Muslims can make the pen mightier than the sword

ACL Ameer Ali, courtesy of the Australian, 21 January 2015. See where there are numerous blog comments

THE attack on Charlie Hebdo and similar attacks on journalists, artists and authors carry the signature of a puritan, authoritarian Islam that has no room for tolerance of diversity, differences and doubt. This is the Islam of the gun. To the followers of this brand of Islam, history has virtually been frozen since the murder of the fourth caliph, Ali, in AD661. These Islamists want political power at any cost to bring back their so-called golden age of Islam, which covers about 50 years from the time of prophet Mohammed to the death of Ali.

This brand of Islam is not only authoritarian but legalistic, exclusivist and misogynist. Although puritan Islam has a long past, its current wave began in the wake of the oily affluence of the Middle East in the 1980s. Saudi Arabia, the home of Wahhabi puritanism and the guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, with its new financial clout automatically became the unchallenged leader of the puritan wave in the Sunni world.

quran-- eric lubbwecke llustration: Eric Lobbecke Source: TheAustralian

Saudi Arabia’s puritanism originated in the 18th century under a joint enterprise between an underqualified preacher (according to his own father and brother) Abdul Wahhab and a tribal chief, Ibn Saud, the former vying for religious supremacy and the latter for political suzerainty over the Arabian Peninsula. The simultaneous rise of the Saudi political and Wahhabi religious regimes was characterised by violence, massacres and bloodshed. With the support of the then hegemonic British, their victory came from the barrel of the gun.

It is that Islam and its mode of achieving power which the Muslim extremists of today are dying to propagate. What the world and especially those who criticise Islam should understand is that this puritan Islam is a minority phenomenon.

Contrary to the views of many, Islam was actually born not with the sword but with the pen, words and a book. The sword might have helped build the Muslim empire, like other empires of that era, but it was the pen, words and books that produced Islamic civilisation. Inspired by the spirit of inquiry urged by the Koran, generations of Muslim scholars flooded the knowledge market with their voluminous output.

In this civil and civilising enterprise, doubt, debate and differences dominated the scene, diversity was welcomed and encouraged. Long before Europe won freedom of expression, Muslim savants of the medieval era defended that principle, practised it and in its defence some even earned the wrath of the caliphs.

That was the Islam of the pen that produced sardonic poets and sceptical authors like Abu Ala al-Ma’arri (973-1058), a religious sceptic and an atheist; Ibn al-Rawandi (827-911), a free thinker who mocked and criticised the rituals of Islam; Abu Bakr Razi (854-925), who questioned the very concept of prophet and prophesy; and Abu Nawas (756-814), a poet who loved young boys and composed poems on gay love.

These scholars and poets, although their writings were dubbed as heresies, were not killed or prosecuted but respected and sometimes even rewarded for their efforts. Today’s extremists would have beheaded them and burned all their works.

An Islam based on the foundational values of justice, mercy and compassion enshrined in the Koran and promoted by rational thinking is the need of the day. It should be a joint task of moderate Muslims, who are the majority, and the West, which faces an existential threat from the gun-toting, bomb-hurling extremists, motivated by their authoritarian version of puritan Islam.

For moderate Muslims it is not sufficient to condemn the actions of the extremists; effective actions should be taken to socially marginalise the preachers of puritan Islam. The use of the pulpit should be denied to clerics who support the authoritarianism of the purists. At the same time Muslim organisations that depend on financial aid must be selective about their donors. For example, it is through financial benevolence that Saudi Arabia is trying to spread its Wahhabi brand of authoritarian puritanism. Iran does the same to spread the Shia brand. These donations come with strings attached.

Muslim schools should include, as part of their curriculum, a lesson on critical thinking to make students less gullible and more discriminating when listening to or reading the messages of puritan propaganda. The students should be taught of the glorious achievements of rational Islam and how rational Muslim philosophers and scholars became instrumental in Europe’s awakening in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Western powers, for their part, should come clean in their so-called war on terror. Trying to eradicate terrorism by concentrating on military might does not offer a permanent solution, without a concurrent ideological campaign to identify and marginalise the sources puritan Islam.

The US and its Western allies know very well that Saudi Arabia is the nursery for religious authoritarianism. It was its Wahhabi brand that produced al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and now Islamic State.

The Saudi regime — because of its sovereignty over Mecca and Medina and because of its financial clout — is able to spread its puritan Islamic ideology; and it is with this very regime that, for geopolitical and economic reasons, the West has a cosy relationship.

It is time for Western powers to seriously consider the negative fallout of this alliance. Wiping out Islamic extremism ultimately hinges on sorting out this knotty nexus.

Ameer Ali was brought up in the eastern Province of Sri Lanka and was educated at Peradeniya University. He is presently a lecturer in the school of management and governance, Murdoch University.

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