The Quest for Islamic 'Reformation'

04/14/2015 04:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

For the past several months there has been a growing movement taking to streets in Western countries against "Islamization." Liberal commentators are deriding the protesters for threatening multiculturalism while conservative elements or secular activists like Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins are warning of the dangers of political correctness in the context of jihadi fervour worldwide. As a Muslim, who has followed this polarization of narratives, I am convinced that all opinions deserve to be heard and not just marginalized as either "Islamophobia" or "Jihadism," albeit with caution. Prejudice is a common human failing which people of all faiths, or indeed no faith, are capable of and so any conversations in this context need to be constantly evaluated for embedded assumptions. We should also consider the experience of radicalization within a Muslim country context as a means of understanding the fears of the anti-Islam movement beyond fiery rhetoric on either side.

The View From Islamabad

Eight years ago, I was visiting my family in Islamabad ("City of Islam"), Pakistan when a dreadful episode in the country's history unfolded that continues to haunt the development trajectory of my land of origin. A mosque in the heart of the city, known as the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) became the epicentre of a struggle between exclusionary jihadist views of Islam and those of a more inclusive vision for the country, albeit backed by a military regime.

Two brothers and their wives who ran the Red Mosque and its religious school comprising several hundred students took it upon themselves to administer their own form of sharia in Islamabad. While most residents of the city would not subscribe to the absolutism of the Lal masjid, the clarion call of the mullahs against the more cardinal sins of alcohol and sex gained easy traction with even the enlightened "moderates." What they soon realized, however, was that the mullahs were also against some of the more benign forms of entertainment such as a Bollywood movie or a billboard showing a woman sipping Lipton tea.

Several years earlier students from the same madrassah had taken out their wrath concerning the assassination of a notable religious cleric on the city's entertainment industry as well by burning down the Melody cinema (the capital's only venue of its kind). Initially the regime tolerated the vigilante acts of the madrassah in terms of closing down video shops and apprehending an alleged brothel owner. The mosque students even took some law enforcement officials hostage without much response from the government. However, when the madrassah establishment attacked a Chinese massage parlor and held its owners hostage, the matter was too serious to ignore. As Pakistan's strategic ally and a major economic investor, the Musharraf regime could not afford to alienate China. The mosque establishment were beginning to feel that they could carry out their "missions" with impunity, and after timidly surrounding the compound for six months, the government finally decided to act,as I have documented in one of my earlier books.

Tolerating the Intolerant

The 2007 Lal Masjid siege, as it is now remembered, reached a crescendo on the fourth of July (ironically America's Independence day), with fire and brimstone when the complex of the armed clerics was stormed by the military leaving more than two hundred people dead, including numerous children. While the label of terrorist fits many in this caper, both sides have more appropriately earned the epithet of Islamic "errorists." The clerics were clearly defying the law, but they were enabled, placated and countenance for years and then disproportionate force was applied. The role of the adjoining religious schools or madrassas had also been downplayed as I discovered in research for one of my books on the topic. Such delayed and exaggerated force made the mullahs martyrs in the eyes of their proponents, leading to even more jihadist recruits that now continue to wreak havoc across Pakistan.

Several Pakistani governments countenanced the extremism of the Lal Masjid group for years and tried to placate their behavior in the interest of winning favours with the Islamist parties. Occasional arrests were made but then perpetrators were released on mild assurances. Arms and ammunition accumulated in the compound and then the government claimed it was too dangerous to engage the group. Indeed, it was wise of the government to not attack at that stage as many innocent lives could have been lost. Yet the authorities could have exerted non-violent pressure on the institution by cutting off communication, power and water, far earlier on.

