COMMENT: Islamic errorists —Saleem H Ali
It would be an error to assume that the Lal Masjid incident is an aberration and that the end of this siege will quell militancy. Some of the underlying teachings of Islam that can easily be taken out of context need to be more explicitly and universally addressed
I spent America’s independence day in Islamabad this year and witnessed pyrotechnics of a more sinister kind than the usual celebratory fireworks. As the Lal Masjid siege reached a crescendo on the fourth of July, with fire and brimstone in the G-6 sector, questions about the demands from the clerics began to arise. While the label of terrorist fits many in this caper, both sides have more appropriately earned the epithet of Islamic “errorists”.
First, several governments countenanced the extremism of this group for years and tried to placate their behaviour in the interest of winning favours with the Islamist parties. Occasional arrests were made but then perpetrators were released on mild assurances. Arms and ammunition accumulated in the compound and then the government claimed it was too dangerous to engage the group. Indeed, it was wise of the government to not attack at that stage as many innocent lives could have been lost. Yet the authorities could have exerted non-violent pressure on the institution by cutting off communication, power and water, far earlier on.
In many ways, this siege was reminiscent of a fanatical hold-up by a denomination of armed Christian militants (called Branch Davidians) in Waco, Texas more than a decade ago which ultimately led to the death of dozens of women and children. However, in that case all the mainstream churches in America had condemned the extremist’s behaviour.
In contrast, our Islamist politicians and clerics offered very mild condemnation of the mosque’s fanaticism and only recently did the Wifaq-ul-Madaaris (federation of madrassas) suspend the membership of the Lal Masjid seminaries. The media-savvy Maulana Abdul-Rashid Ghazi continued to give interviews to Western news outlets with aplomb. In one recent interview with the BBC, Maulana Ghazi, the vice-imam of the mosque, dismissed comparisons with the Taliban by stating that unlike the Afghan strains of Islamists, they were in favour of educating women. Yet what this education entailed, few cared to ask or question, and by each passing minute the group was further emboldened.
Three years ago, when I interviewed the clerics at Lal Masjid for a research project, they were quite adamant that the most fundamental purpose of educating Muslims was to claim political ascendancy in the world. The confusion over what this ascendancy really means continues to bedevil policy-makers in the West. First we had the cavalcade of reports expressing concerns about Muslim schools soon after 9/11. However, this was followed by numerous revisionist accounts from a panoply of experts (including some affiliated with the World Bank) who claimed that all this concern was in vain. Perhaps, they argued, there were only a few madrassas we needed to be worried about?
The problem is far more systemic than we care to admit. While there is certainly room for tolerance within Islamic doctrines, some very fundamental changes will need to be made if we are to prevent more of these episodes from arising. It would be an error to assume that this incident is an aberration and that the end of this siege will quell militancy. While most madrassas are not militant to this extent, and many can function without this kind of radical activism, some of the underlying teachings of Islam that can easily be taken out of context need to be more explicitly and universally addressed.
The only way for this systemic change to occur is for the ulema to pass clear and unified fatwas and injunctions in these matters to inculcate tolerance and the rule of law. In order for this to take place, a radical departure from conventional interpretive methods is essential, particularly with regard to Ahadith. There are two points, in particular which are essential in this regard:
First, the traditional notion of apostasy as a capital crime in Islam is incompatible with modern pluralism. Freedom of faith at any point in time is essential for the ulema to accept and sadly even the supposedly peaceful madrassas are not willing to accept this, despite the clear injunctions in Surah 2, verse 256 stating that there is “no compulsion in religion.”
While Christianity also has a superiority complex similar to Islam, it has largely managed to overcome this through new edicts and adaptive strategies that most Christians have accepted. The inertia within Islam can only be overcome if the ulema engage the notion of ijtihad, which sadly most of them refuse to do. Despite the media’s efforts at their promotion, scholars such as Maulana Ghamdi, who can make a cogent case for such reinterpretation, are unfortunately marginalised by the mainstream of ulema in Pakistan.
Second, the cultural infection of male superiority that is pervasive in so many Islamic curricula must be reformulated. There should be no compromise on the right of women to education, employment and other human liberties accorded to men. The slippery slope of cultural relativism that is so frequently used by governments such as Saudi Arabia is likely to perpetuate misogyny and preclude any lasting development. Even if a majority of a local population, such as militant populations in places like the Swat valley, want to deprive women of access to these rights, the state must intervene to stop this cruel exercise of medievalism. There are enough interpretive tools at the disposal of the ulema to make this happen if only they are willing to assert their authority.
On the other hand, the error which the modernists appear to make is rejecting the more socially responsible edicts of Islam such as a prohibition on alcohol, gambling and prostitution. Instead of focusing on enforcing women’s rights or apostasy laws, hedonistic distractions such as these are brandished about as markers of reform. Rather than trying to perilously get vodka in super-markets, the focus should be on making sure every woman in our tribal areas has a right to educate herself, marry the person of her choice and dress according to the same norms as her male counterparts. Instead of trying to promote Dubai-style liberation, we should be ensuring our religious minority populations feel that they are equal citizens before the law and society. Just because Muslims are not treated well in many other countries cannot be used as a lame excuse for rampant discrimination in our own.
Prioritising reform efforts within this Islamic polity are essential if we are to prevent the same kind of manic mayhem from reoccurring. This is a collective responsibility that cannot be taken for granted and the strength of the state, if it is to be used, must be done to ensure that no one can deprive our citizens of these most fundamental rights.
Saleem H. Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermonts Rubenstein School of Environment. He is preparing an environmental education curriculum for Islamic schools under the auspices of the United Nations mandated University for Peace.