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The hullabaloo about tableeghi jama’at (TJ)

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In the backdrop of COVID19 surge worldwide, two congregations of the TJ, one (1, 50,000) in Pakistan and another (3,000) in India rippled shock-waves. The both, allegedly, violated official instructions. Hundreds of foreign attendees came to Nizam mosque as `tourists ‘instead of as ‘missionaries’ from 21 countries, including Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Malaysia, Sri  Lanka and Kyrgyzstan.

After attending the gathering, they `spread out to other parts of India such as Kashmir and Andhra Pradesh, creating a web of close contacts that now threatens to create an explosion of cases in the country’.

As such, India sealed the mosque, and booked them, including chief priest Maulana Saad, under criminal laws and unleashed a witch hunt to catch those who escaped the dragnet. Seven persons reportedly died of the disease, and as many as 24 detainees tested coronavirus.

One attendee from disputed Jammu and Kashmir died in the mosque. His death was termed martyrdom.

India’s view: `Islamic proselytizers appear to have worked around the scrutiny by hiding the real purpose of their travel to India, blindsiding Indian missions abroad’. And, `they operate in grey areas and their preaching can be used to radicalise youth in the name of Islam’. They cause

`Environmental damage by filing the Yamuna and Ganga with “religious waste” or turning the densely populated and congested Nizamuddin Basti into a “Covid-19 hot spot” for the  sake of an Islamic gathering’. A newspaper asked, `But if this isn’t plain stupidity in the name of Allah, then what is?  Contamination, from Assam to Telangana to the Andamans.

Media allegations: The New York Times reported that the participants in the 16,000-strong gathering [Malaysia] of the world’s biggest Islamic missionary movement had spread the coronavirus to half a dozen nations, creating the “largest known viral vector in Southeast Asia”. “More than 620 people connected to the four-day conclave have tested positive in Malaysia, prompting the country to seal its borders until the end of the month. Most of the 73 coronavirus cases in Brunei are tied to the gathering, as are 10 cases in Thailand”.

On 18 March, Al Jazeera, quoting Malaysian Health Minister Dr Adham Baba, reported that only half of the Malaysian participants who attended have come forward for tests, raising fears that the outbreak from the mosque could be more far-reaching.

Even in Pakistan, 27 members of Tablighi Jama’at, out of the 35 screened at their headquarters in Raiwind, tested positive for coronavirus.

The organisation has been described as “a free-floating religious movement with minimal dependence on hierarchy, leadership positions, and decision-making procedures. Controversies: However, due to its orthodox nature, the sect has been criticised for being retrogressive.

Women are always burqua-clad and the organisation has been accused of keeping women ‘strictly subservient and second string.’

Associated with terror? In France, according to an article, as many as 80% per cent of  the Islamist extremists have come from Tablighi ranks, prompting French intelligence  officers to call Tablighi Jamaat the ‘antechamber of fundamentalism.’ They have also been accused of molding terrorists who have moved to larger terror groups.

Famous members of the organisation include Pakistan’s three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif father and India’s president Dr Zakir Hussain.

Seven deaths have been linked to the religious gathering at “Markaz Nizamuddin”, the Delhi headquarters of the Tablighi Jama’at, and 24 cases have been confirmed.

On the face of it, TJ’s six principles suggest Islamic piety in its extreme. But that is merely its cosmetic exterior, inviting the innocent and idealistic young Muslims into an ideological line that ultimately turns them as terrorists. The less known and dangerous side of the century-old TJ began unfolding the world over since 2001, but not in India.

Dr. Farhan Zahid, in his analysis titled “Tablighi Jamaat and its links with terrorism” [Foreign Analysis  March 2015 Centre Francais de Reserche Sur le Renseignement] descries TJ as `nursery and gateway to terror’. He alleges, perhaps without sufficient corroborative evidence,

“TJ is another system driver and integral element of Islamist Violent Non-State Actors’  internal dynamics; in many cases it has acted as nursery for indoctrinating Islamist  terrorists,” writes Dr Farhan Zahid, a Pakistani counter-terrorism and security expert,  in his analysis titled “Tablighi Jamaat and its links with terrorism” [Foreign Analysis  March 2015 Centre Francais de Reserche Sur le Renseignement]. Dr Farhan says, TJ “in a way plays the role of recruiter and sympathiser [for terrorism]. TJ’s congregation allows radical elements worldwide to meet and discuss violent activities and provide them with the best opportunity to coordinate”. Adding “many of its followers have dual and overlapping membership with jihadist groups”, Dr Farhan cites references and says “TJ has now been considered as a ‘gateway to terrorism’.

