Yesterday, I attended a conference on counter radicalisation strategies organised by the Pak Institute of Peace Studeis (PIPS) and the United States Institute for Peace (USIP). I'm pasting my notes here because I think many readers working on the region and Pakistan in particular will find them useful. But at the same time, for the general reader, it provides a rare opportunity to see what professional analysts with an intimate knowledge of context and history as well as the advantage of local language knowledge make of current situation.
PIPS is a fantastic organistation. Unfortunately, I don't think the Pakistani government has the capacity to take on what they have to say. Counter Radicalisation Strategies conference
Hosted by Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) and US Institute for Peace (USIP)
Amir Rana, director of PIPS:
Radicalising factors in Pakistan are:
1. Inequality - contributing
2. Religion - catalyst
3. Politics - major factor
4. State of mind - contributing factor
5. Socio-cultural - transformational
Radicalisation amongst Pakistan's societal groups:
1. Lower income - poor governance, religious networks = Talibanisation
2. Middle Income - political and ideological radical tendencies, informal educational institutions = sympathy for Talibanisation, sectarianism etc.
3. Upper income - isolation from rest of society (also common in Muslim/Pakistani diaspora) results in identity crisis. This is shared with diaspora communities. The catalyst is the religious-extremist environment. This manifestation is very different form the other two groups.
The general manifestations of growing extremism and radicalisation are:
1. The Islamisation of Pakistan
2. Militancy in AfPak.
Globally networked organisations eg. Hizb ut Tahrir and al Huda.
It's clear from opinion polls such as Pew etc, the common man is against manifestations of militancy. Support for al Qaeda's methods is very low. In Pakistan it support for al-Qaeda and/or suicide bombing comes in at about 10%-15%. In the rest of the Islamic world you'll find up to 85% support for such measures.
Support for terror is low, so why is there much extremism in Pakistan? Because extremist networks are a major driver. There are literally hundreds of groups that are sectarian, anti democracy etc. If you include large and small groups, we are talking about 600 distinct entities. This is transforming small level of support into a high level of actual violence.
Saba Nur, PIPS researcher:
Gradually, the role of women in extremism is growing. There have been cases of women trained for suicide bombings.
Women have very limited access to religious knowledge (mostly parents)
When asked about religion; most women said scholars had an important role to play in public life.
A high percentage of women though that sectarianism was important to "keep Islam pure".
Wahjat Ali, PIPS researcher and journalist:
Topic: Emerging trends in Radicalisation in Pakistan
There is a need for counter narratives to take on the extremism narrative.
"The fight against extremism will be fought in the craggy mountains of Waziristan but it will be won in the newsrooms."
Dr Shabana Feyaz, asst. Professor of Defence Studies at Quaid e Azam university.
Extremism in Pakistan is a mixed bag. It's anti US, anti Jewish, anti capaitalist, ethnic, sectarian etc.
There needs to be a state societal partnership. The ideology of extremism needs to be challenged educationally and socially.
Military force is necessary but it can't lead. We need a more wholeistic approach.
The state should be an engine of transformation. The government needs to work on the rule of law and governance.
We need a new societal contract between the rulers and the ruled.
We have to engage the youth. We have a huge youth bulge. A huge percentage of the population is between 15 and 35 years of age. There needs to be a qualitative shift in education from primary to university level.
Women need to be engaged to wean brothers, sons etc away from extremist ideas. Women are often on the receiving end of extremist practice because they are often seen as the symbols of collective religiosity.
Moeed Yusuf: United States Institute for Peace
We tend to believe Pakistan's problems are external. Why is there this inclination to refuse to do anything until outside problems are dealt with.
There is a core message: A Western conspiracy aimed at destroying Pakistan is radicalising the whole country.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, when they first appeared, said they weren't against the Pakistani state, only that they were against the United States and government's role in US foreign policy.
This was picked up by the media and gained popular appeal.
If you see the problem as only US driven (Afghanistan etc) then what happens? The Taliban come to attack Pakistani cities, Pakistan does nothing. There is no talk of de radicalisation or counter extremism.
