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.”


Armed forces gave all concessions possible to achieve Sudan’s dreams: Burhan

Armed forces gave all concessions possible to achieve Sudan’s dreams: Burhan
Updated 7 sec ago

Armed forces gave all concessions possible to achieve Sudan’s dreams: Burhan

Armed forces gave all concessions possible to achieve Sudan’s dreams: Burhan

Armed forces gave all concessions possible to achieve Sudan’s dreams: Burhan


Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation

Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation
Updated 6 min 37 sec ago

Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation

Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation
  • Lines of cars at a Tehran gas station, with the pumps off and the station closeda

DUBAI: Gas stations across Iran on Tuesday suffered through a widespread outage of a government system managing fuel subsidies, stopping sales in an incident that one semiofficial news agency briefly referred to as a cyberattack.
An Iranian state television account online shared images of long lines of cars waiting to fill up in Tehran. An Associated Press journalist also saw lines of cars at a Tehran gas station, with the pumps off and the station closed.
State TV did not explain what the issue was, but said Oil Ministry officials were holding an “emergency meeting” to solve the technical problem.
The semiofficial ISNA news agency, which called the incident a cyberattack, said it saw those trying to buy fuel with a government-issued card through the machines instead receive a message reading “cyberattack 64411.” Most Iranians rely on those subsidies to fuel their vehicles, particularly amid the country’s economic problems.
While ISNA didn’t acknowledge the number’s significance, that number is associated to a hotline run through the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that handles questions about Islamic law. ISNA later removed its reports.
Farsi-language satellite channels abroad published videos apparently shot by drivers in Isfahan, a major Iranian city, showing electronic billboards there reading: “Khamenei! Where is our gas?” Another said: “Free gas in Jamaran gas station,” a reference to the home of the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the outage. However, the use of the number “64411” mirrored an attack in July targeting Iran’s railroad system that also saw the number displayed. Israeli cybersecurity firm Check Point later attributed the train attack to a group of hackers that called themselves Indra, after the Hindu god of war.
Indra previously targeted firms in Syria, where President Bashar Assad has held onto power through Iran’s intervention in his country’s grinding war.
Iran has faced a series of cyberattacks, including one that leaked video of abuses its notorious Evin prison in August.
The country disconnected much of its government infrastructure from the Internet after the Stuxnet computer virus — widely believed to be a joint US-Israeli creation — disrupted thousands of Iranian centrifuges in the country’s nuclear sites in the late 2000s.


Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’

Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’
Updated 25 min 3 sec ago

Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’

Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’
  • Ex-UK top prosecutor: ‘We’re just demonstrating an unwillingness to take responsibility. I think it’s an embarrassment’
  • Ex-US intelligence official: London stripping nationals of citizenship ‘is misguided and will make us all less safe’

LONDON: The British strategy of leaving Daesh members and their families in Kurdish-administered camps in Syria is a “coward’s Guantanamo,” Britain’s former top prosecutor has said.

Lord Macdonald, the UK’s former director of public prosecutions, compared the situation in camps in Syria to the US-run Guantanamo Bay prison, which has been used to hold hundreds of people suspected of terrorist crimes or affiliations indefinitely and without trial.

“I think we’re just demonstrating an unwillingness to take responsibility. I think it’s an embarrassment personally … a coward’s form of Guantanamo,” the House of Lords member said while giving evidence at a parliamentary committee on Britons trafficked to Syria.

Rather than repatriating Daesh recruits to face prosecution at home, the UK has chosen to strip them of their citizenship where possible, making it impossible for them to legally return to the country.

Dozens of women and children are among the British citizens currently living in dire conditions in camps run by the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The committee heard that this approach is increasingly at odds with other Western nations such as Denmark, Germany and the US, which are gradually bringing their people home and putting them before juries.

Ministers have considered running trials in Iraq and Syria as a compromise — an idea Macdonald branded “preposterous” on logistical and legal grounds.

