New studies throw light on post-9/11 theological debates within Islam

In the covered alleyways of old Najaf in Iraq, poetry and philosophy books compete with economic treatises, the Quran and other theological tomes for students’ attention. (AFP/File Photo)
In the covered alleyways of old Najaf in Iraq, poetry and philosophy books compete with economic treatises, the Quran and other theological tomes for students’ attention. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 16 September 2021

New studies throw light on post-9/11 theological debates within Islam

New studies throw light on post-9/11 theological debates within Islam
  • Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has published three reports to mark 20 years since 9/11 terror attacks
  • The project covered themes ranging from theological debates and education reforms to youth opinions on modernity

LONDON: There has been significant progress in shifting the conversation and debate surrounding Islam away from fundamentalist and extremist themes to a more open, progressive narrative in the period since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, according to a series of recent studies.

The project, which covered themes ranging from theological debate to education and social reform and youth opinion concerning modernity and Islam, was commissioned by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change to mark 20 years since the 9/11 atrocities in New York City and Washington, D.C.

In the aftermath of the attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda, an intellectual spotlight was thrown on Islam and the world’s 2 billion Muslims, which one expert believes led to the beginning of an ongoing period of self-examination within the Islamic world, which has helped governments and scholars reclaim the discussion of Islam from extremists.

Dr. Usama Hasan, a senior analyst for the TBI Extremism Policy Unit and a practicing imam, has highlighted more than 120 examples in his report where Islamic scholars have issued fatwas and declarations to combat the threat of extremism since 2001, including the Makkah Charter in 2019 which called for global dialogue based on human equality and the rejection of religious supremacy.

His report, “The State of Debate Within Islam: Theological Developments in the Muslim World Since 9/11,” also cites examples of governments — such as Saudi Arabia’s with its Vision 2030 plan — playing a role in building societies based on reforms anathema to the extremists’ ideology.

Hasan told Arab News that despite the welcome progress, there was still work to be done and the non-Islamic world had a considerable role to play in helping Muslims combat the threat of terrorism, through better outreach to the Islamic world, and also by recognizing the “intense ongoing debates in the Muslim world,” and supporting voices and forces “that are more open, inclusive, and universalist.”

If these discussions are encouraged at a global level, Hasan says, the dialogue will better help the non-Islamic world to understand the interpretations of core Islamic concepts and the so-called theological justifications behind Islamic extremism, as well as assist the Muslim world to combat its ideology.




After the 9/11 attacks, an intellectual spotlight was thrown on Islam and the world’s 2 billion Muslims, which one expert believes led to the beginning of an ongoing period of self-examination within the Islamic world. (AFP/File Photo)

“Because Islamism is based on knitting together very particular interpretations of these four Qur’anic terms — the Ummah, the Caliphate, the Shariah and Jihad — mainstream Islam must confront these interpretations head on, especially by emphasizing inclusive and broader understandings of these terms that are more in harmony with the progressive spirit of the modern world,” Hasan said in his report.

Education reform across the Arab world and monitoring of the content to which children are exposed will also play a key role in combating Islamic radicalism, according to another expert.

In his “Peace and Tolerance Education in the Arab World Two Decades After 9/11” report, Dr. David Weinberg, the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington director for international affairs, has documented the work being done in the Islamic world to address content that contributed to hate and violence.

“Textbooks throughout the region are now teaching that tolerance is a fundamental Islamic value, an ethos that provides an opening for other reforms in practice,” he wrote in his report.

“The report assembles positive examples of passages from Arabic textbooks today that model teaching peace and tolerance in practice, such as lessons that address the common origins of our faith traditions, the inclusion and rights of religious minorities, peaceful interpretations of Islamic thinking, and the importance of respect for others and interfaith dialogue.”




Graphics from current Iranian state textbooks: One with the Khomeini quotation: “Israel Must be Wiped Out,” (L) with another (R) showing Qassem Soleimani with the label “model martyr of the Islamic world” appended in the associated caption. (Supplied)

Similar to Hasan, Weinberg’s report highlights areas of significant progress in the Islamic world, this time in the field of education reform, but he too outlines where more can be done — especially with the help of the international community.

He said: “One of the things I have found from studying textbooks in the region over time is that countries’ educational trajectories can change, and that nothing can be taken for granted. For example, in recent years, Turkey’s textbooks have gotten somewhat worse while Qatar’s have gotten somewhat better.

“I found that textbooks across much of the region express support for tolerance as a general principle but then sometimes contain content about specific topics that contradict these tolerant guidelines.

“The international community can provide technical assistance and diplomatic encouragement to sustain positive reforms of this sort.”

INNUMBERS

• 33,000 - Civilians and security personnel killed in 2017-2018 due to violent Islamist extremism.

• 70,000 - Islamist extremists killed in clashes with security forces or terrorist attacks in 2017-2018.

