Raising Questions Within Islam After France Shooting

by David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times
Jan 8, 2015

CAIRO — Islamist extremists behead Western journalists in Syria, massacre thousands of Iraqis, murder 132 Pakistani schoolchildren, kill a Canadian soldier and take hostage cafe patrons in Australia. Now, two gunmen have massacred a dozen people in the office of a Paris newspaper.

The rash of horrific attacks in the name of Islam is spurring an anguished debate among Muslims here in the heart of the Islamic world about why their religion appears cited so often as a cause for violence and bloodshed.

The majority of scholars and the faithful say Islam is no more inherently violent than other religions. But some Muslims — most notably the president of Egypt — argue that the contemporary understanding of their religion is infected with justifications for violence, requiring the government and its official clerics to correct the teaching of Islam.

“It is unbelievable that the thought we hold holy pushes the Muslim community to be a source of worry, fear, danger, murder and destruction to all the world,” President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt lamented last week in a speech to the clerics of the official religious establishment. “You need to stand sternly,” he told them, calling for no less than “a religious revolution.”

Others, though, insist that the sources of the violence are alienation and resentment, not theology. They argue that the authoritarian rulers of Arab states — who have tried for decades to control Muslim teaching and the application of Islamic law — have set off a violent backlash expressed in religious ideas and language. Promoted by groups like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, that discourse echoes through Muslim communities as far away as New York or Paris, whose influence and culture still loom over much of the Muslim world.

“Some people who feel crushed or ignored will go toward extremism, and they use religion because that is what they have at hand,” said Said Ferjani, an official of Tunisia’s mainstream Islamist party, Ennahda, speaking about the broader phenomenon of violence in the name of Islam. “If you are attacked and you have a fork in your hand, you will fight back with a fork.”

Khaled Fahmy, an Egyptian historian, was teaching at New York University on Sept. 11, 2001, after which American sales of the Quran spiked because readers sought religious explanations for the attack on New York.

“We try to explain that they are asking the wrong question,” he said. Religion, he argued, was “just a veneer” for anger at the dysfunctional Arab states left behind by colonial powers and the “Orientalist” condescension many Arabs still feel from the West.

“The Arab states have not delivered what they are supposed to deliver and it can only lead to a deep sense of resentment and frustration, or to revolution,” he said. “It is the nonviolence that needs to be explained, not the violence.”

Only a very small number of Muslims pin the blame directly on the religion itself.

“What has ISIS done that Muhammad did not do?” an outspoken atheist, Ahmed Harqan, recently asked on a popular television talk show here, using common shorthand for the Islamic State to argue that the problem of violence is inherent to Islam.

Considered almost blasphemous by most Egyptian Muslims, his challenge provoked weeks of outcry from Islamic religious broadcasters and prompted much-watched follow-up shows. In subsequent debates on the same program, Salem Abdel-Gelil, a scholar from the state-sponsored Al Azhar institute and former official of the ministry overseeing mosques, fired back with Islamic verses about tolerance, peace and freedom.

But then he warned that, under Egypt’s religion-infused legal system, the public espousal of atheism might land his opponents in jail.

“When a person comes out and promotes his heresy, promotes his debauchery, and justifies his apostasy on the basis that ‘Islam is not good,’ then there is the judiciary,” Sheikh Abdel-Gelil said. “The judiciary will get him.”

M. Steven Fish, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, sought to quantify the correlation between Islam and violence. In his book, “Are Muslims Distinctive?,” he found that murder rates were substantially lower in Muslim-majority countries and instances of political violence were no more frequent.

Over a 15-year period ending in 2008, Islamist militants were responsible for 60 percent of high-casualty terrorist bombings, his study found, but almost all were concentrated in just a handful of Muslim-majority countries in the context of larger conflicts that were occurring — places like Afghanistan after the American invasion or Algeria after the military takeover.

“Is Islam violent? I would say absolutely not,” Mr. Fish said in an interview. “There is very little empirical evidence that Islam is violent.”

