Informing Islamic Civil Society:
The Roots of Moderation in the Muslim World
Speech by Riad Nachef at The Carr Center, Kennedy School of Government,
Harvard University Dec 5th
Seminar with Michael Ignatieff (Director, Carr Center), Riad Nachef (ex-President, North American branch of the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects) and Samir Kadi (Senior Faculty Member, Religious Studies, Global University in Beirut)
Monday, December 5, 5:00 p.m., Carr Center Conference Room, Rubenstein Building – 211, Kennedy School of Government.
Topic: How do we build alliances with Islamic societies to cultivate the establishment of political systems that respect, protect and fulfill human rights? How do we recognize moderate Islam, what are its traditions, and what are its chances for the future? Can a tradition of moderate Islam be relied upon to carry forward the agenda of human rights?
Full text of speech
By Riad Nachef
Many political and social dilemmas (too many of them inherited from generations of misguided convictions and behavior) bedevil relations between the Muslim and Western worlds today. In the midst of inescapable feelings of blurriness, confusion, skepticism, insecurity and worries about what the future might bring, people of integrity and intellect tend to search diligently for breakthroughs and solutions. One way is to look back and identify what was done wrong, correct it, find solutions to the consequent problems and implement them. In this process, Islam, I argue, is not the problem; it is part of the solution.
Muslims believe that Islam began with Adam, the first Prophet and Messenger of God, and that it delivered the purest form of knowledge and civil society. The people were taught the various languages, cultivation, minting currency, construction, the institution of marriage, and preservation of life, lineage, mind, money and family, alongside other aspects of their livelihood.
Islam recognizes the rights of God upon His creation as well as the human rights, such as the rights of the spouse, parents, neighbors, animals, nature, general public, human life, the enemy, the ruler, the subjects, the plaintiff and the defendant (including due process of the law). Islam also instills good manners for socializing, traveling, eating and drinking, buying and selling, celebrating an event or mourning loss of life. Islamic history is loaded with civil rights cases, the study of which can only crystallize and enhance the concept of the universality of human rights and its applications. Thus, Muslims are motivated and enabled to exercise their codes of human rights as part and parcel of having the correct creed and belief about God.
Our religion teaches us that throughout history, when Muslims were at a pinnacle of prosperity, human excellence and the golden eras were in every instance attributed to the prevalence of the correct knowledge of the religion and the proper implementation of its laws. On the other hand, downfalls, tribulations and sedition have always been a consequence of attrition in knowledge of the religion and negligence in applying its laws. We believe that when Cain chose to deviate from the law, he ended up killing Abel, thereby committing the first breach ever of this type of human rights code. Likewise throughout history, many people have chosen to deviate from the Laws of Islam in various degrees, thereby disrupting the civil course of human life.
Today’s world is very complex indeed, and I ask your forgiveness if what I say next appears to over-simplify the rich texture of the entire population of those who identify themselves as Muslims. However, for the sake of discussion, let us broadly classify this population into moderates and extremists.
The moderate Muslims, despite existing differences in the schools of Islamic thought, will work with you, coexist with you and participate with you in upholding human values, moral systems and human rights. The moderates, who constitute the vast majority of the 1.3 billion Muslims living today and mostly are Ash^ariyys or Maturidihhs, are themselves of two categories: first, those who possess a good knowledge of the religion, adhere to the basic creed and implement the laws of jurisprudence; and secondly, those who adhere to the correct creed, but whose religiosity is weak, in that they commit sins, whether minor or enormous. Such people require constant attention by the more knowledgeable people to teach them the tenets of the religion, to help them to excel and to protect their creed from deviation.
Extremist groups draw for their growth from the pool of the moderate Muslims whose level of knowledge and religiosity is weak, by masquerading as defenders of issues of strategic importance and concern to all Muslims. Hence, some people among the moderates, without being cognizant of the ill dogma of extremists, appear to be following them because of the issues they pretend to defend. Such issues include protecting the religion from perversion, addressing the Palestinian cause, liberating Iraq, propping up the failing leadership in the Muslim countries and their deteriorating economies, and pursuing vanishing dreams of future prosperity and freedom.
The extremists, who constitute a minority that does not exceed 2-3 million people, are of three categories. Almost all of them revoke the basic creed of Islam.
