This has been a bloody Ramadan for Muslims in Iraq, Bangladesh, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Some claim that the attack near the Prophet's mosque in Medina during the holy month confirms that such acts of wanton destruction could not be from Muslims. But can the terrorists be easily divorced from Islam, especially when they include impressionable youth seeking purpose through heroic tales from Muslim history?
In a month of prayer and reflection, Muslims not only see death of their co-religionists but also find themselves on the defensive in a climate of rising anti-Muslim attacks in Canada and the United States.
Caught between periodic terrorist attacks and hate crimes, some Muslims wonder why they should have to repeatedly condemn terrorist attacks when the perpetrators have nothing to do with them. Such jaded Muslims remind their interlocutors of the Qur'anic verse that "he who takes a life except for murder or mischief on Earth is as if he has killed all humanity."
However, human beings have a certain disposition and worldview, which they affirm ex-post through their reading of the texts. This means where some people use religious texts for liberation, others will use them for oppression.
There is enough material in the medieval legal manuals to justify the murder of people with the "wrong" beliefs and behaviour. In the wake of the Orlando gay bar shootings, a high-profile American Muslim academic clearly stated that death punishment for homosexuality is part of the Islamic legal manuals. Replete with death, The Forbiddance of Homosexuality, a book written by an American convert and published by an American mosque is readily available.
Charismatic Muslim speakers exploit the texts on the death punishments for apostasy, blasphemy and homosexuality to instigate persecution of vulnerable minorities. When passionate youth act extra-judicially, such speakers slither away from personal responsibility by alluding to the mitigating evidentiary requirements for implementation of such draconian punishments.
Islamic scholars like Javed Ahmad Ghamidi are very clear when they identify the warped religious narrative as a cause for terrorism. Likewise, Imam Adel al-Kalbani, who led prayers in Mecca for many years, openly stated that the work of ISIS draws from "what is written in our own books" and that "we follow the same thought but apply it in a refined way."
Al-Kalbani's argument converges with that of progressive Muslim scholar Adis Duderija, who writes:
"What we are witnessing is a further increase of hermeneutical affinity between jihadist Salafist approach to Revelation and how Islamic law is conceptualized and applied today by those who have a Text oriented hermeneutical engagement with Revelation ..."
All of this is not to discount the role of imperialist aggression in the Middle East through criminal invasions and support of dictatorial regimes that suppress human rights. Indeed, the work for human rights activists is cut out for them in terms of Western governments selling arms and failing to cut off the financial flow of funds to terrorist organizations. Such activists must also contend with police brutality, systemic racism, lack of empathy for others, fear mongering and the rising surge of anti-Muslim bigotry.
However, only Muslims can effectively work on internal change. The Dhaka terrorists came from affluent families and had studied in elite institutions. They were influenced by Zakir Naik, an extremely popular preacher, which alludes to the role of religious narrative in the radicalization of youth searching for meaning in life.
The worrisome observation on well-off, educated Pakistanis who call for death to Ahmadis also confirms the role of the religious narrative. Throughout the decades, Pakistani Muslims ignored the persecution of Ahmadis and other minorities. So when a popular qawwali (Sufi devotional) singer, Amjad Sabri, was shot, the words of Pastor Niemoller could not hold truer:
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist ... and there was no one left to speak for me."
The indoctrinated thugs may have pulled the trigger that killed Amjad Sabri, but popular speakers sowed the seeds of murder when they justified persecution in the name of medieval legal manuals. This is called maqafat e amal (consequences of our actions).
But terrorists violated the sanctity of Medina -- the city of the Prophet! Does that not absolve Muslims of any responsibility?
Why should we be surprised at all that Muslims attacked Medina? Have not Muslims destroyed the Kaaba (House of Allah) in past conflicts? Have they not persecuted and murdered the Prophet's progeny?
So where do we go from here?
Blaming Islam for terrorism is silly as the texts are silent and it is Muslims who speak. Blaming Muslims is equally absurd as it is the same reductionist argument as blaming the poor, the uneducated and those with mental illness. Blaming Muslims is also absurd as the strongest condemnation of terrorism comes from Muslim scholars and Imams.
This however still does not absolve Muslims of responsibility for internal change to stop those on the cusp of joining terrorists. This means challenging popular speakers who support medieval sharia laws, Caliphates and draconian punishments under Islamic law.
This essentially boils down to rendering the dictates of medieval legal manuals as obsolete, which would be quite challenging. In 2010, there was a huge uproar by prominent Muslim leaders in North America and Europe when Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan called for a moratorium on draconian punishments.
The solution includes supporting marginalized voices and nudging religious leaders towards radical inclusion. This means empowering voices like Muslims for Progressive Values, Universalist Muslims and the Inclusive Mosque Initiative. Such groups are tearing down walls on the basis of religion, gender and sexual orientation. In such spaces there are no apostates, heretics or pariahs. There are simply human beings who must be respected by virtue of their human dignity bestowed by Allah Himself.
Nourishing such spaces will not rid us of the terrorism menace overnight. But it is the first, urgent and necessary step in the direction towards renaissance and much needed internal change.
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Muhammad experiences a vision in a cave, which he and his followers will attribute to divine intervention. The communications from God, which continue for two more decades, are thought to delineate a path toward salvation -- "the sharia." (Photo: A Muslim pilgrim prays at the Hiraa cave on Noor mountain late on Nov. 13, 2010 as some 2.5 million Muslim pilgrims descend on the holy city of Mecca for the annual hajj or pilgrimage. According to tradition, Islam's Prophet Mohammed received his first message to preach Islam while praying in the cave.)
