The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, opened his meeting with 14 moderate Islamic leaders last week by warning that a terrorist attack on Australian soil was a very real possibility. It was the responsibility of the Government and the Muslim representatives present, he said, to enlist the mainstream Muslim community in identifying extremists and in preventing them influencing others.
Nobody can dispute the need to protect one’s country from terrorist attack. And John Howard’s decision to actively engage the Muslim community must be welcomed.
However, if the intent was to develop strategies for confronting the threat of terrorism, Howard was speaking to mostly the wrong people. By choosing to limit the forum to only the most moderate elements in the Australian Muslim community, the Government excluded groups such as the various Salafi organizations and imams who teach more conservative interpretations of Islam but have a similar opposition to terrorism. In doing so, the Government has demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of Muslim extremism.
The problem of extremism is not just a reaction to environment. While poverty and social disenfranchisement may be contributing factors, the problem is one of theology. As Islamic scholars have noted throughout the ages, all extremists perceive some wrong that they wish to address but lack a proper understanding of Islamic law to guide them in dealing with it.
The wrongs that draw a minority of people to terrorism are varied, such as the occupation of Muslim societies by Western armies, injustices of despotic Middle East regimes and the belief the West is engaged in a war against Islam.
While some of these complaints may be valid, few Muslims matriculate from feelings of discontent to the sort of evil seen in London, Madrid and Bali. The problem arises, however, when the impressionable find their feelings of injustice and outrage succored by a perverse understanding of faith.
Therefore, there are two fronts in the war against terrorism: addressing the often-genuine political and social problems that terrorism seeks to solve, and addressing the ideological foundation by which such terrorism is justified. While the former is largely the responsibility of governments, the struggle against the ideology of terrorism can be fought only by Muslim scholars speaking the one language that extremists universally respect: the language of theology.
Those mostly young people who adopt extremist ideas cannot be bribed back to moderation by the pleadings of those whom they neither respect nor believe. They will only accept arguments founded in Islamic law and delivered by those with real spiritual authority.
However, those most capable of exposing and refuting extremism suffer from the fact that to Western eyes, they wear the same beards and hold the same conservative attitudes as the extremists. But there is a gaping chasm between extremism and fundamentalism: fundamentalist scholars have been at the forefront of the ideological war against terrorism since long before George Bush uttered those words.
In the 1990s, for example, Saudi Arabia’s late mufti, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Baz, widely considered one of the greatest fundamentalist scholars of the past 100 years, responded to the outbreak of global terrorism by ruling that hijacking aircraft was “an extremely great crime” and that it was obligatory for governments and scholars “to exert themselves as much as possible in ending this evil”.
Even today, it is fundamentalist scholars in Saudi Arabia and Yemen who have successfully negotiated the surrender of dozens of domestic terrorists. They have engaged these extremist elements in religious debate and debunked the foundations upon which terrorism is predicated.
This is how extremism must be fought. Yet there was no representation of fundamentalist Islam at last week’s forum. Paradoxically, the emphasis has been on silencing extremist ideas rather than allowing them to be expressed and then refuted.
Assembling a collection of moderates and sending them back into the community with a government-endorsed message of tolerance or throwing public money at ostensibly moderate institutions will do nothing to defeat extremism. The problem is ideological.
An opportunity to properly address the threat of homegrown terrorism here has sadly been wasted.