Dr Farhan erects his views on TJ’s  `terror record in Europe, US’. He  says since 2001, traces of links have been found between TJ and Islamists  involved in acts of terror. Shoe bomber Richard Reid who attempted a trans-Atlantic  airline bombing [2001], Jose Padilla who tried dirty bomb manufacturing [2002] in New  York city, Barcelona terror plot [2008] and the arrest of American Taliban John Walker in Afghanistan [2001] were all linked to TJ. Its French Muslim recruits were found involved  in planning attacks by the Portland Seven and the Lackawanna Six in the US.

”During the 1980s and 1990s, TJ became the recruiter of Islamist radicals for the Afghan war. Dr Farhan points out that Harkat-ul Jihad-al-Islami [HuJI] was formed by former TJ members Qari Saifullah Akhtar and Fazal ur Rahman Kalil along with others. 

From the HuJI platform emerged other jihadist outfits – Harkat-ul-Mujhahideen [HuM]  Jaish-e-Mohammed [JeM], Sipah-e-Sahaba [SSP] and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi [LeJ]. All of them stand declared as terror outfits.

In his analysis titled “Tablighi Jamaat: Jihad’s stealthy Legions” in Middle East Quarterly [Jan 8, 2016] Alex Alexiev writes that as 80 per cent of Islamist extremists have come from Tablighi ranks and the French intelligence calls TJ the ‘antechamber of fundamentalism’. 

In his investigative story titled “French Islamic group offers rich soil for militancy’ in The New York Times [April 29, 2005] Craig Smith lists Zacarias Moussaoui [charged in the US 9/11 terror]; Herve Djamel Loiseau, who died fleeing the 2001 American bombardment of Tora Bora in Afghanistan; Djamel Beghal, an admitted Al-Qaeda member, who was convicted in 2005 for plotting to blow up the US Embassy in Paris, as TJ terror activists of French origin. Freth Burton and Scott Stewart, writing in an analysis titled “Tablighi Jamaat: An Indirect Line to Terrorism” in the Stratfor Global Intelligence Security Weekly, say that 12 out of the 14 men arrested in a pre-emptive raid on a mosque in  Barcelona for plotting to attack targets belonged to TJ, adding that TJ’s name figured in the 2005 London underground bombings in which 52 people died and also in the attempted  bombings in London, Glasgow and Scotland. Assistant FBI Director [US] Michael Heimbach says that TJ has significant presence in the US, and Al-Qaeda was found to have recruited TJ adherents [New York Post Dec 27, 2015].

Mohammed Ahmedullah’s book The Pakistan: After The Coup [Harper Collins Publishers India  2000] is full of venom against the TJ. Khaled Ahmed, former diplomat and editor of Friday Times in Pakistan writes in On The Abyss: “Because of the rise of Deobandi  militias…. the [Punjab] province is rapidly losing its Barelvi temperament.” What the authors had prophesied came true in the very next year when Pakistan was found involved in 9/11 attack on the US. Over the years, Pakistan has come to be known as the global terror hub. Says Dr Farhan, “Several mainstream Islamist violent non-state actorshave taken their roots from TJ’s indoctrination and on the platform provided by TJ missionaries. It is the Deobandi ideology of TJ which provides potential jihadists a crucial link.

An India Abroad News Service report on April 1, 2020 titled “Tablighi Jamaat shares links  with terror outfits”, said: “As per WikiLeaks, some of the 9/11 al-Qaeda suspects detained by the US in Guantanamo Bay had stayed in the Tablighi Jamaat headquarters in Nizamuddin West, New Delhi, years ago. Tablighi Jamaat was also suspected to be involved in the burning of 59 Hindu kar sevaks in 2002 in Godhra, Gujarat, which led to mass communal rioting in the state. According to India’s retired Research and Analysis officer,   late B Raman, TJ in Pakistan and Bangladesh gained adverse attention for association with Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and members of the International Islamic Front formed by Osama bin Laden in 1998. Quoting  Pakistani newspaper reports from the 1990s, Raman pointed out that the trained cadre of  jihadi terrorist organisations like HuM obtained visas by posing as preachers of Tablighi Jamaat and went abroad to recruit young Muslims for terror training in Pakistan. Since  millions of TJ proselytisers travel around the world, TJ also developed a large following in Chechnya and Dagestan areas of Russia, Somalia and other African countries. Raman wrote that intelligence agencies of these countries suspected that terror organisations based in Pakistan were using the cover of TJ preaching for creating sleeper cells in different countries. As a result, TJ was black-listed and its preachers denied visas.”

