My late mother had a lot of great advice for me, much of which I followed and much of which has helped me immensely in life. One maxim that she shared with me has been ignored however. That would be the time she said it is a good idea never to engage in conversation on religion or politics, as both topics tend to lead to argument and acrimony.
Sorry mom, that one I have ignored in my career as an intelligence analyst and my post civil service activities as an author and public speaker.
Religion is obviously a sensitive issue and one that many people take seriously to heart. As a matter of faith and not fact it is hard to speak objectively and dispassionately about religion and easy to offend and insult the deeply-held feelings of believers and practitioners. Furthermore, there are often significant differences within a given creed: how can we expect to gain agreement as holders of different religions when those who on the surface subscribe to the same fundamental convictions cannot?
One thing is certain: there is no monopoly on what is the ‘true’ interpretation of Islam. There are several reasons for this. First, it should surprise no one that a faith that is over 1,400 years old has spawned different views. Second, as a global religion Islam has been and is practiced by billions of people from different cultures, histories, language families and experiences. Furthermore, over a millennium and a half a few dominant sects have arisen: the majority Sunnis, the minority Shia, and a few others (Sufis, Ahmadis, Ibadis, etc.), each of which with their own traditions.
When it comes to the link between religion and terrorism no faith dominates the headlines like Islam. Opinions on the role Islam plays in violent extremism range widely from ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ to ‘Islam is inherently violent’. As with most things in life the truth is somewhere between the extremes.
At the risk of gross oversimplification one particular brand of Islam has become very problematic. That brand goes by several names – Salafi, Wahhabi (the latter is a subset of the former) – and one state in particular has been very active over the past few decades in exporting this ultraconservative, intolerant and hateful version around the world: Saudi Arabia. Countries with long moderate traditions – Bosnia, India, West African nations, and Indonesia among others – have seen their citizens enveloped by a faith that is foreign to their lands. There is a very real connection between Salafist Islam and violent extremism: no, one cannot be reduced to the other but there is a link.
Thankfully, at least one nation is hitting back. The youth wing of the Indonesian group Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Islamic mass movement on the planet, is seeking to re-interpret Muslim laws and practices from the Middle Ages to have them better conform to the 21st century. This move should be welcomed and supported.
NU has a tough road ahead of it. The Saudis and their allies have a decades’-long head start and oodles of cash. Nevertheless, this is indeed good news. There is a battle for the soul of Islam and we should all hope and pray that the majority moderates (i.e. normative Islam) comes out on top. The further marginalisation of Salafi jihadism will suck some (but not all) of the oxygen from the terrorists and perhaps lead to better relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. Besides, I think we can all agree that seeing less of the self-styled yet clownish preachers of hate like the UK’s Anjem Choudhury on our screens and tablets will be a very nice change indeed.
I wish the Indonesian efforts every success. The world certainly needs less hate.