The first category consists of those who exceed the proper bounds of the religion through incorrect implementation of its laws, mainly characterized by unfounded strictness. Do not think that such radicals emerged solely because of abuses of political authority and economic resources in societies where average citizens increasingly feel alienated and powerless. Rather it is their dogma, based on an ill belief system, which makes them endeavor to dictate their hegemony, whether over affluent societies or impoverished and abused ones. They indiscriminately practice takfir; that is, they deem all as blasphemers but themselves. This dogma of extremism goes back to the Kharijites more than 1400 years ago and to Ibn Taymiyyah more than 700 years ago. History testifies that the many debates and forums that the scholars of the moderate Muslims held against them over the centuries, although these saved many people and protected others against the extremist menace, were not enough to eliminate the corrupt dogma from the hearts of those few who are true hardliners. These few are the ones who slay people and destroy their properties, be their victims Muslim Heads of State, Muslim or non-Muslim subjects of that state, children, elderly persons, males or females. Many groups that one hears of today are founded upon teachings that belong to this category, even though not all such groups are peopled solely by extremists, as I mentioned above when I described religiously vulnerable individuals who are recruited by radicals. Examples of this most dangerous category of extremism include the Wahhabi movement, the followers of Sayyid Qutb known as the Muslim Brotherhood movement, and many other splinter factions, such as al-Jama^ah al-Islamiyyah, ^Usbat al-Ansar, al-Qa^idah and several others. Dealing with these groups by submitting to them will eventually destroy the Muslims and non-Muslims alike, spread menace and mischief in society, and disrupt the rights of humanity. These movements must be stopped with force if necessary; some (like the Muslim Brotherhood after the assassination of Nasser) already have been politically banned, while others exist outside the control of government.
The second category of extremists consists of those who thrive on their own ignorance of the religion and tend to be on the other end of the spectrum of religious practice, which one might label as laxity. Some of them falsify the creed and the laws of the religion in whatever way they deem necessary to please the listener and attract supporters to their school. Factions that fall under this category include Sufi-claimers, the factions of incarnation and others. Also included here are many orators of sedition such as ^Amr Khalid and Khalid al-Jundi, among others. In this category as well are those who are victimized by their own ignorance of the religion and the misguided practice of it by others. These tend to turn completely away and outlaw Islam, labeling it as a religion of mischief. Others tend to pervert the parts of the law with which they cannot come to grips. Many personalities who might be very successful in their own fields of training fall under this segment of extremism, but their weak or nonexistent command of Islamic teachings should be exposed through debate with knowledgeable moderates.
The third category of extremists consists of those who sway between laxity and exceeding the proper bounds of the religion. They include al-Qaradawi and several organizations in the U.S. They tell you what you like to hear, but they camouflage a corrupt set of beliefs. Many of those dine at White House tables and are received in England and elsewhere as authorities of some sort. Some such as Jamaluddin Al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Redda and others, in an incognizant manner, tend to bring to the religion concepts that already belong within it and, under the presumption of reform, end up perverting the religion and breaking the laws. Submitting to such factions will falsely appease the non-Muslims, aggravate the moderates, stealthily spread menace and mischief in society, and disrupt the rights of humanity in subtle ways. Like those in the second category, this group requires exposure and de-legitimization through debate with people of knowledge.
Defeating and eliminating the dogma of extremism that leads to heinous crimes and terror or to quieter forms of misguidance is a must. Inevitably history teaches us that military action is necessary in some cases; however, other equally important integrals must also be employed. Ms Condoleezza Rice acknowledges the necessity of defeating the enemy politically to have an enduring and lasting victory. This entails unmasking them on religious grounds, a natural role of the moderate knowledgeable Muslims, which they have been performing throughout history. The authenticity of the Knowledge in Islam is protected and preserved by the methods of transmission and chains of narrators since the time of Prophet Muhammad, sallallahu ^alayhi wa sallam. The reputation and biographies of the narrators are chronicled by many historians and verified through many scholars of jurisprudence and Hadith. The moderate Muslims can refute and discredit the dogma of the extremist factions through authentically presenting the irrefutable religious proofs.
