Setting the Record Straight on “Islamic” Extremism

As part of my school’s PSHCEE (that’s Personal Social Health Citizenship Economic Education) programme, year 7s and year 10s were treated to a day spent learning about different issues pertaining to diversity (year 7s) and work/business (year 10s). I initially wanted to deliver a session about Paganism, as it’s something that is never taught in secondary religious studies and a lot of British culture and heritage, along with Christianity lends itself to Pagan traditions. However, as the school in which I work is seeing an increasing number of students coming from particularly right-view backgrounds I had a change of heart, and decided to tackle something that is at the forefront of nearly every news story and something that often fuels extreme right-wing views.

You can’t turn on the telly anymore without seeing news of a suicide bombing somewhere in the world. The papers are constantly reporting about the latest victim of so-called Islamic Extremism, a term which, since September 11th 2001, has become common vernacular to refer to the ideologies of particular groups of terrorists that are operating from the Middle East. But what do we mean by Islamic Extremism? Is it accurate to call these groups such as Isis, Al-Quaeda, the Talbian and Boko Haram Islamic? Is it fair to talk about Islam and Muslims across the world, with the same breath we use to talk about terrorism and extremism? Of course not. Here’s why.

As I told my year 7s last Friday, the world in which they were born into is a very different place to the one I, and their other teachers inhabited. Current year 7s were born in 2002/2003 – take a minute to let that sink in – they are part of the post-9/11 generation. The world that they were born into is one filled with heightened airport security, increased security presence and international events like the Olympics and the World Cup; these kids were born into a world where there is constant over-shoulder-looking, continual fear of impending death and violence from people who conceal their identity in an attempt to blend in with everyone else around.

It’s no secret that the terrorist atrocities seen in New York, London and the Middle East have been committed by groups claiming to fighting for Islamic supremacy. Because of this, Islam has become a very popular topic of discussion in the political sphere, in the classroom and in Britain’s pubs on Friday and Saturday nights. The majority of the conversation taking place, I suspect, is concerned with the violence and intolerance of Muslims, the fact that Muslims want to ‘take over the world’ in their Jihad and the suspicion of anyone wearing a niqab, burka or hijab. And who can blame them? The quality of religious studies wasn’t in the last 20 or 30 years what it is now; the media appears to only focus on the negative aspects of Islam a la Isis, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. This suspicion of Islam, and ignorance to its nature is breeding a generation of people who are inherently Islamaphobic, who are inherently against religion and who will at some point actively campaign either politically or God forbid, violently against Islam and Muslims.

This is where I came in; this is why I decided to run a session all about Islam and its link (or in fact, the lack thereof) to these terrorist groups. And I want to share my musings with you. If everybody was to read what I have to say, perhaps Islamaphobia may not be as rife as I fear it is becoming.

The first point that I have to stress is that groups like Isis, Al-Qaeda and Boko-Haram all claim to be Muslim and they all claim to be influenced by their religious affiliation with Islam. The aim of Isis is to establish a caliphate in Middle Eastern territories; for those of you who don’t know, a caliphate is a sort of theocracy. In Islam, a caliphate is a state or area governed with Islamic principles at its heart, including the controversial Sharia law. Isis has gone so far as to declare the establishment of a caliphate in its occupied territories in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

Another key aspect of Isis’ aims is one that is probably shared among these so-called Islamic groups, is that of Jihad.  Jihad is a term that has been thrown around in ridiculous ways since the September 11th attacks, without people really understanding what the term actually means. Thanks to the likes of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, I feel people have come to understand Jihad to mean a war against the infidel; another term seemingly (and wrongly) adopted by radical Islamic groups to refer to anyone who does not prescribe themselves to Islam. So Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans and indeed atheists all fit into this niche little group. The attacks carried out by these extremist groups certainly seem to indicate a prejudice against non-Muslims, especially considering the recent Tunisia beach shooting was carried out specifically because Isis were aware of the numbers of British people staying at the hotel which was attacked. 9/11 saw an attack on a nation that identifies itself as Christian. Charlie Hebdo – although I completely disagreed with the publishing of that cartoon in the first place – was an attack against a secular and perhaps, atheist nation. The evidence makes apparent this desire to wage war or Jihad, against those who are not Muslim. But these extremist groups have got it so terribly wrong.

