The unhelpful influence of foreign hateful preachers

There are many examples where ‘imported’ religious leaders poison the minds of followers: this practice has to stop.

There are many examples where ‘imported’ religious leaders poison the minds of followers: this practice has to stop.

Years ago, when I was still going to Catholic masses on a semi-regular basis, I noticed an interesting phenomenon beginning to gel within the church. In response to a clear lack of candidates for the priesthood in Canada, ordained men were coming to lead parishes from all over the world, especially the Third World.

Most of these individuals were very good people I thought. They led mass, counselled Catholics, did baptisms, weddings and funerals (or ‘Hatching, Matching and Dispatching‘ as a cheeky Canadian comedy from a few years ago termed it), and in essence kept a lot of churches open that would have otherwise shuttered due to a lack of pastor.

Some, however, were cut from a cloth (so to speak!) I did not appreciate. I am centrist in nature, leaning a tad left on some issues and a tad right on others. The men I did not like to listen to when it came time for the sermon struck me as extreme right-wing conservative ideologues. In fairness, some of my fellow Catholics loved this interpretation of the faith: to each their own. Me? I often found myself walking out in the midst of a diatribe when I could no longer sit through it.

I do not wish to limit my criticism to the Catholic church. All religions suffer from this phenomenon where preachers dole out messages that are conservative at a minimum and hateful, bordering on violent, at the worst. And, truth be told, Islam is one faith where this is indeed a problem.

Relations between France and the Muslim world are headed in the wrong direction

I got to thinking about this when I read that France, in the wake of a recent spate of Islamist extremist terrorist attacks, is enacting all kinds of new laws and practices, including a call by President Emmanuel Macron for the French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM) to create a council of imams. This body would designate and certify Muslim preachers and must affirm its recognition of the values and principles of France, to wit Islam in France is a religion and not a political movement. Macron also called for an end to the interference or affiliation of foreign states in French Islam.

Some have labeled France’s recent moves ‘Islamophobic’ and some Muslim-majority states are calling for boycotts on French goods. The debate is heating up and it appears relations between France and the Muslim world are headed in the wrong direction.

Why, then, would France have made this decision? Simple. That country, like so many other Western nations, has had a problem with ‘imported’ imams who spew intolerance and hatred from the pulpit. And a lot of these hatemongers were trained in Saudi Arabia, or by others trained there. Saudi Islam, often referred to as Wahhabism, is not just ultraconservative: it is downright rejectionist of any other interpretation of Islam.

France has a huge issue with violently radicalised Muslims

Furthermore and not inconsequentially, France has a huge issue with violently radicalised Muslims. The security services estimate there are at least 18,000 individuals considered potential security threats. The prisons are full of convicted terrorists who can in turn radicalise others.

Yes, some of these were radicalised in part online, or through their social networks (including families) but others were fed this rot in mosques. I would imagine that some of the preachers of hate are themselves ‘homegrown’ but others emigrated to France to spread their poison. As a consequence, France wants this practice to end, or at least get a domestic body to vet potential imams.

Lest you think only France has this problem, think again. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, one where Islam has always been seen as ‘moderate’, is also worried about this dangerous foreign input.

The government is concerned that a radical Islamic leader named Rizieq Shihab – who had been ‘exiled’ to Saudi Arabia but has returned – will engage in “disruptions to democracy and national unity“. He does not appear to encourage masking for COVID-19, and has a huge following in Indonesia. There are even rumours he may run for president in the 2024 elections.

Desecrators of the Qur’an must be punished. We must reject the leaders of infidels (NB a reference to the Chinese-Christian governor of Jakarta). If our demands are not heard, are you ready to turn this into a revolution?” “We’re ready!” screamed the crowd, breaking into huge applause. “God is great!”, they shouted. There were cries of “Kill Ahok!” –

Rally led by Rizieq Shihab

Indonesia has long faced a challenge with imams who toe the Saudi line and who exert influence in this vast archipelago. Saudi investment in Indonesia has at turns fuelled jihadists, helped consolidate the country’s leading Islamist political party and produced dozens of influential ideologues. An equally pervasive legacy of Saudi proselytisation in Indonesia has been the rise of virulent religious intolerance. In addition to the commonplace harassment of Christian groups, Indonesia is also now a country where there is a national “anti-Shia” league and mobs have driven Ahmadiyya Muslims from their homes into refugee camps.

Where did he pick up his particular hateful version of Islam?

Rizieq Shihab may be Indonesian, but where did he pick up his particular hateful version of Islam? And what more did he imbibe while in ‘exile’ in Saudi Arabia? I for one am rather skeptical of the Kingdom’s claims to be cracking down on this garbage. After all, even if leopards can change their spots it takes time, doesn’t it?

Is it any wonder Indonesia is worried? Or France for that matter? The latter has recognised it has had a problem since 2004! In that year the government proclaimed that the country’s imams must all learn French and widen their education as a majority of them were from outside France.

I am not maintaining that it is only hate-spewing imams who are the problem (there are enough similar rabbis, ministers and Buddhist monks to go around). Nor am I advocating the complete ban on the sharing of information or travel between countries. We can, and should, learn from each others’ experiences and that includes on religion. But when an unhelpful interpretation is exported and takes root elsewhere, we get what happened recently in Austria and France. I think we can all agree we do not want these types of violent events to happen again.

So let’s start by examining who says what to whom and encourage local messages for local people. Hey, it can’t hurt, right?

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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