London, January 19, 2015 (Alochonaa): It was a cold London morning on Thursday 14th January 2016 when I woke to the very sad news that terrorists had struck again, this time in Jakarta, capital of Indonesia. Sarinah, one of several locations targeted by ISIS (who has claimed responsibility), is an area familiar to me where I enjoyed staying many times during my visits to Indonesia. I find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to kill, injure and disturb life in such a lovely place as Jakarta, which is remarkably tolerant and culturally very rich and diverse.
The Sarinah area in Central Jakarta can be quite pleasant whether visiting on holiday or for business. There are many quality hotels, convenient shops, malls, restaurants and other facilities suitable for all groups. It is also a very convenient location with good transport links for travelling around the city and beyond. Monas, the national monument, is just ten minutes walking distance from Sarinah and there are many other sites of importance in the area and nearby.
On the Thursday morning in question the normalcy of the area was disturbed and disrupted. The Sarinah area was turned into a battleground between terrorists and security forces with blasts and bullets, resulting in fear and insecurity for residents and visitors alike that lasted for several hours. Thankfully the authorities managed to bring the episode to an end reasonably quickly though not without some casualties amongst civilians and security forces sent to respond, as well as the deaths of the perpetrators. A terrorist attack by an Alqaeda linked group in Burkina Faso just one day after what happened in Jakarta caused the deaths of nearly 30 innocent people and injuring many more.
Waking up on my cold London morning disturbed by the news of the terrorist incident in a city that I love so much, motivated me to ask why this ISIS-style terrorism is seemingly happening more and more frequently? I also wondered whether this kind of violence undertaken by or on behalf of these self-styled Islamic groups was going to be a continuing part of our experience into the future? How large and repeated might these attacks become and how long might this nightmare continue? In considering these questions and understanding the unfolding madness of ISIS, it is necessary to appreciate the nature of Islam, the actions of ISIS and the contexts in which ISIS has emerged.
Islam is not a centralised religion with a hierarchical structure like some other religions. This means that within the house of Islam there is an absence of universally accepted religious scholars and wise leaders who can effectively provide authoritative religious interpretations to guide ordinary Muslims as individuals and groups in all their personal, social, economic, political and national life. The result is a lack of central authority that the vast majority of Muslims can accept, respect and follow. Without consistent and central guidance to assist with everyday concerns and challenges, many different interpretations will continue to develop as they have in the past, particularly during times of great conflicts and wars. The nature of each differing interpretation will be determined by the time and contexts in it is born.
A long time ago an Islamic scholar positively asserted that Islam is a free enterprise religion. In the absence of a centralised structure and authority, Muslims are free to undertake private initiatives as individuals or as groups, to promote the religion in any way they feel right or appropriate. This ‘free enterprise’ nature of Islam is an ingredient of its success story as a religion. The energies of millions of people were unleashed by means of a self-propelling inner drive, motivated by the prospect of great rewards in the afterlife for spreading Islam and achieving converts.
The idea of a ‘free enterprise’ religion is particularly true with respect to Sunni Islam, in contrast to Shia Muslims who operate within a greater institutional structure and hierarchy. The ‘free enterprise’ nature of the faith results in consequences that can be positive or negative, or both. One of the strengths of Islam as a religion is that no person is constrained by any higher authority in the world, so he or she can take initiatives as an individual or part of a group to promote the religion according to one’s own perspectives. From a historical perspective these individual and collective initiatives have been one of the main hallmarks of the successful spread of Islam around the world since its beginning in the seventh-century Arabia.
A shortcoming of being a ‘free enterprise’ faith system without institutionalised checks and balances is the possibility for individuals and groups to interpret Islam and its sources as they see fit. There were however many strong early agreements and traditions within Islam that provide a degree of discipline with regard to a number of fundamental elements of the faith. However, the lack of authoritative interpretations, guidance and leadership through a hierarchical order means that individuals and groups will always emerge with their own peculiar interpretations of Islam. This is especially so with situations of war and ideological confrontations. Extreme versions are more likely to emerge in the context of conflicts that cause displacement, human suffering and hopelessness and there is very little that anyone do to prevent this in the short term.
It is likely that the existence of a strong historical consensus, agreed traditions and interpretations of Islam will eventually eliminate the periodic emergence of extreme versions. Unfortunately, these extreme interpretations will continue to cause sufficient havoc and chaos to disrupt and destroy normal life, if they manage to acquire power or have access to significant economic and military resources.
One of the strategies adopted to discredit the ISIS group that appears to be ineffective is to suggest that it is the result of extreme Wahhabism. It will fail because its promoters have failed to authoritatively define and show in what respects Wahhabism differs from Islam. Further, I am yet to meet anybody who describes themselves as a Wahhabi. If people do not define themselves as a Wahhabi then any criticism directed at Wahhabism or their followers will miss its targets and be unsuccessful. Using wholesale generalisations in this manner is surely a self-defeating method of dealing with the challenges and threats coming from groups such as the ISIS?
Another self-defeating strategy is to try to silence or reduce Muslim criticisms of the West, Western colonialism or interventions in the Muslim world. The underlying assumption behind this strategy is that ISIS-style extremism starts from criticising the West (or Western civilisation) leading in turn to hatred and extreme movements that attempt to attack western interests everywhere. This ‘conveyor belt’ theory is insufficient to explain the emergence of ISIS and other extreme organisations of this nature. It is based on faulty processes of logic that lack rigour. One of the negative consequences of the strategy has been the changing of goalposts, for example, from targeting what has been called violent extremism to a new focus on so called non-violent extremism, which has made all religious Muslims suspects. Surely, another self-defeating strategy
I argue that ISIS is the Polpot-style curse of the Muslim world and life and civilisation cannot be normal where they exercise power or rule. The humanity needs to fully understand and maintain its awareness of the destructive power of ISIS, as it potentially poses even greater dangers than what have been witnessed so far. The danger from ISIS is potentially beyond what has been envisaged, based on their behaviour thus far and the terror they promote that continues to evolve. Defeating ISIS will not be an easy task, but efforts must be made to check and reverse their fortunes. Although there is no hierarchy within Islam there are however hundreds of thousands of learned scholars and leaders of the religion who must come together and use historical consensus and agreed traditions on the fundamentals of Islamic faith to help crush the ISIS and others who undertake and perpetuate mindless violence against innocent people in the name of Islam.
*M Ahmedullah holds a PhD on the Epistemology and Political Theory from University of Kent, UK. He worked for many years in inner city regeneration programme in the UK. Between May 2005 and June 2010 he has delivered a unique exhibition on Dhaka City in and around London. He is the secretary of Brick Lane Circle, an organisation based in London that runs academic events to help transform the intellectual landscape of the Bangladeshi community in the UK. His personal website is http://www.culturalparadise.org
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