In Islam, Jihad actually refers to a personal struggle with oneself, a spiritual battle in order to become a better Muslim. It could be improving one’s adherence to the pillar of Zakah (charity), or perhaps one’s commitment to Salat (the obligation to pray five times a day) is waning somewhat. It can also mean a military defense of the faith if it comes under attack, as seen in the Crusades during the Middle Ages. It does not however, refer to the mass-murder of innocent people on a seemingly daily basis, solely on the fact that they are not Muslim. A key part of these extremists’ foundations for their radical ideologies is fundamentally flawed and thus their credibility as Muslims is greatly reduced. The first part in distancing Islam with extremism.

The second key point in this task is to assert some of Islam’s key teachings, as found in the Qur’an. Take this passage for starters:

“…and do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct, save lawfully.” (6:151)

From the dictation of Allah himself (so Muslims are expected to believe), a direct forbidding of the killing of other ‘souls’ that ‘God has made’. So where on earth Isis and Al-Qaeda get the idea that their mass-killings are somehow justified is beyond me. ‘…save lawfully’. Could be this the loophole? In short, no. This particular part of the passage refers to killing that is sanctioned by law, so in countries where the death penalty is permitted, and also in acts of war. And as we have already decided that the excuse of Jihad will not pass as an act of war, we can conclude that the murder of 38 tourists in Tunisia last month are certainly not condoned in the Qur’an.

Two more key passages that must be highlighted in making this argument go as follows:

“There shall be no compulsion in religion” (2:256)

and

“Say to the disbelievers [that is, atheists, or polytheists, namely those who reject God] ‘To you, your beliefs; to me, mine'” (109:1-6)

Let’s deal with the first of these passages. This clearly indicates that Allah does not want Muslims to coerce, persuade or force their religious views on those who do not believe. The same could be said of those from other faiths; I really like this idea. No proselytising, no making people feel guilty or deficient in anyway for not believing what someone else does; a complete freedom of choice to either be religious, or not. The second of these passages follows on quite nicely from the first, by suggesting a sense of religious pluralism. This passage appears to explicitly suggest that people of other faith convictions are entitled to their personal beliefs, again without persuasion or coercion from those committed to Allah. So this idea of killing off the infidel…it’s completely absurd. Muslims should not be killing anyone for a start, and they should be accepting and open to those of a non-Muslim conviction. These extremists stand in clear contention with these Islamic principles and so yet again, their ability to be called Muslim wanes even further.

Now of course there are passages within the Qur’an that appear to advocate violence, which these groups will claim gives them the support necessary to carry out such horrific acts of terrorism against nations and indeed individual people (Lee Rigby springs to mind). This is where theological liberalism comes into play. In the Christian tradition, as readers of my blog will no doubt know by now, theological liberalism is centred on the idea of reinterpreting scripture and adopting the parts that work and fit in modern society, and rejecting those parts that do not. Liberalism can apply to Islamic theology also. The passages that appear to condone violence against non-believers are now, out of context and out-of-date. Let us not forget that the Qur’an first came into existence roughly 1500 years ago and so much that was written is no longer relevant to our times now. Fundamentalist Muslims will keep to the belief that Allah dictated the Qur’an directly to Muhammad; even if that is the case, surely in Allah’s omniscience he was able to see that there would come a point where values and virtues 1500 years ago would no longer apply in the 21st Century. I cannot be expected to believe that the message from the Islamic God differed so greatly from the God of Jesus and of Abraham, so much as to seemingly contradict everything that came before. Therefore it must be accepted by all Muslims (and adherents of other faiths), that there are certain parts of scripture that are no longer relevant for the modern day.

