/ Nov 04, 2013
Conference Sponsor: Muslim Public Affairs Council
Location: Islamic Center of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, Nov. 2, 2013
Conference Report by Chris Chrisman
While this conference was attended by only about 50 people, it was definitely steered to needs and comprehensions of Muslims. Every presentation was filled with numerous quotes in Arabic from the Quran and Hadith. There were perhaps 10 non-Muslims in the assembly. The impetus for this conference and the “Declaration Against Extremism” that was introduced (See synopsis at the end of the article or www.mpac.org) was the shooting of Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban for the only reason that she wanted to attend school. Los Angeles Muslims felt they had to take a strong public stand against this kind of Islamic extremism. The Muslims at the conference were sincerely concerned about the negative environment for Muslims (and their children) caused by the actions and political positions taken by Islamic extremists. Instead of constantly reacting to the negative news about Islam, they want their families to have a positive view of Islam.
The Islamic Center of Southern California is the oldest mosque in Southern California. Their first facility was on Fountain Avenue in Hollywood which they rented in 1952. They moved to the present location on Vermont Avenue near Wilshire Avenue in 1972. The ICSC is not your typical mosque. It embraces an American version of Islam which is starkly different from that of the numerous Saudi-sponsored mosques scattered across the U.S. There is no segregation of sexes, no insistence on headscarves, most of the men do not wear beards, some prayers are free-form and in English, and their policy statement says righteousness is not a matter of external appearances. The ICSC and MPAC work hard to integrate themselves into the community at large, and they have been tireless in their pursuit of interfaith cooperation. (Some consider this a sinister ploy, but nevertheless it distinguishes them from other mosques.)
The thematic text from the conference was Surah 5:48: “Evil-doers are those who do not base their judgments on Allah’s revelations. . .Therefore give judgment among men according to Allah’s revelations and do not yield to their fancies or swerve from the truth made known to you. . . . [Allah] could have made of you one nation: but it is his wish to prove you by that which He has bestowed upon you. Vie with each other in good works, for to Allah you shall all return and He will resolve for you your differences.” Those “good works,” as far as the ICSC is concerned, are characterized by compassion, peace, justice, and inclusiveness. (Those can be loaded terms, but for the purpose of this report on extremism, they are taken at face value.) Muhammad is quoted in a reliable hadith, "Beware of extremism, for verily, the nations before you were destroyed because of it." (Sunan ibn Majah, Number 3029)
Roots of Contemporary Extremism: The Islamic extremists today are a minority, but a very loud minority. Extremism is the human response to profound cultural or economic change. It is swift and often violent. The Renaissance sparked the Reformation and numerous wars of religion in Western civilization. The same thing is happening today in the Islamic world for numerous reasons. The religious response to cultural or economic change is to go back to the original doctrinal sources – i.e., fundamentalism (usuliyyah).
At different periods of time, Medieval Europe and the Islamic world changed from a region dependent on agriculture and offering little social or geographic mobility to a region teeming with economic opportunities (e.g. oil in the Middle East) and worldwide mobility. This disrupted the traditional tribal and family structures. Also, the scientific revolution introduced new ideas and thoughts which were contrary to the teachings of the religious institutions, so the religious institutions had to either double down and repress dissention or adapt to the changing world. For example, it took the Catholic Church 360 years (from 1632 to 1992) to accept Galileo’s determination that the earth was not the center of the universe. Analogous to the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition were the writings of several Islamic scholars who insisted on doubling down, namely, Mohammed bin Abd Al-Wahhab (Saudi Arabia), Muhammad Abduh (Egypt), and Sayyid Qutb (Egypt). These Islamic fundamentalists are the principal ideologues behind the violent Islamic extremism the world is witnessing today. Needless to say, their views are divorced from the contemporary world realities – including the almost-universal use of reason, the avalanche of information, the diversity of ideas and beliefs, and the rapid pace of social and economic change.
Extremism in the Mindset of Young People: Granted that there is a lot of injustice locally and internationally, the question is how should people respond to it. The response of the extremists is destructive and supremacist. “My way or the highway.”