But for that sustained change to continue, there has to be a political will, from both leaders and the people of the region themselves, Weinberg says.

Referring to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, he says positive revisions made in the textbooks of one country should ideally be reflected in the academic curricula of the other if they want to consolidate the movement toward peace and tolerance education.

Meanwhile, Mansoor Moaddel, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland-College Park, has used his report, “Changing Values in the Middle East: Secular Swings and Liberal Leanings,” to highlight the importance of increased participation of women and youth in the shift toward a more progressive region.

The young women playing their part in the changes across the Middle East “deserve greater coverage” than the hatred and violence perpetrated by fundamentalists. Because “they are the hope for the future, we should make every effort to support these champions and confront radical Islamists,” Moaddel wrote in his report.

In his recommendations, Moaddel said it was important for Middle East governments to continue to promote women’s social mobility and active participation in the political process, with all their policy approaches investing in them and their futures.




Opening up to the innovative thinking of the large youth population in the Middle East is critical to realizing the region’s full economic potential, according to a second expert. (AFP/File Photo)

Likewise, his report suggests that opening up to the innovative thinking of the large youth population in the Middle East is critical to realizing the region’s full economic potential. One recommendation says “the desires and ambitions of young people today should be continually considered in designing policies of the future.”

One thing that all the experts agree on is that the reconquest of Afghanistan by the Taliban has been a setback to progress for the modernization of global Islam.

Weinberg said: “The fall of Kabul is just absolutely devastating symbolically, and it is a reminder that the struggle against violence and extremism requires sustained investment from all responsible stakeholders to succeed.

“Extremists all over the world and of all kinds take encouragement from what happened in Afghanistan last month, and it’s up to all of us to aid the victims and to do what we can to ensure that they cannot succeed in translating the tragedy of what happened in Afghanistan into gains in other places around the world.”

Hasan recently told Arab News that more effort from the non-Islamic world could prevent the Taliban from repeating the excesses of their 1996-2001 rule.

He said: “If the military solution hasn’t worked, the diplomatic, dialogue-based efforts could bear fruit.

“What I would have liked, in an ideal world, with all of this excellent theological engagement within the Islamic world and the non-Islamic world it would be great to see the Taliban mullahs involved.

“It’s in everybody’s interest to engage more with the Taliban, showing them the sense in having a more progressive, pluralistic approach to Islam.”




Mansoor Moaddel, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland-College Park, talks about the role of women and the youth to promoting modernization in Islam. (Supplied)

But regardless of this, Hasan and Weinberg will both be keeping track of the Islamic world’s direction, progress, and reform in the coming years.

As long as healthy and constructive debate continues between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds, Hasan is confident Muslims can play a larger role in helping to find practical and lasting solutions to the challenges facing humanity, including climate change, and improving human rights.

Such an approach is required to challenge and debunk the extremist content produced by destabilizing forces before it reaches Middle Eastern youth, added Weinberg, citing the Iranian regime and its regional proxies as examples.

“The most I can say at this point is that I am cautiously optimistic about whether more progress will be made in the coming decades to curtail the exposure that children in the Middle East and around the world will have to extremist ideologies," Weinberg said.

“On the one hand, terrorist groups and their sponsors have some powerful safe havens that are tough to roll back, and from which they propagate hateful curricula such as those currently generated by Iran and Hezbollah.

“Plus, our children are now more vulnerable to hateful disinformation and extremist recruitment through the internet and social media in particular. But the internet also provides a vehicle for positive messages of peace and tolerance, and there is more that all of us can do to push back against hateful disinformation as well.”


Lebanon Maronite patriarch says no party should resort to violence

Lebanon Maronite patriarch says no party should resort to violence
Updated 58 min 43 sec ago

Lebanon Maronite patriarch says no party should resort to violence

Lebanon Maronite patriarch says no party should resort to violence
  • Thursday’s spasm of violence saw seven Shiite Muslims killed

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, the top Christian cleric, said on Sunday that it was unacceptable for any party to resort to threats or violence after the worst street bloodshed in the country in more than a decade.
Thursday’s spasm of violence, in which seven Shiite Muslims were killed, came amid rising tensions over the investigation of last’s year’s port blast. Rai said “no one is above the law and judiciary” in a Sunday sermon.
Rai said “we must free the judiciary from political interference” and “sectarian and partisan political activism.”
Lebanon’s Council of Ministers must meet, take decisions and respect authority, he said.
The Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah group opposes the investigation and has called for the lead investigator into the blast, Judge Tarek Bitar, to be removed. (Reporting by Michael Georgy; Editing by Alex Richardson)