In many ways, this siege was reminiscent of a fanatical hold-up by a denomination of armed Christian militants (called Branch Davidians) in Waco, Texas in 1993 which ultimately led to the death of dozens of women and children. However, in that case all the mainstream churches in America had condemned the extremist's behavior. In contrast, Islamist politicians and clerics offered very mild condemnation of the Red mosque's fanaticism and even the Western media wanted to give some benefit of the doubt to the clerics. Maulana Abdul-Rashid Ghazi, one of the imams of the mosque who was killed in the siege, continued to give interviews to Western news outlets with aplomb from the siege. In one interview with the BBC, Maulana Ghazi, dismissed comparisons with the Taliban by stating that unlike the Afghan strains of Islamists, they were in favour of educating women. Yet what this education entailed, often a highly exclusionary and uncritical following of edicts, few cared to ask or question, and by each passing minute the group was further emboldened.

Facing the Theological Challenge with Care

As a Muslim, I would note that radicalization is far more systemic than we care to admit and Muslims themselves are the biggest victims of this phenomenon. While there is certainly room for tolerance within Islamic doctrines, some very fundamental changes will need to be made if we are to prevent more of these episodes from arising and indeed protecting immigrant nations such as Australia from extremism. It would be an error to assume that such incidents are aberrations and that the end of such siege or indeed of militarized wars against jihadis will quell militancy. We have to get back to the roots of radicalization within the learning process itself. While most madrassas or Islamic schools are not militant to this extent, and many can function without this kind of radical activism, some of the underlying teachings of Islam that can easily be taken out of context need to be more explicitly and universally addressed.

The only way for this systemic change to occur is for the ulema (Islamic scholars) to pass clear and unified fatwas and injunctions in these matters to inculcate tolerance and the rule of law. Such fatwas happen sporadically but are frequently countered by others. In order for harmonization against extremism to take place, a radical departure from conventional interpretive methods in Islamic theology is essential, particularly with regard to literalist commentary of the Quran and contemporary understanding of the Ahadith -- or sayings and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. There are two points, in particular which are essential in this regard:

First, the traditional notion of apostasy as a capital crime in Islam is incompatible with modern pluralism. Freedom of faith at any point in time is essential for the ulema to accept and sadly even the supposedly peaceful madrassas are not willing to accept this, despite the clear injunctions in Surah 2, verse 256 stating that there is "no compulsion in religion." While Christianity also has a superiority complex similar to Islam, it has largely managed to overcome this through new edicts and adaptive strategies that most Christians have accepted. The inertia within Islam can only be overcome if the ulema engage the notion of ijtihad (independent reasoning / reinterpretation), which sadly most of them refuse to do.

Despite the media's efforts at their promotion, scholars such as Javed Ahmed Ghamdi, or Tariq Ramadan who can make a cogent case for such reinterpretation, are unfortunately marginalised by the mainstream of ulema. Indeed, they often have to seek refuge lest they be accused of spreading "fitna" (mischief) and become the victim of death threats from the radicals. At the same time many reformists also get marginalized in the West when some particular political view they may take on issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict, extant of their reformist views and tolerance of other, are ignored.

Second, the cultural infection of male superiority that is pervasive in so many Islamic curricula must be reformulated. There should be no compromise on the right of women to education, employment and other human liberties accorded to men. The slippery slope of cultural relativism that is so frequently used by governments such as Saudi Arabia is likely to perpetuate misogyny and preclude any lasting development. There are enough interpretive tools at the disposal of the ulema to make this happen if only they are willing to assert their authority within the locus of Islamic reform. Just because Muslims are not treated well in many other countries cannot be used as a lame excuse for rampant discrimination in our own.

Prioritizing reform efforts within the Islamic polity are essential and to this end the fears of movements that are labelled "Islamophobic" need to be heard, no matter how offensive their superficial rhetoric may be. Nevertheless, such nationalist movements also need to give more credit to brave reformist Muslims worldwide who are trying to make this change happen and work with them rather than stigmatizing the entire Faith itself. Furthermore, political conflicts involving Muslims must be resolved with greater investment of political capital by world powers. Most ideologies, including religious ones, have some skeletons in their closet with dark histories and those should not be used as an exemplar of the entirety of a contemporary Faith. Peace-building is a collective responsibility that cannot be taken for granted by any side and the conversation needs to happen on specific reform agendas rather than through name-calling or mutual recrimination.