Change Comes from Within: A Warning to the West about Counter-Extremism

06/25/2010 11:05 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Only Muslims should be allowed to teach about Islam," asserted a Syrian-born barber now living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Accustomed to servicing Harvard staff and students for years, inquiring about his clients' academic and professional paths had become second nature to him. Being a Muslim myself, I strongly disagreed with his comment, but under the circumstances -- which mainly involved the collision of fine-blades with my scalp -- I simply acknowledged his view.

His remarks, however, shed great insight into the eyes of the Arab-Muslim world -- or in this case, views held within the United States. Moreover, his insight revealed one of the strongest weapons against ideological extremism: ideological moderation. The only catch is that credible ideological moderation does not come in the form of an American accent; it comes from religious leaders, scholars, and respected figures living in the very societies amongst which terrorists recruit.

In the West, when we discuss issues related to Islam, we turn to an array of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, government officials, military generals, pundits, and the like, to weigh in with their analysis. In contrast, the Arab-Muslim world fosters a culture which primarily values and respects "home-grown" authority on issues of Islamic history, thought and practice. Given the latter perspective, it is foolish to believe that the United States could wage an ideological battle (and be victorious) across the Atlantic. This war for Muslim minds must be fought on Muslim soil, by native and moderate Muslim voices, against their extremist counterparts. In other words, this Muslim struggle requires a Muslim solution.

But what can the United States and the West do to catalyze this process? How can we be involved, but not involved? How can we push for moderation without threatening the credibility of the moderators? How can we give rise to progressive religious leaders and scholars within these communities, and yet in both reality and perception, remain afar? Merely asking such questions are damning, for it exposes the pervasive global problem-solving attitude of the West into the heart of the Islamic world. Not only do we lack authority and standing on religious issues, but our tumultuous past has created populous hatred against us for precisely continuing to meddle in the affairs of societies we know very little about.

In a striking example of understanding the dynamics of her own context, and aggressively working within them to achieve progress and fairness, the story of Hauwa Ibrahim provides an insider's look into the struggle for a just application of Islamic law. The lawyer of a Nigerian single mother who was sentenced to death for adultery, Ibrahim successfully appealed the death sentence by applying the very principles of the Sharia (Islamic law) used to convict the poor and illiterate woman.

"What we did was to work within the framework of the environment," Ibrahim explained to Amnesty International. "Many of the judges of the Sharia court are not familiar with international human rights conventions; they are conservative and very bound by tradition. There is no use pointing to international conventions and obligations. We had to start in their reality, what they know, and use a language they understand. That's why we pointed to the Koran. In addition we used the Nigerian constitution, to affirm its validity and to establish judicial principles, such as the accused not having to prove her innocence."

Hauwa Ibrahim, while setting a profound precedent in Nigeria, exemplified the kind of "home-grown" authority on issues pertaining to the interpretation and application of Sharia law, guided by the banner of equal and fair justice. This is the kind of voice, grounded in the realities of Muslim society and community in which unjust thought is preached and unjust action is practiced, that the Muslim world is in desperate need of in order to fight extremist ideologies.

This is a war of beliefs and understanding. It is a war to be fought and won within the Islamic world itself. Just as all politics are local, so too are religious interpretations in some parts of the world. It is this fortress of thought that we mistakenly continue to struggle to penetrate. Ultimately, winning this war will involve sourcing the words of local preachers and scholars, not the latest counterterrorism strategy issued from Washington.

For more articles by Rahim Kanani, click here.