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 Peaceful Islamic Responses to Radical Islam

Peaceful Islamic Responses to Radical Islam


Responses to current waves of radical Islamic extremism have appeared one after the other over the past few months as a collection of symbolic acts of solidarity. They represent a united, Westernized Islam that bends itself willingly to the demands of human rights. The most powerful of these responses are those of peaceful Muslim individuals and communities around the world. 

One is that of the Muslim mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, who made a public statement on February 18, declaring that Dutch Muslims must accept Western values or leave. As he explains, "The Dutch constitution, but also the Dutch society, is constructed on a very, very intrinsic basic value, and that is tolerance and acceptance… So the moment you come to the Netherlands…and you get a citizenship then you have to at least underline and embrace the constitution and the values of the country".

The message Aboutaleb makes clear is this: the Netherlands is a place of tolerance with a progressive legal framework. Moreover, these attributes are sources of national pride and security, and therefore not to be taken lightly. This requires a pluralistic conception of the nation’s cultural mosaic, and to that end, a fundamental understanding that the secular, human rights based laws of the nation must, without exception, supersede religious law , a topic that will be further covered by my article in the NYU Journal of Human Rights called “The potential benefits of state secularization in human rights”.

A similar message holds true in the letter to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a theological text undermining IS as fundamentally non-Islamic and signed onto by Islamic scholars around the world. It is safe to assume that the text’s intended audience is not the Islamic State’s radical leaders, but rather those who might judge Islam based on this state as well as those contemplating joining them. For these audiences, the letter frames Islam in a distinctly Westernized lens, urging Muslims to conform to mainstream contemporary human rights expectations. 

The letter states, “It is forbidden in Islam to force people to convert. It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights. It is forbidden in Islam to deny children their rights. It is forbidden in Islam to enact legal punishments (hudud) without following the correct procedures that ensure justice and mercy.” These internationally accepted rights – religious freedom, gender equality, children’s rights, and fair trial, among others – are revealed to be requisites of the Islamic faith. Further, the letter condemns so-called jihadist terrorism, explaining, “Jihad in Islam is defensive war. It is not permissible without the right cause, the right purpose and without the right rules of conduct”. The letter and its signatories strive to wholly dissociate themselves from radical Islamic acts and instead align with the more palatable (and at best, more just) Western human rights regime.

The Oslo synagogue demonstration echoes these political and theological acts through symbolic social action. On February 14th, 2015, Norwegian Muslims encircled an Oslo synagogue to show their protection and support of the Jewish community. They too were in support of an Islam that aligned itself with the pluralistic and peaceful outlook of their nation, and not one in which terror is ever justifiable on religious grounds

Oslo’s Jewish community leader, Ervin Kohn, responded by saying, “It is unique that Muslims stand to this degree against anti-Semitism and that fills us with hope… particularly as it’s a grassroots movement of young Muslims.” One of those young organizers, Zeeshan Abdullah, told the crowd, "There are many more peace mongers than warmongers. There's still hope for humanity".

This demonstration bodes well for Norway’s past and future Muslim immigrants, who have been accused of “adulterating pure Norwegian blood.” A 2014 opinion poll found that 77 percent of Norwegian’s valued the contribution of Muslim immigrants to Norwegian society, but that still leaves 23 percent who need convincing. This demonstration might serve to reinforce and build upon that 77 percent.

Critics argue that the West is failing to contain the spread of radical ideologies. It is encouraging, therefore, to hear how Muslims are joining the fight against radicals by showing solidarity and setting high expectations for those of Muslim faith around the world. The strongest defense against radical Islam will be put up by Muslims themselves, and it is up to Muslim leaders and grassroots activists alike to continue these demonstrations of value if we are to ever see a tangible shift in the global imaginary away from Islamophobia and towards tolerance and peace.

- Emily Albert