B Raman, one of the most brilliant R&AW officers, passed away in 2013.In a piece titled “The road to Sri Lanka Carnage” on Rediff.com, the well-known security analyst Praveen Swami linked Mohammad Muhsin Nilam, a Sri Lankan, to Zahran Hashim who  was responsible for the Colombo bombings. Also known as Abu Shuraya, Nilam was killed in 

Raqqa, the ISIS capital. Nilam’s story is key to understanding the networks thought to be responsible for the carnage in Colombo. Swami says that Tablighi Jamaat had begun to grow roots among Sri Lankan Muslims from the early 21st century. Swami says, “Educated in Sharia law at Islamabad’s International Islamic University, an institution where Osama bin Laden’s mentor Abdullah Azzam once taught, Nilam had encountered with the Tablighi Jamaat. In 2011, when Nilam returned to his home in Kandy in Sri Lanka, he first worked as part-time Urdu instructor at Colombo University. When he was principal of a school in Galewala, he played a key role in Zahran’s group. Then, in 2014, feigning to go on a pilgrimage with his six children, pregnant wife, and ageing parents, he took them to Turkey and disappeared across the border into Syria. He posted in his Facebook post: “We will kill every man, woman, child, Shia, Sunni, Zoroastrians, Kurds, Christians.”Nilam had recruited for ISIS 36 Sri Lankans, maybe 100, including his friend, Thauqeer Ahmed Thajudeen. Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamaat and Tablighi Jamaat have identical goals and their  interests converge. Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamaat is the mentor of Sri Lanka’s NationalThowheed Jamaat, which delivered the bombs in Sri Lanka. There is no Thowheed Jamaat  outside India and Sri Lanka.

In a 173-page paper titled “Tablighi Jamaat: Wolf in sheep’s skin [Sept 9, 2018; released to media again after the Nizamuddin episode] Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, a Zionist and multi-award-winning anti-jihadist journalist and a counterterrorism specialist, unravels the massive following of JT and its terror connections the world over. Thousands of TJ teachers from within and outside assemble in India and that is what they did in Nizamuddin. Is it just to memorise the six noble principles or as Dr Farhan says “to 

discuss and coordinate terror activities”, will never be known in India, as no government has the guts to enter any mosque, thanks to the way secularism is understood in our  politics.Unless this limit is breached and the menace is outlawed, innocent Muslims attracted by its cosmetic exterior of Koran cannot be saved from becoming carriers of  Kalashnikovs and makers and throwers of lethal bombs. Let the courts decide whether TJ’s right to mentor terror in India also constitutes minority right, as is so far being understood.

Analysis: It appears that anti-Pakistan elements, including those in prestigious’ think tanks, and `intellectuals’ make pernicious allegations about TJ. Most writers appear to be sponsored by RAW, India’s premier intelligence agency. Indians in `think tank’ are in the forefront of disinformation. The aim is to tarnish Pakistan’s image. As for the USA, it is afraid of organisational  abilty and discipline  of the TJ.

Take RAND’s monograph `The Muslim World after 9/11 (RAND Project Air Force). The bloomers in the monograph caricature Rand Corporation claim on the report-jacket.  ‘The RAND Corporation is a non-profit research organisation providing objective analysis and effective solutions that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors around the world…The RAND monographs undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity’. ‘Objective analysis’?

 The report, influenced by Indian `peer reviewer’ Rollie Lal, is just a compilation of the others’ say-so, unverified presumptions, rumours or legends, dished out as ‘truths’. The monograph alleges `Al Qaeda recruits may have connection with Pakistan’s Tableeghi Jamat’. ‘However, the [Tableeghi] gathering is often a means to get into Pakistan, and once the individuals are in, they are fairly free to associate with whomever they desire…Raiwand is heavily monitored by a variety of intelligence organisations such as Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), Military Intelligence (MI), and the special branch [statement contradicting preceding allegation], p.259, ibid.).

