The recent attempt by the Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to detonate a bomb on a United States-bound plane has refocused the world’s attention on Muslim extremism and the need to fight extremism. And no doubt his actions will serve to reignite a rise in Islamaphobia around the world — with an almost certain renewed assault on our civil liberties.
Yet acts of wanton violence and barbarism are contrary to the teachings of Islam. In Islamic ethics, the end does not justify the means. Recently, leading South African Muslim scholars such as Dr Rashied Omar, based currently at Notre Dame University in the United States, have reminded us that religious extremism has no virtue in Islam. And extremism is unequivocally condemned by the Prophet of Islam, who is reported, in a tradition, to have declared thrice: “The extremists shall perish.”
In South Africa questions are being asked about the World Cup and the potential for extremism.
All this points us to an understanding of Islam, perhaps a “progressive Islam”, in which extremism has no place.
This is thorny. Muslims the world over feel that their future is under threat and conspiracy theories abound about attempts to undermine Muslims from within and without. So any attempt to rethink the norms in conservative pockets of Islam around the world is bound to elicit suspicion, if not outright resistance or even violent reaction.
But some honest and objective questioning is long overdue. In many Muslim societies today, practices that have nothing to do with Islam, or which may even be contrary to the values of Islam, are being reproduced and re-enacted as if they were articles of faith. Killing innocent people, attempting to blow up a plane and kidnapping individuals are certainly contrary to the values of Islam.
This calls for a progressive practice. However, despite the demands for change and introspection, the progressive current seems weak. Why?
The starting point is that any “progressive” school of thought or progressive Islam has to begin from premises that are recognisably Islamic. Here the vocabulary and grammar are of crucial importance: “progressive” has to be recognised as something that progresses naturally and easily from Islam itself, and not some genetically modified, user-friendly version that has all sorts of trendy and sexy concepts grafted on to it for reasons of political correctness or public relations.
This “progressive” mode would remain in line with the teachings of the Qur’an and the following of the Prophet, recognising the progressive nature of these primary sources — unlike the frighteningly conservative interpretations that we have seen in some pockets in some parts of the world. Key to this understanding is the recognition that we live in a plural context and that harmonious coexistence, despite the complex diversity of this world, is possible.
The development of an organic progressive Islamic discourse is hardly going to be an easy task. For a start, the political realities of many Muslim countries — where authoritarian regimes often work hand in glove with reactionary conservative religious forces to perpetuate the status quo — make it extremely difficult for new progressive voices to be heard. The culture of hate speech, intimidation and slander are so commonplace in the battle for ideas that they have become regarded as the norm of public debate in many cases. How often have we heard progressive intellectuals and scholars bemoan their fate and utter the lamentable cry: “It’s just a matter of time before I get that bullet between my eyes”?
Despite the brutality of the occupying forces, senseless killings and kidnappings with horrific endings on the part of Iraqis and Afghanis cannot go unchallenged. This brutality is often in violation of what Islam commands during conflict. In such a context the emergence of a progressive current may seem impossible, but a discourse of free speech and open intellectual engagement, making respect for religious differences a reality and dialogue less hazardous than it is today, can go a long way towards defining uncertain futures in many parts of the troubled world.
A complicating factor in the search for a new discourse is the uneven power differential between East and West — and within many Muslim societies themselves. This often leads emerging progressive voices to seek help and refuge in the arms of like-minded intellectuals, NGOs, donor agencies and/or governments abroad.
A related and even more contentious issue is the need for Muslims to discuss openly issues such as gender equality, racism, class and power. Because so many conservative Muslim scholars have come to regard these concerns as external to Islam and alien to the corpus of traditional Islamic discourse, the issues themselves have been cast as “secular”, “Western” or even “anti-Islamic”.
Here, then, lies the problem faced by progressive Islamic thought today: the apparent ossification of self-critique within the Muslim world has led to the respect for difference among Muslims waning to an all-time low. The oppositional dialectics between the West and Islam have further entrenched the cultural, religious and ideological divide between the two sides, making dialogue itself a hazardous venture that few would attempt.
Lost in the middle of this are the minorities within the Muslim world who are not trained as scholars of Islam, and are thus not “qualified” to speak on matters Islamic.
The progressive current, if it is to emerge at all, will have to burst the banks of conservative dogma that have thus far been reinforced by both Muslim conservatives and authoritarian elites. The progressive current needs to show that extremism has no place in Islam.
Imraan Buccus is a research fellow in the school of politics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and is attached to Southern Insight, a group of research consultants. He writes in his personal capacity