Instead, he urged London to “set our justice system loose” and attempt to formally prosecute suspected Daesh members.

“I am confident that many of these individuals would face prosecution because we do know a lot, and many of them have spoken about themselves on social media,” he said. “There are other means by which we can place some restraints on people we have to release.”

Officials and observers have consistently warned that abandoning Britons and other foreign nationals in Syria presents a long-term security threat.

A former senior official in the US State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism told the committee that repatriating people from these camps is “the right thing do to from a security perspective.”

Chris Harnisch, deputy coordinator for the department from 2018 until earlier this year, said the Trump administration chose to take back “Americans of all ages.”

Other countries must do the same to “prevent the re-emergence of the caliphate,” and there is “no viable alternative,” he added.

Daesh’s leadership “has made clear that the men, women and children in prisons and camps are strategic assets,” Harnisch said, warning of repeated attempts at large-scale prison breaks.

“The US and UK and the whole world is at more risk,” he added. “Al-Hol is the capital of the caliphate at this point — you have more hardened adherents to ISIS (Daesh) ideology living in that camp than anywhere in the world.”

Escapees, Harnisch warned, could join Daesh campaigns in Syria and Iraq, or travel further afield and return home from there to plan attacks.

He pointed to previous prison breaks by the Taliban in Afghanistan as evidence of the grave threat that the status quo presents.

Harnisch urged the UK to “think twice before stripping nationals of citizenship,” adding: “Such an approach is misguided and will make us all less safe.”

John Godfrey, US special envoy for the global anti-Daesh coalition, said in March this year that there remained around 2,000 foreign fighters in Kurdish-run camps in Syria, with about 10,000 associated family members, the majority of them children.

The British government has previously said prosecuting returning Daesh members presents serious legal challenges as it is difficult to prove the actions they took while in Syria and fighting for the group.

On Monday, a German court sentenced a female Daesh recruit to 10 years behind bars for war crimes committed after joining the group, including the enslavement, horrific abuse and eventual murder of a Yazidi girl she purchased on the Daesh slave markets.


Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest

Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest
Updated 26 October 2021

Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest

Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest
  • Life comes to a halt in the capital Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman across the Nile, with roads blocked either by soldiers or by barricades erected by protesters
KHARTOUM: Roads were blocked, shops were shut, phones were down and mosque loudspeakers blared calls for a general strike in Sudan on Tuesday, a day after the army seized power in a coup that triggered unrest in which at least seven people were killed.
Life came to a halt in the capital Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman across the Nile, with roads blocked either by soldiers or by barricades erected by protesters.
The night appeared to have passed comparatively quietly after Monday’s unrest, when protesters took to the streets after soldiers arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other civilians in the cabinet. A health ministry official said seven people had been killed in clashes between protesters and the security forces.
The leader of the takeover, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, dissolved the military-civilian Sovereign Council set up to guide Sudan to democracy following the overthrow of long-ruling autocrat Omar Al-Bashir in a popular uprising two years ago.
Burhan announced a state of emergency, saying the armed forces needed to protect safety and security. He promised to hold elections in July 2023 and hand over to an elected civilian government then. On Tuesday he dissolved committees that govern trade unions, Arabic news channels reported.
The Sudan information ministry, still loyal to Hamdok, said on its Facebook page the transitional constitution gave only the prime minister the right to declare an emergency and the military’s actions were a crime. Hamdok was still the legitimate transitional authority, it said.
The main roads and bridge between Khartoum and Omdurman were closed to vehicles by the military. Banks and cash machines were shut, and mobile phone apps widely used for money transfers could not be accessed.
Some bakeries were open in Omdurman but people were queuing for several hours, longer than usual.
“We are paying the price for this crisis,” a man in his 50s looking for medicine at one of the pharmacies where stocks have been running low said angrily. “We can’t work, we can’t find bread, there are no services, no money.”
In the western city of El Geneina, resident Adam Haroun said there was complete civil disobedience, with schools, stores and gas stations closed.
The Sudanese Professionals Association, an activist coalition that played a major role in the uprising that toppled Bashir, has called for a strike.
Hamdok, an economist and former senior UN official, was detained and taken to an undisclosed location on Monday after refusing to issue a statement in support of the takeover, the information ministry said. Troops also arrested other civilian government figures and members of the Sovereign Council.
Western governments have condemned the coup, called for the release of the detained civilian leaders and threatened to cut off aid, which Sudan needs to recover from an economic crisis.
The United States has said it was immediately pausing delivery of $700 million in emergency support.
Sudan has been ruled for most of its post-colonial history by military leaders who seized power in coups. It had become a pariah to the West and was on a US terrorism blacklist under Bashir, who hosted Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and is wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for war crimes.
Since Bashir was toppled, the military shared power uneasily with civilians under a transition meant to lead to elections in 2023. The country had been on edge since last month when a failed coup plot, blamed on Bashir supporters, unleashed recriminations between the military and civilians.

