Postscript to a letter to extremists

We can defeat extremism by building something beautiful together.

Nafeez Ahmed
24 March 2017

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan speaking at the candlelight vigil in Trafalgar Square, London to remember those who lost their lives in the Westminster terrorist attack. Lauren Hurley/Press Association. March 23, 2017. All rights reserved.Islamist extremism is real, and it’s not going away. The Westminster attack is yet another reminder of that.

But defeating it requires a different approach to what has gone on before.

After the attack, my friend Muddassar Ahmed mobilised a group of British Muslims to form Muslims United for London, via the LaunchGood platform, to raise money for the victims and their families. Muddassar had been a witness to the attack on the day as he had been inside parliament when it happened.

Our initial target was £10,000. Within a matter of hours we’d raised over £5,000. We then hit our target and more, shortly after lunchtime – within 24 hours after the attack. So we upped the target to £20,000. Today, not long after most businesses start work, we smashed our target of £20,000. So we’ve upped it again to £30,000.

The general British public has overwhelmingly received the initiative in the spirit with which it was made: love, compassion and wanting to create something good in the aftermath of something so horrifying. In an article I wrote promoting the fundraiser, I’ve had comments from both the left and the right criticising the project.

But not everyone felt this way.

In an article I wrote promoting the fundraiser, I’ve had comments from both the left and the right criticising the project.

One person complained that we’re ignoring the fact that there is a problem of radical Islam, illustrated by the grotesque atrocities of groups like ISIS and the Taliban toward other Muslims, minorities and women. How can we deny that there’s no problem? I don’t explain, they began, “why the Taliban/ISIS/Al Qaeda, & other Islamic terrorist groups kill more fellow muslims than anyone else.”

Another person complained that Muslims are, actually, mostly extremists. They cited a controversial Channel 4 poll which claimed that 34% of Muslims would not report to the police someone who sympathised with terrorists in Syria. Never mind that the poll’s methodology was flawed according to the Runnymede Trust, which criticised it for a selective sample focusing on segregated communities – or that as Miqdaad Versi in The Guardian noted: “… for the survey’s ‘control’ group  – consisting of randomly selected people from across the country of all or no faiths  – the figure is only 30%. And other polls have found that 94% of British Muslims would report someone they knew who was planning an act of violence to the police.”

Others took a totally different approach. “How many people were killed by US and British bombs yesterday, Nafeez”, asked one. On my Facebook, a British Muslim whom I promptly unfriended, commented on my update about the fundraiser reaching its target: “Why are you groveling?”

So let’s tackle this head on. Bad ideas, extremist ideologies, don’t become prominent without a material infrastructure by which they are propagated. That takes money. And this is where we confront the deep politics of terror. A number of Muslim-majority governments have been exposed for consistently sponsoring Islamist extremist groups through the provision of, collectively, billions of dollars of financial and military support. Some of them have done so for decades.

Yet western governments often maintain a range of self-serving alliances with these regimes. They do so despite significant intelligence on this sort of regional state-sponsorship of terrorism. The reasons for this are complex and systemic. At base, we are talking about interlocking financial interests. The fact that many of these countries, in the Gulf region for instance, hold much of the world’s oil reserves, also plays a significant role. And yet another related issue covers geopolitical and strategic concerns to maintain the stability of these regimes, to keep the oil flowing, to keep the world economy functioning, regardless of their tyrannical policies at home and support for terrorists abroad.

In other cases, western interference and alliances with proxy groups tied to the same terror groups – in places like Afghanistan, Syria and Libya – has amplified and entrenched their activities. And to compound matters, western military interventions across the Muslim world have tended to indiscriminately kill civilians, stoking grievances, driving some locals into the arms of militant recruiters, and providing fodder for the extremist recruiters who operate in western homelands.

While vast majorities of Muslims continue to oppose the extremism of groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, these processes mean that a festering pool of discontent still fuels the activities of militants in different parts of the world.

And beneath all of this, we have the deeper, slower but inexorable biophysical processes of climate change, energy depletion, food crises and economic contraction which are converging to weaken and undermine the already largely fragile, autocratic regimes in the region. As these regimes become weaker, as states begin to fail, the ongoing influx of money to extremist groups by various powers for geopolitical purposes is radicalised by the short-sighted (and often self-serving) reactionary military solutions adopted by the west. The truth of the matter is that the problem of extremism is a shared reality for which the western and Muslim worlds are co-responsible. This may be unpalatable.

Within this complex picture, it’s easy to focus on only one element of the mosaic of factors and blame the party that suits: we can blame ‘Muslims’, ‘radical Islam’, ‘the West’, ‘foreign policy.’

The truth of the matter is that the problem of extremism is a shared reality for which the western and Muslim worlds are co-responsible. This may be unpalatable. Different sides would prefer to blame the other exclusively. But that is only going to compound the problem.

So let’s be clear. Muslims United for London is about doing something real. It doesn’t address root causes – it cannot in itself solve the very real problem of Islamist extremism. And it clearly in no way challenges atrocities for which British or other western governments are responsible.

What it does is simple. It follows the injunction of the Prophet Muhammad as follows: “What actions are most excellent? To gladden the heart of human beings, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful, and to remove the sufferings of the injured.”

For us, Islam is about protecting and sanctifying all life, our fellow species on the planet and the planet itself. ‘Allah’, the Divine Reality, conveys the concept of ‘crazy, unbounded love’, and the Muslim is literally ‘one who surrenders’ their ego to this ultimate Reality (Haqq).

Within the world, the Muslim is tasked to see her or himself as living in sacred trusteeship with our fellow creatures, and the entire Earth, holding a deep, fundamental responsibility to care for all, by embodying the ethical categories derived from the Divine Names (the Compassionate, Ar-Rahman; the Merciful, Ar-Raheem; the Just, al-Adl).

These are Islamic principles I and a collective of western Muslims have attempted to elaborate in detail through our theological project, Perennial, which begins to illuminate an authentic, trans-sectarian but scripturally grounded exploration of Islam’s real teachings about human existence.

Muslims United for London is a small, humble, spontaneous gesture of humanity inspired by our faith. It is an illustration of what is possible when people come together in times of crisis. It encapsulates the sorts of actions that, in themselves, put to shame the disgusting atrocities of extremists in our midst.

We can, and will, condemn and disassociate ourselves from those who abuse the name of Islam to kill, murder and rape. But we want to show that we can build something beautiful together too, and we’re doing it because that is the vision we aspire to.

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