Iran’s navy prevents pirate attack in Gulf of Aden

Iran’s navy prevents pirate attack in Gulf of Aden
Updated 17 October 2021

Iran’s navy prevents pirate attack in Gulf of Aden

Iran’s navy prevents pirate attack in Gulf of Aden
  • Iranian destroyer Alborz was escorting two oil tankers when they were attacked by five pirate ships

TEHRAN: An Iranian warship on Saturday prevented an attack by pirates against two oil tankers that it was escorting in the Gulf of Aden, the country’s naval chief said.
“Navy commandos were successful in repulsing this morning the attack by pirates against an Iranian commercial convoy in the Gulf of Aden,” said navy commander Admiral Shahram Irani, quoted on Saturday by the official IRNA news agency.
“The destroyer Alborz was escorting two oil tankers when they were attacked by five pirate ships,” he said, noting that Iranian shots were fired, forcing “the attackers to leave the area.”


Anwar Sadat’s nephew negotiates way out for Egypt prisoners

Anwar Sadat’s nephew negotiates way out for Egypt prisoners
Updated 17 October 2021

Anwar Sadat’s nephew negotiates way out for Egypt prisoners

Anwar Sadat’s nephew negotiates way out for Egypt prisoners
  • Mohamed Al-Sadat has become an unofficial negotiator advocating on behalf of figures imprisoned under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi

CAIRO: The fate of dissidents languishing in Egypt’s prisons has long been under scrutiny, but one veteran is leveraging his political prowess in a bid to have them released.
Mohamed Al-Sadat, 66, nephew of former president Anwar Al-Sadat, the first Arab leader to strike peace with Israel, has long been a fixture of Egypt’s political scene.
Now, he has become an unofficial negotiator advocating on behalf of figures imprisoned under the uncompromising administration of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
“Dialogue with the state’s institutions isn’t just a one-man job, there are many others in close contact... but lately we’ve been successful in using a language that is being listened to,” he said in his plush office in an upscale Cairo suburb.
“This has been effective in some cases (of political prisoners) being re-examined,” he said.
Forty-six prisoners were freed in July, including prominent activists such as rights lawyer Mahienour el-Massry.
But as many as 60,000 political prisoners are serving time in Egyptian jails, according to human rights defenders.
El-Sisi, a former army chief, became president in 2014 after leading the military ouster of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi a year earlier.
He has since overseen a sweeping crackdown on dissent.
Those jailed for criticizing the political status quo have included academics, journalists, lawyers, activists, comedians, Islamists, presidential candidates and MPs.
But Sadat is less concerned about the conditions that led to their arrest than with securing their release.
“There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes in these security agencies where they undertake an examination of specific cases that we’ve raised, whether from a humanitarian or legal perspective,” he explained.
With a portrait of his uncle, a Nobel laureate for the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, gazing down on him, Sadat was careful not to appear too critical of El-Sisi’s human rights record.
He insisted that on-off pressures imposed by US President Joe Biden’s administration have not influenced Egypt’s willingness to improve its often condemned record on human rights.
“I don’t agree that it (reform efforts) all stems from international pressures or a new US administration, that’s not really appropriate to say,” he maintained.
El-Sisi enjoyed a close working relationship with former US president Donald Trump who said the Egyptian leader was doing “a fantastic job in a very difficult situation,” in reference to counter-terrorism and regional instability.
But Biden kicked off his term this year by vowing no more “blank checks” to El-Sisi.
However, with Cairo’s critical role in brokering a cease-fire between the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas and Israel after fighting broke out in May, ties with Washington have significantly warmed.
Leading an “International Dialogue” delegation comprised of lawmakers and media personalities to Washington last week, Sadat went on a “charm offensive,” according to one attendee of the meetings.
The dialogue included meetings with State Department officials, think tanks, policymakers and Egyptian activists.
“Sadat’s not the boss. He is there as a figurehead or elder statesman,” the source, who preferred to remain anonymous, said.
“Maybe El-Sisi wants to get his DC invitation and this is the way,” the participant added.
Sadat, who once mulled a presidential run in 2018 against El-Sisi, describes himself as an “honest broker” and “messenger” but not the decision-maker.
“We’re told by judicial officials that some inmates will be released after looking over their case files again. We then tell their families. That’s the process in a nutshell,” Sadat said.
For one former detainee unable to leave Egypt because he is on a no-fly list, Sadat’s role has been crucial in negotiating his case with the interior ministry.
Describing him as “genuinely sympathetic,” the detainee, who requested anonymity, said: “He’s treading a very delicate line ... He’s interfacing with security agencies and civil society activists.”
“He’s the man of the hour really when it comes to human rights.”


Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins

Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins
Updated 17 October 2021

Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins

Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins
  • Crisis surrounds probe being conducted by Judge Tarek Bitar, who wants to question former and serving ministers linked to Hezbollah and the allied Amal Party about their responsibility for the deadly port blast

BEIRUT: Members of parliament hid in their homes on Saturday in fear of assassination by Hezbollah gunmen as new turmoil in Lebanon threatened to spiral out of control.