Israel envoy to brief US over ban on Palestinian groups

Israel envoy to brief US over ban on Palestinian groups
Updated 26 October 2021

Israel envoy to brief US over ban on Palestinian groups

Israel envoy to brief US over ban on Palestinian groups
  • Israel last week designated prominent Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations
  • The announcement has outraged the activist community in Israel

TEL AVIV: Israel is sending an envoy to Washington amid a deepening rift with the Biden administration over six outlawed Palestinian rights groups, a Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday.
Israel last week designated the prominent Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations, sparking international criticism and repeated assertions by Israel’s top strategic partner, the United States, that there had been no advance warning of the move.
Israel’s move marked what critics say was a major escalation of its decades-long crackdown on political activism in the occupied territories. The US State Department has said it would seek more information on the decision.
Joshua Zarka, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, told Israeli Army Radio the envoy would “give them all the details and to present them all the intelligence” during his visit in the coming days.
Zarka said he personally updated US officials on Israel’s intention to outlaw the groups last week, and said he believed Washington wanted a more thorough explanation of the decision.
The rights groups decision is emerging as a test of the relationship between the Biden administration and Israel’s new government, which was formed in June by eight politically disparate parties. The coalition ended the 12-year rule of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s hard-line government enjoyed broad support from the Trump administration, which moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, largely allowed settlement building to continue unfettered, cut funding to the Palestinians and presented a vision for the Mideast that sided with Israel’s positions.
The Biden administration has mostly restored traditional foreign policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. But with the US focused on other pressing domestic and foreign issues, the conflict was expected to take a backseat.
The fractious coalition government has also sought to minimize the Palestinian issue, agreeing not to make major moves that might threaten its stability. But in recent weeks, it has ramped up focus on the conflict, offering a number of goodwill gestures to Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and also pushing forward on building thousands of new homes for Jewish settlers.
Most dramatic was the decision on the civil society groups, which has rattled the coalition and returned focus to the conflict and Israel’s decades-long occupation of territories the Palestinians seek for a future state.
Israel has for years alleged the groups’ links to a Palestinian militant group but even under Netanyahu’s hard-line government, stopped short of labeling them terrorist organizations.
The announcement has outraged the activist community in Israel, which in recent years has also faced pushback from hard-line Israeli governments. In a joint statement Monday, more than 20 Israeli human rights groups, including some of the country’s leading, most established organizations, condemned the step, calling it “a draconian measure that criminalizes critical human rights work.”
The declaration against the Palestinian rights groups appeared to pave the way for Israel to raid their offices, seize assets, arrest staff and criminalize any public expressions of support for the groups. Most of the targeted organizations document alleged human rights violations by Israel as well as the Palestinian Authority, both of which routinely detain Palestinian activists.
The designated groups are Al-Haq, a human rights group founded in 1979, as well as the Addameer rights group, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees.