S Iftikhar Murshed
Religion is not the opiate of the people, as the Marxists believe, but, if misinterpreted, it ignites the flame that destroys society. The twin suicide bomb attacks at Data Darbar in Lahore on July 1 were yet another tragic episode in Pakistan's unending nightmare of extremist violence. A little more than a month earlier, the slaughter of scores of Ahmedis as they congregated for prayers shamed the entire country as much as it appalled the international community.
Extremist groups have repeatedly targeted respected religious scholars, shrines and places of worship. Thus, in September 2007 Maulana Hasan Jan was killed, as was Dr Sarfraz Naeemi in June 2009. The tomb of Pashto Sufi poet Rahman Baba (d. 1711), celebrated as "the Nightingale of Pakhtunkhwa," was destroyed on March 5, 2009. Later that month, a suicide bomb attack on a mosque in Jamrud killed more than fifty worshippers. These are only a few examples of the savagery.
Admittedly, the military operations against the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine in Malakand Division, South Waziristan and some of the other tribal agencies have been fairly successful. But this could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory unless the false ideology of the extremist groups based on the distortion of Islamic tenets is effectively exposed.
This is the core around which a counter-radicalisation strategy, so desperately needed to defeat extremist violence, must be built. Unfortunately, the formulation of such a strategy does not even seem to be on the anvil in Pakistan. The initiative has been taken by the religious scholars of other countries with the support of their respective governments.
On March 27-28 leading academics and theologians representing the diverse schools of Islamic thought--from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Yemen, India, Senegal, Kuwait, Bosnia, Iran, Morocco, Mauritania and Indonesia--convened in Mardin, a historic fortress city in south-eastern Turkey. The primary purpose was to discuss the famous fatwa of Taqi-ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328). Issued from the same city after the Mongol invasions, it supposedly authorised violence against unjust rulers.
The importance of this edict in the context of the contemporary era is that it has been repeatedly invoked by Osama bin Laden and his cohorts for terror strikes against Muslim leaders and people living under their rule.
The conference, from which Pakistan was conspicuously absent, adopted a widely publicised declaration stating: "Anyone who seeks support from this fatwa for killing Muslims or non-Muslims has erred in his interpretation… It is not for a Muslim individual or a Muslim group to announce and declare war or engage in combative jihad...on their own."
The scholars were also unanimous that: (i) the actions of terrorist groups are not jihad but arbitrary murder; (ii) ibn Taymiyya's Mardin fatwa has been misinterpreted, and in no circumstances can it be used to justify terrorism or violence; (iii) the religion unequivocally forbids indiscriminate killing and murder; and (iv) the terrorists are destroying their own faith and disparaging the honour of Islam.
The outcome of the conference was summed up by its spokesperson in the following words: "This historic and important summit made it clear that ibn Taymiyya, and the Mardin fatwa in particular, cannot be used to justify terrorism. This summit made it clear that neither did ibn Taymiyya take such a position nor does orthodox mainstream Islam allow for such a position to exist. This summit drew together scholars and theologians from different persuasions within Islam. But united they stood: Islam condemns terrorism and indiscriminate murder."
Ibn Taymiyya has been demonised by the West while the likes of Osama bin Laden have misquoted and misinterpreted his writings. This has been conclusively proved by reputed scholars such as Sheikh Abd-al-Wahab, former professor at Al-Imam University in Riyadh. According to Abd-al-Wahab, the only known manuscript of Ibn Taymiyya's fatwa is archived at the Zahiryyah Library in Damascus. Mardin at the time was under Mongol occupation, and though the Mongols had superficially converted to Islam, their rule was marked by severe persecution of Muslims.
Ibn Taymiyya was specifically asked whether Mardin was the land of peace or war, and, furthermore, should those Muslims who did not emigrate be considered to be assisting the enemies of Islam and therefore apostates to be fought against. The corrupted copy of the fatwa reads: "The non-Muslims living there outside the authority of Islamic law should be fought, as this is their due." The original word is yu'amal (should be treated) but has been rendered as yuqatal (should be fought). This is the error that has changed the meaning entirely and has been exploited by Al Qaeda and its associates.
Furthermore, ibn Taymiyya was a follower of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855) who prohibited rebellion even against unjust authority, as that would spur anarchy and bloodshed. It is therefore doubtful whether ibn Taymiyya would violate the teachings of his own school of Islamic jurisprudence.
The Mardin Conference, which was inadequately reported by the Pakistani print and electronic media, demonstrates the importance of involving the ulema, and there is no dearth of such learned scholars in the country, in the exposure of the false doctrines on which extremist ideology is based.
This has to be the starting point for a counter-radicalisation strategy. Furthermore, Pakistan should involve itself and interact with the Mardin process to build international support for its counter-radicalisation initiative. Lastly, popular opinion has to be galvanised towards a nationwide surge against terrorist violence, and this will only be possible if a strikingly moderate message of Islam is presented to the people.