Muslims who use terms such as “extremist” are not seeing the bigger picture

Ghulam Esposito Haydar highlights the problems with Muslim leaders and activists parroting labels such as “extremist”, which subsequently legitimises the government’s Islamophobic agenda.

It is rather concerning how many Muslims are willing to use the term “extremist” in the context of challenging beliefs, when the term itself is ill-defined, and indiscriminately used by the government to group an array of normative Islamic beliefs, ranging from the conservative to the political.

Without challenging the arbitrary use of this popular but problematic label, we are merely succumbing to the dominant narrative on terrorism. Muslim activists and leaders who do use this term, should realise that they are legitimising the government’s script that Islam is the problem, and it is a “conveyor belt” to terrorism.

isisTo make it clearer, there are genuine “extremist” views that exist but they need to be explained by Muslim scholars and have been done in the past. The existing Islamic definition of “extremism” is “ghuluw”, i.e. extremism within religion, more specifically, the methodology of the group known as the “Khawarij”. Any intra-Muslim debate about “extremism” need only to refer to the classical orthodox understanding of Islam, and to some degree, a number of Muslims have.  It also needs to be made clear that the ideology in of itself is not the driving factor to terrorism. As Dr Salman Butt recently wrote on Islam21c:

“ISIS is a ‘perversion of Islam’, and those who support their ‘twisted ideology misinterpret the Qur’an’— which is factually correct — it is problematic if they fail to challenge the dangerous myth that the ideology or misreading of the Qur’an they condemn is what takes an otherwise ‘normal’ individual and pushes them towards political violence, in the first place. In other words, they are still blaming ideology instead of the host of actual, empirically-determined, causes of political violence, and perpetuating the same dangerous consequences as the rhetoric of the right-wing bigots.”

It is even more problematic when some Muslims regurgitate these stereotypes about their own identity, such as their religion having the propensity to cause terrorism if merely “misinterpreted”. Indeed, it is often easier to convince a non-Muslim of the fallacy of correlating non-violent “extremism” with terrorism, than it is to overturn some Muslims’ mental conditioning involving the myths surrounding “radicalisation”. Years of Islamophobic battering has taken its toll on the Muslim mind, rendering most of us automatically defensive and apologetic when it comes to “terrorism”, with very few people actually questioning statistical significance.

How can you say ideology doesn’t matter when they use ideology to justify their actions?

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Many people may ask variations of the above question, since the overt displays of Islamic identity and practice is highlighted frequently by those wishing to push the fictitious conveyor belt theory. The answer is in the question itself: they use their “ideology to justify their actions”. There is a world of difference between a cause for something and a post-facto justification.
This is precisely why numerous academics have mentioned that ideology is incidental, not causative. If people who have decided to commit an act of political violence happen to be Christian, they will justify it using the language, imagery, metaphors, and ethical framework they are familiar with — Christianity, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, or the other so-called “Christian terrorist” organisations which we never hear of.

If they happen to be Buddhist, such as the militias in Myanmar slaughtering the Rohingya Muslims, then they will use Buddhist justifications. If Hindu terrorism, then Hindu justifications. If secular and non-religious, then separatist terrorism will be worded in neoliberal terminologies. And if they happen to be Muslim, then they will incidentally employ “Islamic justifications”.

Prime Minister David Cameron meets Muslim women attending an English language class during a visit to the Shantona Women's Centre in Leeds.
Prime Minister David Cameron meets Muslim women attending an English language class during a visit to the Shantona Women’s Centre in Leeds.

This leads me onto my next point; why are Muslims supporting the government’s relentless interference in Muslim affairs through the lens of “extremism” and securitisation?

For example the recent announcement to regulate madrassas, and the £20 million investment into teaching English to “foreign” Muslim mothers because it will “raise the standards of our institutes” and help with “integration”?

Muslims who support this are misinformed, naive or deliberately malicious.

The ideologically neo-con driven government doesn’t care about “raising the standards” or “integration”.

To their credit, they’ve been very open in saying it has everything to do with combating “extremism” and “radicalisation”.

If Muslims are genuinely concerned about raising the standards of our religious institutes and about integration, it is strange that they have failed to raise this matter in the past, and lobbied for some positive action internally. Why does it have to take a neo-con agenda to shape the discourse, and in the process, demonise our legitimate religious beliefs in an attempt to effectively change them for certain Muslims to be concerned about standards and integration all of a sudden?

If certain Muslims believe standards and integration to be an issue independent of it falsely being markers for “extremism” and “radicalisation”, then they shouldn’t allow the government to use them as pawns to legitimise their current crusade against Muslims. They should set out their criteria with praiseworthy intentions and go about doing it in the correct way.

Ghulam Esposito Haydar is a Muslim activist, joint founder of Manchester New Muslim Network and a director of the Myriad Foundation.


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