My Say: Extremism is manifestation of underdevelopment

-A +A

THE massacre at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris is yet another killing committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. Never mind that taking somebody’s life is not an Islamic belief.

There are many other such instances, especially suicide missions by the so-called jihadists — those who, as perverse as it sounds, believe they are fulfilling their religious duty by killing others and themselves. The hijacking of planes and using them as projectiles on the World Trade Center in New York on Sept 11, 2001, was perhaps the epitome of terror committed in the name of religion in recent times.

Boko Haram is a militia group in Nigeria that combines this perverted belief with militant politics and an ambition to create an “Islamic caliphate”. The group commits atrocious crimes in its fervour and over 10,000 people have died in Nigeria at its hands, and counting.

There is this vehement belief that Islam needs a caliphate and Muslims, as part of their salvation, have to develop and pledge allegiance to such a caliphate. Only a caliphate can implement what it believes to be Islamic laws and government. For many, the caliphate ended with the Ottomans; for others, the caliphate goes back to the seventh century.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has, in fact, declared the formation of a caliphate. They execute their enemies, fellow Muslims who do not share their interpretation of Islam and others they capture who have nothing to do with their agenda. They slaughter the Kurds and Shites. Those not supportive of the caliphate can be conveniently labelled as apostates and, according to ISIS, killing them is justified.

So, these acts in the name of Islam victimise mostly fellow Muslims. This is expected because politically, the closest adversaries are their fellow Muslims. There is a twisted logic to killing human beings — non-Muslims as infidels and Muslims as apostates.

Equally disturbing is the disconnection between the actions of these Muslims and the faith that they profess — a universal faith that is fundamentally predicated on submission to an omnipotent God, one who is both most compassionate and most merciful. So, why is their behaviour not in accordance with their purported belief? Why did they choose the perspective they chose instead of using their beliefs to improve their lot?

Of the many commentaries written after the Charlie Hebdo murders, I found the one written by Australian sociologist Clive Kessler to be interesting but I fundamentally disagree with it.

Kessler essentially posited that these violent extremist actions by Muslims are motivated by a sense of dissonance among Muslims who simultaneously believe that their faith is “the right one” but live in a reality that does not measure up to the promise of being right. Many Muslim communities, indeed Muslim countries, are impoverished and weak. Many are failed states with dysfunctional governments.

This was not always true. For almost a millennium from the seventh century, Islam spread beyond the Arabian peninsula and the growth of Muslim communities contributed to its rise as a global political power in the Middle Ages. Beyond its geographic and geopolitical span, there was the emergence of Damascus, Baghdad, Córdoba and Cairo as cities of learning where Muslim scholars contributed to the advancement of knowledge — in mathematics, science, the arts and architecture.

Then, there was the decline that saw the Islamic world miss the Industrial Revolution altogether. Some historians saw Napoléon Bonaparte’s conquest of Egypt in the late 18th century as the point in time that saw the beginning of Western domination of what was formerly the Muslim world, well before the Ottoman Empire officially ended after the First World War.

So, there is anger and frustration at this dissonance whose cause, it is reasoned, was the deviation of Muslims from “true” Islam. The solution is therefore a return to the true teachings of Islam, which is found in the glorious past. Hence, the caliphate dream. The violence associated with such “fundamentalism” therefore has its roots in Islam itself, according to those who adopt this view.

The Obama administration, for example, has been criticised by the Republicans for labelling ISIS as “violent extremism” instead of “radical Islamists”. Obama’s refusal to use Islam to describe the behaviour stems from the argument that what groups such as ISIS stand for is a perversion of the religion, not a description of it. His opponents, however, refer to ISIS as radical Islam, a manifestation of the belief itself. Kessler’s views lend credence to the latter view that it is Islam that underlies the extremist beliefs and behaviour.

I reject the view that such atrocities and violence have anything to do with Islam the faith. If there is a link between Islam and such behaviour, it is the Muslims themselves, the religious establishment that has taught and advocated the wrong things.

I was heartened to read that the head of Al-Azhar in Cairo has called for an educational reform of Islam to contain the spread of extremism. The Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayib, linked extremism to “bad interpretations of the Koran and Sunnah”. He was quoted as saying, “There has been a historical accumulation of excessive trends” that have led some people to embrace a misguided form of Islam. The only hope is to reform the education system and address “this tendency to accuse Muslims of being apostates”.

Forms of extremism are manifestations of under-development. This is a universal truism rather than one that is linked to any particular religious or social grouping. Islam or any religion does not have an innate proclivity for violence. Violence and intolerance are human frailties that can be moderated by the “ascendency of man”. Development is therefore the imperative and it is far broader than mere GDP growth. This is where liberalism is required, not abhorred.

The challenges facing Malaysia are not just economical but also socio-political. What is the state of our society and its institutions and how do we live together and address conflicts? We need a better tone in our national conversation and our institutions need to be protected and nurtured as pillars of society.

We must be wary of extremism in Malaysia. We see instances of intolerances in the administration of Islam and bigotry in political discourse that is purportedly based on Islamic principles. We see Islamic authorities imposing a particular interpretation of what is Islam. Differences in how Muslims interpret the religion can result in them being labelled apostates if there is only one sanctioned interpretation.

The relative poverty of Muslims in the country, weaknesses in their social and even public institutions and corruption do not seem to attract debate in search of Islamic developmental solutions. Instead, the focus is on uniformity of belief and punishment. Islam is reduced to a set of rules and exacting punishment for breaking these rules.

Extremism does not just manifest itself in the form of bigotry and intolerance but has at its core, the negation of individualism and, therefore, of differences. It defies the diversity of creation itself. The ability at both individual and institutional levels to tolerate differences, indeed harness the strength in differences, comes with development in the broadest sense of the word.

It is only when such tolerance is possible that extremism is made less likely. The developmental heights reached by Islamic Spain, as an example, would not have been possible without tolerance and openness.

We have the Federal Constitution as a document that binds us together as Malaysians and we should stay true to it if we want to stay together peacefully. Yes, it is secular but it guarantees freedom of religion.

If we ignore this and go down the path of extremism, the consequences are self-evident, and we should not blame religion for the ensuing cruelty and bloodshed. Blame it on plain human arrogance and ignorance, from which religion is supposed to liberate human beings.

Dr Nungsari Radhi is an economist and managing director of Prokhas Sdn Bhd, a Ministry of Finance advisory company. The views expressed here are his own.

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 2 - 8 , 2015.