WASHINGTON -- Countering extremist groups like the Islamic State will require “not less religion but more,” according to a prominent Muslim cleric who President Barack Obama referenced in his United Nations address earlier this week.
“It’s out of religious ignorance that they are doing what they’re doing," Sheik Abdallah bin Bayyah, a Saudi Arabia-based scholar currently visiting the United States, said of extremist Muslim groups. “They have a very shallow understanding: They use some de-contextualized verses and things from religious texts and historical examples. … They build a current of violence, and we have to build that which will confront this current.”
Bin Bayyah made the comments through a translator at a U.S. Institute of Peace event in Washington. The event marked the end of a weeklong conference on countering radicalization that brought together scores of religious leaders from different faith traditions and many countries.
“Islam has within it the mechanisms to promote peace,” bin Bayyah said, adding that he believes religious leaders like himself must “reveal the sophistical nature of the arguments” used by extremist recruiters.
Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, Obama cited bin Bayyah as an example of a Muslim leader working to undercut the appeal of groups like the Islamic State.
Muslim intellectuals are unsure whether they should focus on the root causes of extremism or focus on how to stop it, bin Bayyah said. For him, he added, the "how" is critical given “the immediate circumstances.” He did not mention any specific extremist group by name.
“If we say in the current conditions, no peace without justice, then given the amount of grievances we’re dealing with, let’s forget about peace altogether,” bin Bayyah said. “We have to get peace established in our hearts so that we can then work towards the grievances in peaceful environments.”
The scholar said that while leaders like himself should not be concerned with pleasing governments, they should cooperate with “people in authority” to ensure that they are protected from extremist threats and to build peace.
In describing its new campaign in the Middle East, the Obama administration has said it is not at war with Islam but with what the president describes as a perverted understanding of the religion. One way it has tried to signal this has been by including Arab nations in its coalition to bomb Islamic State and al Qaeda militants in Syria. Still, some argue that aligning with governments that have their own controversial understandings of Islam and have been known to use the religion as a strategic tool for their own motives may further threaten America's image in the Muslim world.
Bin Bayyah has previously held government positions in his native Mauritania. He now chairs an organization called the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. On Sept. 14, bin Bayyah issued a fatwa, or religious edict, that attempted to comprehensively refute the Islamic State’s ideology. Titled “This is Not the Path to Paradise,” his statement begins: “This is addressed to the young men who bear arms against their own nations and destroy both country and countrymen. You have abandoned all values and made enemies of the world. We call on you to pause, reflect, and heed this counsel for the sake of all who want good for our community.”
Other Muslim scholars in the United States, the United Kingdom and parts of the Muslim world have issued their own statements blasting the Islamic State’s claims to represent Islam. Earlier this year, bin Bayyah also issued a fatwa against the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram.
Still, conservative American media outlets have attacked him in the past for alleged ties to a Muslim Brotherhood leader banned from entering the U.S.