Security services advised MPs from the Lebanese Forces party not to venture out amid growing tension over a judicial investigation into the Beirut port explosion in August 2020, which killed more than 200 people and devastated swaths of Beirut.

“Yes, this advice was given to the MPs of the Lebanese Forces,” party media chief Charles Jabbour told Arab News. “There is fear of them being exposed to assassination and murder, which Hezbollah has practiced before. The solution requires that Hezbollah hand over its weapons to the state.”

The crisis surrounds the investigation being conducted by Judge Tarek Bitar, who wants to question former and serving ministers linked to Hezbollah and the allied Amal Party about their responsibility for the deadly port blast. The ministers claim the judge’s actions are political, and have refused to cooperate.

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Tensions erupted into violence last Thursday, when seven people were killed after gunfire erupted during a Hezbollah and Amal protest against the investigation in a mainly Christian area of central Beirut.

Justice Minister Henry El-Khoury said on Saturday he supported Judge Bitar, who had the right to summon whoever he wanted in the case. “I stand by the ... investigator,” El-Khoury said. He said he did not have the authority to replace Bitar, and faced no pressure to do so.

The minister held crisis talks on Saturday to discuss the investigation with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Supreme Judicial Council president Suhail Abboud and public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat. They decided to invite Bitar to a meeting of the council on Tuesday.

“Judge Abboud is committed to judicial, not political, approaches to resolving the problem,” a judicial source told Arab News.

There was also support for Bitar’s investigation from a surprising source —  former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanon’s largest Christian bloc. “The Free Patriotic Movement is for continuing the probe, revealing the truth and putting those responsible on trial,” Bassil said on Saturday.

Bassil, who is President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law and is widely thought to be angling to replace him, is under US sanctions for alleged corruption, and for having ties to Hezbollah.


Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan

Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan
Updated 17 October 2021

Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan

Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan
  • Germany, Turkey hope cooperation prospers between both countries

ISTANBUL: Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday vowed continuity in Germany’s relations with Turkey that included both cooperation and criticism of Ankara as she paid her final visit to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Merkel and Erdogan developed complex but close relations over the German chancellor’s 16-year term that navigated the perils of Turkey’s tumultuous ties with the West.

Their personal bond was instrumental in helping Europe manage a refugee crisis in 2016 and calm simmering tensions in the east Mediterranean last year.

Merkel also helped iron out some of the difficulties that have crept into Erdogan’s relations with Washington and French President Emmanuel Macron.

The two leaders had lunch and private talks in a presidential villa overlooking the Bosphorus on the latest leg of Merkel’s parting foreign tour.

“I have always said that our collaboration was very good in the years that I worked with Mr. Erdogan,” Merkel told reporters after the talks.

The 67-year-old German leader said her “advice” to Turkey today was to expect “the same thing for the coming government in Germany.

“The relationship between Turkey and Germany, with its negative and positive sides, will go on. It will be recognised by the next government,” she said.

Erdogan referred to Merkel as his “dear friend” twice during the closing media event.

But he also hinted at the difficulties Turkey might have in promoting its interests after Merkel formally gives way to a new coalition government taking shape in Berlin following elections last month.

“If there had been no coalition government, (Germany’s) relations with Turkey might have been easier. Of course, it is not easy to work with a coalition government,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan headed Turkey as prime minister when Merkel became the first woman to head Germany in 2005.

The two have since shared a long list of differences and numerous testy exchanges on issues ranging from Turkey’s crackdown on human rights to its military campaigns in Syria and Libya.

But Germany also played a central role in defusing a crisis in the east Mediterranean last year that erupted when Turkey began searching for natural gas in disputed waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece.

Analysts say Merkel was more sympathetic to Erdogan’s position because of the presence of an estimated 3 million ethnic Turks in Germany.

She has also been sensitive to Erdogan’s threats to let an estimated 5 million migrants and refugees temporarily living in Turkey under a 2016 deal with the EU to leave for Europe unless Ankara’s interests are respected by Brussels.

After admitting hundreds of thousands of refugees to Germany in 2015, she stressed Turkey’s role in preventing a repeat of such large-scale migration to Europe and helped engineer a deal for Turkey to stem the flow of people seeking to cross the Aegean Sea.

“Their relations were very difficult in many respects but they managed to establish and maintain working cooperation,” analyst Gunter Seufert of the German Institute for Security and International Affairs told AFP.

Seufert predicted that the new German government will be more “sceptical” about extending the terms of the Turkey-EU agreement on migrants or continuing arms sales to Ankara — particularly submarines.

“With the new chancellor, no matter who they will be ... it will be more difficult to coordinate the European policy with Turkey to the level and degree Angela Merkel did.”