Some extremist groups have been trying to use or abuse of Islam and of the Islamic doctrine for the sake of their radical agendas. Since the end of the last century, we can mention Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, ISIS, to provide the main concrete examples. The ideological trend behind these groups could be linked to Salafism or to the Society of the Muslim Brothers. In particular, a certain political Islam has inspired “reformist” interpretations that evolved towards militant and violent postures. As a response, the Muslim world has fostered a number of major initiatives, which show the advance of an institutional Islamic approach aimed at establishing both a concrete intra-faith coordination and an interreligious engagement to counter extremism.
The Wrong Path of Extremist Groups
Theologically speaking, extremist groups intend to impose a puritan view of Islam and of Muslim behavior, claiming to be a sort of inquisition for a pure Islamist nation. The result is a blatant manipulation of shari’ah (Islamic law), and the dismissal as heretical of the Islamic historical and intellectual heritage. All the spiritual, theological, juridical, and multicultural developments that occurred within Islam over the course of history are considered impure, especially due to the intermingling with the West, portrayed only as a negative model of colonialism and secular values.
From a methodological point of view, extremist groups subdue shari’ah to a process of oversimplification, taking minor references within the broader doctrinal corpus and attributing to them a priority significance out of context and disproportionately, in order to suit their radical discourse and narratives. The multiple Quranic directions dealing with differences in opinion and diversity are ignored, and although Islam does not have a monolithical structure, radical systems act as if this was the case, positing as follows: “We are the church of Islam”, “we are the pure Islamic nation”, “whoever wants to be a Muslim has to obey our Caliphate rules”, “if you do not obey, you are a kafir (infidel)”, “persecution and death await you” (takfir).
Therefore, Muslims who do not adhere to their ideology lose their status as believers, while the principle of “Ahl al-Kitab” (the People of the Book) for non-Muslims is deliberately disregarded. The notion of jihad is also bent to serve this evil logic, and is applied with no knowledge of the rules, of the context, and of the conditions set at the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and afterwards.
Islamic Endeavors to Address Radical Thinking and Violent Extremism
The first experience of this kind has been the “Amman Message”, launched by Jordan in 2004. The “Amman Message” gave birth to a unique international endeavor involving Muslims scholars from different theological, juridical, spiritual, and national backgrounds, similar to an ecumenical council. Their task was to outline a strategy to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies in Muslim societies. In the modern era, we had not witnessed such a gathering in a Muslim scholarly framework for a long time. Subsequently, most of the scholars who endorsed the “Amman Message” authored the open letter “A Common Word between Us and You”, addressed to the highest Christians leaders worldwide.
The “Common Word” initiative transcends an exclusivist interpretation that pits one world against the other, focusing on the shared principles and values between Christians and Muslims, starting from their major commandments of faith. And the first two commandments underlying the letter are “love for God” and “love for your neighbor”. The former distinguishes the absolute truths of the two religions on a theological level, but also implies the responsibility of taking care of relations with our neighbor to build a peaceful society. This is still the greatest challenge to be met nowadays, since searching for a common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for dialogue between selected religious leaders, but an effort that needs to be translated at the grassroots level.
Subsequently, in 2014, some of the signatories of the “Amman Message” and the “Common Word” wrote an open letter to the so-called “Khalifa” Al Baghdadi. Among these scholars, the leading personality of Sheykh Abdallah bin Bayyah, President of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, based in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates is worth mentioning. The letter was another international intra-faith effort in a Muslim scholarly framework, and features major insights in terms of counter-narratives against ISIS. In particular, the document declared the purported Caliphate as illegitimate, providing theological, juridical, and intellectual arguments to vanquish its ideological tenets, especially concerning the authority of delivering “fatwas”.
Under Al Baghdadi, the authentic Islamic methodology to issue a legitimate “fatwa” was completely cast aside, and replaced by a kind of tribunal whose task was to pronounce verdicts that had to comply with the ultra-moralistic interpretation of Shari’ah promoted by ISIS. This interpretation is centered only on what is forbidden (haram), with no reference to the Quranic directions on justice and on mercy as a priority.
The letter exposes such a narrow-minded stance, clarifying who is the authority who can deliver a “fatwa”, the methodology and where and when “fatwas” are allowed, highlighting “contextualization” as an indispensable criterion according to the Islamic law, although it was ignored by Al Baghdadi and his followers. Moreover, the principle of “Ahl al-Kitab” (the People of the Book) has been restored, including the Yazidis as well.
The letter points out that in Islam forced conversions are forbidden, opening the way to future developments to address the issue of apostasy. The rights of women and children, the ban of torture and of any destruction of shrines and tombs of prophets and companions, are also encompassed.
In 2016, another international intra-faith initiative took place in Marrakech, convened by the Moroccan Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs, and Rabita Mohammedia of Ulemas, in close cooperation with the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. On that occasion, Jewish and Christians representatives were invited to join the proceedings, since the issue dealt with was “The Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities”.
