Three lessons to protect our youth from extremism
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
A Canadian Muslim teenager recently plead guilty to armed robbery after he was caught attempting to assault a convenient store clerk in the name of Islam. He planned to use the funds to join a terrorist group overseas. When asked how he could justify robbery, which is a major sin in Islam, he told investigators, “A Muslim has the right to take their goods as the spoils of war.”
This young man is only one of many who have been fooled by what he has read or watched on the internet about Islam. We must consider the question: how can anyone ever accept such a distorted view of our religion that makes pure evil look good?
The fact is that terrorists acting in the name of Islam have crafted a narrative and methodology of propaganda around classical concepts in Islamic law, reinterpreting and misrepresenting those concepts with radical ideologically-charged meanings, and digitally packaging them specifically for young Muslims on the internet where they can indoctrinate or “self-radicalize” themselves without anyone knowing. The extremists’ ostentatious reliance on classical Islamic sources projects an image of authority and erudition, but even those with a little knowledge will see them as a paper tiger.
We have a lot of work to do to educate our communities on the basics of Islam and its proper doctrinal understanding. Serious questions the youth have about Islam include the nature of jihad and Islamic law, the proper response to tyranny, the issues of secularism and liberalism, and much more. The answers to these questions have been published by qualified Muslim scholars, although they hardly compare to the flashiness and emotional appeal of the propaganda they refute.
Therefore, we need to arm parents and community leaders with brief, easy-to-understand lessons for the youth that will help them cut through the glitz of extremist propaganda. There are three important points about Islam I think they need to know: principles come before politics, reason must lead our emotions, and the rights of our elders must be respected.
Principles over politics
The campaign to apply “Sharia law” is at its heart a self-serving political campaign, one designed to overthrow a perceived bourgeois upper-class of “infidel” Muslim rulers by a righteous political party, or terrorist organization, representing the oppressed Muslim proletariat. The ultimate goal is political and worldly, the creation of an ideological state, and this goal is so allegedly high-minded that the “ends justify the means” to get there. Hence, these extremists justify terrorism, rape, robbery, and just about anything that serves their political goal regardless of what the Quran and Sunnah actually say.
The truth is that Islam, and Islamic law specifically, demand adherence to principles and values that precede any application of law or politics. This is a scholarly discipline known as the “objectives of the religious law” (maqasid ash-sharia).
Ibn Al-Qayyim, one of the great classical Muslim scholars, wrote:
فَإِنَّ الشَّرِيعَةَ مَبْنَاهَا وَأَسَاسُهَا عَلَى الْحِكَمِ وَمَصَالِحِ الْعِبَادِ فِي الْمَعَاشِ وَالْمَعَادِ وَهِيَ عَدْلٌ كُلُّهَا وَرَحْمَةٌ كُلُّهَا وَمَصَالِحُ كُلُّهَا وَحِكْمَةٌ كُلُّهَا فَكُلُّ مَسْأَلَةٍ خَرَجَتْ عَنْ الْعَدْلِ إلَى الْجَوْرِ وَعَنْ الرَّحْمَةِ إلَى ضِدِّهَا وَعَنْ الْمَصْلَحَةِ إلَى الْمَفْسَدَةِ وَعَنْ الْحِكْمَةِ إلَى الْبَعْثِ فَلَيْسَتْ مِنْ الشَّرِيعَةِ وَإِنْ أُدْخِلَتْ فِيهَا بِالتَّأْوِيلِ
Verily, the Sharia is founded upon wisdom and welfare for the servants in this life and the afterlife. In its entirety it is justice, mercy, benefit, and wisdom. Every matter which abandons justice for tyranny, mercy for cruelty, benefit for corruption, and wisdom for foolishness is not a part of the Sharia even if it was introduced therein by an interpretation.
The teachings of Islam are primarily spiritual and ethical, and they are only political in so far as politics has moral implications. Any implementation of Islamic law that violates core values of justice, mercy, and wisdom is not a part of Islam even if it is apparently based upon the Quran, Sunnah, and the works of classical scholars. The literal interpretation of scripture promoted by terrorists, without regard to context, principles, and exegesis (tafseer), is not faithfulness or devotion; it is ignorance and illiteracy.
