Following the attacks in Brussels, the discussion about how to deal with Islamic fundamentalist has been revived in the world. Some believe that the problem with fundamentalism is a western intervention in the Arab world while others think that there is something rotten with Islam. The reality is that in the fast-paced world we live in, media and analysts have been fast on drawing into conclusions on a subject which few people understand. This characteristic ignorance does not only correspond to the West but to the Muslim world as well. In this interview, Farid Panjwani, director of the Center for Research and Evaluation in Islamic Education (Creme), brings several elements that could help unravel the complex knot of islamist extremism that a few days ago murdered more than thirty people in Brussels —an attack claimed by ISIS— and that on March 27th of 2016, killed nearly seventy people with a Taliban bomb in a park in lahore, Pakistan.

Is there a way to understand these acts within the context of the Islamic Qur’anic interpretation?

It is clear that some Muslims have found the theology of violence persuasive. This shows that it is possible to create a narrative drawing upon Muslim tradition which for some people justifies violence. These narratives are problematic both from the point of view of the majority of Muslims as well as from the human rights and moral point of view, but it will be hard to dismiss them simply as unIslamic. These are possible ways of imagining Islam and have been persuasive to some. There are elements in Muslim tradition, as there are in many other religious traditions – some Qur’anic verses, anecdotes and events in Muslim history such as conquests and empire – that can be put together to create a theology of hate.  This is what extremist groups are doing to justify such acts. It is rejected by overwhelming majority of Muslims but it has to be recognised that there are certain elements in the historical context in which Islam emerged which can be brought together to create a justification for violence which some have found appealing.

I find it very interesting that there is a historical context in which Islam developed, because one of the things I have been looking into with some detail is the concept of the enemy in Islam, so I would like you to elaborate how this concept originated and is being now understood by these people.

In many ways, the Islamic message provided a new worldview to the people in Makkah. It was accepted by some and rejected by others. And so, as it happens in the beginning of any religion, this created a new form of boundary — a division of insiders and outsiders. And when we study Muslim history, right at its beginning we find these inside/outside categories – Muslims and mushriq, for example – being applied. But these categories are fluid and not fixed. Let’s take the Christian and the Jews. There are several Qur’anic verses in which the Jews and Christians are mentioned as potential supporters of Muslims, as part of Ahl al-Kitāb (the people of the Book) and the Prophet sees himself in the line of Abrahamic prophets. But there are other verses in which the Jews and Christians are not spoken in favourable terms. These different attitudes reflect changing political and social conditions and relationships between Muslims and Jews and Christians of that time. A very good example is Misaq e-Madina. When the Prophet migrated from Mecca to Medina, a charter was established among the Muslim migrants from Mecca and the people of Medina, including Jewish tribes. Accordingly, they were all to be one nation (ummah waḥidah). And yet, in a few years, when historical conditions changed and political events developed in certain ways, some Jewish tribes were thrown out of Medina and they became the other. So the Qur’anic other is not fixed, except perhaps in the case of the polytheist of the Mecca —because it is from them that the Muslims have to be demarcated. The enemy and the other has to be understood very contextually.

If we look at subsequent Muslim history, we find that this notion of the other continues to remain fluid; there is no fixed other. Waardenburg has found seven different ways or degrees of openness in Muslim views of other religions in the pre-modern period, ranging from suspicion to indifference to a degree of positive interest to spiritual unity among all religions, each of these stances justified through an appeal to the Qur’an and Sunnah. So the boundary of the self and the other cannot be drawn in any fixed manner; it is a fluid notion.

There is no fixed enemy in today’s extremist groups as well.  The other changes in different groups: for some extremists the enemy is only the non-Muslim, for others it includes certain Muslims as well, the Shia, for example; and for still others, even certain Sunnis too become the enemy.  It is for this reasons that Muslims themselves have suffered the most at the hands of extremists. There are ongoing debates among these groups to justify who is the enemy and who is a legitimate target. So the point is, neither at the beginning of Islam nor in our days there is a very well defined notion of the enemy, but it gets interpreted in the political and social contexts.

So when you say ISIS developed this narrative can we trace historically when does this fundamentalist scope or interpretation of the Qur’an started. Is there a historical process that can be attached the rise of fundamentalism?

