The Universal Ethos of Moderation: Dismantling Extremism

Published April 7, 2016

By Samya Ali

Discussion continues among Americans about terrorism, extremism, jihad, and Islam. The discourse has three basic viewpoints. Put in simplistic frames, the anti-Islam perspective sees Islam as the “mother lode of bad ideas” and Muslims as an irredeemable enemy who evokes the specter of extremism and barbarity convulsing out of religious affiliation. The anti-Islam group voice alarm at the danger lurking at unsecured borders and in unsurveilled living rooms. The liberals, representing the second perspective, recoil at blanket condemnations of Islam and Muslims. Appreciators of pluralist society and multi-culturalism, they eagerly call for respect of Islamic and all other cultural traditions. This voice defends Muslims as a vast majority of peace-loving individuals who have had their religion taken hostage by extremists. The liberals are alarmed at the spreading bigotry that resonates with a wide swath of the American population, as fear and aversion cut through minds and hearts, ratcheted up by bellicose ultra-nationalists and ideologues. The third voice in this discourse, the Muslim one, is largely unceasing recitals of Islamic first principles — “Islam is peace” or the like — and dissimilitude to so-called “jihadists.” The response, both by choice and public demand, is an effort to answer for the political radicalization and terroristic behavior of individuals who commit incomprehensible violence and destruction — all in the name of Islam.

Trying to Change the Narrative

When Muslims say “Islam is peace” or “terrorism is un-Islamic” or “Muslim Americans are loyal to America” or “the extremists have hijacked the religion,” it makes no dent in the mindset of the antagonist of Islam. He seems determined to ignore any facts or any pronouncements that are contrary to his preconceived notion of who Muslims are and what Islam teaches. Yet, Muslims have been condemning terrorism ever since 9/11, with sincerity, without fail, loudly and clearly, as reflected in the public record. But the pronouncements are never enough to satisfy minds intent on ostracizing. And so demands for Muslim denunciation of terrorism continue unabated, and like a carnivorous plant, the antagonist sets his traps and gobbles up the condemnations like a feast of delectable insects. But his appetite is insatiable.

When Muslims say “Islam is peace” or “terrorism is un-Islamic” or “Muslim Americans are loyal to America” or “the extremists have hijacked the religion,” it makes no dent in the mindset of the antagonist of Islam.

With abhorrence deep-seated and habitual, he declares over and over that Islam and the Quran teach hatred and violence. Yet, going directly to the Quran, one is hard-pressed to find a scintilla of evidence of the purported malevolence. That does not stop the maligning of Islam, the faith of nearly one-fourth of the world’s population, even in academic circles. In the past 15 years, the dominant literature on “Islamic terrorism” has characterized the phenomenon as expression of religious fanaticism, intrinsic to Islam. An influential expositor on religious terrorism, Bruce Hoffman, in his book “Inside Terrorism,” writes, “For the religious terrorist, violence is first and foremost a sacramental act or divine duty executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative. Terrorism thus assumes a transcendental dimension, and its perpetrators are consequently unconstrained by the political, moral or practical constraints that may affect other [secular] terrorists.”

Liaquat Ali Khan, professor of law at Washburn University School of Law, writing in the Washburn Law Journal in 2005, describes the mindset of Hoffman and his ilk in his article, “The Essentialist Terrorist”: “There is a coordinated effort on part of academics, scholars, think-tankers, journalists and others to create a profile of Muslim militants as essentialist terrorists who commit heartless violence because they are spiritually addicted to violence. These authors argue that no concrete grievances or violations of rights cause Muslim militancy.” Khan notes that these writers obscure, knowingly or ignorantly, the core beliefs of Islam, thus making the case, quite successfully for those not familiar with authentic sources of the religion, that Islam and terrorism pivot from the same violence-prone provenance.

Modern-Day Universal Civil and Political Rights

Before taking a look at primary sources of Islamic doctrine appertaining to violence, warfare, taking of life, and related issues, it is useful to note that modern-day international law codifies rules for military action. In brief, these prescribe that wars be fought to achieve stated lawful aims; that military engagement should be brought to an end as quickly as possible; that unnecessary destruction should be avoided; that prisoners of war should be treated humanely and justly; that all civil and political rights must be respected; and that non-combatants should be protected from harm and hardship, among other rights of people and constraints upon warring parties.

A Muslim cannot control how other people live their lives, can take responsibility only for his or her own words and actions, and regardless of the ignorance of any other person(s), the duty is to spread peace (28:55).