.Here is a bouquet of RAND’s jaundiced blahs: (a) Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, are known to have connections to Al Qaeda, but are based in Pakistan rather than India (p. 308, ibid.). With the largest population of Muslims in the world, India remains an example of the compatibility of Islam and democracy (p.318, ibid.). (b) A figure titled “Muslim tendencies on a Spectrum of Democracy to Non-Democracy” classifies “Jam’at al Ulema-e-Pakistan” and “Jama’t-e-Islami (Pakistan)” as “Radical Fundamentalist” (p.10, ibid.). (c) Effects of Palestinian and Kashmir conflicts….Successive Pakistani governments have pursued a proxy war in Kashmir. To which they have subordinated the other purposes of Pakistani state to a large extent. This dynamic has dramatically changed the fabric of Pakistan’s domestic politics by empowering extremist movements and their sponsors in the Pakistan security services’ (pp. 49-50, ibid.). (d) As long as the Kashmir dispute remains unresolved to the satisfaction of India, Pakistan and the various Kashmiri constituencies, and as long as militant production and training infrastructure persists in Pakistan, security on the subcontinent will be a distant dream (p.295, ibid.). (e) In Pakistan, maulvis generally depend on the landlord (Chowdhury)…In some cases, the maulvis are even criminals (p.293, ibid.). (f) ‘Many in Pakistan have argued that the current army, though the most secular, is also the most anti-American (p.293, ibid.) [No mention of Pak army casualties and capture of over 700 al-qaeda stalwarts]. (g)  Madrassa reform is the key to breaking the cycle of radicalised madrassas [madaaris] producing cannon fodder for radical and terrorist groups (p.62, ibid.). … It has been impossible to repeal or amend the much-loathed Hudud ordinance, the blasphemy law, or the ban on alcohol (pp.290-291, ibid.). (h) Figure 0.1 in the monograph titled ‘Muslim tendencies on a Spectrum of Democracy to Non-Democracy’ classifies ‘Jamaat al Ulema-i-Pakistan’ and ‘Jamaat-i-Islami (Pakistan)’ as ‘Radical Fundamentalist” (p.10).

Inference: The eclectic media reports toe RAND’s. probably US-dictated line. RAND’s “mosque-and-madrassa reforms” reflect that the authors have never visited any madrassa. TJ has no militant agenda, so far. Through stretch of wild imagination it is being linked to militancy. India is fearful of TJ’s visits to Kashmir under her yoke.

Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been contributing free-lance for over five decades. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, et. al.). He is author of seven e-books including Terrorism, Jihad, Nukes and other Issues in Focus (ISBN: 9781301505944). He holds degrees in economics, business administration, and law.

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The sunset of the West and Islam: From US bombs to the return of the Taliban

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With regard to the issue of Islamic proselytism in Europe, where some countries (Belgium, Great Britain, France, etc.) have large minorities of Muslim believers – who, according to many, should be Americanized with sheriff’s hats, miniskirts and reducing the faith to smartphone apps – some clarifications must be made regarding the ignorance that leads newspapers, television and social networks to absolutely not understand what Islam is, i.e. a religion that does not look at races, but aims at the universalism of the God of Abraham.

The Muslim law is a legal science of ancient tradition based on the Holy Koran. Islam is a religious, political and legal system of a reality that is a whole: dogmatic, moral, ritual, pertaining to private and public law (according to our Roman law categories).

A whole – as said above – stemming from the same sacred sources and bearing the overall name of šarī’a (following the straight path revealed by God), which, being based on the Old and New Testament (prophets of Islam: Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mary, Muhammad), can be “translated” correctly into religious law of divine origin.

This is of absolute importance and it must be kept in mind – as a peculiarity of Islam – that this religion regulates – with very detailed positive precepts – every manifestation of the life of believers, even in those areas that might appear to be the farthest from the field of religion, according to the parameters of secularism.

The science of law (‘ilm al-fiqh) according to the Muslim jurists (fuqahā’, sing. faqīh) has a first bipartition in the sources of law (usul al-fiqh, sing. asl al-fiqh): the Koran, the Sunnah (ahadīt, sing. hadīt: sayings of the Prophet), the ijmā’ or consensus of the community (ummah) and the qiyās or deductive analogy.

The šarī’a, in turn, is divided into ‘ibādat and mu’āmalat. The former includes the five pillars of faith: acceptance of God, daily prayer, legal almsgiving, fasting and abstinence until sunset in the month of Ramadān (9th), pilgrimage to Mecca and its surroundings in the month of Dû l-Hijja (12th). The second covers all other aspects of the social, economic and political life of the community, and can be adapted to the varying needs of times and places, provided the results do not deviate from the word and spirit of the šarī’a itself.

