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The Jewish Report Editorial

Many versions of Islam’s religious authority

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Two Sundays ago more than 1,5 million people and 44 heads of state marched in the streets of Paris to express their support and commitment in the fight against terrorism. And last Sunday Israeli security forces arrested seven Arab citizens accused of plotting terror attacks in Israel and of planning to join the Salafist jihadi group Islamic State in Syria.
by VANESSA VALKIN | Jan 21, 2015
What is dawning on us as the threat of radical Islam grows like a tentacled monster, making every Western democracy and every Jewish community vulnerable to the havoc, is that we need to understand it better.

The terror of Nazism, rooted in a more sane National Socialism, its leadership, strategies and ultimate goals are now familiar and well understood. But Muslim extremism, with its roots in a more peace loving Islam, is altogether more mysterious. And also mysteriously, while the Western world has stood up to condemn Islamic jihadism and terrorism, the Muslim world has been relatively silent, failing to show the world a united front against terror.

Islam itself has no single source of religious authority and there are many versions of it today. Extreme subsets like the Islamic State, al Qaida or Hezbollah are violent and scary but represent only a small minority of the world’s Muslim demographic.

While this piece won’t explore all extremist factions, it explores the spread of Wahhabi Islam - considered the inspiration for the Islamic State and viewed as the main source of global terrorism today. British historian and commentator Karen Armstrong recently published a very worthwhile history of Wahhabism whose main points follow below.

Wahhabism or Salafist Islam - which writer and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls “the most puritanical, anti-pluralistic and anti-women version of that faith” was actually born out of a very non-belligerent form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century.

Revivalist scholar Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703 - 91) believed that if the Saudis were to recoup some of the power and prestige they had lost at that time, they needed to return to the fundamentals of their faith. This meant ensuring that G-d and the study of the Qur’an - rather than idolatry and materialism - dominated the political order.

According to Armstrong: “There was nothing militant about this fundamentalism.” Killing civilians and prisoners of war, or destroying property was not allowed.

After Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s death, Wahhabism became increasingly violent and an instrument of state terror. But by the 1930s the official Wahhabism of the Saudi kingdom had abandoned militant jihad and had once again become a religiously conservative movement.

With vast wealth created by soaring oil prices in the 70s, the Saudi kingdom had all the petrodollars it needed to export its doctrines. The Saudi-based Muslim World League opened offices wherever Muslims lived across the globe.

The Saudi ministry of religion printed and distributed Wahhabi translations of the Qur’ an, Wahhabi doctrinal texts and the writings of modern Wahhabi thinkers. They funded Saudi-style mosques with Wahhabi preachers and provided free education for the poor.

According to Armstrong, the Saudis insisted on religious conformity in return for their generosity. Unfortunately the rejection of all other forms of Islam and other faiths undermined Islam’s traditional pluralism.

“A whole generation of Muslims, therefore, has grown up with a maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own,” she states. “While not extremist per se, this is an outlook in which radicalism can develop.” And although the Saudi government has opposed the jihadists, it’s not a big jump from Wahhabi Islam to the violent jihadism practised by the Islamic State. 

And interestingly, because Wahhabis focused on the oppression of Muslims worldwide in their teachings and through TV images and other media, many of those Saudis who fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya or trained in al-Qaida camps, were inspired by a desire to help their fellow Muslim brothers and sisters.  

They are also not always religious fanatics. Research by MI5 in 2008 found that a significant number of those convicted of terrorism offences since the 9/11 attacks, have been non-observant, or are self-taught. The shooter in last year’s attack on the Canadian parliament was a convert to Islam.

What is another commonality among these jihadists is that they are usually born into tough, impoverished, and violent circumstances. France, home to Europe’s biggest Muslim minority, provides a major source of jihadists to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, who murdered 12 people at Charlie Hebdo, were orphaned and grew up in foster homes. Amédy Coulibaly, who held up the kosher supermarket was brought up on one of Paris’ worst housing estates and had been in prison for robbery before becoming drawn to radical Islam.

According to a piece in the Economist this week, “If there is a common thread among those who become jihadists, it seems to be the quest to transform small, angry lives into powerful ones”.

And what does this mean for South African Jewry? Our own Muslim population, estimated at over one million, but growing in the face of refugees arriving from neighbouring countries, has mostly been non-violent. In fact a number of significant South African Islamic organisations have come out in criticism of IS.

While we had local groups like Pagad who were responsible for an urban terror campaign in Cape Town in the 1990s and now some reports of South African Muslims being recruited to fight overseas in Iraq and Syria, we are still problem free in comparison.  

Research conducted by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College in London, found that sub-Saharan African countries have not figured significantly in sending fighters to Syria.

Nonetheless, in the same week as the Paris tragedy, Boko Haram massacred thousands of people in next door Nigeria. While our own Muslim community has stood up in protest against what they consider Israel’s aggression in the territories, they have been relatively silent on France and Nigeria.

In assessing what role we as South African Jews have, it is obvious that we should never be quiet and accepting in the event of injustice or terror. Luckily our own community and its leadership have shown us that they will stand up to incidents they believe threaten our well-being and safety.

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