence in Saudi Arabia is now pending against Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh for allegedly committing acts of apostasy.

Saudi Arabia, a good friend of the U.S. administration, was the birthplace and remains to be the foster and reinforcer of Wahhabism. One has to wonder how the U.S. can maintain such good relations with the Saudi ruling dynasty —the sponsors of the murderous, fascist ideology —while claiming to be waging a war on terrorism.

One is compelled to ask an inconvenient question: How much of the current violence practiced around the globe would remain in a world free of double standards in foreign policies, a world free of political conflict?

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) got its roots in Iraq after the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion. The group took hold in Syria after a series of political upheavals, including the use of terror by the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad against what started as peaceful demonstrations. The truth is, we would not be dealing with ISIS today if the Middle East did not suffer under domestic dictatorships and skewed foreign policies for decades.

As the Palestinian-Italian journalist Rula Jebreel put it in her article on the Huffington Post last summer, dictators and terrorists “exist in symbiosis:” they cannot exist without one another, and one is impossible to get rid of without eradicating the other.

This is in no way an attempt to justify terrorism, but rather a call for uprooting violence by dealing with its real triggers. The West should look at factors often used as pretexts for atrocious activities that continue to affect many parts of the world, East and West, where human life should matter equally.