Prof. Giorgio Vercellin (1950-2007) recalled that Westerners have always pretended not to see this fact, for contingent interests, first of colonial expansion – in trying to impose their own laws and exploit territories – and then of attempted internal assimilation (cancellation of national and fideistic individuality), and

«in essence, therefore, the Muslim world, and particularly the Islamic Near East (and in the manuals there is no trace of the presence of numerous and active Christian and Jewish communities in those territories over the centuries) is described as having an autonomous history worthy of attention only in the remote past. It is not by chance that the pages on Muhammad and his immediate successors follow the much more copious pages describing the Persians – i.e. the Achaemenids – the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Phoenicians, etc. In other words, Islam and the Muslim world are presented on the same “archaeological” level (and therefore devoid of evolution until today) as the ancient Greeks and Romans. […] The real crux is that the Society of Italian Historians has considered the “Muslim world”, so to speak, automatically as part of the “ancient world».

Instead, it is contemporary and present. Muslims are men and women of faith, and for them religion is also pure lawfulness. Islam is not just a confession, but a culture, a multicontinental and cross-sectoral civilisation, a way of life in which the relationship with the divinity is spiritual and temporal at the same time.

The history of Western thought, from the age of Enlightenment to the present day, is marked by the conflict between faith and science: there is a constant loss of ground of the areas of influence of religion in favour of the side hegemonised by technology.

By this we mean secularisation, rationalisation, relativism, etc. The most striking manifestation of all this is the recognition of the right to ‘believe’ but also to ‘not believe’. Tout court, it is the right to atheism, which Muslim jurisprudence – which, as seen above, is identified with faith – does not admit and which the West tries to impose with the violence of American weapons and with the soppy and cloying European do-goodism and political correctness. Whatever some well-meaning sociologists may say, Islam does not distinguish between religion and politics, between confession and law.

The trend that is being strengthened in the Islamic world consists in a reaffirmation of both regulations and general Shariah principles, which have been established either through legislation or as a practice in Muslim and Islamic countries, i.e. the places from where migrants come.

In the Islamic tradition, the principle that Islam as such must be both religion and State (dīn wa-dawla wa duniyā), and that the term secularism (‘ilmaniyya) is synonymous with atheism, materialism, permissiveness, moral decadence, etc., is fundamental, especially in the countries allied with the West (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, etc.), and in those which are not allied with it. In each of them the institutional presence of other faiths is rarely allowed – and this from a purely legal viewpoint.

The illusion with which weak-minded or mean-minded people (to say the least) and others pursue the so-called multiculturalism has no basis in the experience and beliefs of the other party. Therefore, imagining a Muslim who adheres to the canons and principles of the liberal system – which is atheist insofar as it turns faith from a value into a subjective choice or into an “evangelical” sociological solution and welfarism for the desperate or destitute people – is a deadly naivety: a historical suicide on the part of a society that no longer has anything to offer and on the part of a production system that is leading the planet to destruction.

Any person, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, who puts forward his or her own viewpoint – either in writing or in a speech, which subsumes his or her thinking – clearly believes it to be right and true, and does not accept – on principle – a contrary or different opinion.

It is practically the parallel of a Westerner who, for various reasons, moves to a Muslim country and ex abrupto denies his way of thinking and living. Sometimes you do not understand whether this candid hope is the result of the Westerner’s ignorance or, worse, the absolute malice of a few, since cheap and profitable workforce and caregivers are much more needed than ethics, respect and safety and security of our citizens.

This shows that it is not the West that tolerates the Muslim presence in Europe, but the opposite. In a society such as ours – in full social and environmental deterioration (see the Laudato si’ by Pope Francis), which has denied the sacred and has mixed genders; which is based on consumerism, servitude to money, exasperation of profit, the race for the useless, the triumph of technologicism, the race for pleasure, hedonism, the reduction of the ruling class and of politicians to zero; which has relegated women to the role of sexual icons and has reduced the sense of heroism to fiction; a society in which liberal-free market thinking generates embarrassing choices – the believers, including Catholics, Christians in toto, Jews and Muslims here, are instead tolerating the system that hosts them.

This is proved by the fact that the criminal horrors and atrocities we witnessed on November 13, 2015 were carried out by an infinitesimal percentage of Muslims present on our continent – on top of it, European citizens and not emigrants, i.e. legal children of those States where they committed crimes. It is not for me to explain why they have done so. In a millennium and a half, what has been happening for the last sixteen years, since the “humanitarian” bombs began to devastate the Afghanistan of the Taliban in the past and of the Taliban today, has never happened.

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Muslim-Evangelical alliance strives to create religious and political middle ground

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A recent unprecedented alliance between Muslims and Evangelicals takes on added significance in a world in which human rights are on the defensive, religious groups tend to forge political as well as ideational partnerships, and the role of the clergy in multiple Muslim-majority countries has come under scrutiny.