International law also codifies the right to defend against aggression and to resist colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation. In accordance with international human rights law, there are real and legitimate grievances — political, social, and economic — suffered by Muslims. Countries in the Middle East are targeted again and again by exploitative external actors, often colluding with internal authoritarians, resulting in egregious and contemptible violations of human rights. A birthright of individuals, the claim to self-determination, is encoded in Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This treaty asserts the right of all peoples to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development,” among many other stipulated rights. The majority of nations in the world, including the United States, have ratified and signed on to this international treaty. The ICCPR, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and provisions in the U.N. Charter, comprise the body of international human rights law. Accordingly, human beings and states have the right to resist an aggressor and defend sovereign territory, including the right to use force. These legal forms of violence are also accorded legitimacy in any struggle for “liberation from colonial and foreign domination.”

A great number of U.N. General Assembly resolutions have affirmed this legal right of resistance. United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/33/24 of 29 November 1978 states, in part, that it “Reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, particularly armed struggle” (emphasis added). Accordingly, the Iraqis who rose up to fight the military invasion in 2003 were not insurgents or terrorists. They were engaged in a lawful armed struggle to resist a foreign invasion.

Universal Ethical Principles and Rights Codified in Islam

The ethical principles codified in contemporary international law (albeit, too often ignored by modern states) with regard to warfare, prisoners of war, protection of civilians, and so on, were heralded centuries ago in Islamic law and tradition. Islam makes clear that there are uncompromising political, moral, and practical constraints in place. There are some general principles expressed in Quran and hadeeth that apply to any conflict or response to being wronged. For example, verse 41:34 instructs believers to repel the evil deed with something better; and there are Prophetic sayings such as “There should be neither harming nor reciprocating harm” (Ibn Majah and others); and “Do not be people without minds of your own, saying that if others treat you well, you will treat them well; and that if they do wrong, you will do wrong to them. Instead, accustom yourselves to do good if people do good, and not to do wrong [even] if they do evil” (Al-Tirmidhi). Getting more specific, there are many Quranic verses that speak to the constraints placed upon Muslims who engage in armed conflict. Some of these are as follows:

Muslims are not to aggress or begin hostilities (see Quran 2:190)

If the enemy inclines to peace, Muslims must do the same (Quran 8:61); if the enemy desists from fighting, then hostility must cease (see Quran 2:193)

Those who are wronged or oppressed have every right to defend themselves, but they must guard against requiting that grievance with actions that may, in turn, slide into evil; so that making peace is preferable, if possible, and rewarded by God (Quran 42:40-42). Muhammad Asad writes in his commentary, “Hence, most of the classical commentators (e.g., Baghawi, Zamakhshari, Razi, Baydawi) stress the absolute prohibition of ‘going beyond what is right’ (i’tida’) when defending oneself against tyranny and oppression”

Islam is, indeed, a religion of moderation, not one of extremism;.. peace is the objective, not conflict or war.

While humans are given the right to defend themselves against wrongdoing and oppression, they are nonetheless advised to be patient in adversity and ultimately to forgive (Quran 42:43)

Captives of war are to be set free or ransomed (Quran 47:4) — perhaps with the exception of war criminals, according to Shaykh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi in “Fiqh of Jihad”).

Consider the Prophetic saying that there should be neither harm nor reciprocating harm, along with this verse: “…take not life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law: thus does He command you, that you may understand” (6:151). These two Islamic teachings — on their own — dismantle the myth that “violence is first and foremost a sacramental act or divine duty” disseminated by the “violence is intrinsic to Islam” propagandists. These two teachings also demolish the justifications made by those who engage in terror in the name of Islam, who target non-combatants and civilians. Add to them the following hadith: “All creation is the family of God, and the person most beloved by God is kind and caring toward His family” (Agreed upon). These are not doctrines that proffer violence as divine duty; these are doctrines, promulgated a millennium and a half ago, that predate and foreshow the loftiest of contemporary humanitarian law.

As to why fighting is sometimes necessary, the Quran cogently states: “And if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, corruption would surely overwhelm the earth: but God is limitless in His bounty unto all the worlds” (2:251). And another verse: “And how could you refuse to fight in the cause of God and of the utterly helpless men and women and children who are crying, ‘O our Sustainer! Rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors, and raise for us, out of Thy grace, a protector, and raise for us, out of Thy grace, one who will bring us succor!” (4:75).

In addition, the Prophet (pbuh) put in place many guidelines including the prohibition on killing children, women, the elderly, the sick or wounded, individuals in places of worship, or animals except for food; the forbidding of destruction of towns or villages or any places of human habitation; the prohibition of spoiling cultivated fields and gardens or uprooting or destroying trees. The many Quranic and Prophetic guidelines and instructions provide ethical principles of warfare, clearly and compellingly forwarded by Islam, very similar in detail and substance to modern-day laws of warfare.