Moreover, authentic scholars operate at the level of legal principles (qawa’id al-fiqh) instead of simply repeating what is mentioned in a classical book of jurisprudence. Reading a science textbook doesn’t make you a scientist, nor does reading a medical textbook make you a doctor. In the same way, reading a book of fiqh doesn’t make you an Islamic scholar able to produce sound rulings on issues as complex as war, ideology, and governance. The authentic scholars are those who have absorbed the principles and methodology of Islam and are able to apply those principles in new situations. In contrast, terrorists will cite Islamic law only to the extent that it helps them achieve their worldly goals and they will ignore everything in Islam that contradicts their predetermined ideology.
Reason over emotion
Islam requires us to temper our emotions with reason, logic, and sound thinking. A heart that is unguided by the mind will simply follow its desires instead of the truth, justifying its desires with feelings instead of rationality. This is the very opposite of Islam, which is why Allah tells us over and over again to follow our reason and restrain our desires.
وَمَا كَانَ لِنَفْسٍ أَن تُؤْمِنَ إِلَّا بِإِذْنِ اللَّهِ ۚ وَيَجْعَلُ الرِّجْسَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ لَا يَعْقِلُونَ
It is not for a soul to have faith except by permission of Allah, and He will disgrace those who will not reason.
Surat Yunus 10:100
And Umar ibn Al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, said:
أَصْلُ الرَّجُلِ عَقْلُهُ وَحَسَبُهُ دِينُهُ وَمُرُوءَتُهُ خُلُقُهُ
The foundation of a man is his intellect, his honor is in his religion, and his chivalry is in his character.
The strength of a Muslim man or woman is their ability to reason and think clearly in spite of feeling strong emotions. Terrorist propaganda capitalizes on emotion by bombarding young people with violent and disturbing images, violence that highlights the oppression of the innocent Muslims caught in the crossfire and the alleged justice served upon enemies executed in snuff-style video productions.
Many Muslims have told me that they know these terrorist groups are flawed, but they are the only ones doing something. This is the raw emotional response that the propaganda intends to provoke. Instead of asking ourselves rationally what should be done to best help suffering Muslims in these war zones, we are made to feel that something, anything, must be done. Then we are shamed by online propagandists for not having done enough by failing to join their cause. But a smart person must ask the question: Has the terrorist bombing campaign really helped the people of Syria and Iraq whose homeless refugees now number in the millions? Are they now safer to practice Islam and raise their families than they were before?
Reason and logic, along with moral integrity, must be used to grapple with the crises we face. While emotions can help motivate us toward positive action, they cannot be our leader. They must be submissive to reason.
Respect our elders
The elders of our communities, our parents, our leaders, and our scholars, all have rights over us in Islam. Whoever upholds these rights is a Muslim and whoever denies them has nothing to do with Islam.
The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
مَنْ لَمْ يَرْحَمْ صَغِيرَنَا وَيَعْرِفْ حَقَّ كَبِيرِنَا فَلَيْسَ مِنَّا
He who does not show mercy to our little ones or recognize the rights of our elders is not one of us.
One of the rights of our scholars is that we seek their knowledge, guidance, and wisdom. Young people can learn a lot in our technological age, or at least be immersed in information, but they can never accumulate wisdom and experience the way our elders have. For this reason, Allah commands us to learn from them and respect their opinions.
فَاسْأَلُوا أَهْلَ الذِّكْرِ إِن كُنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
So ask the people of the message if you do not know.
Surat An-Nahl 16:43
You will find that virtually all of the major scholars in every country, who have studied in recognized institutions of higher learning and earned their due accolades, have condemned the actions of terrorists, refuted their erroneous legal arguments, and warned the youth about joining them. These are scholars who have spent their entire lives learning Islam and have become nationally and internationally recognized for their contributions to Islamic scholarship. Is it really plausible that so many scholars, in so many universities and in so many countries, have all conspired against the “true” Muslims?
The international scholarly consensus on the evil of ideological “Islamic” terrorism is a clear warning flare in the night sky to any young person who is attracted to the alluring deception of terrorist propaganda.
These are three simple points that hopefully can serve as a foundation for young people to grow and develop their knowledge of Islam, but it will probably not be enough for those already infected with extremist ideas.
Terrorist propaganda relies upon dangerous compound ignorance, where one lies leads to another lie and another and another, until a web of deception is spun that can only be unpacked by refuting each lie one at a time. Like pulling off layers of an onion, compound ignorance must be deconstructed piece by piece in a lengthy process of rediscovery and self-examination. Many people who have internalized extremist propaganda will not be able to escape it, so we have to reach our children before that happens. We must be vigilant in giving our children a strong foundation of Islamic knowledge to protect them from online predators.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.