Against the Grain: Extremism, terrorism and what we must do

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 25 - 31, 2016.


Terrorism is primarily a security matter. It is, however, related to the broader problem of religious extremism. Extremism is a separate but related issue and it is important to make a distinction between the two.

Many people think terrorism and extremism are one and the same thing. They imagine that the problem of terrorism has to do with the hold religion-based ideologies that preach violence have over certain groups of people. While this is partly true, it is important to realise that, as far as Muslims are concerned, the majority of extremists do not, in fact, advocate the perpetration of violence against others and are even against violence.

Still, it is necessary to guard against non-violent forms of extremism because they do have an impact on violence-oriented extremism and terrorism. Indeed, the serious ideological task before us is to deal with the larger problem of extremist ideologies, whether of the violent or non-violent variety.

We need to make finer distinctions in talking about the link between extremism and terrorism. Extremism and terrorism are different phenomena. Not all extremists advocate or condone terrorist acts or acts of violence against innocent civilians. It is also true that not all terrorist acts by Muslims are motivated by religion.

Many mercenaries fight alongside those who are motivated by religion. Others are motivated by power or other considerations. They may fight together under the banner of religion, such as those who fight for the so-called Islamic State. But, they are by no means motivated by common interests or a single ideology.

To the extent that religion is a motivating factor, it is important to make a distinction between violent and non-violent extremism. It is the former that is directly responsible for terrorism. However, there are many Muslims who have extremist ideas but who are against perpetrating violence against others. They are extremists in that they may have exclusivist, misogynist and literalist ideas about religion, but are against violence.

The problem in Malaysia and many other Muslim countries is that many who are against violence are, at the same time, extremist in their religious orientation. So, the question then becomes: What is the link between non-violent extremism and terrorism?

I would say that there is a slippery slope from the former to the latter. For example, an ustaz may engage in hate speech against Sufis without believing that they should be physically harmed. This may still encourage others who hate Sufis to perpetrate violent acts against them.

Anti-Shi’ite activists may not advocate violence against Shi’ites. But, the hate language that they traffic in, in which they say Shi’ism should be eradicated from Malaysia or that Shi’ism is dangerous, may encourage violent elements to act against Shi’ites.

Even though the proponents of such views would not support terrorist acts against innocent civilians, the extremism of their ideas is something that Malaysians should be concerned about. State Muslim organisations in Malaysia do not support terrorism, nor do they support the so-called Islamic state. But, many of the state Islamic organisations in the country do support an exclusivist and narrow-minded understanding of Islam that can be seen to complement the orientation of more radical and violence-oriented Muslim groups.

For example, when religious officials in Malaysia speak of the dangers of Shi’ism, the need to rid Malaysia of Shi’ism, or suggest that Shi’ism poses a security problem for the country, this resonates with the views of the Islamic State that have perpetrated much violence against Shi’ites in Iraq and Syria. Therefore, in order to fight terrorism, it is vital that the Malaysian authorities take a firm position against not only terrorism but also the non-violent varieties of extremism.

There is another reason why we should be wary of extremist ideas of the non-violent variety. This is because they are not appropriate for a society that wishes to enjoy peace and harmony. Let us consider some examples of such extremism.

There are many views of Malaysian as well as international celebrity Muslim preachers that are informed by an extremist orientation. These have been gaining ground in Malaysia. The authorities should consider the promotion and propagation of such ideas a serious problem. In other words, even though many of these preachers do not support terrorist acts against innocent civilians, the extremism of their ideas is cause for concern. There are several examples of these ideas.

For example, many Muslim preachers have stated that it is wrong for Muslims to greet Christians with the words “Merry Christmas”. Doing so means that these Muslims are agreeing with the tenets of Christianity and are encouraging Christians in their false beliefs. The logic here is chaotic.

Even lowly educated Muslims understand that greeting Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews on the occasion of their religious festivals is not tantamount to an acceptance of the truth of their respective theologies and doctrines. It is simply a matter of neighbourliness and good manners.

The reverse is also true — Muslims feel happy when greeted by non-Muslims on the occasion of, for example, Hari Raya Aidilfitri. A simpleton knows very well that our non-Muslim friends, in offering such greetings, are not accepting our religious beliefs. The view that Muslims should not greet non-Muslims on the occasion of their religious festivals is already spreading among Malaysians.

It is a dangerous idea that not only does not have the support of Islam but will have a negative effect on our already precarious state of inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations. There are also Muslim preachers and scholars who believe that it is right to prohibit the building of non-Muslim places of worship in Muslim countries on the grounds that the beliefs of non-Muslims are incorrect. Again, this is an inappropriate position to take in the context of Malaysia.

Another extreme idea gaining ground is the belief that music is haram or prohibited in Islam. In fact, there are a variety of opinions among Muslim scholars concerning the legality of music. One view is that music is prohibited in Islam, beyond the playing of certain percussion instruments. It is this view that is being propagated by certain preachers. If this view were to gain official acceptance in Malaysia, it would result in the banning of virtually every genre of Malay traditional and folk music.

There is also cause for concern over the methods employed by some celebrity preachers. I am referring, for example, to the public, televised conversion of people to Islam. This is sometimes done in front of a large audience and circulated on social media and viewed by thousands, if not millions.

We need to be concerned about the sensitivities of non-Muslims. While Muslims welcome conversion into Islam, it should not be the intention to make a public spectacle of these conversions and hurt the feelings or upset the families and communities that the converts come from. Such a mode of conversion is not appropriate, especially for a multi-religious country like Malaysia.

For these and many other reasons, not speaking out against extremism, even the non-violent type, is irresponsible.

Syed Farid Alatas teaches at the Departments of Sociology and Malay Studies, National University of Singapore