By Roy Oksnevad
Islamic radicalism began in the modern Western experience in 1979 with the 444 day American hostage crisis and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, the historical roots of responses to Western pressure can be traced back to Islamic luminaries of the 19th and 20th centuries such as al-Afghani of Iran who called for Pan-Islamic unity (1839–1897), Hassan al- Banna of Egypt, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood (1906–1949), Said Qutb of Egypt, author of Milestones (1906–1966), Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran (1902–1989), Osama bin Laden of Saudi Arabia, founder of Al-Qaeda (1957–2011), and now Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of Iraq, the Caliph of Islamic State (IS) (1971–present).
In particular the later manifestations of radical Islam have been just as critical of Muslims who failed to comply with the Muslim leader, creating inter-Islamic fighting on a world scale. Al-Qaeda is responsible for instigating sectarian violence among Muslims. Its leaders regard liberal Muslims, Shias, Sufis and other sects as heretics, and have attacked their mosques and gatherings. In response, King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein in Amman, Jordan set out a commission of Islamic scholars to address this sectarian violence in the name of Islam. They accomplished several things:
1. They came up with a precise definition of who is a Muslim.
2. Based upon this definition they forbade takfir (declarations of apostasy) between Muslims.
3. Based upon the Mathahib they set forth the subjective and objective preconditions for the issuing of fatwas, thereby exposing ignorant and illegitimate edicts in the name of Islam.1
The Amman Message sought to protect the Muslim community from radical Muslims who issue declarations (fatwas) calling for the killing of anyone including Muslims who did not agree and support their cause, through pronouncing them illegitimate (takfir). It seems that now the Islamic community is distancing themselves from radical Muslims saying they are not Muslims.2
As Western Christians interact with Muslims, the question most often asked is, “Where are the voices of moderate Muslims against the radical Muslims?” There seems to be several reactions of Muslims to radical Islam or anything perceived as unbecoming of Islam. Some of the responses can be categorized as a perceived legacy of completion, polemics, mutual stereotyping, suspicion, and resentment.
Reaction 1: All Islamic History is Sacred
The tendency of those in this category is to adopt what has become in a large measure defensive, apologetic, and in its extremes, vindictive approaches regarding Islam. In other words, they feel compelled to defend and uphold Islamic history at all costs. Any self-criticism becomes a form of betrayal. John Azumah cites A. Ahmed who describes this Islamic scholarship as an intellectual cul-de-sac as it focuses its apologetic, defensive, and self-vindicating discourse.3 In these dialogues the important internal issues are either ignored or only superficially addressed.
Islamic historical past has been projected by Muslim devotion as a sacred heritage requiring, as a religious duty, absolute loyalty. History and faith have become fused in Islam to the extent the criticism of the Islamic past and its inherited traditions by non-Muslims is seen as an attack on Islam. Muslims who take a critical view of the historical past are viewed as traitors. They then take on an uncritical, confessional, and conservative view of their historical legacy.
Most Muslims find it difficult to distinguish criticism of the behavior of Muslims (past and present) from criticism of Islam as a faith. Muslim devotion puts up faith as an unintended object of attacks. The Islamic faith is used as a shield for the actions of past and present generations of Muslims.
Reaction 2: Rationalization: Cutting off the Historical Legacy of Islam.
The second reaction of Muslims may admit the critical parts but seeks to exempt Islam from these historical circumstances. The argument is that followers of Islam have deviated from the pure original teachings. Their understanding is that Islam is a set of teachings and beliefs that are confirmed by the deeds and practices of the Prophet Muhammad, the early true pious Muslims, and the good, virtuous Muslims of all ages.
It is believed that Islam was not really the motivating force behind atrocities. Therefore the slave trade that came from the jihadi wars or the present atrocities committed in the name of Islam are tossed aside as deviations from “true” and “pure” Islam. The problem is whose understanding and interpretation of Islam qualifies as “true,” “original,” and “pure.” How do you extricate Islam from Muslim history when it was only put into practice by a few? Is this an infantile escapism or an unwillingness to face up to the Islamic past?
Reaction 3: Enlighten Conservativism
This type of Muslim critically examines the whole of Islamic history and then discriminately employs what suits the contemporary context and is relevant for the erection of an Islamic future. It is always important not to take current values and judge past generations but recognize that values have changed and new approaches have to be adopted in some cases. When it comes to the growing radicalization of Muslims, the dismissal sweep of the hand in de-legitimizing them is also not dealing with Islamic history and recognizing that this too is a part of Islamic history that has deep roots in the past. Even though this situation does not suit contemporary contexts nor is it seen by many relevant for the future of Islam, it still is a part of the expression of Islam—brutal though it is.
The above three Muslim responses are typical of Muslims in North America. How should we dialogue with Muslims? How do we witness to Muslims in light of this new radical reality? Should the church seek to establish meetings of better understanding when the history of Islam is understood as utopian and that Islam leads to knowledge and knowledge leads to Islam, when that is clearly not the case?
1 The definition states that it is not “permissible to declare as apostates any group of Muslims who believes in God, Glorified and Exalted be He, and His Messenger (may peace and blessings be upon him) and the pillars of faith, and acknowledges the five pillars of Islam, and does not deny any necessarily self-evident tenet of religion.” http://www.ammanmessage.com/
2 The typical response is to state that Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam. See http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/commonwordcommonlord/2014/08/think-muslims-havent-condemned-isis-think-again.html or Shaykh Hamza Yusuf on ISIS https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGYYv6rjFQM and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJo4B-yaxfk.
3 A. Ahem is author of Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise, 1992. This remark is specifically referring to Edward Said’s Orientalism, 1979. This quote is found in J. A. Azumah, The Legacy of the Arab-Islam in Africa, p. 176.