Skewing the Definition of Terrorism

One important point should be made here. When it comes to Muslims, the following are all lumped together: acts of self-defense against an invading force, acts of resistance against colonialist domination, desperate acts of rage against tyranny and oppression, or deranged acts of murder by the criminally-minded, by one individual or a group. All these acts get labelled as terrorism, even if the targets are military rather than civilian. But the untold millions of men, women, and children killed by bombs, drone attacks, political sanctions, and all the other “counter-terror” or “counter-insurgency” campaigns, are whitewashed as unfortunate collateral damage in the “War on Terror.”

Section 2656f(d) of Title 22 of the United States Code defines the term “terrorism” as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” It is not unintentional that “subnational” groups only fit the definition. What about “national” groups, i.e., countries, which engage in “politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets”? To cut to the chase, we can quote Noam Chomsky as he poses the obvious question: “I don’t know what name you give to the attack that’s killed maybe a million civilians in Iraq and maybe a half a million children, which is the price the Secretary of State [Madeline Albright] says we’re willing to pay. Is there a name for that?”

Skewing the Meaning of Jihad

The Arabic word jihad means “struggle,” or exerting oneself to the utmost in any good or beneficial endeavor. Yet, mention of the word causes immediate paroxysms of fear and disdain in the minds of many Americans. Sheikh Rashid Al-Ghannoushi, points out in “What is New about Al-Qaradawi’s Fiqh of Jihad?” (available online) that Shaykh Al-Qaradawi makes clear distinction between jihad and qital (fighting), noting that the Quranic command to undertake jihad is a Makkan verse, at a time when there was no fighting. Jihad in that verse referred to the jihad of dawah. Al-Qaradawi quotes Shaykh Ibn Taymiyya, that jihad “can be with the heart, by calling to Islam, by countering invalid arguments, by advising or facilitating what is beneficial to Muslims, or by one’s body — that is, fighting.” Shaykh Al-Ghannoushi stresses, though, that “The natural state of affairs in relations between Muslim and others is peace and cooperation in goodness. Islam abhors war and only engages in it unwillingly and as a necessity.”

Professor T.J. Winter (Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad), the Shaykh Zayed Lecturer of Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University and Director of Studies in Theology at Wolfson College, has aptly noted, “Terrorism is to jihad what adultery is to marriage.” Al-Ghannoushi, along these lines, observes that irhab, terrorism, as carried out by groups in the name of Islam, is illegitimate, that declaring “war on the whole world is an illegitimate use of jihad in an inappropriate setting, terrorizing innocent people – Muslims and non-Muslims – in order to achieve alleged political ends inside or outside Muslim lands, flagrantly contravening the principles and ethics of jihad in Islam. Hence Al-Qaradawi [in Fiqh of Jihad] condemned violent acts committed by extremist groups in Muslim and non-Muslim countries against innocent people, whether tourists or others. He further stripped the indiscriminate killing and shedding of innocent lives committed by these groups of any legitimacy.”

Bernard Lewis, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, is considered in Western circles to be a leading scholar and expert on the Middle East. He is an unapologetic critic of modern Muslim societies and cannot, therefore, be accused of being an apologist for Islam. Yet, he writes quite forthrightly in his book, “Islam: The Religion and the People”: “Muslim fighters are commanded not to kill women, children, or the aged, unless they attack first; not to torture or otherwise ill-treat prisoners; to give fair warning of the opening of hostilities or their resumption after a truce; and to honor agreements… At no time did the classical jurists offer any approval or legitimacy to what we nowadays call terrorism. Nor indeed is there any evidence of the use of terrorism as it is practiced nowadays” (p. 151). Writing in the Wall Street Journal on September 27, 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, Lewis states: “What the classical jurists of Islam never remotely considered is the kind of unprovoked, unannounced mass slaughter of uninvolved civil populations that we saw in New York…For this there is no precedent and no authority in Islam.”