In Egypt and the Arab world, however, the debate over Islam’s connection to violence has been given new impetus in recent events: the military ouster of the Islamist elected as president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi; the deadly crackdown on his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood and a retaliatory campaign of attacks on security forces; and the spectacular rise of the bloodthirsty Islamic State extremists in Syria and Iraq.

Mr. Sisi, a former general, led the ouster of the Islamist president in 2013 and the suppression of the Brotherhood on charges that it was a violent “terrorist group.” (The group has denounced violence for decades and continues to do so.) Even before his speech, he has also presided over an effort to reassert the state’s control over the teaching and application of Islam by installing government-aligned imams in mosques and dictating Friday sermons.

Intellectuals supporting him have applauded his efforts and called for the state to lead a sweeping top-down overhaul of the popular understanding of Islam, attributing the problem to a lack of education or cultural advancement. “Religious thought, or religious discourse, is afflicted with backwardness,” Gaber Asfour, the minister of culture, declared in a recent television interview. “We now live in an age of backwardness.”

Many pro-government intellectuals consider the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood an aspect of that backwardness and argue that all such Islamist political movements are inherently violent — even if the groups publicly disavow violence.

Their task is not becoming modern; it is becoming hegemonic again, making a new world in which Islam will be on top again,” argued Prof. Sherif Younis, a historian at the Helwan University here who has led calls for an Islamic “reformation.”

“Every fundamentalist has in mind a counter-regime, even if he does not know how to use a knife,” Professor Younis said. That includes the mainstream Islamists of the Brotherhood and the ultraconservatives known as Salafis, as well as the overtly violent jihadist groups like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, he said.

Others argue that the state control of the Muslim religious establishments — whether in relatively secular states like Egypt or the United Arab Emirates, or in explicitly religious ones like Saudi Arabia — only reinforces the problems. Such attempts at control inject politics into religious teaching, diminishing its credibility. And the state religious establishments further entangle politics and religion by seeking to confer the legitimacy of Islamic law on autocratic rulers.

Amr Ezzat, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, argued that the official clerics and the jihadists agree on one thing: Both “say that Islam is the source of the state’s authority, and that we should all be governed by Islamic law.”

Some say it is also naïve to expect unaccountable governments like Egypt’s that cannot provide health care or education to do a better job leading religious reform.

“In an authoritarian society, there is no room for reasoned debate, so it is not surprising that irrational religious discourse is going to flourish in certain quarters of Egypt or the Arab world,” argued Mohammad Fadel, an Egyptian-American Islamic legal scholar at the University of Toronto. “But the answer of these governments has been to double down on repression and that is only likely to increase the extremism.”

A handful of non-Muslim researchers in the West — typically outside the academic mainstream — seek to build a case that Islam is inherently more violent than Judaism or Christianity by highlighting certain Quranic verses. But they struggle to explain away approving passages about violence in other religious texts, such as the book of Joshua in the Old Testament, the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, or the statement attributed to Jesus by the Gospel writer Matthew that “I come not to bring peace, but a sword.”

Raymond Ibrahim, the author of “Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians,” argued in an interview that the passages in the Bible are descriptive but the Quranic ones are prescriptive. But most scholars say such distinctions are matters of interpretation.

Mainstream Muslim scholars in the Arab world or the West emphasize the Prophet Muhammad’s injunctions to mercy and forgiveness, his forbidding of “coercion in matters of religion,” or his exhortation to restraint even in self-defense. “Fight in the cause of God against those who fight you, but do not transgress limits,” reads one verse. “God does not love transgressors.”

Emad Shahin, the editor of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics, compared the discussion of violence in the Islamic tradition to the “just war” teachings of the Catholic Church. But because of the specific history of Western colonialism and Arab responses, he argued, Islam now provides an effective way to appeal to feelings of identity, community, justice, freedom and nationalism all at once. “It is all rolled into one,” he said.

Merna Thomas contributed reporting.

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