It would be very difficult to draw a strict historical line over many centuries, although at different points of time there were groups who held visions we might call extremist. So, for example, very early on, within the fifty years after the death of the Prophet, there emerged a group that has come to be called as Khawarij which held an exclusivist understanding of who is a Muslim. And, some subgroups within Khawarij were violent. But, the extremism we see today is a modern phenomenon in the sense that it tries to respond to modern conditions. Its beginnings can be traced back to the first half of the 20th century, and particularly in the writings of the South Asian Abul A’la Maududi and the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, who are often considered the theoreticians of the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Their writings led to the creation of a system of thought called Islamism which claims that Islam is not a private religion to be practiced individually and communally, but that it is a political ideology which should lead to an Islamic state and solve modern problems. No doubt these and other authors draw upon pre-modern scholars, particularly Ibn Taymiyyah, but this reference is symbolic and is put to work for a new vision. Out of that ideology comes the slogan —which became quite popular in the 1970s and 1980s— “neither capitalism nor socialism, but Islam is the solution”.  Islam is presented as a system, just like capitalism or socialism. Islamism claimed that the Muslim world has tried socialism, it has tried capitalism, nothing works, now we should give Islam a chance. It presented Islam as something that solves problems of unemployment, industrialization, provides financial and education systems, and foreign policy. To that extent, extremism we are witnessing is a modern phenomenon.

I find interesting that you mention the idea of the Islamic State, —well ISIS is that, but is has defined itself as a caliphate. I have been doing some research on historic writings on these and there are some writers as Ali Abdel Raziq and he wrote a paper called Islam and the foundation of power where he defies the idea of the caliphate, even calling it a myth, so it seems that already by the end of the 19 century there were already challenges to the idea of the caliphate. How is that the caliphate gains news strength?

That is an interesting question. In the late 19th and the early 20th centuries we find a number of Muslims in many parts of the world who are trying to provide a modern interpretation of the Qur’anic text and the Sunnah — and in this context they rethink the received relationship between Islam and politics and Islam and State. Ali Abdel Raziq is one such person. He is among the early champions of a secular state in the Muslim contexts. His main argument in the book was that Islam does not prescribe a particular form of governance. Rather, Muslims are allowed to create the type of governance that would suit their social and economic conditions. Fundamentalist rhetoric seeks to go back to the Medina period and claim that the Prophet was both a prophet and a political leader, as there was a State. But people such as Ali Abdel Raziq argued that this State and the rule of the Prophet was an accident of history and not an integral part of his prophethood. So, for many of these modernist reformers, to think that Islam is not complete without the State (making the caliphate an integral part of Islam) was a mistake.

However, when some people started to be influenced by the notion of the Islamic State it was not difficult for them to go back and find inspiration in the institution of caliphate – an institution which had existed for centuries, until 1920s, when the Ottoman caliphate was abolished. But, it was not enough to simply look back and find the institution of caliphate. Over time, the memory of this institution was imbued with the idea of a golden age of social life, justice, tolerance, science, progress. So, it was claimed that if Muslims bring caliphate back, they can revive the lost glory of Islam. And, this idea then provides an alternative to democratic governance, certainly a secular democratic form. The Caliphate is seen as a system that can solve the problems of the modern life which secular systems have failed to resolve. That is what you see in the ISIS —it is trying to run the government, to provide employment, infrastructure, but it argues such can only be done successfully under the Caliphate. I think here we will also have to add that this alternative gains attraction because of a widely shared sentiment that existing modes of governance are not delivering what modern social contract promised to deliver. For many sympathisers of Taliban or ISIS, the first step is usually not an attraction to caliphate itself but a feeling that current governing regimes in their own countries are not delivering prosperity or justice. It often starts with a disillusionment with the democratic and secular rules, both the secular autocratic rulers in the Muslim countries as well as the democratic claims of western states. This disillusion adds much attraction and power to the idea of caliphate as an alternative governing model.

When you say young Muslims have become at least skeptic or turned down by the system, but there also many other young group asian, african, latin americans for example here in the UK and they are subject to this injustice, how is there is not a latin american fundamentalism?

