By Imam Mohamed Magid
Executive director, All Dulles Area Muslim Society; President, Islamic Society of North America; Board member, Muflehun
As an American imam at one of the largest mosques in the DC Metro area, I am greatly troubled by the new cases of violent extremism among Western Muslims, both American and European.
Recent cases of young people engaging in violent extremism clearly show they have not learned Islam from respected, well-known Muslim scholars. Instead they have learned a deviant theology through the Internet, often from Western-born hate preachers adept at misusing their knowledge of our society. These hate preachers claim that genuine Islamic scholars are not credible, and actively try to invalidate their teachings by completely distorting both the message and the way it is communicated.
There are several major problems with these hate preachers:
First, they follow no actual frame of reference or consistent methodology, but rather pick and choose whatever fringe opinions can support violent extremism. They ignore mainstream schools of thought, religious establishment and well-respected scholars, while actively trying to discredit them. They preach their perverted messages without the checks and balances of rational debate.
Second, the lack of information and the misinformation among young people in America and Europe about Islam, theology, dealing with conflict and understanding the concept of jihad, allow this situation to persist. The hate preachers count on this, and use the lack of adequate educational materials in English to further exacerbate their hate.
In the history of Islam (as with other religions), a group called the “kharijites” adopted overly radical ideas, killed innocent people and turned against fellow Muslims. This group was anti-establishment, anti-law and order and anti-social norms. The kharijites were ultra-rigid, and misused theology to justify violent extremism, and even believed that anyone who did not accept their beliefs had no right to live. We are unfortunately seeing a revival of that perverse ideology in a fringe minority that does not represent 1.5 billion Muslims around the globe.
Recruiting people into this extremist ideology has now taken a new turn: people with little knowledge but able to speak eloquent English and Arabic can pose as preachers, despite lacking necessary qualification as scholars. They simply confuse their listeners about Islam and what it stands for.
They also try to reinterpret history and make those Muslims struggling in particular parts of the world into the fodder for their hatred, while using them to justify taking innocent lives. Some examples of the misconceptions they spread are:
• Injustice: Islam has never accepted using another injustice to fight injustice. Even during times of war, Islam has prohibited taking innocent life and attacking civilians, yet these preachers’ perverted perspective allows that. Similarly they ignore the lessons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) about the way neighbors and people of other faiths should be well-regarded, about the responsibility of Muslim communities to protect minorities, and they ignore historical events such as early Muslims seeking (and being granted) refuge under the protection of a Christian king in Abyssinia.
• Betrayal: Their call to law-abiding American or European Muslims to turn their back on our societies is actually a call to betrayal. Muslims are religiously obligated to uphold any contract they make. Immigrants and naturalized citizens effectively sign “contracts” with their adopted country, and violating that is a betrayal – and a grave sin.
• Suicide: Contrary to what violent extremists preach, suicide is prohibited in Islam, as is taking any innocent life. Taking one life is like taking the life of all humanity, just as saving one life is like saving all of humanity. As we are told by the Prophet (peace be upon him), “Whoever violates the right of a person of another faith, I will be an enemy to him on the day of Judgment.”
• Security: Creating fear, destruction and disturbance in society is one of the greatest crimes in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) taught Muslims that no one can be a person of faith if his neighbor does not feel safe from him or her. Extremists violate this principle when they preach war, chaos, instability and destruction. Indeed, more Muslim lives are being lost as a result of their actions than those of any other community.
• Service: Islam calls for every individual to take care of their parents; convincing young people to go to fight in Somalia or tribal areas of Pakistan violates this tenet of our faith.
• Public Discourse: Extremists ignore Islam’s history of calling for open discourse to address issues, and ignore the lessons of American history in how past mistakes were corrected through open political discourse. The ability to resolve issues that faced the African American and the Jewish American communities, and others, clearly show the efficacy of the civic political process.
Some of these extremists have been brainwashed into seeking glory, fame and self-satisfaction through taking innocent lives, while others have been misguided into believing that their criminal deeds are allowed by religion. In reality, violent extremism is like organized crime with a credo that only appears to be religious. Countering this threat is something that everyone needs to participate in.
The Muslim American community must work with law enforcement to keep our communities safe. Since 9/11 our mosques are more vigilant, citizens more proactive and parents willing to closely monitor their own children – as can be seen with the Muslim Association of Hawaii’s work with law enforcement last week, the Muslim vendor who reported the Times Square bomb and the parents of the Virginia Five.
In addition, the Muslim community is responding by introducing a meta-narrative describing what Islam actually is. This is not a simple counter to those preachers advocating violent extremism with no consistent narrative, and whose ideas have become a cult perpetuated through blind acceptance. Over the years the Muslim American community has issued many statements and fatwas condemning violent extremism, with organizations like the Islamic Society of North America campaigning against violent extremism with brochures to raise public awareness, or MPAC and others which have had scholars speaking out against violence, and Muflehun which had been set up to study the issue and engage both youth and law enforcement to keep our society safe.
We pray to God that our efforts will galvanize all Americans to truly reject these distorted philosophies of hate, and to make our country safe and secure from the harm they wish to inflict.