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Here's why liberal Islam has lost the battle

By Hasan Suroor
March 11, 2015 14:42 IST
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The civil war in Islam has just got worse and the existential crisis facing it more threatening, says Hasan Suroor.

An analysis of the ongoing civil war in Islam published by the Economist (Looking within Islam and Extremism) suggests that liberal Islam has already lost the battle, if not the war, to maniac extremists like Islamic State, and offers some cogent arguments in support of its hypothesis.

I know Muslims are likely to contest this. They will argue that fanatics represent only a tiny fraction of the two billion-strong global umma, and that the vast majority of ordinary Muslims are peace-loving and simply trying to get on with their normal lives.

At one level, they are right. But at another, such a defence is indicative of the sort of complacency that has contributed to the mess Islam and Muslims are in today.

Muslims don't like being told that they haven't done enough to combat extremism beyond routine condemnation. But the message seems to have gone home, and at last there are signs of introspection.

A debate has started, which is reflected in the strong Muslim reaction, especially in the Arab world, to the Charlie Hebdo killings.

Particularly notable is the call by Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of the al-Azhar mosque -- the oldest seat of Sunni Islamic learning -- for a radical overhaul of Islamic teaching. And Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi believes that nothing short of a 'religious revolution' to purge Islam of extremist tendencies will do.

'I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution... The entire world is watching... the Islamic world is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost. And it is being lost by our own hands,' he said.

Saudi Arabia responded by calling a rare gathering of Muslim political and spiritual leaders in Mecca on counter-terrorism. In a strongly-worded statement, it declared that that IS-style jihadism had no basis in 'the true Islamic religion.'

Fine words. But, unfortunately, it is hard not to agree with those who believe that the recent flurry of 'liberal' pronouncements is at least a decade too late.

It almost sounds like a panic reaction as the IS threat grows more dangerous by the day. And even now the tendency to blame others for the crisis lingers on.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan caused a flutter when he sought to blame the Charlie Hebdo murders on a Western conspiracy to defame Muslims.

Alleging that the West was 'playing games with the Islamic world,' he warned Muslims to be 'aware' of attempts to provoke them into reacting in a manner that could then be used to demonise them.

'French citizens carry out such a massacre, and Muslims pay the price. Games are being played with the Islamic world, we need to be aware of this. The West's hypocrisy is obvious. As Muslims, we've never taken part in terrorist massacres. Behind these lie racism, hate speech and Islamophobia,' Erdogan added.

But we'll let that pass for the moment, and look at the positives. And put them to test. An important development has been the intervention of the Islamic clergy from whom we hadn't heard much so far.

Welcome though this new stance is, there is a question mark over their credibility because of their close links with the, mostly, conservative ruling political class in the region.

Let us remember the spread of Wahabbism -- a fanatically austere form of Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia, and which inspires jihadis -- has been fuelled by a cosy nexus between the political and clerical establishments.

Indeed, the very foundations of the House of Saud -- the self-appointed guardian of Islam -- rest on a historic compact that gives the clergy a free reign in return for its recognition of the political supremacy of the Saudi dynasty.

It is well known how, over the years, the Saudi government has spent millions of dollars on funding madrassas around the world -- especially in South Asia -- that preach Wahabbism, a principal source of radicalisation.

It is also known to finance radical groups to fight its 'enemies' in the region and beyond. Both the Taliban and Al Qaeda are its distant creation.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has, in an interview to the BBC, accused the Saudis of 'arming' and 'financing' rebel groups which have since been hijacked by the likes of IS. He was not impressed by the Saudi crackdown on suspected extremists, calling them 'their own creation.'

The Saudis are not the only ones. Look around, and you will find that State-sanctioned textbooks in most Islamic States preach an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam.

A report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2012 revealed that Egyptian textbooks presented the same interpretation of jihad that is preached by violent jihadis.

In fact, to call leaders of the Islamic world and their clerical puppets liberal is a misnomer. For, they have consistently promoted the ideas which -- in their more extreme manifestations -- fuel jihadism.

The IS, after all, is a product of the faultlines -- signified by the Shia-Sunni divide -- that are tearing the Muslim world apart.

There is no point pretending that the clergy in Islamic States is independent. It is heavily compromised, and in hock to its political patrons. And this is why: The head of Al-Azhar is appointed by the Egyptian government. Similarly, Lebanon's Dar al-Ifta, which guides Muslims on the 'right way' to lead their lives, is drawn from the ruling political groups.

State interference in religious teaching is a common feature of the Muslim world -- from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq to Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

No wonder, as the Economist points out, 'Muslim-majority populations that have risen up against dictators are less willing to trust religious authorities -- especially those they regard as captured by political or government interests.'

To cut to the chase, the civil war in Islam has just got worse and the existential crisis facing it more threatening. Given its regressive trajectory, liberal Muslims have their work cut out and, to be honest, the prognosis doesn't look good.

Muslim protestations notwithstanding, the bitter truth is that the Economist hypothesis is not off the mark.

Hasan Suroor is an independent columnist.

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