Muhammad's death sets off a succession crisis. The dispute will eventually widen into a full-blown schism between groups known as Sunnis and Shiites. (Photo: A Muslim woman prays in the courtyard of the Prophet Muhammad Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Medina on Nov. 13, 2009. Muhammad is buried in Medina's landmark mosque, which is Islam's second holiest shrine after Mecca.)
The revelations voiced by Muhammad are systematically written down for the first time. Several supposedly aberrant versions of the Quran are then incinerated on the orders of Caliph Uthman. (Photo: A Pakistani girl reads verses from the Quran while attending her daily madrassa, or Islamic school, set up in a local mosque on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, April 11, 2012.)
Revolutionaries overthrow the dynasty that has come to control the Muslim world, in the hope of restoring perfect Islamic justice on earth. Another dynasty assumes power instead. The caliphate's center of gravity shifts from Damascus to a purpose-built capital known as 'the City of Peace' - or Baghdad. (Photo: Iraqi worshippers perform their Friday prayers in a mosque in Baghdad's Shiite suburb of Sadr City on May 4, 2012.)
Caliphs in search of political legitimacy encourage scholars based around Medina and Baghdad to develop legal principles to supplement the Quran's very limited number of rules. The scholars oblige, drawing on sources ranging from Arab tradition and Persian custom to Greek philosophy. (Photo: An Indonesian Muslim student reads from an academic religious book in an Islamic course at Al-Azhar mosque in the old city of Cairo on Dec. 4, 2011. Al-Azhar mosque, which was developed into one of the oldest Islamic universities, pays special attention to the Quranic sciences and traditions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and all the modern fields of science.)
Iraqi scholars attempt for the first time to establish and document precisely which oral traditions about Muhammad (hadiths) are authentic. Jurists use the resulting compilations to re-interpret the sharia. (Photo: Tilings of a hadith on a wall in Nishapur, Iran.)
Five distinct bodies of legal thought become dominant, and alternative ways of understanding the sharia are sidelined. (Photo: A masked and hooded person canes Indonesian food seller Murni Amris for violating Islamic sharia law outside a mosque in Jantho, Aceh province, on Oct. 1, 2010. Two women were caned in Indonesia's staunchly Muslim Aceh province for selling food during the fasting hour of Ramadan, an official said.)
An army led by Genghis Khan invades the Muslim world through what is now northern Pakistan, and one of his grandsons renews the onslaught four decades later. Baghdad falls into Mongol hands, and the city's last caliph is rolled into a carpet and trampled to death. Despair and chaos ensue.
In response to the ongoing Mongol threat, new ideas about the sharia proliferate. Some are defensive and others are aggressive, but most concern themselves more with the mystical search for God than with questions of compulsion and force. (Photo: Mongol army.)
The Ottomans capture Constantinople. Successive sultans assert control over their expanding empire by trying to summarize God's law in statutory form - an innovation that early Muslims would have considered heretical. (Photo: Mehmed II entering Constantinople.)
The British suppress a major rebellion against their rule over India, intensifying the imperialist ambitions of several European powers. In response, Muslims increasingly associate the sharia with self-determination, as national and religious identities fuse. (Photo: Captain William Hodson captured the King of Delhi during the "Indian Mutiny" or First war of Indian Independence.)
A clan known as the Saudis seize control of the Arabian peninsula after a brutal civil war. Its leaders allow religious scholars to enforce a particularly harsh brand of Islamic law. (Photo: Saudi women stand outside a gift shop on Feb. 14, 2012 in the capital Riyadh, where open celebration of Valentine's Day is officially banned along with the desert kingdom's strict Islamic laws.)
Colonel Gaddafi becomes the first ruler since Ottoman times to enact statutes authorizing the punishment of Islamic crimes. A coup in Pakistan, a revolution in Iran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan kick off an era of radicalization that will mean he is not the last. (Photo: President Gamal Abdal Nasser of Egypt (right) with the Leader of the Libyan Revolution, Muammar al-Gaddafi in 1969.)
Extremists assassinate Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. They object to his willingness to make peace with Israel, and justify the killing by citing 14th century legal opinions about the Mongol invasions. (Photo: An undated picture shows late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (L) waving to a crowd as Vice-President Hosni Mubarak (R) laughs beside him standing in a convertible vehicle. Mubarak came to office as Egypts fourth president after late President Anwar Sadat was slained by a group of military Islamist fundamentalists with allegiance to the Al-Jihad during a military parade Oct. 6, 1981.)
A year on from an Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Shiite fighters kill hundreds of foreign soldiers with the first ever suicide bomb. Some scholars formulate new legal theories to validate the tactic retrospectively. (Photo: Hezbollah fighters parade during a ceremony organized by the militant Shiite Muslim group on the occasion of Martyr's Day in the southern suburbs of Beirut Nov. 11, 2009.)
Ayatollah Khomeini demands that "The Satanic Verses" author Salman Rushdie be killed for blasphemy -- a sin for which the Quran itself mandates no penalty. (Photo: A veiled Iranian woman walks past a mural depicting Iranian late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, painted on the wall of the former US Embassy, in Tehran, Iran, where Iranian militant students seized in November 1979.)
In the aftermath of 9/11, hardliners continue to insist that Islamic jurisprudence is timeless. History continues to prove them wrong. (Photo: In this Friday, May 25, 2012 photo, Muslim hardliners of Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) hold banners during a protest against Lady Gaga in Jakarta, Indonesia. As the U.S. pop star canceled her sold out concert in Jakarta over security concerns after Muslim hardliners threatened to use violence against her, many started to question the extremists' double standard towards the raunchy dangdut shows performed almost every night by young Indonesian women who turn up everywhere from smokey bars and ritzy nightclubs to weddings and even circumcisions. Dangdut is the most popular music among lower class people in Indonesia.)