It is also important to note that most Muslims too respond to injustice and alienation through peaceful and civic means and not through violence. In this sense, most Muslims do what many other groups do. They are demanding more equal societies in non-violent human rights-based ways. It is only a particular stream that has embraced violence.

We must also note that there is extremism in some other contexts as well —if you look at India you have extremism there; you have Christian extremist movements as well. Often, the media labelling is not symmetrical or even-handed and that can make one think that violent extremism is exclusive to Muslims but that is not the case – it is not even exclusive to religions, as we have secular extremist movements as well. But, the current scope and attraction of extremism in the Muslim case needs explanation.

For this, we have to bring two explanatory theses together. Extremism is explained either by saying there is an ideology that becomes very attractive. So there is one school of thought that says that there is this ideology and it wins people by creating a sense of utopia that Islam is the solution. The other school of thought argues that the social, political conditions, the marginalization, racism, alienation all of these have caused attraction to extremism. My position is that we have to bring both of these together. On the one hand there are historical political wounds such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and more recent conditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, there is support of autocracies by the West, unemployment, economic struggles —those are factors that act as catalysts. So, the socio-political conditions are part of the problem. But, alone they do not explain violent responses fully. We have to bring in the ideology as well, about which I spoke earlier. The conditions created in the last few decades provided this ideology the opportunity to attract young and not so young people. So, you have an ideology and you have social conditions that come together to explain the scope and variety of ways in which people get attracted to extremism.

I would like to add one more thing: western establishment’s implication in the history of violent extremism in Muslim contexts. In the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, several establishments in both Western and Muslim countries used religion against communist threat. The notion of Jihad was used to recruit fighters from around the world and were then trained to fight the USSR. So, if today these groups are able to fight even the armies and the trained police, it is because their roots go back to military training of those days.

The manner in which Communism was defeated – by invoking religion for political purposes – has contributed to the situations we are facing. Islamism received a new life and confidence in the 1980s. So there is a whole range of issues to be taken into consideration.

I have been reading The Malady of Islam, a book by Abdelwahab Meddeb. His thesis is that Islam has a sickness which is fundamentalism. It’s a very harsh statement from a Muslim ashimself, but he makes a very clear case for his point. Is it true? Is there a sickness within Islam?

All religions have at least a partial streak of fundamentalism. The question is whether it becomes powerful or remains contained. And for a variety of reasons, some of which I mentioned earlier, extremism has become powerful in the Muslim context. We cannot deny this problem. It is not just a Muslim problem though, since it was created by several forces, internal and external.

Now if the extremism is a result of both ideology and social and political conditions, both dimensions will have to be tackled to overcome it: ideology needs to be challenged but we should also be concerned about the social conditions that make this ideology attractive. Why is it that so many young educated people are fighting for this simplistic, anachronist, very cruel ideology? It is not just about ideology, it is also a social, economic and political issue. We need to rethink at a very deep level certain foreign and domestic policies but it also requires critique of ideology more bravely and openly by Muslims and others.

You mention young people becoming radicalized, and they are french, belgian, british. Some even are not convinced muslims —they weren’t good practitioners, drank, womanize— and all of a sudden become this suicidal fanatics, so is there a study that analyzes what’s the method of radicalization?

Religion and State are two very powerful forces of identity that influence ethical imagination. Hegel calls then ‘two highest moral powers’. Although it may seem strange to many of us that someone would go against one’s State and follow religion, actually the tension between citizenship and religious identity is not new. We can see it in Sophocles’ play “Antigone”, for example. In this play from the ancient Greece, the protagonist Antigone goes against the edict of the State and buries her brother for which she pays with her life. So the tension is there, in many contexts. In the modern West, it has been domesticated by making religion a private affair. But in many worldviews, this division is not taken for granted and religion remains strong. When people are unhappy and are looking for alternative ideologies to solve everyday problems, they look away from the secular State and sometimes find answers in religion. It is very easy to pitch religion against State. It starts by becoming disillusioned with democracy and secular ideas —and then to think of religion as a solution to modern world problems. Such a clash between citizenship and religious identity is not confined to the West. These groups are fighting the modern State in Muslim countries as well —Egypt or Pakistan for example. So it is not just here, it is not just French against the French state, there are also Pakistanis against Pakistani state. I think the question we should be asking is, why is it that people that have gone through a modern education system that should have given them the capacity to critique this ideology, fail to do so.  Many who are attracted to extremism have criminal backgrounds and joining extremism may be a continuation of that trajectory. But many of who join extremism are well educated. There is a report from the University of Oxford titled Engineers of Jihad, which claims, based on statistical analysis, that there is a disproportionate representation of technically educated people in the extremist Muslim movements. And that is to be considered, what kind of education we are giving and what role the humanities —the literature, the arts, philosophy— could play in combating this extremist ideology.