Does it matter how it started? The change has to come from within. The solutions reside in-house.
The coming issues for Pakistan are: Need to increase the economy by about 5% a year just to employ young people entering the work force.
The option of sending the spare workforce abroad is no longer there (to a greater degree)
Urbanisation is rising and the urban poor are the main recruiting ground for extremists
There is easy access to militants.
In essence; if you believe the extremist narrative and want to get involved and fight, then you will be able to find people to facilitate you.
Imtiaz Gul, journalist and researcher:
The rule of law and governance is a major driver.
Ijaz Haider, scholar and journalist.
The government's interventions so far has only been the use of conventional force. There is no counter radicalisation or counter extremism.
Previously, the government relied on Barelvis to counter extremist thought and this led to Baraelvis being killed. Pursuing this further could lead to violence between the two groups.
An overall societal effort is needed. Not rely on coopting one group or individual.
Pakistan is a country of many communities and religions. Even if people say they are Muslim, people follow vastly different interpretations of the faith.
Sharia is like a unicorn. No one knows what it exactly entails.
The problem is beyond the specific ideology of extremism. It's about society in general. For eg, seminary students mishear a religious leader referring to Christians and think local Christians have defamed the Quran, and then lynch them. This is a societal problem.
Extremism in a wider sense is a gangrene is Pakistan.
Former army guy and now an educationalist:
Anything from the government is not trusted. This is a trust deficit issue. When TTP said they didn't kill Benazir, people believed them rather than the government of Musharraf.
Why not use educational tools (books and processes) to instil the values of coexistance and not extremism
PPP MP and former minister of information
We are aware of what's happening. There needs to be a look at integration of the state's actions. Interagency coordination is a challenge.
We need to have a look at governance. There is a lack of governance.
Even a commitment from all political parties against terrorism is not easy. There are always ambiguities and exceptions. We need interagency coordination.
We have huge gaps in policy execution. Civil service reform hasn't happened for a long time. It's been talked about but hasn't happened.
Governments don't plan for the next 40 years, it's true. This is because they are worried about the coming year.
"You should be able to hold a government accountable without threatening he premise of democracy."
"We have to remember that we (Pakistan) was complicit in the policy that brought terrorism home."
The BBC is reporting 42 people died at the attack on Data Durbar shrine in Lahore last night.
During the last few months, everyone in Lahore would tell you it's just a matter of time before the place was bombed. The sufi Brehlvis who revere the place have been targeted before. And the Taliban spares no effort making the point that it doesn't approve of "shrine worship". The Taliban have hit shrines before. But they were smaller and in the northern Pashtun areas. Data Durbar on the other hand is a huge complex right in the middle of Lahore. It's a national icon. It is also difficult to police a place thronging with that many people at all hours of the day and night.
The attack comes less than a month after the Taliban attacked mosques in Lahore belonging to minority community that is seen as non-Muslim by he vast majority of Pakistanis. The attack on Data Durbar is a big step up the scale. This is a big, big deal. I would agree with the various respected analysts I have spoken to while in Pakistan who would say that the Taliban is trying to provoke sectarian warfare in Pakistan and then set themselves up as the protectors of the Sunnis.
But I wonder, if the Taliban are being prevented from realising their aims by the same thing that normally works for them; the Pakistani rumour mill. I have watched some Pakistani news channels on line. The line of questioning by the presenters seems to suggest, predictably, that the Indians/Israelis/CIA/Blackwater are being touted as the puppet masters as "obviously" they want to break up the country and that's what this kind of attack threatens to achieve. If the "real" perpetrators aren't Muslims, then that lessens the potential for communities turning on each other. But that's no reason to feel complacent. The communities being attacked have expressed anger that the section of Pakistan's religio political community sympathetic to the Taliban turn a blind eye when their people die. And I have heard leaders of these communities, in private conversation, talk about arming for "self defence".
I went to a very interesting conference earlier this week called Information Operations Europe. More than one speaker reminded the audience that al Qaeda's genius in part has been the placement of information and communication considerations at the heart of its activities. This is something other extremist outfits are learning too. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. My feeling is that the Taliban will hold back from doing so until they know whether confirmation will serve or damage their overall aims.