Furthermore, if one bases his/her judgments on antiquated views of right and wrong, there are bound to be problems with his or her response. For example, left-handedness was once seen as evil (“sinister” is derived from left-handedness), and it was forcibly opposed, much to the detriment of the children involved. Extremists who react violently to injustices leave no positive impact on the problem. Whether it is in Muslim-majority countries or in the West, laws must be rational, realistic, and in accordance with contemporary reality. Allah did not make laws for all of mankind, and Muslims do not have a monopoly on the proper way to govern societies.
Sharia is a utopian ideal – the straight path – a goal set by Allah. The specific rules which are called “Sharia Law” are man-made. Islamic Jurisprudence (fiqh) is a human effort to create laws which are consistent the Allah-inspired ideal. Extremism is mistaking or misrepresenting fiqh itself as Allah’s law. It is an erroneous attempt to “deify” human reasoning. We need to stop fetishizing Islamic knowledge, and instead we need to subject all guidance along the “straight path” to the tests of reason and realism.
When a Pope makes a religious decree, it becomes part of Canon Law, and it has authority within the Catholic Church. Islamic religious “fatwahs” are merely opinions, but some Islamists mistakenly treat fatwas as canon law. This has resulted in some ridiculous “laws,” such as the legality of male and female office workers sharing office space if the female nurses the male office-mate.
There are three driving forces behind today’s extremism – terrorist organizations (e.g., Al Qaeda), Islamist political movements (e.g., CAIR), and Arab oil wealth. These forces are feeding a “youth bulge” in Muslim majority countries and communities which are also facing the highest levels of unemployment in the world. To counter these forces, Muslims must capture the imagination of their youth in a way that reflects the society around them and in a way that encourages edifying responses rather than destructive ones. Over and over, the Quran refers to itself as a “mercy to mankind.” In the view of the conference speakers, if the Quran is being used as a tool of and justification for violence and oppression, it is being misused.
The opposite of extremism is NOT moderation. We do not want to merely have “moderate” Muslims who do not take a stand against extremism. The opposite of extremism is actively opposing extremism.
When asked about the anticipated arrival of a Saudi imam for the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, CA, one speaker said that you cannot reach young Muslims in the United States without also sharing their experience here. He also said that Saudi imams have no place in the American Muslim community. To this response, the entire audience applauded enthusiastically.
The fallacies of preferring extremism (fundamentalism) over moderation - The extremists have tried to rule the day by number of false assertions. Muslims need to understand their religious history to argue against these fallacies:
1) Islam is Islam – a well-defined creed should lead to unanimity of opinion. This assertion is contradicted by the fact that there are at least six different schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Muhammad himself allowed flexibility in how people prayed so they could do whatever was easiest for them. Furthermore, the Quran does not “speak” to the issues of today, so unanimity is operationally impossible.
2) The true form of Islam was practiced during the Golden Age of the righteous companions. A close reading of the histories of Ibn Ishaq and Al Tabari shows that there was much dissention among the early Muslims, including disputes over the division of booty, the terms of various treaties, and the succession of the Caliph. Of the first five Caliphs, four were assassinated.
3) Since there was one consistent way of doing things during the Golden Age, that is the way things should be done today. The problem with this is that Muhammad allowed numerous deviations from the Quran and his own pronouncements on various occasions. The Quran extolls the “golden mean” in Surah 25:67.
Often Muslims don’t speak out about extremism because they don’t want to cause dissention among fellow Muslims. However, the controversy over extremism versus moderation has reached the point that mosques and even families are being destroyed by it. Muhammad warned, “Man follows his friend’s religion; you should be careful who you take for friends.” (Abu Dawud 4833) Muslims need to approach the problem of extremism with credible counter-arguments and be careful about the kinds of friends their children associate with.
Better ways to characterize the moderate verses extremist divide -- Labeling a group as “extremist” is a value judgment. It is, in a way, extremist to do this. We have to be careful about normative judgments. We have to be smarter about discussing extremism. The use of anecdotal evidence often reflects more on the prejudices of the speaker than the problems with the subject at hand. When we use labels and name-calling, we are not adding value to the conversation.
