The attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has heightened debate and acrimony about Islam, Islamic theology, and the seeming propensity Muslims have to violence - a perception that sometimes seems universally shared by non-Muslims, but which is belied by empirical studies.
It has also fostered the view that Muslims should somehow take to the streets and condemn, or worse, apologize for the actions of the few extremists in their midst. This expectation emanates from deep frustration with the turbulent acts of violence in the last two days, which have confused and angered so many people around the world.
Logic dictates, however, that Muslims should no more apologize for radical Islamism, than Christians for radical Christian views or acts of violence. Nor should Buddhists apologize and make amends for the action of Buddhist Rakhine extremists in Myanmar, who have engaged in ethnic cleansing against minority Rohingya Muslims. Nevertheless, Muslims must engage in a deep introspective look at the sources of radicalism in their midst. Like any other religious text, the Quran contains passages of war and violence. Without proper contextualization, however, these passages can become dangerous in the violent hands of radical Islamists, applying their fossilized religious interpretations.
Admittedly, Muslim majority countries face challenges that go beyond religion, and include political and socio-economic problems. The authoritarian edifice of most Middle Eastern states and the lack of appropriate venues for dissent have radicalized a generation of young Muslims in a quest to fight what many of them view as unjust, and un-Islamic governments. The deep sense of alienation and marginalization of the young generation of European Muslims is also of deep concern.
All this notwithstanding, however, the greatest threat to Islam is the relatively modern phenomenon of Wahhabism. A cancer that has been allowed to fester and metastasize within Islam for several a couple of centuries.
Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-91) advocated a return to the example of the Prophet and the salaf (companions of the Prophet,) as a way to reform what he perceived at the time as a schism in Islam. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab especially abhorred the popular cult of saints and idolatrous rituals at their tombs, which he believed cast divinity on humans and threatened Islam's monotheism. He opposed Sufism and Shi’sm as heretical innovations (bid’a). Most dangerously, Ibn Abd al-Wahab called on Muslims to reject the scholarly exegesis developed over the centuries by successive madhahib (schools of jurisprudence). This call undermined the religious authority wielded by scholars in Muslim world, and would ultimately enable generations of self-proclaimed religious experts to interpret scriptures at will to fit their own political or individual interests.
For all of its reformist puritanical zeal, Wahhabism would have been relegated to a mere footnote in the history of the region, if it were not for a literal pact signed with the future founders of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has systematically financed and globalized Wahhabi, literalist interpretations of Islamic texts.
Wahhabism's globalization has had profound effects on the rise of radical interpretations of Islam, outside the realm of learned theological hermeneutics. It has fueled extremists from Sayyid Qutb to Osama bin Laden to ISIS, who have variously claimed the mantle of radical Islamic reform and engaged in an extremist takfirist war (a war against so-called apostates). This misguided and nefarious battle has, in turn, effectively bastardized the noble concept of greater jihad, as an inner struggle, and transformed it into a call for acts of terrorism.
Wahhabi thought bifurcates the world into two antithetical parts: the House of Islam and the House of Unbelief. The former rests on a dogmatic, rigid understanding of Islamic theology. The latter is the enemy of Islam and consists of dictatorial Arab regimes, as well as moderate Muslims, among others. Wahhabi extremists prescribe violence against those in the realm of the unbelief, in accordance with their radical interpretations of Islamic texts.
Muslims today must reject this radical bifurcation and tackle head on those literalist, radical interpretations of Islamic texts. Unlike what Ibn Abd al-Wahhab may argue, this task is not the responsibility of average Muslims. Rather it is the work of honest, brave, and learned scholars of Islam and Islamic theology. In particular, passages in the Qur’an and Hadith, on war, apostasy, and violence are in need of new, unequivocal interpretations to fit the modern social and political realities of Muslim-majority states.
In their own ways, many Muslims have engaged in every day acts of resistance against these assaults on their faith. These include education, outreach, interfaith dialogue, and rejection of those amongst us who hold extremist Islamist views. But we must also tolerate positions that attack the holy in our religion. Unless we, as Muslims, develop tolerance, not necessarily acceptance, of negative discourses on Islam, we will continue to cede ground to radicals who seek to dictate the limits of the tolerable for Islam and all Muslims.
Acts of violence, faux rage, and self-victimization serve only to foster a negative image of our ability to solve the challenges facing our faith. Islam has lasted and largely flourished for the last fourteen centuries. Surely, Allah, the Quran, and the Prophet do not need protection from anyone, let alone the most heinous and criminal of extremists and radicals.