This would be a good time for the Pakistani state, or someone, to press home the point that this attack killed and maimed over a hundred Muslims, was carried out by people who claim to serve Islam and are Pakistanis (ie not Indians, Israelis etc) and targeted a site of worship, a national icon and somewhere that draws positive international attention to Pakistan. Unfortunately, the TV news I've seen has officials still repeating the "hidden hand" insinuation, which feeds into a sense of hostility, victimisation and tacit support for extremism.
UPDATE: It killed and maimed over a hundred people rather than hundreds of people.
Pakistani 1: "Western countries are trying to destroy Islam. They fear us more than the Chinese. We are the only people who have a system that challenges theirs. They know their system has failed, so they are trying to destroy us before everyone becomes Muslim. They have always hated us. They want to keep us poor. Our rulers have been bought by them. Our rulers sold us for big houses in London and New York. Now Western soldiers and contractors roam around our country looking for ways to steal from us and control us. We are paying the price. If we don't fight, they will rob us and leave us to die in the gutter."
Pakistani 2: "Peace is a good thing. You are a Muslim, right? We are all about peace. We love it. Fighting is not the answer. Peace is the answer. Just take it easy, be good and everything will sort itself out."
Presenting your ideas as part of a bigger picture is much more persuasive than just chucking them randomly out there. The ideology of Islamist extremism has a very effective big-picture story. On the other side, the narrative is a bit.... well,.. lacking. That's not to say the ideas aren't soundly based or the approach isn't right, it just means that there's no bigger picture that captures the imagination, presents the prospect of things being different or generally inspires to action.
Quilliam Foundation director Maajid Nawaz has an editorial in the Pakistani daily Dawn newspaper that tackles the extremist narrative in Pakistan. Maajid, who used to be a high-level member of UK Islamist outfit Hizb ut Tahrir, very neatly illustrates the point that actions by Western government's inadvertently feed the view of the world painted by extremists.
"I remember trying to convince people that the UN is against Islam, and I remember being laughed at. That is...until Srebrenica. I remember trying to convince people that Yasser Arafat and the PLO would ‘betray' the Muslims of Palestine because they were not ‘Islamic'. I remember being laughed at. That is...until Oslo. I remember arguing that Muslims would never be tolerated in Europe, and Bosnia would spread everywhere. I remember being laughed at. That is...until Chechnya.
"I remember arguing that western freedoms are tools for colonialism. I remember being laughed at. That is...until the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I remember arguing that human rights are used to keep us weak whilst our ‘enemy' grows strong. I remember being laughed at. That is...until Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. People eventually stopped laughing."
So, not only is there a failure to provide another attractive, alternative vision, the actions that emanate from Western capitals seem to boost the vision promoted by extremists. It makes me wonder whether extremist PR people only need to work part time. Couple of hours a day, maybe? I bet the holiday entitlement is pretty generous. They probably just go do some training on uploading videos to the net, then it's feet-up time again.
But despite the popularity of the extremist world view, "...it does not take much to pick holes in this simplistic, pseudo-intellectual and paranoid perspective," says Maajid.
So, maybe it's time we started.
I was reading Ex's link to Chris Fair and Daniel Byman's piece about idiotic jihadis and thought some thoughts that I thought were probably fairly relevant. But more importantly, I saw a golden opportunity to link to a clip I've been wanting to share for ages (more on that in a bit).
So, are jihadis cunning, resourceful, steel eyed shadow warriors, or are they a bunch of bumbling fools? Chris and Daniel make a great case for the idiot argument with tales of would-be suicide bombers hugging their comrades one last time and accidentally vapourising everyone, Talibs engaging in frolics with farmyard animals and - my personal favourite - the weed smoking Miami wannabe jihadis.
I've been drawn to the bumbling-fools line of argument since the time I attended a rally organised by al Muhajiroon in London. On the shared bus from the mosque to the site, I was stifling laughter when the teenage demonstrators started cracking open the neatly packed lunches their mothers had prepared thinking their sons were off on training courses. Followed by the full-on jihadi fashionista behind-the-catwalk bitch-fest when it came time to fix on the face-covering Palestinian scarves.
