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Stemming the Tide of Radical Islamist Ideology: Lessons from South Asia

By Taberez Ahmed Neyazi, October 5th, 2010

Mr Taberez’s opinion piece was published in Opinion Asia on October 5th, 2010. This text is about how to quel radical religious ideology in South Asia.
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The article was transfered by Sini Cedercreutz, who is an anthropologist and who participated to our AEPF workshop on religious diversity on October 3rd, 2010.

Stemming the Tide of Radical Islamist Ideology: Lessons from South Asia

by Taberez Ahmed Neyazi

During a March 2007 hearing, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee observed that while “homegrown terrorism” presents a real and serious challenge, the United States is fortunate that radicalization seems to have less appeal here than in other parts of the world. Confronted with recent evidence of radicalized American Muslims however, such confidence in America’s “homegrown” Muslim population seems to be misplaced. A recent increase in terrorism-related incidents involving Americans has sent an alarming signal across the American political establishment. It has also brought into question the level of integration of the Muslim minority into the American society and the group’s odds of being swayed by radical ideology.

What is striking about all these acts of terrorism by Americans is that they have been orchestrated by those who received a secular education. Without having true theological knowledge, these youths become easy targets at the hands of terrorists who would sway them with false interpretations of religious texts. This practice shows the need to involve the religious organizations in assisting with counter-radicalization strategies as has been done in India and South Asia. India, despite housing the second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, has not reported any instance of Indian Muslim involvement in global acts of terrorism. Could the United States perhaps learn something from the efforts of India’s Muslim organizations to stem the rise of radical Islamist ideology?

Many religious organizations and scholars in India have been working at the civil society level to counter the growing threat of terrorism in their societies. Darul Uloom Deoband, an influential Indian seminary situated in Uttar Pradesh and considered next in standing only to Cairo’s Al-Azhar, has been at the forefront of this effort. For instance, in May 2008, the seminary issued a fatwa declaring terrorism as un-Islamic. Ever since, Deoband and its sister organization Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind, a socio-religious organization working for the betterment of Indian Muslims, have been regularly organizing meetings and conferences to denounce and build a movement against terrorism.

The fatwa by Deoband was a watershed moment, as the seminary had been accused of influencing the Taliban movement, although there was no evidence of a direct link between Deoband and the Taliban. By issuing the far-reaching fatwa against terrorism, Deoband had not only disapproved of terrorism but had also set an example how Muslims and religious organizations in other parts of the world could play a role in checking the radicalization of Muslim youth.

A similar step took place in Pakistan recently. On March 2, 2010, Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri, an influential religious leader and prominent scholar in Pakistan, issued a 600-page fatwa in London declaring that terrorists and suicide bombers are unbelievers. Qadri has effectively used electronic technology such as cassettes, videos, CDs, DVDs, and television channels to reach out the large masses. Through his influential organization, Minhaj-ul-Quran International (MQI), with a presence in 90 countries including Canada, United Kingdom and the United States, Qadri has been attempting to present a moderate face of Islam before the world.

Such attempts by Muslim organizations and scholars to stop the radicalization of youth in South Asia have yielded positive results. The approach of Deoband has been widely welcomed across different sections of society in India including the government, political parties and religious leaders from both Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Similarly, the fatwa issued by Qadri was endorsed by the British government, while the event was attended by Members of Parliament and representatives of London’s Metropolitan Police. However, it will take time before one sees the impact of Qadri’s fatwa.

Might we expect a similar role from Muslim religious organizations and scholars in the United States? The American state certainly provides space for different civil society organizations and minorities to propagate their viewpoints. Yet unlike the case in South Asia, where the civil society organizations take initiatives on their own for any cause, the American state through the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement agencies need to encourage and promote such initiatives in Muslim communities.

One such development occurred in the state of Hawai’i that passed legislation last year declaring the twelfth day of Rabi ul-Awwal, which fell on September 24, 2009, according to the Islamic lunar calendar, as Islam Day. This day marks the day when Prophet Muhammad marched from Mecca to Medina and thus signifies the beginning of Islam. The purpose is to recognize “the rich religious, scientific, cultural and artistic contributions” that Islam and the Islamic world have made. It does not sanction any spending or organized celebration of Islam Day. Despite drawing criticism from a few lawmakers as honoring a religion connected to September 11, 2001, the state went ahead with the legislation. This is a significant step and can go a long way in further integrating Muslims into American society.

The need of the hour is to encourage a greater engagement and outreach with Muslim communities. The case of the 2009 arrest of five young American Muslims from Virginia and Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab shows how imperative this outreach is. Both were reported to the American government by concerned parents. Such strategies will certainly help in identifying potential terrorists and avoiding catastrophe that might ensue.

Therefore, besides providing legal support by passing legislation, the United States can play a role by encouraging American Muslim religious organizations and scholars to spread the core values of Islam among their followers through meetings, programs, and other media. Muslim organizations such as Council on American-Islamic Relations, Arab American Action Network, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council can play a role in checking extremism among American Muslims provided they are trusted and supported by the state. These mainstream organizations can spread the true message of religion and help in publicizing the fatwa against terrorism issued by influential Muslim organizations and scholars such as Darul Uloom Deoband and Tahir ul-Qadri among their followers.

Taberez Ahmed Neyazi is a Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu.

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