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Striking The Roots Of Radicalism: Role Of Islamic Intellectual And Moral Leadership – Analysis


Countering Islamist radicalism has been the main focus of global counter-terrorism efforts today. These largely operational strategies have yielded some success. But violent radicals have displayed a high level of resilience and adjusted their strategies accordingly. Though operational capabilities have been weakened, groups such as the Islamic State (IS) have shifted to “franchising” their violent ideologies to like-minded individuals, with the internet as their main platform for dissemination. As a result, we are witnessing a significant increase in the number of Muslims being radicalised online with IS narratives.

Globalisation and Islamic Resurgence

The first question we need to ask is: What drives the heart of Islamist radicalism?

Radicalism is defined as internalisation of a set of beliefs, including a militant mindset that embraces violent activities as the paramount test of one’s conviction. Many Islamists whom I have interviewed considered religion as their top-most priority – more crucial than developing themselves socially or economically. What they were saying was that in an increasingly secularised world, their search for excellence went beyond material concerns. It was, in fact, equated to a search for spiritual meaning. And it was to fill this spiritual void that they sought to deepen their knowledge and practice of Islam.

Radicalism is part of a global phenomenon of Islamic resurgence today. With globalization, some individuals increasingly find it difficult to cope with rapid changes without losing their inner sense of security and identity. This happens across many societies, not just among Muslims. Yet, one of the options that many Muslims take to preserve their identity and values is choosing to uphold selected values and identity they deem most significant to Islam.

Unfortunately, the process of choosing and selecting values is a very personal, non-objective and may run counter-current to the context and need of their communities. The sad fact is that while many Muslims possess the zeal and fervor to be better Muslims, they are patient or thorough enough to pursue Islamic scholarship through the proper, more arduous paths the scholars before them had. Some are not willing to partake the knowledge of the scholars before them, condemning them as astray or corrupt. As a result, many Muslims today are not equipped with a more holistic view of Islamic scholarship needed to successfully adapt Islamic teachings to the demands of a rapidly changing world.

This is a manifestation of a deepening intellectual and moral crisis in the Muslim leadership across many Muslim societies. The crisis has led to a serious depletion of scholars who are able to provide intelligent guidance to lead the Muslims through the challenges arising from the forces of globalisation. The incapacitation or marginalization of creative Muslim thinkers from both the professional and educational fields further add to the general failure to respond effectively to the challenges of globalisation.

One of the consequences of this are Muslims who are unable to embrace these changes and at the same time still hold fast to the obligations of their religion. This has resulted in many problems in the Muslim world, one of which is the emergence of Muslims who adopt rigid, radical views with violent tendencies in a bid to withstand the pressures of globalisation.

A Need for Propagation of an Authentic Islam

The problem of radicalism is foremost a distortion of the true teachings and spirit of Islam – a religion which promotes generosity, forbearance and gentleness. Efforts must be spared to uphold the proper teachings of Islam, and put right concepts that are misunderstood. Muslim scholars and thinkers have a responsibility to correct perceptions of Islam held by radicals and by the public – through publications, speeches and the Internet. It is imperative that Muslim scholars and thinkers come forward to propagate the authentic Islam.

There must also be a parallel effort to revive the Islamic intellectual traditions in which knowledge is pursued in accordance with the correct code of conduct or adab prescribed by Islam. One of the more important criteria is that it must be sought from a credible teacher, who is chosen not only because of his knowledge, but also for his good moral conduct, which his students should aim to emulate. For this, the students must be in direct physical contact with their teacher.

Role of Muslim Organisations

Religious organisations and mosques need to set aside time and find opportunities to cater to the different needs of the community. It is important to catch young Muslims while they are still in school so they will have a good understanding of the underlying principles of the religion.

The emphasis should not be about religious content per se but rather the values that the religion offer as a mercy to humanity. The building of good character, of social and moral responsibility to their community should be strongly tied in to personal obligations of praying, reading the Quran, fasting and so on. What is clear is that a large number of radicals have low EQ and social responsibilities, hence their ability to conduct anti-social, heinous acts of violence to humanity.

On the intellectual level, the Muslim community must also be encouraged to actively participate in discourses and debates that involve critical thinking. They must be weaned off from a diet of talks and activities that have high entertainment or propagandic value but low knowledge content. Serious efforts must be made to equip Muslims with creative and critical thinking skills. This is important in the face of religious impostors operating in the real and virtual world. Muslims must have the means to be able to contribute to resolving important issues inherited from the past as well as the future challenges that the modern world brings to bear on them.

The crisis of governance and of intellectual and moral leadership in the Muslim world has been aggravated by a failure to resolve long-standing conflicts that involve the large scale the victimisation of Muslims. In the short term, platforms should be considered for Muslims to air their grievances or channel their energies and other forms of help to their Muslim brethen who are in difficulties abroad, in a legitimate and peaceful manner. At the same time, dialogues should not be confined to those among different faiths. There must also be dialogues that provide an ear to the voices of dissent within Islam.

A Robust Islamic Intellectual and Moral Leadership

The root of the problem lies in the lack of intellectual and moral leadership in the Muslim world. In particular, there is great concern with regards to what can be termed as the anti-intellectual movement within certain Islamic circles, which rejects critical methods of analysis and contextual thinking. Thus, this would undermine the legitimate authority of Islam’s intellectual and moral-spiritual heritage and the required flexibility and space to providing guidance to Muslims through the challenges in a dynamic and ever-changing world.

It thereby impoverishes current Muslims by stripping them of a powerful weapon for combating the values of secular materialism and worldview of globalizing culture. In addition, a more dangerous effect of this trend is the legitimization and ideological empowerment that the group provides to the most radically inclined minority in their midst, namely the violent Islamists. This is best reflected in the myopic Islamists’ goal of a political Islamic system which is devoid of its intellectual-rational-spiritual dimension.

As this trend involves a subtle internal challenge to the legitimacy and relevance of the Islamic legacy, efforts to recast the direction of Muslim thought and action can only arise from within Islam itself.

*Dr Mohamed Bin Ali is Assistant Professor with the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He is also a counsellor with the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) in Singapore.

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