Dismantling Extremist Ideology

Shaykh Al-Ghannoushi writes, “Al-Qaradawi is extremely careful to distinguish between extremist groups that declare war on the whole world, killing indiscriminately, tainting the image of Islam and providing its enemies with fatal weapons to use against it, on the one hand, and on the other groups resisting occupation. And as much as he condemns the former and delegitimizes its foundations, he defends the latter, and calls on the Ummah to support them, particularly in Palestine, as long as their operations are against military targets.” Al-Ghannoushi goes on to summarize Shaykh Al-Qaradawi’s dismantling of each and every argument used by those who wage war on the world. The ideology of ISIS is founded on the theory of the entire world being the abode of war if it is not the abode of Islam, with corresponding aberrations including expansion of territory under their control through use of ultraviolent and terroristic means, including suicide bombings against Muslim authority such as in their May 2015 offensive against Ramadi, in Iraq; forcible conversions to Islam; and acts of cruelty, persecution, and murder against local populations, both Muslim and non-Muslim, that shock and appall the staunchest heart.

In order to achieve their dominationist ambitions, they must disregard the multitude of verses in the Quran, above and beyond the many already cited, that declare that even when fighting becomes inevitable against aggressors, Muslims are not to exceed limits of morality and decency (2:190); that there is no compulsion in religion (2:256); that when an individual rejects Islam, Muslims are to remember that their responsibility is only to deliver the message (3:20).

This point, that there is no coercion in Islam and that Muslims are only to deliver the Message and leave the decision to embrace or reject as a matter between that individual and God — there are so many verses in the Quran that convey this same principle: the Prophet was not sent as a “keeper over them” (4:80, 6:104, 6:107, 27:92); that nothing is incumbent on the Prophet but to deliver God’s message (5:99); that Muslims must keep in mind that whoever cleaves to the truth does so for his own good and those who stray harm only themselves, and that, again, the Prophet, and by extension, Muslims in general, are not custodians over them (10:108); that Muslims are to exhort others wisely and discuss with them in the best manner, knowing that God sees who is on the right path and who goes astray (16:125); that a Muslim cannot control how other people live their lives, can take responsibility only for his or her own words and actions, and regardless of the ignorance of any other person(s), the duty is to spread peace (28:55).

Those who founded and direct ISIS, and all those who follow their ideology and participate in their terror campaign, must ignore all the above verses and the many more that are spread throughout the Quran. They have to ignore the divine injunctions, listed above, that warn against aggression, or refusing to accept overtures of peace, about not allowing persecution to ultimately turn the persecuted into a persecutor.

They spurn the Quranic ordinance that all people have the right to due process, that life may be taken only within the parameters of justice and law, that Islam must not be forced upon any individual in that only by voluntary choice does it have any meaning and value for that person. Extremists also have to ignore all the Prophet’s warnings about not harming non-combatants, restraining from treachery, destruction of vegetation or animals, or places of human habitation. And then there is a clincher: “And if your Lord had pleased, surely all those who are on the earth would have believed — all of them; will you then force men till they become believers?” (10:99).

Moderation, Not Extremism

In what universe could the verse just cited conjure up a world in which Muslims are bent on world domination, where non-Muslims are forced to convert, where intolerance rules the day?! Shaykh Al-Qaradawi writes, “[W]e can live, under Islam, in a world that promotes peace and security rather than fear, tolerance rather than fundamentalism, love rather than hatred. We can live with the United Nations, international law, human rights conventions and environmentalist groups.” Al-Ghannoushi underscores that “Al-Qaradawi has developed a principal theory in contemporary Islam, from which all his views and stances emanate, and to which he tirelessly calls, widening its appeal and marginalizing its opponents – that is the principle of Islamic Wasatiyya or moderation. This was inspired by the verse in the second chapter of the Qur’an, ‘And thus we made you into a middle (wasat) nation.’ Thus, he presents Islam as the middle position between opposing and conflicting rigid positions; as the middle ground that brings all together, a middle position between materialism and spiritualism, between individualism and collectivism, between idealism and realism, etc.”

One cannot read the many verses and hadeeth throughout this article and come away with anything but conviction that Islam is, indeed, a religion of moderation, not one of extremism; that is seeks to bring succor to the world, not terror; that peace is the objective, not conflict or war; that freedom of conscience is to be safeguarded rather than corralled or obliterated. Next time someone asks you about Islam’s position on violence, terrorism, or jihad, have ready on your tongue some of the salient points, some of the eloquent verses, some of the revealing hadith. It may be your coming-of-age child who asks, so learn the points, verses, and hadith by memory, so that you can speak from the heart. Make that a spiritual jihad against terrorism.

Will the antagonists listen to an authentic reading of Islam? Some yes, some no. “And say: ‘The truth is from your Lord.’ Then whosoever wills, let him believe, and whosoever wills, let him disbelieve” (Quran 18:29).

Samya AliAuthor Samya Ali converted to Islam in 1980 and she is a free-lance writer.

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