You mention education, and it is seems there is a profound ignorance among Jihadists of the thinking tradition of the historical Islamic world, and its Hellenic influence. Averroës, the great Muslim philosopher, was in contact contact with his hellenic colleagues. So is it possible that these people just don’t know they are trying to destroy a world that has helped shape the world they defend as pure or ideal?

Absolutely. This is very important. Many of these extremists don’t have a historical understanding of the tradition, they take some aspect of it but are not able to historicize. You mentioned Averroes. We can add Avicenna, Al Farabi, Al-Kindi, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Khaldun and many others who were steeped in philosophical tradition of the Greeks.  There were poets and artists. Of course there were also those who rejected Hellenistic influence but this was an intellectual disagreement. We cannot conceive Muslim history without engagement with Hellenistic traditions as well as with the Indian and Persian traditions. Intellectual life in Muslim history is a composite of all of these elements brought by so many different cultures. When some people try to destroy these achievements they forget that these very elements made a great Muslim civilization. This is an educational challenge to show that such a civilization was only possible due to its multicultural nature and pluralistic openness to ideas from different parts of the world.

Let me connect this to the need for strong education in the humanities. Such an education is important for many reasons but it can also be seen as a possible response to help young people develop an understanding of meaning making as an interpretive process, scrutinize truth claims, including historical claims, and analyse logical fallacies – each of these capacities can help critique extremist ideologies.

What do you think should be the role of the West in fighting extremism from its root?

The first thing is to understand the phenomenon of extremism in its complexity. Sometimes it is claimed that the problem is Islam as a religion, and therefore all Muslims are part of the problem. Such idea has to be challenged. It is empirically, historically and theologically false.  Once a complex understanding of extremism is developed – an understanding that recognises that there are both internal and external factors that have contributed to its rise – it can help counter racism, alienation, rising inequalities and other social factors that play a role in the radicalization of people.

It is equally important to understand that ideologies rarely die – but they can be contained and made dormant. This happens when they are made unattractive through critique and through creating socio-economic conditions that make them unattractive. We must also look at social and economic problems. It is clear that in the last 30 years the world has become more unequal while at the same time creating increasing expectations of better quality of life and political participation. Yet, for many people these expectations have not materialised. Neoliberal policies have created conditions that both generate new desires of economic and political empowerment and make it harder for them to be fulfilled. So we have to take seriously the question of what kind of world we are creating, we have to once again ask the question about the role of the state: is it working for all its citizens or  for some powerful groups only?

So, there is much that the West can do. Equally, the responsibility lies with Muslim societies, their leadership, people and scholars as well. At the end of the day, Muslims have suffered more from extremism and this needs to change through internal critique and socio-political change.

Could science play a role in lowering fundamentalist?

Yes, it can. But I would distinguish between science and technology. We need is a proper scientific education, and by this I mean the ability to think scientifically not simply technically. But this will not be sufficient: we also need philosophy, history and literature. A well-rounded education will play a role in helping young people to understand the problems in social and economic terms rather than in moral terms, that there are secular alternatives available for them to fight for their causes, and that they do not need violence. There are problems in the world which need to be addressed but we need to give young people hope that this can be done through peaceful, non-violent, democratic ways.

Could you make a list of those elements?

If by list you mean factors that can help respond to extremism, I would include a strong humanities and scientific education; rebuilding trust in democratic political institutions; approaching citizenship not just as a legal concept but also as a sense of cultural and emotional belonging; and, above all, provide hope for a better wold through democratic and human rights struggles. 


Is there an explanation for islamist fanatism?


Fotografía de thierry ehrmann bajo licencia CC BY-SA 2.0. Sin cambios.