What’s the connection between Islam and extremism?
6 Jun 2022|

The issue of whether the religion of Islam is a faith that endorses extremism, and more specifically violent extremism, or is used and abused by extremist groups for notional objectives, is an important one. This query continues to be a recurrent theme at different levels in world politics. In a new book, Extremist Islam: recognition and responses in Southeast Asia, counterterrorism expert Kumar Ramakrishna urges authorities to pay more attention to the persistent danger of violent Salafism in the region.

The debate about Islam and extremism has become more potent in the decades following the advent of the Islamic government of Iran in 1979, the jihadist resistance to the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and al-Qaeda’s 11 September 2001 terror attacks on the United States.

The rise of various ideologically linked violent-extremist networks and groups—including al-Qaeda, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Abu Sayyaf Group, Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and Jemaah Islamiyah—has threatened the stability of many states and challenged the sanguinity of the international order. It has polarised world opinion between those who hold the religion of Islam as responsible for the violent activities of such groups and those who attribute their actions to political and societal conditions and the lack of a comprehensive strategy on the part of states and the global community to counter them by addressing their root causes.

Hence, scholars, policymakers, commentators and community leaders of different ideological and political persuasions have come up with various descriptors to try to make sense of where Islam stands in relation to extremism. They prominently include political Islam, reformist Islam, moderate Islam, radical Islam, extremist Islam, Salafist Islam, Wahhabi Islam and Deobandi Islam, or a combination of these.

Do these terms capture the essence of Islam as a communal faith and way of life, or do they indicate that the Quran is open to a range of interpretations, including the ones that can justify violence and terrorism? Have responses in the form of counterterrorism and counternarratives attempting to define and delegitimise extremism as distinct from legitimate resistance in defence of Islam, freedom and independence been adequately grounded in a viable strategy?

It is often argued that the best way to deal with violent extremism is to have a globally comprehensive, cooperative political strategy to tackle those root causes of the phenomenon that defy the application of brute force.

The market has been flooded with scholarly and popular literature about ‘Islamic terrorism’ or ‘violent Islamism’ and responses to it. While such terms are overloaded and imply that the religion of Islam itself endorses such phenomena, it’s important to distinguish between violent and non-violent Islamism. There are many Muslim thinkers and activists who believe in Islam as an ideology of political and social transformation of their societies but reject violence as a means to achieve these objectives. In essence, Islam damns any act of terror that takes innocent lives or damages peaceful and prosperous societal existence. It puts a very high premium on the sanctity of life and specifically forbids suicide in any form or shape.

In other words, a clear distinction needs to be made between the jihadi or combative Islamists who justify their actions on the basis of a literary and self-centred interpretation of Islam, while regarding violence as a means to an end, and the ijtihadi or reformist Islamists who base their understanding and application of the religion on independent human reasoning according to changing times and circumstances. This distinction is often overlooked inside and outside the Muslim domain, as authorities have often found it expedient to brand all forms of Islamist opposition as threatening and unacceptable.

In his book, Ramakrishna explains the challenges posed by violent Salafism and the potential solutions that should be considered. The book has a strong regional dimension, with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. While urging the authorities to be cognisant of the distinction between different strands of Islamism, the author alerts them to what he identifies as a fundamentalist theological–ideological amalgam that has been called Salafism in Southeast Asia.

This brand of Salafism has never had wider space than since 9/11. The killings of Osama bin Laden in 2011, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019 and many of their main operatives and the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan have not seriously diminished opportunities for violent Salafist jihadis. The defeat of the US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan was a significant shot in their arms.

Ramakrishna invites governments, civil society organisations, social media firms and other relevant bodies to act jointly to ‘steer vulnerable constituencies of Southeast Asian Muslims away from “rigid and fixed” Salafism … towards “flexible and tolerant” or ijtihadi Islam’ by ‘educat[ing] them in those values and beliefs that are both theologically authentic and compatible with the lived realities of the multicultural, globalized societies of Southeast Asia’.

The Taliban and their governing practices don’t fit neatly within a Salafist theological–ideological model. They stand in a class of their own and it’s hard to describe them in any Islamist way, except that their dispositions may approximate a mix of Deobandi, Wahhabi and Salafist Islamism. A recent UN Security Council report makes it clear that the Taliban’s relations with al-Qaeda have regained strength in Afghanistan. The group constitutes a major security threat, despite its denial of this and the existence of other violent extremist groups, such as the Khorasan branch of the Islamic State, in the country. The point about the Islamic State Khorasan is that, while it is a rival to the Taliban, many of its members are renegade Taliban.

Yet, our world is so divided, conflict-ridden and polarised that one can’t be very hopeful for the scourge of violent extremism, whether conducted in the name of Islam or any other ideological or geopolitical dispositions, to dissipate for the foreseeable future. The question remains how to understand it and deal with it. This is where Ramakrishna’s book makes for a very cogent and interesting read.