Sadly, however, the impact of the unmasking of extremism has been largely unfelt in the past 200 years, due mostly to lack of support by post-colonial leaders of emerging autocracies in the Muslim world, limited resources, and an eroding level of Islamic knowledge as a result of poorly informed foreign influence, among other reasons. Although little noticed, the collective effort of moderate Muslims in instilling the sound concepts of Islam has been a bulwark of US security before and after September 11. The vast majority of Muslims who live in the USA, as in other countries, are moderates.
Spreading the correct knowledge of Islam among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, besides establishing human excellence, helps in two integral ways. First, it shields the weaker moderates from falling prey to extremist groups. Senator George Voinovich of Ohio voiced this need when he addressed Ms Condoleezza Rice during the state hearing about 2 months ago, by inquiring about the whereabouts of the Muslims who teach that committing suicide is a path to Hell. Be further aware that we need to spread the knowledge that a Muslim is obligated to honor his commitments. An immigrant to this country is prohibited from killing others, menacing them or destroying their properties. Likewise, it is prohibited for any Muslim to kill, menace or destroy the property of a non-Muslim who legally enters a Muslim country.
Second, spreading the knowledge will equip our non-Muslim partners with enough clarity about Islam to enable them to effectively engage the moderate Muslims in constructive and meaningful dialogue. This means dialogue that can bring about the basis and vehicles of a fair and just coexistence. Bringing about these desired results, which capitalize on the great accomplishments of science, technology and religion toward building sound societies, necessarily entails working with the moderate Muslims. Especially needed are those among them who possess religious knowledge and piety, and preferably those among them who are not restrained by the governments under which they work.
Building bridges of mutual trust and healthy intentions with Muslims is an important element in bringing minds together. Ambassador Andrew Young, about 2 years ago, addressed an inter-cultural convention of which I was part. He stipulated that a key element of success is to implement the highest levels of diplomacy in bringing the cultures together by taking proper note of the differences and highlighting the common values and goals we share. The present U.S. administration’s War on Terror has scored a frighteningly drastic failure in this regard.
Addressing the issues at stake will establish two realities. First, it will reveal the existence of a vast common platform upon which we all can stand to build sound societies. Second, it will identify a set of differences that need to be governed, regulated and filed intelligently to ensure fair and just coexistence.
I argue, although controversial to some in the human rights community, that the Nigerian cases of Amina Lawal and Safiyyah Huseini, who were both tried and ultimately acquitted of adultery, can provide an example of how the meeting of the minds can resolve bottlenecks. The joined effort of the minds of the people concerned led to acquitting these women on the basis of Shari^ah requirements for adequate witnesses. To prove a case of adultery requires either confession or the testimony of four upright male witnesses who specifically have witnessed the act of penetration. For the purpose of capping down the spread of adultery, confession is discouraged in the teachings of the religion and one is encouraged to not admit, but rather repent on his own. Finding four male witnesses is a matter harder to achieve than finding a needle in a stack of hay.
What is crucially, critically and urgently needed today is the meeting of the minds of the moderate Muslim scholars of every field and the genuine scholars of the West and the world at large to initiate a dialogue of the civilizations. This entails introducing the proper forums and vehicles that involve pertinent circles of knowledge in various capacities, starting workshops to identify and categorize the issues, establishing a platform upon which to stand, establishing agreements and regulations that deal with the bottlenecks, employing the organizational and professional skills that are abundant among scholars of both the East and the West, lobbying for governmental endorsement and support, and securing sponsorship and financing through the United Nations or other international or private sector institutions. Ultimately, together we must reap the fruit of establishing and implementing the premises of fair and just coexistence.
Sadly, an impediment to this effort is the dilemma of the War on Terror that we all face today and its speculative outcome. Many grave miscalculations in various capacities have occurred. One of the more important ones is not employing the moderate Muslim scholars in launching a timely, effective, organized and structured campaign of unmasking the extremists and their dogma long enough before launching military action. Such miscalculations have led directly to (and I quote Brzezinski): “a failing performance in the quagmire of Iraq.”
There is building today in certain Washington circles a simmering strategy for pulling the U.S. out of Iraq. Worse yet, Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute has voiced an argument for putting matters, through a democratic process, into the hands of extremists. His strategy is based on the notion that fire is doomed to consume itself. Gerecht argues that the catastrophic threat of bin-Ladenism will be aborted by other less obviously militant, so-called Islamic fundamentalists submitting to the notion that the moderate masses do not have sufficient sway to subdue the extremists’ movements and dogma. If you look closely at this train of thought and follow current events on the ground, you indeed find that certain extremist groups appear increasingly lined up against other extremists, all with the convenient effect of allowing America an imminent exit route from Iraq.
