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Condemning Terror Isn't Enough, Islam Needs Change From Within

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MOSQUE MEDINA SAUDI
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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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