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To take a stand is more important than to take a distance

Instead of distancing ourselves from terrorist crimes, as progressive Muslims we should confront the ultra conservative, violent Wahhabi/salafi version of Islam that is practised by both professional terrorists and despotic nations like Saudi Arabia.

Akmal Ahmed Safwat
23 January 2015

What used to be sporadic is now becoming grotesquely normal: waking up in the morning to news of massacres throughout the world committed by terrorists in the name of Islam. This leaves a bitter taste in the mouth that won’t go away, especially if you are, like me, a Muslim.

Sadly, personal initiatives of denouncing terror do not change anything on the ground. They will neither help the victims of the current disaster nor prevent future ones. They will definitely not ease the anxiety of those who doubt Muslim loyalty to the democratic principles of Denmark where I live.

It is an entirely different, however, when politicians ask moderate Muslims to distance themselves. I feel that this is the wrong thing to ask for and the wrong thing to do.

It is crucially important to target mosques or organizations that have expressed radical and extremist views and ask them to distance themselves from specific crimes. But to demand this from law abiding Muslims who have never endorsed jihad ideas means that all Muslims are suspects unless we prove otherwise. It means that our loyalty is not assumed but must be declared and demonstrated, again and again.

This is both dangerous and unacceptable.

Instead of verbally denouncing terror, many Muslims in the West are now challenging the radical, ultra conservative and violent Wahhabi/salafi version of Islam that gives religious justification for hideous crimes. They are doing so through a growing movement of progressive Muslims such as British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Muslims for Progressive Values (USA) and the Liberal Muslim Network (Norway).

We progressive Muslims do not distinguish between atrocities committed by radical movements like Al-Qaida or Boko Haram and those committed by despotic dictatorships that dare to call themselves “Islamic” governments; the ones that administer the death penalty for apostasy and homosexuality; that practice stoning and flagellation; that legitimize child marriage. Both justify their atrocious practices through selected, outdated interpretations of primary Islamic scripture and a so-called “irrefutable authority” of ancient scholars and books.

When progressives talk about reforming Islam, we mean new interpretations built upon solid Islamic theology that is guided by the scholarship of modern Muslim scholars such as Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd,  Abdullahi An-Na'im, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Amina Wadud and others. Our goal is an informed confrontation with Wahhabi/salafi ideology to exterminate its hegemony and influence.

Wahhabi/salafi Islam is a literal way of looking at religious texts, taking it out of historical context and extending straight lines to current times. Its authority is often external to the Qu’ran, using things that are claimed to have been spoken (hadith) or performed (sunnah) by the prophet. These claims and interpretations are man-made.

Progressive Muslims, on the other hand, believe that history matters and that these claims can be challenged. The ancient Islamic Scholar Al-Shafi'i, changed his fatwas when he moved from one Islamic country to another because he acknowledged how his previous ideas did not suit the new environment. Yet today’s salafists insists on applying Al-Shafi’s old fatwas unchanged, more than 1000 years after his death.

Progressive Muslims essentially differ from traditionalists in the way we approach the Qur’anic texts. In his book, The Place of Tolerance in Islam, UCLA scholar Khaled Abou El-Fadl says “It is impossible to analyse any verse, except in the light of the overall moral thrust of the Qur’anic message. The Qur’an commands Muslims to do the good and it is not accidental that the word used for ‘the good’ is ma’aruf, meaning ‘that which is known to be good.’ Goodness in the Qur’anic discourse, therefore, is a lived reality, the product of human experience and constructed normative understanding.”

So, when we progressives say Islam is a religion of justice, tolerance and compassion, we approach the holy texts with these values and vision and let the Qur’an guide us to an understanding of contemporary life. Consequently, we support women’s rights and agency and human rights for all. We support the civil rights of the LGBT community. We reject the idea that shari’a is immutable. We support procedural secularism and the separation of church and state. We oppose capital punishment.

This is how we distance ourselves from Islamists’ crimes, by trying to live ma’aruf on a day-to-day basis.

Progressive Muslim voices are actually everywhere, what is missing is critical mass. The problem with challenging the status quo is that you are marching into an unequal battle. Progressive Muslims are individuals and academics facing radical movements as well as whole countries moving towards political domination.

Furthermore, we are competing with Saudi Arabia’s unlimited petro wealth, a nation that has spent close to $100 billion dollars to export Wahhabi Islam into Islamic societies and thus assert its political influence. Through monopolizing satellite media and infiltrating religious institutions previously known for its progressive views, Saudi Arabian Wahhabism has managed to grip the hearts and minds of millions of Muslims. El-Azhar in Egypt is just one example.

Despite an appalling human rights record, the Saudi regime can always count on the West’s unconditional support in its quest for dominating the Muslim world.

In fact, a closer look would clearly show the striking resemblance between Saudi Arabia and the newly born Islamic State. It defies credibility and fundamental logic that Western nations would ally themselves with Saudi Arabia to fight ISIS, since the latter is the brainchild of the first and any difference between them is only in scale but not in kind.

If they want to fight terrorism, Western governments must abandon their double standard and take a firm and consistent stand against - not just professional terrorist organizations - but governments that abuse human rights and break international conventions.  Saudi Arabia and Israel are a good place to start.

If Western governments want to fight terrorism, they should recognize progressive Muslims and reach out to us for assistance, reversing the current insulting assessment that says we are not Muslim enough to matter. Western governments have to face an inconvenient truth: they’re never going to “fix” Islamic extremism by working with conservative salafi imams.

Legal philosopher, Abdullahi An-Na'im has taught us that the divide is not between Islam and western society but between people who have different values. He counsels us to promote connections between people who want to contribute to human values because people who share that commitment can collaborate effectively, irrespective of their own culture.

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