There are two manifestations of extremism – one is obstructionism, or the failure or refusal to act; the other is an excess of something – a response exceeding the scope of the problem. The ethical problem with both of these manifestations is that they violate “justice.” One is a failure to grant a “right” where it is due. Example: the Taliban preventing girls from attending school and getting an education. The other is taking away the rights of many innocent people in response to a much lesser violation of the rights of others. Example: the 9/11/01 attack on New York and Washington, D.C., killing 3,000 people because allegedly, U.S. troops violated the sanctity of Saudi Arabia by stationing troops there. (Never mind that they were invited by the Saudi government.) There is a big difference between defending a country under attack by another country and attacking innocents who just happen to be passing through the country. When you destroy lives and property, you are definitely negating the rights of others.
“Goodness” is a state of consciousness of being consistent with the will of Allah in terms of the rights you have honored and the rights you have violated. “Generosity” is satisfying the rights of others before you satisfy your own rights. “Extremism” is when one insists on extracting the rights of others or violating their rights. We all have selfish motives at times, but it is when we act on those motives that we create problems in our family or community.
Why Wahhabism is a threat to Muslims and non-Muslims alike -- What is distinct about Wahhabism in the 20th and 21st Centuries is that it has managed to dictate acceptable Muslim behavior in the hijaz region (encompassing Mecca and Medina) as well as much of the world beyond that region. That region was taken over by force by Ibn Saud in 1925, ending 700 years of Hashemite rule. The region had been home to over 100 different Islamic sects because all of the sects needed a hijaz base to establish their legitimacy. The religion of Ibn Saud was Wahhabism, but the other Muslims refused to accept the Saudi/Wahhabi religious sovereignty. It was only due to the endorsement and backing of the British, French, and Germans that Ibn Saud was able to become the “keeper of the two holy mosques.” Immediately, the Wahhabis began to expel the various sects and ending the diversity that characterized the hijaz up until then. This has continued to the present time, and as a result there is a dearth of new Islamic thought coming out of Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabis operate in an intellectual vacuum, and so they do not have to consider any new ideas about the practice of Islam. This means that both Muslims and non-Muslims are confronted with an unchangeable ideology backed by enormous financial resources. It intimidates people from criticizing their orthodoxy or working to adapt the Islamic ideology to the realities of the 21st Century. Salafism and Wahhabism are literally militant in their opposition to new ideas, going to the point of elevating textual evidence from ancient Islamic sources above rational thought.
The Saudi/Wahhabi coalition have been successful in giving disempowered people a sense of victory by supporting their suppression of other sects, their oppression of women, and their militant purging of Christians from various Muslim-majority regions. They have also used their vast resources to set up unnatural alliances and put certain institutions “in their pockets.” Most notable of these are the universities which have Saudi-funded Islamic studies chairs which are constrained to teach primarily the Saudi view of world history and current events. This has stifled free inquiry and expression in places where that was formerly the hallmark of their institutional purpose.
What Muslims at the ICSC are doing to counteract these negative forces is to invest their time and energy in civic projects which will enable them to counter-balance the Saudi influence. As a continuation of this particular conference on Extremism, for example, there will be a workshop on December 14 on preventing extremism in the community. It will include specific tools and training for prevention, intervention, and ejection.
Panel Discussion on the “Declaration Against Extremism” document:
· Organized efforts to oppose extremism are needed to create momentum for change
· We must also resist the use of intimidation and the appeal to ancient authority in order to silence Muslims from speaking out against extremism.
· Extremism involves not only actions, but also the way you think.
· We must disabuse people of the notion that extremism is something new, or a response to Israel, or a response some other supposed offense. It is rather a reactionary reversion to ancient authorities to justify violence and oppression.