So far, I have discussed how so-called Islamic extremists are not actually very Islamic at all. Their aims do not align with anything expected from Allah, and their killing of innocent people, namely non-believers, goes against key precepts from the Qur’an that are, I feel, absolutely necessary for all Muslims to oversee in the modern day. Knowing this, people who instantly jump to think that all Muslims are terrorists can now take a step back and think deeply and carefully about the assumptions they make. Not only is it clear that the huge majority of Muslims are peaceful and tolerant, it is also blindingly obvious that these Islamic groups are actually nothing to do with Islam! We should not give them the right to be called ‘Islamic extremists’, we should not associate extremist groups with Islam – the two are not linked and the world would do well to remember that.

What the world would also do well to remember is that extremism and radicalism are not terms that have emerged since the ‘Islamic’ extremist attacks on New York in 2001. There have been and continue to be, acts of violence, war and murder committed in the name of, or by people linked to other religions besides Islam.

The KKK at their ‘prime’ during the 1960s.

Everybody reading this will recognise this image. The infamous Ku Klux Klan, notorious for being a white supremacist group guilty of violence and hostility to all people who are not ethnically white. In the foreground of this image stands a cross, the universal symbol of Christianity. Here we have a prime example of an extremist, terrorist organisation that has a radical religious ideology at its heart…sadly, it’s not the only one.

Adolf Hitler inspects his troops.

When I showed my years 7s this image they all knew instantly to what it referred. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party are responsible for the murder of more than 10 million people, 6 million of which were Jewish.

Now Nazism doesn’t automatically make you think of religion, but Hitler claimed to be Christian. Although he wrote extensively about separating Church and State, it must be noted that in Mein Kampf (My Struggle), Hitler wrote how he believed Jesus to have been against the Jewish people, rather than being a Jew himself. Now this may be nothing, but it may certainly lead one to speculate that Hitler used this reasoning to justify his own anti-Semitic way of thinking. Throughout my years of education, I have also been led to believe that Hitler wrote either in Mein Kampf or elsewhere, that he believed he had been given a mission from God, to eradicate the Jewish people from the world. Again, another clear link to Hitler’s ‘Christian’ beliefs. However, in my researching for this article, I could find no mention of this particular belief and so it may only be rumour and hearsay. Nonetheless it is fair to say that despite Hitler’s religiosity, he killed millions of innocent people, thus going against Jesus’ core teachings of loving one another regardless of differences.

There are many other examples of killing, violence and murder from people who place themselves within religious groups. What about Dara Singh, the Hindu man who burnt Christian missionary Graham Staines alive along with his family? What about Mandeep Sandhu, the member of the Sikh affiliated gang who attempted to murder a former Indian army general? What about the politically active Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka who are notoriously known for committing acts of violence against the government? What about the Israel/Palestine conflict? Rocket attacks and people killed on both sides in a war that began with the settling of Jewish people in Palestinian territory.

You can see my point. Extremism exists in all walks off life, whether it’s religious or political or social. Extremism and radicalisation are not phenomena unique to Islam. In fact, extremism and radical belief systems should not be spoken of in the same breath as organised, well-established religions. ‘Islam Extremism’ should not exist as a term. The truth is that every world religion teaches peace and tolerance and I don’t care what anyone else says. Yes, there are pieces of scripture that are archaic and appear to backwards in their thinking, but we’re talking about a minority here. If all religious people understood these archaic passages to be relevant for the modern day, then the US would not have passed the equality of marriage bill, the UK would not have legalised same-sex marriage, in fact homosexuality on the whole would still be illegal. What is needed is a liberal approach to theology of all faiths; a liberal approach to faith as a whole is needed from the secular world. In order to fight extremism we have to be vigilant, we have to distance religion from these groups in order to starve them of their fuel. We can fight soldiers, we can fight tanks and planes; fighting an idea? That’s a different task altogether.

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