The point was only enhanced for me a few months later when I saw the video testaments of the failed airline bomb plotters...I mean seriously, I'm pretty sure at least two of them couldn't read the script.
At about the same time, I interviewed a 15-year old in London who told me, "Amil, the war is coming. I'm a soldier. But, bruvver, you gotta pick your side." He then got stoned, tried to rap for me, forgot the words and asked to borrow money for the bus ride home."
This might all sound fairly reassuring, but I think the ineptitude is just one side of a wider trend. Keeping the argument to Britain for now; before 9/11, to become an extremist, you had to be fairly committed. There was none of the reflected glamour of being associated with people capable of scaring polite society. In those days, extremists were overzealous, a bit nerdy, waay too into religion and generally uncool. As Chris and Daniel's example of 9/11 lead attacker Mohammed Atta suggests, in such an environment, a potential recruit is more likely to possess a certain awareness, commitment and focus. Of course, there are examples of pre 9/11 Jihadiots, but in general terms, the cause was as cool as chess club and membership reflected that.
Now that the cause is much more glamorous, many more people want some of the action. So the fact that there are numerous instances of idiocy means that extremists have been able to lots of idiots. And, just one idiot who manages to press the right button at the right time is a huge problem.
But more than that, if you are going to get lots of recruits, most will be idiots but you are also going to get a larger proportion of useful people. i bet something similar happens in conventional fighting forces like the British army. Thinking of which, I'm reminded of an occurrence related to me by an army guy I was hanging around with who told me of a young recruit from the north of England who after a session of learning about grenades put a live one in the pocket of his camo jacket and blew himself up. So, for every few dozen Sargodha type recruits you get someone who can devise complex strategies, hack computer systems or influence millions. In Pakistan, these types of recruits have been busy running double agents, expertly executing raids on Pakistani army installations and running circles around everyone else's communication efforts.
There are further differences amongst extremists than just their level of competence. Britain, for example, and Afghanistan are two totally different environments. The threat coming from them does not manifest itself in the same way. However, the general principle probably still holds; if porn-loving young Afghans have signed up to the Taliban, it suggests that the group is growing in popularity and attracting followers because it is successful and not because of whatever it is seen to stand for.
Daniel and Chris mention the importance of denying extremists havens to limit their capacity to train followers, and I'd totally agree. I'd also add if we accept that extremists can gather more recruits than before 9/11, and that some of these people have to be competent, that means that more safe havens will result in many, many more potentially lethal extremists.
So, should we laugh at the Jihadiots? Absolutely! I mean, sometimes, it's really hard not to. Check out this trailer for a recently released British film to see what I mean:
I've avoided posting on the recent attempt to bomb Times Square as I'm not in Pakistan at the moment, and couldn't honestly say from London what Pakistanis think about it. However, a profile of suspect Faisal Shahzad printed in the New York Times brings up points which I think are worth expanding and putting into context.
Many people still believe that extremists must be poor and badly educated. It's almost the polite thing to believe because it seems we only have two options in explaining terrorism carried out in the name of Islam. If extremists aren't poor and angry then we have to find another common thread that might explain their ideas and actions, and the only other option seems to be Islam. Of course, this reading of events is the one preferred by bigots and so reasonable people would like to steer clear of it.
However, we have more than two options. Islamist extremism has had a long evolutionary process. It can be argued that it started in the late 1700s in Arabia, found its modern voice through Syed Qutb in 20th century Egypt and tested itself on the field of battle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. That fairly slow process was supercharged after 9/11 and the international events that followed. It is reported that Osama Bin Laden wanted the attacks on the United States to serve as a catalyst. To some extent he got what he wanted. What we are seeing now is the mainstreaming of Islamist extremism. The language and aims of Islamist extremism have become the premier mode of expressing anger at the world around you.