· The three main manifestations of extremism today are 1) violence against both Muslims and non-Muslims, 2) the oppression of women in the name of Islam, and 3) the suppression of religious minorities (e.g., Copts, Sufis, and Shiites in Sunni-majority countries)
· Mosques in the U.S. often turn away new Muslims because they aren’t properly dressed or for some other external reason. Their rules are so restrictive that going to a mosque is a drudgery and a turn-off for young people. This is destructive intolerance. The ICSC, instead, tries to meet people “where they are.”
· We strongly oppose the idea that women are inferior. We must oppose child marriage, denying women equal education and economic opportunities, FGM, and other violence against women.
· We cannot count on a “Saladin” to come along and reform Islam; rather, it must be done by the Muslim community itself.
· The ICSC and MPAC are not opposing extremism just because the government is putting pressure on Muslims to take a stand. Rather, this is coming from within the consciousness of the Muslims in the congregation. Extremists are tyrants, and to combat them we must understand why people become extremists and then address those root causes wisely. It take strength and courage to stand up against those loud voices of extremism.
· One of the ways to fight extremism is with knowledge and education. Muslims need a contextualized understanding of their sacred texts. (Since non-Muslim critics of Islam who cite specific violent texts in the Quran are often told the verse is taken out of context, this could be a lame excuse or it could indicate that Muslims themselves often do not understand the context of those verses.)
Final observations by this non-Muslim attendee: Having attended numerous Muslim conferences and interfaith meetings, this conference was characterized by its openness, its critical introspection, and its willingness to give voice to a wide range of views. Bu contrast, many of the other meetings reflected scripted agendas, limited questions, and no room for any disagreement. Rarely will a Muslim acknowledge that Arab Muslims played a major role in the 18th and 19th century slave trade, as they did at this conference. There were also heart-felt expressions that would probably shock the hardened Islamist: “Love is more important than justice.” “You cannot pour from a vessel anything that it does not contain (i.e., a healthy tree does not bear bad fruit).” “our job (as Muslims) is to create beauty (see Romans 10:15)”
Synopsis of the Declaration Against Extremism
We passionately reaffirm our opposition to extremists of all stripes, particularly all Muslim extremists who betray Islam’s true message. Furthermore, we pledge to collectively condemn and act to prevent extremism in all forms.
Cardinal Features of Extremism:
1. Authority is monopolized by one person or group that claims authority from God, and opposition to that authority is equated with opposition to God.
2. The “will” of God is dictated to the people, who are not permitted to think for themselves and arrive at their own conclusions.
3. Coercion or imposing lifestyle decisions on others is viewed as sometimes necessary.
4. Blind commitment to tradition is paramount. Innovation and progress are condemned.
5. Conformity to cultural customs supersedes personal convictions.
6. Outward appearance is prized over personal character and spiritual integrity.
7. Extremists hold insular attitudes which reject the contributions of other civilizations and their value to humanity.
8. Power is derived from culturally-based systems of patriarchy, subjecting women to inferior status and sanctioning physical harm.
9. The mercy and forgiveness of God is exclusive to only one group.
10. Unjust and immoral acts are deemed permissible for self-serving ends.
Extremism is the main source of harm to Islam and Muslims worldwide. Extremism and its violent manifestations have shed the blood of countless people, the majority of whom are Muslims. Extremism continues to rob our youth of pride in, and connection with their own faith – thus making people feel their faith is irrelevant and incompatible with contemporary life. This then has the ability to create a barrier between the hearts and minds of the Muslim citizens and their non-Muslim neighbors.
A Clarion Call for Action:
Let’s stand together and declare a unified and unequivocal condemnation of extremism by:
· Rejecting any religious interpretation or ruling that contradicts the core Islamic principles of justice, mercy, wisdom, and compassion.
· Upholding women’s God-given equal opportunity in society, rejecting the subjugation of women under any circumstances and refusing to accept the notion that women are inferior to men in reason, wisdom, or their ability to lead.
· Objecting to outward symbols of piety being used as a measure of an individual’s righteousness and adherence to Islam.
· Embracing the positive contributions of all cultures and civilizations and respecting their cultural origins.
· Fostering an environment where young Muslims feel proud and connected to their faith, and not alienated from Islam or the Muslim community.
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