The meeting produced a declaration on the legal framework of the rights of religion minorities, inspired to the Charter of Medina drafted by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The document advocates for freedom of worship and security, education as an antidote to the radical discourse and narratives, and for the necessity to avoid bigotry. It also condemns the denigration of any kind of religious symbol, identity, community or practice.
How to implement these principles in modern times, and in which kind of system (confessional or secular, similar or different from the one in Medina), is not clearly addressed, but the declaration deserves credit for reasserting what the very Islamic doctrine reveals about relations with non-Muslim religious minorities, as opposed to the manipulations of extremism.
An effort more specifically dedicated to contextualizing the Charter of Medina was made in 2019 by the Muslim World League (MWL), which issued the Charter of Makkah. This document has thus far not received the attention it deserves, perhaps due to the major relevance gained by the Human Fraternity Document for World Peace and Living Together signed in Abu Dhabi at the beginning of the same year by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayyeb. However, the Charter of Makkah shows that a major change is ongoing in Saudi Arabia regarding the interpretation of Islam, with a shift back to the traditional teachings that ensure the right of religious minorities to be respected and enjoy a free and safe practice of their faith.
Those who argue that this is just a public relations exercise tend to underestimate the current developments in Saudi Arabia, as well as the importance of the bold stances taken against extremist groups and terrorism by the MWL under the leadership of the new Secretary General Muhammad Al-Issa, who is also supportive of interreligious dialogue as an opportunity to concretely work for peace. The Charter of Makkah calls imams and religious leaders to guide their communities according to its approach, and this is a real novelty, especially at the local level.
All these initiatives stem from the MENA region, although valued multicultural efforts can be found in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, as well as in the humanitarian Islam and in the “middle ground” (wasatiyyah) approach rooted in Indonesia and Malaysia.
On an international level, the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect launched the “Plan of Action for Religious Leaders”, a three-year program engaging representatives from the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism, and Buddhism, along with experts belonging to secular organizations, in a series of consultations aimed at providing the agencies of the United Nations with awareness on how to counter extremist ideologies based on the experience of the participants in their own communities. The consultations developed between 2015 and 2017, and the outputs of the meetings revolved around the keywords “Prevent, Strengthen, and Build”, using the typical vocabulary of the United Nations.
− Enhance intra-faith coordination and interreligious engagement. Effective counter-narratives need to be framed and presented by reliable authorities and scholars within the religious community concerned, whereas closer cooperation based on common values and responsibilities between religious leaders and believers of different faiths is key to advancing peace and social cohesion. When religion is misused to spark hatred and conflict across religious identities and groups, it is the universal and sacred teaching of every religious doctrine on peace, justice, knowledge, and brotherhood that is betrayed, and this calls the faithful of all religions to join hands in opposing extremism.
− Prevent radical nationalism from abusing religious identity. Radical nationalism tends to combine a narrow-minded view of local habits and customs with religion, in order to boost its propaganda for political purposes. For instance, this is the case of the burqa in Afghanistan, where the garment is inappropriately associated with Islam and exploited ideologically to build an artificial Islamic national identity opposed to other religious and ethnic groups. In this context, to promote cooperation between the international relations sector and the interreligious one can help preserve religious identities from being manipulated by the discourse and narratives of radical nationalism, as a way to avoid the escalation of tensions and conflicts.
− Empower inter-institutional cooperation. Secular and democratic institutions need to work in close partnership with religious leaders and the representatives of faith-based organizations and communities, on a local and national level. This is of paramount importance to ensure security and defend the rule of law against extremist groups. In doing so, phenomena such as the ghettoization, separatism, and marginalization, must be avoided because they can lead to a parallel and dark society, which usually offers a breeding ground for indoctrination and recruitment especially among the youth, with the pretext of social injustice. The latter certainly must be criticized and tackled, but extremist groups propose violent ideological solutions and alternative regimes that are far worse than the problem they claim to want to solve.
− Develop an interdisciplinary methodology of cooperation. In light of the variety of contexts, there is no unique political or theological solution that can be implemented to prevent and address radical thinking and violent extremism. Therefore, policy-makers and religious leaders are called to integrate their expertise in a holistic and synergic perspective, together developing new skills, common methods, solutions, and languages of communication, to suit every circumstance. This cooperation should not discriminate against any religious identity and community, nor compromise on the principles of freedom and security in every nation for every citizen.
Proceedings of the Study Seminar
A Strategic Perspective on “Religion, Peace, and Security”
Dr. Elie Al Hindy: “Interreligious Dialogue: Three Levels of Engagement for Peace and Security”
Dr. Majeda Omar: “The Amman Message and Other Insights from Jordan”
Prof. Aicha Haddou: Preventing Extremism: The Moroccan “Experience”
Imam Yahya Pallavicini: Policies and Initiatives Against the Radical Discourse in the MENA Region