In the 1990s, when I was a teenager, the angry young men of London's inner cities were drawn to crime, the language of black supremacy movements in the US or radical leftwing politics. My favourite quote from a friend about Islam was "a bunch of Indian men in beards bowing to radiators". Now, to many of those young men's younger brothers and sons, Islam is a shadowy force capable of scaring "the establishment", "the man" etc.
What strikes me about the profile drawn up by the New York Times is not that Shahzad was from a well established and well connected professional Pakistani background, but rather that he seems to have made the same transition that I have seen taking place in Egypt, Sudan, inner city London and Pakistan. Shahzad came from a comfortable background and he and his family seemed on an upwards trajectory until something went wrong and he ended up facing "financial troubles". He then became sullen and withdrawn and "started talking more about Islam". My guess is that he wasn't talking about Ghazzali's classic The Alchemy of Happiness, or someother such work that is considered traditional Islam. Chances are that "talking more about Islam" means he was talking about war, invasion, drone attacks, Palestine, Kashmir and how the Western world was intent on making life miserable for Muslims.
A clue to this is in the observation of an acquaintance of Shahzad's:
"His personality had changed - he had become more introverted," Dr. Anwar said the classmate told him. "He had a stronger religious identity, where he felt more strongly and more opinionated about things..."
The genius of the al-Qaeda-type extremism that we see today is its ability to seize on the inner turmoil of a diverse range of people (from Texas to Brixton to southern Punjab) and link them to its central world view and then motivate them to take action to they believe will lead to change - change they are not likely to live to see.
During three months with radicals in London and six months in Pakistan as well as various trips to Palestinian refugee camps, I have marvelled at the genius of a simple and powerful message that needs only the most minimal promotion - taking full advantage of the modern world, it's viral and encourages recruits to "self start". "Dr. Anwar said he had asked the classmate whether this change had come through association with a group, and the friend said it seemed to be "on his own that he was learning all these things."
There's no one thing that results in someone trying to kill civilians in the name of Islam. Among the clever al-Qaeda messaging, the personal turmoil, individual personality and a host of other elements, there's the unavoidable connection to Pakistan.
Another family friend in Pakistan, Kifayat Ali, called Mr. Shahzad "emotional" and said that he used to carry a dagger around with him as a boy. He speculated that Mr. Shahzad had become enraged by the United States' military actions, fuelled by the Pakistani press blaring conspiracy theories and anti-American vitriol.
Pakistan is a country of 170 million people that used to value it's status as a US ally. Although, the government is still technically a key ally and relations between Islamabad and Washington seem to have improved, Pakistanis live amid violence and economic catastrophe much of which they blame - directly or indirectly - on US intentions towards their country. I work on a project that aims to remove the plank of religious legitimacy from the call of extremists in Pakistan. And in the past six months I have seen that we have our work cut out for us as that call finds followers and sympathisers in upper income urban areas as well as impoverished villages.
Preventing more Shahzads, underwear bombers, Ft Hood Shooters and Jihad Janes will involve challenging the wrong and simplistic view of the West as the ultimate source of all problems and of Islamist extremism as the only force capable of challenging it.
Despite what Pakistani politicians might say, extremism isn't all cut and dried in a hugely diverse (and equally stratified) country of 170-odd million people. This article by Sabrina Tavernise in the NYT lays it out nicely.
In a country where whisky-happy politicians ban alcohol and bribe-taking lawyers confront military dictators, pretty much everything comes down to politics.
"The university's plight encapsulates Pakistan's predicament: an intolerant, aggressive minority terrorizes a more open-minded, peaceful majority, while an opportunistic political class dithers, benefiting from alliances with the aggressors."
Well worth a read.
Stephen Ellis, a scholar at the Free University Amsterdam, has a very good article on Open Democracy about what extremists are up to in the Sahara.
"It is not often that the words "cocaine" and "al-Qaida" are plausibly linked. But these two forces are turning the western half of the Sahara - approximately from southern Libya to the Atlantic coast - into a locus of illicit money-making and radical politics. The development, quite a feat for a sparsely populated region, presents a challenge that the rich states to the north cannot afford to ignore."
