Is there a “war within Islam”?

The famous French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has penned an op-ed piece in which he asks whether there is a fight within Islam for the soul of the faith.  He makes the familiar argument that there are elements within the global Muslim polity that are at a minimum grossly fundamentalist and intolerant and at a maximum hateful, violent and murderous and that this minority is pitted against the majority.  After calling out the French government for “appeasement” over its failure to confront the extreme end, he calls on all of us to reject the notion that aberrant Muslims have “nothing to do with Islam”.

While I am not sure that the Fifth Republic caved to Islamist radicals – it is probably more likely that France’s much vaunted laicité led to unintentional blindness to the development of an extremist fringe within the country’s Muslim communities – I do agree, and have argued recently, that we really have to stop saying that groups like Islamic State have taken nothing from and do not share anything with the Islamic faith.  To do so would indeed be blind to facts.

Levy also notes that the majority of us who are not Muslim cannot afford to sit back and watch this internal struggle unfold, adding that we have to come out and openly support the good guys – i.e. the vast majority of Muslims who are decent human beings and who are an integral part of our planet’s societies.

Many would be uncomfortable with getting involved in a religious conflict of which they understand little (well, aside from Islamophobes and racists like Geert Wilders, Ann Coulter and Pamela Geller, to name but a few, but I will not dignify their brand of hatred with comment).  After all, who are we to tell 1.6 billion Muslims what to believe?  We would certainly take umbrage at outsiders interfering in our faith, should we be Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or whatever.  Is it not best to leave the debates to the experts?

Absolutely, and yet this does not mean that we are disinterested bystanders.  As Levy puts it, we all occupy the same world and the acts and atrocities of a violent few are affecting all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.  Inaction is not an option unless we want to ignore the slaughter of tens of thousands by those claiming to be acting on God’s (Allah’s) orders.

But there has to be an optimal way to do this.  I think such an approach would involve several steps: getting to know more about what Islam really teaches (yes, yes there are “problematic” aspects but we should at least learn the basics); ensuring our Muslim neighbours that we abide by freedom of faith and religion within Canadian society; and standing by those same neighbours when they are engaged in debating and undermining the narrow messaging of the extremists.  Other than that, let those in the know determine which hadiths are strong and weak and what the real meaning of the Quran’s ayats is.  Even I know that the ability to do this is well beyond my insufficient grasp of Islam and I have been studying it for three decades.

At the same time we have to acknowledge that as of 2016 the single greatest threat to international security lies with terrorist groups that use Islam to justify their destructive acts.  Admitting this does not imply that Islam is inherently violent and incongruous with canonical Western constructs such as democracy and rule of law.  Curiously, all religions are both inherently violent and non-violent: they each have texts and histories in which violence was the God-driven norm (uncomfortable fact: my high school sports teams were called the Crusaders) and yet the vast majority of today’s adherents of all creeds reject violence.  Nor does it follow that violent extremism is inherently tied to Islam (David Rappoport’s “wave theory of terrorism” shows convincingly that all kinds of ideologies can underpin terrorist violence).  This Rapportian fourth wave will pass, although probably not for some time, and be replaced with a new scourge of ideological terror.  But for the time being, Islamist-based extremism is the unfortunate standard.  And we have to deal with that.

Going further, some have called for a “Reformation” of Islam.  By that I assume they are referring to the 16th century in which the Christian (Catholic) Church underwent tremendous change, eventually giving birth to dozens of sects.  I am not so sure that history repeats itself exactly the same way every time.  I prefer to see as more realistic Stephen Jay Gould’s version of replaying life’s film reel where the new version bears little relation to the old.  There is also the difficulty in predicting where revolutions (a reformation is after all a type of revolution) end up – you might be displeased with what you get.  Besides, revolution comes from within, nor from without.

In the end, let us leave the matters of faith to those that practice it.  If this is indeed a “war”, they are the soldiers, not us.  We can, however, by supporting them and making them feel part of our society, contribute collectively to the defeat of the unrepresentative violent fringe.  That way we all can go to the peace celebration.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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