The alliance potentially could create a platform for voices in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East, in which significant segments of the youth who constitute a majority of the population, increasingly reject state-controlled, ritualistic forms of religion and distrust clerics subservient to the government.

It could also offer a middle ground on which elements of the secular centre-right and centre-left could meet based on shared faith-based values in deeply polarised parts of the world, particularly in the West.

International affairs and inter-faith scholar Michael Driessen suggested in an email to this writer that the recently forged alliance between Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one, if not the world’s largest Muslim civil society organization, and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), fits a pattern of partnerships between diverse religious groups that goes beyond seeking to protect minorities to promotion of social cohesion and fraternity.

Speaking at a virtual meeting of the Interfaith Forum of the Group of 20 or G20 that brings together the world’s largest economies, Tunisian Islam scholar Nejia Al-Ourimi seemed to anticipate the alliance when she argued that reform of Islam would have to be bottom-up and originate in civil society rather than top-down and directed and controlled by autocratic rulers who see it as a way of branding themselves and their nations as well as and one way of ensuring survival.

Ms. Al-Ourimi reasoned further that genuine inclusivity was precluded in much of the Middle East because most Arab constitutions assume that the state has a religion. She went on to say that “what we need to do is reframe the traditional approaches of linking religion to legislation. We must find leaders who are willing to withdraw from the traditional way of participating in the public sphere—through the legal and legislative dimensions—and return from a ‘values’ perspective to guide ethical efforts.”

In a contribution to a recently published report on Human Fraternity and Inclusive Citizenship issued by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and the Beirut-based Foundation for Diversity, Solidarity and Human Dignity (Adyan), Ms. Al-Oumiri points to a series of lofty, lovey-dovey inter-faith statements issued in the past decade by different combinations of Arab Muslim and non-Muslim clerics, religious and secular intellectuals, and politicians.

The statements constituted attempts by Muslim religious authorities and autocratic governments to keep ahead of the curb of youth aspirations and project themselves as voices of moderation by emphasizing religious freedom, religious pluralism, and inclusive citizenship irrespective of religious belief.

The statements include the 2012 Statement on Basic Freedoms issued by Al Azhar, Islam’s Cairo-based oldest institution of Islamic learning that has long been swayed by Saudi and United Arab Emirates financial support, the 2016 Marrakech Declaration that called for the development of a jurisprudence of that enshrines the concept of inclusive citizenship, and the Document on Human Fraternity signed in the UAE in 2019 by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.

Referring to the 2012 Al Azhar statement, Ms. Al-Oumiri highlighted the fact that the statement was issued in the wake of popular revolts that in 2011 toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Saudi and UAE manoeuvres helped roll back the revolts’ achievements in all of the countries except for Tunisia.

The manoeuvres did not roll back what Ms. Al-Oumiri described as a “new awareness” among “all the components that participated in the protest movement, secularists, liberals, Christians, Muslims and others, (that) became aware of the fact that the bilateral polarization and exclusionary relations prevailing at that time were the main reason for the dispersion of forces capable of inducing positive change and extricating Arab society from its chronic crisis.” It is an awareness that expresses itself today among others in changing youth attitudes towards religiosity.

Ms. Al-Oumiri’s ‘new awareness’ is one factor that hampers autocratic efforts to shape a moderate form of Islam that serves the needs of social change and economic diversification without conceding democratic freedoms, projects autocrats as religious moderates as part of their nation branding and furthers their quest for religious soft power.

The ‘new awareness’ is borne out by research and opinion polls that consistently show that the gap between the religious aspirations of youth and state-imposed interpretations of Islam is widening. The polls and research suggest that youth are increasingly sceptical towards religious and worldly authority. They aspire to more individual, more spiritual experiences of religion.

As a result, Nahdlatul Ulama’s opportunity to turn its alliance with the WEA into a vehicle of change in both the Muslim world and the West is enhanced by the fact that religious reform in rival contenders for religious soft power like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Egypt is top-down by decree or changes in common or civil rather than, more sustainably, bottom-up and anchored in religious law and jurisprudence.

The point was highlighted when Nahdlatul Ulama’s religious leaders took the first step towards reform of religious law and/or jurisprudence in 2019 by replacing the notion of the kafir or infidel with the concept of muwathinun or citizens to emphasize that Muslims and non-Muslims were equal before the law.

