Muslim intellectuals today have no responsibility more important, no agenda more pressing, than articulating a humanistic interpretation of Islam and its basic texts that would reinforce the great religion’s peaceful ethos and its essential embrace of non-violence.
With radical jihadists hijacking Islam with their violent and extremely intolerant version, this is of course a political agenda that requires tremendous cognitive savvy and sheer intellectual power in order to begin to make a difference — in the sea of madness that the world of Islam finds itself today, in light of the new culture of extremism championed by the group known as Daesh (Islamic State), although as the horrifying massacre of innocent families at a Lahore park has vividly demonstrated, ISIS has by no means a monopoly on violent extremism.
Indeed, these extremists’ cult of violence must be distinguished from the “mainstream” Islam that is daily practiced by hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide. But, the problem is the ideological seducement of a growing number of Muslim youth, particularly from the Middle East, North Africa, as well as Europe by the radical jihadists, who offer their converts the multiple rewards of belonging to a great messianic movement anchored in an Islamist identity, among other things.
In other words, ISIS and other similar groups are part of an extremist identity movement that capitalizes on the political alienation and lack of integration of many Muslims who are living in inhospitable environments, particularly in Europe, where the dominant forces of assimilation often translate into a crisis of identity for their Muslim subjects.
Sadly, under the cover of multiculturalism, the conservative salafi interpretation, which is easy to morph into radical jihadism, has taken root in many Muslim communities across Europe, in part due to the financial and other doctrinal influences coming from the rich Arab states of Persian Gulf headed by Saudi Arabia. As a result, a political ripening of the alienated Muslims for further radicalized causes has been underway in many expatriate Muslim communities, acting as breeding grounds for today’s and tomorrow’s generation of would-be terrorists.
Simultaneously, the problem is potentially aggravated by the persistent efforts of Turkey and its American patron state to make functional use of the radical Islamist card for various geopolitical purposes, as a result of which today Europe is basically held hostage by the threat of terrorism and there is virtually no possibility of neutralizing this threat any time soon. An important prerequisite is, without doubt, the cultivation of an alternative, peaceful Islam that would have a broad mass appeal, particularly among the disaffected youth. The latter have a tremendous energy for action that needs to be channeled productively and in the right direction, instead of the poisonous path of radicalism and extremism.
The fact of the matter is that a suitable alternative to ISIS-action is largely missing today, one that would offer the potential ISIS recruits the opportunity for self-expression and dynamic action and interaction, but in the path of peace and non-violence. There are multiple possibilities that require creative imagination and apt leadership with visionary insights, not to mention a new organizational infrastructure.
Here, the United Nations and various non-government organizations have an important role to play, by offering these Muslims the chance to expend their energy on peacemaking and peace-building causes and to interact with each other in the process. By joining such venues as Muslims for international peace and the like, the re-orientation of potential radicals to suitable alternatives would take place. To be specific, such Muslim efforts would contribute a great deal to the UN’s peacemaking missions around the world, irrespective of the ISIS-type venom thrown at such organizations.
As a caveat, some 16 years ago, this author initiated the NGO, Global Interfaith Peace, and engaged in conversation with a number of lay and religious figures both inside and outside the UN, geared to the lofty objective of enlisting the support of Muslims who were in dire need of exposure to a new understanding of Islam around the concepts of peace and non-violence.
Seeing how the radical jihadists are winning the battle of ideas among some Muslims in the east and west, it is important to resurrect such alternative efforts that seek to redress the situation of extremism and jihadism by making a double quest to engage with the UN’s peace-related activities and to simultaneously present a potent critique of jihadist interpretation of their great religion from within the tradition. For what is perfectly clear beyond the smoke of the suicide bombs in Europe, Middle East and beyond, is that the future of Islam as a great religion is on the line and one cannot possibly pass the test without making a serious foray in the UN’s culture of peace, from an Islamist point of view.