Let me suggest a few examples of this trend. Iran, one of America’s most outspoken adversaries in the Middle East, has been approached by Jalal Talibani to secure its aid in putting a cap on extremism in Iraq; President Ahmedinejad has promised active efforts in this area, and intermittent dialogues with the extremists are taking place in Iraq. The so-called Muslim Brotherhood movement, banned as a political party but active as an organization, is making unexpectedly large strides in the elections of Egypt under the auspices of democracy. (The Brotherhood is a particularly poignant example because it began as a moderate movement under Hasan al-Banna in the 1920s, only to be hijacked a generation later by Sayyid Qutb and his followers, who to this day have never completely renounced his radically misguided teachings.) Their leaders in England have been solicited to be apply pressure on Syria to do what the West bids it to do.
As tempting as it is to believe that democratic processes inevitably produce justice, and that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” alliances with groups whose core vision is extremist will repeat the same mistakes as in the aftermath of the victory over Russia in Afghanistan, which brought about the Taliban era and subsequently the menace of al-Qa^idah and Az-Zarqawi in Iraq and around the world. This will eventually lead to many unfavorable realities some of which are:
a) Another claimed victory for the extremists, allowing them to take the lead, masquerading as peacemakers and defenders of issues of strategic importance and concern to all Muslims.
b) Allowing the extremists to partially fulfill one of their goals, by helping them participate in governments under the auspices of democracy. This will result in further strengthening the networks of extremism, which is likely to lead to further acts of violence around the world, as we have seen lately in Jordan and the suicide bombing perpetrated by the Belgian, Morial Delkog, only a month ago.
c) In the event that more heinous crimes are committed in the USA and elsewhere in the Western world, I do not rule out the possibility of reactionary responses, such as rounding up Muslims, hate crimes and the dire consequences that follow, a nightmare that will abort the chances of the meeting of the minds to deliver crystal visions clear from any obscurities.
A fervent urgency awaits the birth of the dialogue of civilizations to bridge the gaps and set a healthy course and forestall eruption of a volcano of civil war in Iraq, among many other troubled settings.
Where are the moderate Muslim scholars with whom to engage? They are in every country, and each have tens of thousands of followers. Some are efficiently organized as associations such as AICP; others operate as individuals teaching through networks or circles of knowledge, such as Al-Ghumari of Morocco. Other scholars, although disadvantaged by the political positions of their governments, do exist as major authorities at Al-Azhar of Egypt and Al-Qayrawan and al-Zaytunah universities of Tunisia, among many other institutions.
Our work in North America since the early eighties has been to instill the correct knowledge of the religion and the manners that the Prophet taught through circles of knowledge, establishing full-time elementary and secondary schools, refuting and unmasking the dogma of extremism in every possible forum, by establishing the religious case against their perversions and ignorance, an effort that I found great support for in Canada. Last year I participated in inaugurating the Academe Culturelle de Laval, one of our schools in Laval in the greater Montreal area. Ms. Michelle Courchesne, Provincial Minister of Immigration and Relations, who was sponsoring the inauguration, said that she finds our message very important. She added that she will transmit this message to the government and assured the community of her continuous support. I have not yet seen such support in the USA.
We have managed to equip our children with enough religious knowledge to be shielded against extremist claims, and we have provided sound academic training for them to excel, to compete in the world of careers and to contribute to the sound construction of society, all while maintaining their Islamic identity.
My four daughters have gone through this process. Manal, 25, is an English teacher in one of the most reputable schools in Pennsylvania; Iman, 23, is an interior designer working for a well-respected firm. She was selected to deliver the valedictorian speech for her BA graduation before an audience of 1200 people, the theme of which was the need for working together, each within his capacity and field of expertise, toward a better society. My two younger daughters are training in child education and physical therapy.
Indeed Islam is part to the solution and not the problem. May God endow His blessings on all of us and equip us with the necessary vision, pure intentions, stark wisdom and ability to better serve humanity.
All of the above could be said by someone attempting to find solutions.