Leaders of the group say that they intend to tackle other outdated, intolerant, or supremacist concepts such as the dhimmi or People of the Book, and slavey that remain reference points even if large numbers of Muslims do not heed them in their daily life, as well as eventually blasphemy and apostasy.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s opportunity is further both bolstered and complicated by the fact that autocratic Muslim rulers wittingly or unwittingly reinforce Islamophobic tendencies in multiple ways by their often brutal abuse of human rights at home and their support of policies in various parts of the globe that encourage negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims.

These policies include the blurring in countries like France and Austria of the lines between political Islam and piety as well as autocratic Muslim acquiescence, if not endorsement of the crackdown on Turkic Muslims and Islam in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang.

Nahdlatul Ulama, despite its tangible adherence to principles of democracy, human rights, and tolerance, has yet to clearly distinguish itself from autocratic religious soft power rivals when it comes to its shared rejection of political Islam and identity politics. In other words, how it handles Islamophobia is likely to be a litmus test for Nahdlatul Ulama as well as its alliance with the Evangelicals.

Making that distinction clear is likely to also enhance the Nahdlatul Ulama-WEA alliance’s ability to bring together elements of the centre-right and centre-left could meet based on shared faith-based advocacy of human rights, democratic freedoms, and tolerance at a time that democracy is on the defence.

The linkage between the Nahdlatul Ulama-WEA alliance’s opportunity to serve as a bridge in both the religious and political domain is evident not only when it comes to countering religious supremacism but also far-right extremism. It is that linkage that adds a geopolitical dimension to the alliance’s potential.

Germany, where ultra-nationalist supremacists, despite recent electoral setbacks for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), have infiltrated the security and armed forces, spotlights the importance of creating a religious and political centre that is driven as much by shared values as it is by interests.

Security services recorded more than 1,400 cases of suspected far-right extremism among soldiers, police officers and intelligence agents in recent years. The German defence ministry last year disbanded a whole company of special forces after explosives, a machine gun, and memorabilia of the Nazi’s SS were found on the property of a sergeant major.

The geopolitical significance of developments in Germany is enhanced by the fact that some German ultra-nationalists and members of the far-right are believed to have links to Russia and /or far-right Russian nationalists.

In the latest German incident, prosecutors are investigating an official of Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, suspected of helping plan the assassination of a Chechen dissident as part of a campaign across Europe that targets critics of Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the Russian republic of Chechnya. Mr. Kadyrov is widely viewed as an associate of President Vladimir Putin and maintains close ties to Middle Eastern autocrats.

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Defining moderate Islam: Muslims and Evangelicals forge an alliance

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A major Muslim and Evangelical organization joined forces this week to significantly advance hitherto state-backed ceremonial inter-faith dialogues that seldom go beyond platitudes and lofty statements.

This week’s launch at a Washington DC mosque of an inter-faith alliance and a book published by the Institute for Humanitarian Islam and the Germany-based World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) as well as the Center for Shared Civilizational Values constitutes an Evangelical endorsement of Humanitarian Islam.

It also amounts to a rare Muslim celebration of an Evangelical authority, WEA secretary general Archbishop Thomas Schirrmacher, who played a key role in building a relationship between the Evangelical group and Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, one, if not the world’s largest Muslim movement.

“Dr. Schirrmacher’s decision to engage with the Humanitarian Islam movement may prove to be singularly consequential, and perhaps even historic, in its ramifications for the relationship between Christians and Muslims,” the editors of the book, Thomas K. Johnson and C. Holland Taylor said in their introduction.

Entitled ‘God Needs No Defense: Reimagining Muslim – Christian Relations in the 21st Century,’ the book is an anthology of essays written by preeminent Muslim and Christian scholars.

Based in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, the Institute for Humanitarian Islam was established by Nahdlatul Ulama to advance globally its humanitarian interpretation of the faith.

Nahdlatul Ulama sees the concept as an alternative to state-backed less developed and less tolerant and pluralistic notions of a moderate Islam as propagated by countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well expressions of political Islam represented by Turkey, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Nahdlatul Ulama was founded almost a century ago in opposition to Wahhabism, the austere interpretation of Islam propagated for decades by Saudi Arabia until the rise in 2015 of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Indonesian group positions Humanitarian Islam as advocating genuine religious reform rather than self-serving social and rhetorical change advocated by rulers eager to implement long-overdue economic and social reform and project themselves as genuine religious moderates in a global battle for Muslim religious soft power and the soul of Islam.

The differences between Nahdlatul Ulama’s Humanitarian Islam and the interpretations of the faith put forward by its conservative monarchical and republican Islamist soft power rivals are stark and raise fundamental questions about what constitutes genuine reform and how it can sustainably be achieved.