I spent some time in Mali not so long ago and thought it was one of those places that could suddenly become a "hot spot". At which point everyone would sit around scratching their heads saying, "Wow, we didn't know. That came from no-where". Well, it has been building and some of that has been reported. Stephen's article will give you a good round up on what's happened so far and what the situation is at the moment.
If suddenly something horrible were to happen and all attention turned to the Sahel, I'm pretty sure that we will hear the usual thing about how all Muslims - whether in the Middle East, Asia or Africa - are all violent mental cases who follow a religion that tells them to kill and dance in blood etc etc. That will be pretty annoying. So, I'm also posting an article I wrote while out there about the spread of extremism in the region and the reaction of local communities.
"In the market next to the grand mosque in the centre of town, Muslim women with their hair covered but their shoulders and arms bare barter for T-shirts emblazoned with photos of US President Barack Obama. In another part of the market, a young man in the austere Saudi-inspired dress of trousers hitched up at the ankle and long beard berates a bookstall owner for not carrying the "right sort of works".
And just for fun, here's a photo of Bamako market:
The Quilliam Foundation, a pretty influential UK think tank focusing on extremism, is holding a round table discussion on a report it put out last month on Britain's Islam Channel satellite television station.
Reading through the executive summary just now made me feel a little uneasy. I've had the same feeling reading some of their other work, and I've always struggled to put my finger on what it is exactly that makes me react as if I'd just seen a thug suddenly get kicked to death on a bus by a bunch of grannies. After a long uninterrupted think (having no electricity, I can't distract myself with Pakistani television), I think I've finally figured it out.
Quilliam says; "the channel regularly promotes intolerance and sectarianism, and gives a platform to individuals and groups with a track record of promoting hatred and violence."
I don't know how Quilliam conducted the study but I'm willing to believe that material like: "I am not against the women. I am not against anybody. But this is the truth. That today, the problem, the calamities and hardship and suffering is due to the women..." or "Shia madhab [school of jurisprudence] has many aqaid [belief systems] which are not acceptable" is broadcast on Islam Channel because I am depressingly used to hearing such things (although, I have hung out with extremists more than most people). The sound of this sort of talk gets my back up. I can imagine the tone of voice it is delivered in, and it grates in my mind.
I'm referring to my own reaction because one person I know who has spent more time with extremists than me is Maajid Nawaz, one of the directors of Quilliam. For those that have not heard of Maajid, he was a key member of UK Islamist outfit Hizb ut Tahrir when it was properly nutty, as opposed to the toned down version it is now. Maajid's HT activities landed him in jail in Egypt. After his release, he left HT, denounced their ideology and helped set up Quilliam. I don't know Maajid. But I have bumped into him a couple of times and have heard him speak once or twice (I related one such occasion here as what Maajid was saying about his own attraction to radical Islamist politics brilliantly humanised the issues floating around in a young recruit's mind).
Ed Husain, the other Quilliam director, had a similar journey (without the jail time). His book The Islamist was very popular and I reviewed it a while ago for AM. I'm sure that due to their own experiences, Ed and Maajid's reaction to hearing intolerant, bigoted claptrap spouted by people who say they are speaking the Islamic "truth" is more pronounced than mine. But is it really a good thing?
As I sort of touched upon in the Arguing Extremism post, the whole issue of what is "moderate Islam" and what is "extreme" has become a battlefield littered with mines that have more to do with appearances than content. What I mean is that many Muslims will almost instinctively denounce something as un-Islamic because it seems to conform to Western norms rather than anything intrinsic about the issue at hand. By the same token, they will see things that seem an antithesis to Western practice as automatically Islamic. And, of course, this approach has gained more popular acceptance recently because to many it seems the West is at war with Islam.
You can see this unsaid, but underlaying, viewpoint in some of the statements pointed out in the executive summary:
"Within the western way of life the idea that a woman, even if she gets married, can refuse relations with her husband because of ‘individual choice'. This is something which is part of the western culture, but not Islam".
