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Revisiting religious narratives to combat violent extremism

Militants from the Islamic State - Photograph: presstv.ir

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The misinterpretation of the term jihad has unleashed far reaching consequences even on Muslims worldwide and even in Malaysia, writes Noor Asmaliza Romlee.

Why do certain Muslims use their potential to destroy so much of what our merciful and kind God has given to us, all of us?

Does it really help anyone when more suicide bombers die and their families are left behind? Why is so much energy spent on creating havoc and death instead of a better life?

On a related note, the sad fact is that more Muslims today are dying at the hands of Muslims than by acts of white supremacists, Israelis, Americans or any other perceived enemies – whether it is from almost suicide bombings in Pakistan, intra-Palestinian fighting or sectarian violence in Iraq.

While we mourn together with the loved ones of the victims who were killed or injured in the attacks on places of worship, moderate Muslims should take a stronger, bolder stand against all this madness, in the name of Islam.

Moderates need to stand up as zealously for civilians who are harmed by Muslim violence. We need to reflect on our internal dysfunction. Religions don’t make choices. Individuals do.

Yeah, injustices have been done, country against country, no doubt about it. But are we going to hold onto that resentment and hate for the rest of our lives, at the cost of trying to create religious exclusivism among future generations?

What about our conception of Islam, of a “Muslim” society, of our “Muslim values”? Do we have the key to knowledge and righteousness just because we are Muslims?

And what is Islam? Do we practise it the right way? What is the right way? We need to ask ourselves these questions first. That is what ijtihad (independent thought) advocates – the questioning of our values and practices as rational individuals.

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Contrary to ijtihad, jihad now appears to be a term with its meaning taken out of context. In Arabic language, the word jihad basically means to strive and exert your utmost effort for any given objective.

In Islam, jihad can be classified into several realms: jihad by the heart, by the tongue, hand and finally, by the sword. Unfortunately, the latter is usually the level of jihad that is most publicised and exposed due to its wide misinterpretation and misuse by extremist Islamic groups for their own interest.

Their misinterpretation of this term has unleashed far-reaching consequences even on Muslims worldwide and even in Malaysia.

According to a study on tolerance and susceptibility to extremism in South East Asia by the Merdeka Centre, the main drivers for extremism were religious narratives such as the pursuit of “purist” Islamic goals like jihad or hudud, as well as religious literalism in which respondents take the word of their Islamic teachers literally.

The study reported that 28% of Malaysian Muslims demonstrated “violence-receptive” tendencies, meaning that they did not directly reject violence. Instead, Faisal S Hazis, an academic who co-authored the survey, said the respondents showed support for extremism or justified violence in the name of Islam.

The survey measured two areas of extremism: violent extremism and “self-sacrificial tendencies” or the willingness to sacrifice their lives, freedom or belongings to defend Islam. Malaysia and Thailand recorded the highest levels of self-sacrificial tendencies.

Merdeka Centre also found that support for global and regional terror groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah was present across all four countries surveyed but was the highest in Malaysia at 18.1%.

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There are many mullahs and prominent Islamic leaders who condemn the extremists and state the fact that the Qur’an condemns violence against civilians.

According to them and to most moderate Muslims, the Hadith never approved any violence and has clearly stated that jihad in the sense of physical warfare is only of minor significance as the last resort for self-defence purposes and for fighting back against aggression.

Jihad in the bigger picture encompasses a wider concept of a noble struggle to ensure the wellbeing of the family, community, the nation and the ummah (community). The Qur’an said that if someone kills a person, it is as if he has killed the whole of society.

The extremists who lean towards violence read and believe the same Qur’an as these mullahs and Islamic leaders. So what went wrong with the way these extremists interpret the Qur’an? Why is it that the violence extremists were taught about a vengeful God while the God whom the mullahs, Islamic leaders or moderate Muslims worship is a compassionate and loving God.

If we are inclined to think that different level of education is the cause of misinterpretations, how do we explain that most of the attackers of Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday bombings were well educated and had come from middle- or upper middle-class families, as reported by the Sri Lankan government.

Just a little quote from the Qur’an, chapter five, verse 32: “If you kill a human being it is like killing all of mankind, unless you are killing that human being as punishment for violence, or murder, or other villainy in the land.” – this verse might be literally or blindly quoted by the extremists as the best citation of the Qur’an to justify their killing sprees. Hence, the mullahs and Islamic leaders need to get real and offer bold and competing re-interpretations of what is actually in the Qur’an.

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The problem is not with Islam, as a religion, as much as a problem with us the Muslims. If we go back to what happened in all those attacks worldwide and those people who carried out those acts, they believed they were performing an act of jihad – not an act of terrorism.

And if you look at most of the videos sent by those terrorists, they appear to be doing what they do in the name of Allah and in the name of Islam. All these extremists who lean towards violence operate from religious conviction. Religion is not the cause of extremism but can serve either as an enabler or disabler.

Moderate Muslims cannot deny that there is a problem in the way certain Muslims interpret and understand the Holy Book and its way of life. They cannot condemn violence committed in Islam’s name, but reflexively recite that “Islam has nothing to do with it”.

Islam is what Muslims make it. Just as Christians and Jews have reinterpreted the troubling passages of their scriptures for new centuries, Muslims must do likewise.

Moderate Muslims need to bear the responsibility for re-interpretation. It is not a call to rewrite the Qur’an but more a call to update interpretations of existing words. Reinterpretation is a baby step to take away certain malignant interpretations from terrorists.

Violent extremists need to be reminded of the Quran’s unambiguous reminder that God alone has the full truth and there is not only just one approach which can hold water.

The reinterpretation of certain religious narratives to harness the potential for compassion, tolerance and peaceful coexistence within Islam is just one tool in the toolbox of a complex, multi-pronged strategy to combat violent extremism.

Noor Asmaliza Romlee, an Aliran newsletter subscriber, believes in speaking truth to power and expressing herself for the greater good.

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