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.