By denouncing material of this sort on Islam Channel, or elsewhere, in their customary manner, I think Quilliam actually gives it a stamp of approval. People who think that anybody who talks about "democracy" "human rights" and "freedom of expression" is automatically a "Western-educated, elitist, secularist" and must not be listened to under any circumstances will be quite happy to earn the ire of Quilliam. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are much better at sounding objective, which makes them then sound more credible. The only group i can think of that sounds like Quilliam in tone is, well... Hizb ut Tahrir. For example:
"London UK, 13th April 2010 - David Cameron has called for a ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir in the Conservative party's manifesto launched today which once again twists the truth and states that "a Conservative government will ban any organisations which advocate hate or the violent overthrow of our society, such as hizb-ut-tahrir".
"Their desire to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir shows they really fear that our ideas have taken a hold amongst Muslims around the world, because of our uncompromising criticism of Western foreign policy in Muslim countries, and relentless call to replace tyranny and dictatorship in the Muslim world with an Islamic Caliphate that will bring security, stability, authority to the people, and accountability and justice - all enshrined in the Shariah."
Yes, I am subscribed to email alerts from both organisations.
I'm a big fan of debate. During the last few months in Pakistan, I have come to realise that one of the elements that has evolved in British Muslim society recently that places like Pakistan don't have and could really do with is rigorous debate on issues that tie together religion, identity and politics. The Quilliam approach, in my view, seems to want to shout down rather than argue, tackle or rebut. Denouncing makes for pithy soundbites, but ultimately doesn't convince people to change their views.
Where I think Quilliam does a great job is where it does encourage debate. Such as the discussions it organised last year at the conferences of the major political parties (here's a write up of one of the sessions which took place on the sidelines of the Tory party conference) and got people talking constructively about counter terrorism strategy.
As for the Islam Channel, is it really al-Qaeda TV? I mean REALLY? I mean, apart from extremism, it will also teach you how to make black forest cupcakes.
Anyway, the roundtable is taking place at midday on April 21 in London somewhere. If you want to go email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A lot of people in Western Europe and North America (OK, possibly Australia too) are of the opinion that Islam = death, destruction and terrorism (with some female hating thrown in). Even those with a slightly more charitable bent of mind will automatically assume that the only way forward for the Muslim world is a development process that mirrors what happened in the West. This is not only a little limited in imagination but also plays into the latent fears of many in the Muslim world. Fears which are then skilfully manipulated by the messages put out by extremists.
Which is why I was surprised and pleased to see this pop into my inbox courtesy of the Jamestown Foundation's Terrorism Monitor:
"CONTROVERSIAL GATHERING OF ISLAMIC SCHOLARS REFUTES AL-QAEDA’S IDEOLOGICAL CORNERSTONE"
I don't want to paste the full article as it's fairly long, so I'll sum it up. The gathering in question was a conference held in Turkey in late March attended by some of the most respected and widely followed Islamic scholars in the Muslim world.
Jamestown reports: "The conference was sponsored by two Muslim NGOs: the Global Center for Renewal and Guidance (GCRG) and Canopus Consulting. The GCRG describes itself as an "independent educational charity." Its president is Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, a well known Mauritanian scholar of Islam who teaches at King Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia. The GCRG vice-president is Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (a.k.a. Mark Hanson), an American convert to Islam who runs the Zaytuna Institute for Islamic studies in California."
The conference was held in Turkey's Mardin Artuklu University. The location's relevance in the grander scheme of things is that Mardin lends its name to the "Mardin Fatwa", the Islamic legal ruling issued by Taqi al Din Ibn Taymiyyah (1263 - 1328) who argued that it was Islamically permissible for Muslims to declare other Muslims apostates and set about killing them. Sound familiar? Yep, it's Ibn Taymiyyah's Islamic legal arguments that the likes of al-Qaeda use to justify everything from rising up against a tyrannical regime run by Muslims to suicide bombings and beheadings.
The scholars taking part in the conference (find a list of them here) issued a declaration (but not a fatwa) saying: "Anyone who seeks support from [the Mardin] fatwa for killing Muslims or non-Muslims has erred in his interpretation and has misapplied the revealed texts".