The differences pitch an independent civil society group, albeit one with close ties to the state, against states themselves.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s independence has allowed it to start a process of real change rooted in religious law and jurisprudence rather than a ruler’s decree or opinion issued by subservient clergymen.

The group challenges outdated, intolerant, or supremacist concepts such as the kafir or infidel, the dhimmi or People of the Book, and slavey that remain reference points even if large numbers of Muslims do not heed them in their daily life, as well as eventually blasphemy and apostasy.

The group’s religious leaders took the first step in 2019 by replacing the term kafir with the word muwathinun or citizen to emphasize that Muslims and non-Muslims were equal before the law. “The word ‘kafir’ hurts some non-Muslims and is perceived to be theologically violent,” Nahdlatul Ulama cleric Abdul Moqsith Ghazali said at the time.

Independence also enabled Nahdlatul Ulama to embrace the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, parts of which are exempted by its religious soft power rivals. That is not to say that liberals may not take issue with some of the interpretations of the declaration by Nahdlatul Ulama, a socially conservative movement.

The differences raise questions about Nahdlatul Ulama’s ability to succeed beyond the significant inroads that the group has made among political and religious elites in the United States, Europe, the Vatican, and parts of Africa and Asia.

The launch in Washington of the unprecedented alliance and the book is together with Nahdlatul Ulama’s association with the Centrist Democrat International (CDI), the world’s largest grouping of political parties, the most publicly visible evidence of its success among elites.

The alliance puts flesh on the skeleton of recent inter-faith dialogue by bringing together two of Islam and Christianity‘s major groups. Nahdlatul Ulama has tens of millions of followers while the World Evangelical Alliance says it represents 600 million Protestants and national evangelical alliances in 140 countries. The alliance with Nahdlatul Ulama casts a different light on Evangelicals as opposed to Evangelists, who particularly, in the United States have often come to be identified with Christian nationalism and Islamophobia.

The alliance aims “to prevent the political weaponization of identity; curtail the spread of communal hatred; promote solidarity and respect among the diverse people, cultures and nations of the world; and foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being,” the Institute for Humanitarian Islam and the  Nation’s Mosque in Washington, said in a press release.

With the creation of the Center for Shared Civilizational Values, the alliance also constitutes an effort to create a platform for a dialogue that moves beyond elites to nurture a grassroots movement in favour of religious reform across major religions that emphasizes inclusivity, pluralism, tolerance, and common values rather than exclusivism and supremacy fueled by identity politics. (In the spirit of transparency, this writer has been invited to be a member of the centre’s advisory board).

In doing so, the Center hopes to build on Nahdlatul Ulama’s substantial popular base in Indonesia, the WEA’s reach across the globe and a range of contacts and interactions with Catholic, Jewish, and Hindu groups and personalities.

The choice of Masjid Mohamed, the Nation’s Mosque, as the venue of the launch, suggests an outside-in strategy in trying to garner grassroots support in the Muslim world. Located in Washington’s historic African-American Shaw district, Masjid Muhammad is the first mosque in the United States built by descendants of slaves.

As such, the launch constitutes an outreach to a minority Muslim community in a Western democracy that despite upheaval in the United States as the country struggles to come to grips with its history of racism is likely to be more accessible and perhaps more open to Humanitarian Islam’s message than significant segments of the population in Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan or the Middle East where many see what has long become a global faith through the lens of its Arab origins.

The alliance takes on added significance in a Western world that despite the electoral defeat of former US President Donald J. Trump and setbacks in Europe suffered by populists and ultra-nationalists has in recent years increasingly mainstreamed prejudice, bias, and authoritarianism.

“Rather than the world becoming more like the United States, as so many of us expected after the Cold War, the United States has become more like the rest of the world—in particular, its authoritarians,” noted foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook, debunking the projection of the US as a beacon of liberty and freedom.

In a twist of irony, Nahdlatul Ulama’s book publication coincided with a more narrowly focused and transactional Saudi-backed launch in Lebanon of a book, ‘The relationship between the Maronite patriarchate and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’ Written by Maronite Father Antoine Daw, Saudi support for the book and outreach to the Maronites was part of the kingdom’s effort to counter Iran’s regional influence and engage the Islamic republic in direct and indirect issue-oriented dialogues.

The launch in Bkirki, the Maronite patriarchate’s episcopal see, followed a call by Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi, Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric, for a meeting with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world.

The patriarch urged Hezbollah, one of Lebanon’s most powerful groups that played a key role in Iranian support for the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad to move towards a position of neutrality in a bid to salvage Lebanon that is teetering on the brink of economic and political collapse.

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