The struggle for Islam’s soul

I just know that this blog is going to get me some flack. What in heaven’s name does a non-Muslim have to say that is remotely informed or relevant about Islam?  What is an outsider doing commenting on the “soul of Islam”?  Why doesn’t this person quit before he writes something stupid?

Sidenote – my late mother always advised me to stay away from religion and politics.  As many children do, I ignored her sage counsel and proceeded to launch a career as an intelligence analyst specialising in both religion and politics – i.e. terrorism.  Sorry mom.

But I do see an unfortunate competition for the essence of Islam in the West and this vying for predominance is not healthy.  I also see parallels with Catholicism, with which I am much more familiar since I am a Catholic, and I will try to draw comparisons later.  Tell me if I have a leg to stand on.

It is well-known fact that after the oil boom of the 1970s and 1980s, a cash-flushed Saudi Arabia began to spread its wealth, its influence and its version of Islam, forged in north-central Arabia in the mid-18th century, worldwide.  It is also an accepted fact that this interpretation of Islam, known as Wahhabism, is intolerant, hateful and runs roughshod over local nuances wherever it goes.  Legion are the stories from southeast Asia and other locales where Wahhabi-laden values and narrow expressions of what is ok and what isn’t in Islam have taken root and the results aren’t pretty.  The West has also had its share of Wahhabist infiltration.

On the other hand we have the Iran-led Shia version of the Muslim faith which, according to some, is vying for dominance. Personally, I don’t see this and if you look carefully enough the ones shrieking about this “threat” happen to be the Saudis and their allies, which makes you wonder.  As an intelligence analyst for over 3 decades we were always cautioned to “consider the source”.  I suggest that those who see Iran as a looming religious hegemon do likewise.

Now Turkey appears to have arrived on the scene. According to an article I recently read in The Economist (see it here), the Erdogan government is handing out cash and assistance to countries such as Albania, the Balkans, the Philippines and, wait for it, Haiti (Erdogan claims that Muslims settled nearby Cuba well before Columbus) and building mosques and Islamic centres.  Awkwardly, the new mosques have a Gulenist bent: the Turkish government broke with the Gulenists two years ago and has imprisoned many senior officials (I guess they can join the hundreds of journalists behind bars).  Whether or not this represents neo-Ottomanism or is pure altruism, it is being welcomed by some: the mufti of Tirana sees Turkish Islam as closer to Albanian Muslims than the Wahhabi Salafists.

Enough recent history?  What does this have to do with Canada or terrorism?

Ok, now my two cents’ worth.  Muslims in the West need to develop their own way of praying, practicing and interacting within their adopted societies.  I have seen vibrant, dynamic communities in Canada that require no help, thank you very much, from the Saudis, Iranians or Turks.  Canadian Muslims have become every bit a part of the Canadian mosaic as did the Slavic communities from which my grandparents arose and who came to this country in droves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Yes, my forefathers brought with them their languages and their cultures, but they adjusted to become Canadians.  Which is what most Canadian Muslims have also done.  So kudos to them.

Canadian Islam will develop in myriad ways in the same way Canadian Catholicism has.  True, there are major differences between the two beliefs, and the Catholic hierarchy has no real equivalent in Islam (well maybe a bit in Shiism), but the Catholic church in Canada is very much Canadian (just at the Italian church is Italian and the Mexican church is Mexican).  Yes, there will be Catholic communities where the conservative nature of the Vatican will hold court, but my experience is that the church here has assumed a local flavour.

And that is exactly what Canadian – and other Western – Muslims need to do more of.  Make your community your own.  And at the same time, show Islamic State that it is wrong.  IS claims that Muslims cannot live and practice freely in the West.  You have already demonstrated that this is false.  Embrace the bounty that this country and this society offers you.  Canadian Muslims have a role, just as we all do, to make Canada.

Now the link to terrorism.  No, there is no direct line uniting intolerant Wahhabi Salafism and terrorism, but there is a significant tendency for Islamist extremists to lean towards these views.  We certainly don’t need those views here.

Look, do what you want.  After all, who am I to dole out advice?   It’s just that I think that you don’t need Saudi, or Iranian, or Turkish imams and scholars to tell you what to do.  You have yourselves.  And that is more than enough.

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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