I wasn't aware the conference was taking place, but was really interested to hear that it had because many of those involved have also contributed to the project I'm working on in Pakistan, which is called Karvaan-e-Amn (there's a little Union Jack link that will give you the English version). Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah recorded a discussion programme for Pakistani television and Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric of Bosnia came on an official visit despite the security situation.
Make no mistake, you might not have heard about these people, but they are extremely influential in large bits of the Muslim world. They represent the mainstream world of Islamic scholarship that extremists cannot challenge head on since they don't have the same sort of traditionally recognised grounding. Instead, they rely on a different sort of legitimacy - the kind you gain from fighting a war or spending time in jail (or both). Imagine a "scientist" who got his "degree" on the internet telling people with doctorates in astrophysics from both MIT and Cambridge that while locked away by the government for discovering a secret project to build superweapons a dying alien imparted to him the secret of interstellar space travel... and it involves a food processor.
To help give you an idea of the kind of following I'm talking about, here's a few lines from an article I wrote in the Telegraph a year back when I covered a different gathering in Mali attended by similar figures:
"As the conference delegates started arriving in Bamako, the extent of their influence became clear. Shaykh Tijane Cisse from Senegal commands the devotion of over 50 million people in West Africa... Fifteen minutes after he arrived at the hotel without prior announcement, word spread around the city of his presence and a steady flow of followers formed a line leading to his room."
Looking back, "steady flow" was an understatement, the place was mobbed.
Sadly we are at a point where these men need to take a stand against an ideology that was pretty much buried with Ibn Taymiyyah and the Mongol horsemen he had in mind when he formulated it. It was dug up again in the 20th century by men and women who psychologically needed an Islamic justification to confront the injustices they felt were all around them.
It's also a measure of how badly "the war for hearts and minds" (to use a cliche) is going when it seems as if the standard bearers of the mainstream are actually the minority. So, if you happen to be among those that think Islam is all about killing people and dragging society back to the 7th century, you have friends who.. well, actually do want to kill people and drag society back to the 7th century. And if you think that Muslims need to be converted/de-Islamised or any of the other Ann Coutler type stuff then you are giving ammunition to people like these guys:
"Reaction also came from an Iraqi militant group, Jaysh al-Fatihin (Conquering Army), which denied that circumstances had changed since the Mardin fatwa. "All of us know that the incidents most similar to our [present] situation were those that happened in the time of Imam Ibn Taymiyya..."
When Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric was in Pakistan he suggested that perhaps if Muslim scholars in the past had done a better job championing the cause of social and economic development along with accountable government and social justice maybe they wouldn't need to be now refuting an ideology their forebearers had not thought worth commenting on. Today, the problem that men like Dr Ceric, Shaykh Bin Bayyah and Shaykh Tijane face is that they cannot criticise the actions of Muslims in the light of Islamic injunctions without someone saying they are apologists. The Muslim versions of Ann Coulter are quick to point out, "If you don't condemn the injustices of the Western oppressors and their agents, you are excusing their actions."
If we all want to go forward in a non-Ann Coulter type way it is going to involve listening to grievances, because shouting them down or putting your fingers in your ears doesn't make them go away. It just gives someone else less savoury the opportunity to exploit them.
Talking about Swat, the Christian Science Monitor's Issam Ahmed has a nice feature out of Swat on how the region is doing a year after the government decided to kick out the militants.
"Nine months after Pakistan's military cleared the Swat Valley of a brutal Taliban occupation, the region has made steady gains in improving security and rebuilding infrastructure. But its progress remains vulnerable, threatened by sporadic militant attacks, stilted economic recovery, and growing frustration among residents at the strong military presence"
For me, this underscores the point that a military operation is just the start of a government's commitment when it decides to deal with militants who have set up shop on its territory.
The article also gives you a hint as to why the U.S. military is helping the Pakistanis with counterinsurgency:
"Haider Ali, a school principal in Mingora, complains about some soldiers' arbitrary and arrogant behavior. "They will enter our buildings to use the toilets without permission, they will eye our women while searching cars. Things will not be alright until they leave," he says."