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Contesting the Theological Foundations of Islamism

Contesting the Theological Foundations of Islamism and Violent Extremism

Contesting the Theological Foundations of Islamism and Violent Extremism
  • Book Title:
 Contesting The Theological Foundations Of Islamism And Violent Extremism
  • Book Author:
Fethi Mansouri, Zuleyha Keskin
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Introduction: Framing the Debate Around Islamic Theology, Radicalization and Violent Extremism A Historical context for religious Violence

When acts of violence are committed in the name of a major faith tradition as global as Islam, there is bound to be debates from all possible intellectual and ideological perspectives on whether the two (religion and violence) are connected.

 Islam, of course, does not have a monopoly on minority extremist splinter groups that commit terrorist acts in its name (Akbarzadeh and Mansouri 2010). One only has to look to history as well as contemporary politics to find a plethora of such instances. Indeed, Islam’s early history contains episodes of violent confrontations between different factions aligned with particular interpretations in relation to succession, spiritual leadership and political governance.

These early civil wars led to the first major schism in Islam with the emergence of sectarian divisions around Sunni and Shi’i Islam. The Crusaders’ medieval religious wars are another prominent example of violent conflict in the name of God (O’Callaghan 2003).

These religious wars were waged against both Muslims and Eastern Christians across the Levant whose practices and doctrinal beliefs were declared heretic by the Latin Church. Yet, while there is still debate about whether the actual conduct of Crusader forces, in particular, in committing massacres against local communities, is incongruous with the stated aims of the Crusades as sanctioned by the church, there is no doubt that religion was at the epicentre of this dark chapter in medieval European history.

When Moorish Granada fell in 1492 during the reign of Catholic monarchs, signalling the end of Islamic rule in the Iberian peninsula, the ensuing Reconquista held all the hallmarks of forced conversions, ethnic cleansing and mass exodus of Moorish communities from Spain towards North Africa and the Middle East (Watt 1992).

Like the Crusades before it, the idea of the Reconquista in Spain signalled a deepening religious divide between Islam and Christendom that the Muslims of Andalusia at the time tried to confront with an equally staunch notion of jihad, or holy war. These religiously framed confrontations were further ingrained dur-ing the prolonged colonial period that beset much of the Islamic world that came under the direct military and political domination of Christian European powers during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth cen-turies (Hourani 2013).

Post-independence, and as part of the ensuing Cold War, so called jihad and thus the mujahidin once again became central players in many proxy wars that pitted the two superpowers: the USA and the Soviet Union (Coll 2004).

Indeed, in Afghanistan, local fighters self-proclaimed as wag-ing jihad rebelled against the government of the pro-Soviet Democratic Republic of Afghanistan during the late 1970s. These rebel groups, that later morphed into the Taliban movement, were aided by foreign actors, including the governments of Saudi Arabia and the USA. Many members of the Taliban movement were taught in the Saudi-backed and inspired Wahhabi madrasas, which are religious schools known for teaching a fun-damentalist interpretation of Islam that contained many of the ideological seeds of today’s Islamist violent extremism.

islamist Violent extremism in the contemporary World

The brief historical account mentioned earlier shows, in order to under-stand the complex manifestations and implications of violent extremism today, one has to delve deep into the history that helped shape and drive such nihilistic ideologies. The earlier discussion also shows international political order (Turner 2014), as was the case during the Cold War, also played a part in aiding and sustaining the early formations of contemporary Islamist groups, in particular, during the Afghan–Soviet War with the emergence of mujahidin and Taliban groups.

Yet, in a post–9/11 world, the place of Islam as a religion and Muslims in general has become the focus of public debates, security agendas and even an emerging international order where new complex alliances are being formed to confront and defeat an unconventional enemy that is spreading across many regions under different guises but similar ideologi-cal claims around misguided notions of jihad, caliphate and Islamic revival (Wright 2017).

Against this context, the place of Islam and Muslims in the world and, in particular, within Western nation-states, has become synonymous with public debates on human security and international terrorism. These debates become even more polarising when images of violent acts of ter-rorism performed in the name of Islam circulate in the global media. The visibility of such mediated violent extremism, in particular, since the emer-gence of al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has created a major political and security challenge not only to the world but also to the global Muslim community. This is particularly true in relation to the way Islam is being understood and characterised in contemporary public dis-course. The implication of increased problematisation of Islam and Muslims is the rise of Islamophobia as a powerful discursive practice aimed at further deepening the religious and cultural divide between Muslims and non-Muslims, in particular, within Western polities (Akbarzadeh and Mansouri 2010).

What is still missing in the emerging literature on all things Islam and violent extremism is an in-depth examination of the misguided theological notions adapted and adopted by leaders of these groups in communicating their messages to the world and in drafting their narratives for recruiting followers and members from across the globe (Ingram 2016; Rabasa and Benard 2014). While we have witnessed over the last decade an explosion in new areas of academic studies around terrorism and the prevention of violent extremism (El-Said and Harrigan 2013), the same cannot be said of more careful historical and theological analyses of the assumed connec-tion between the religious (doctrinal and jurisprudential) and the political (i.e. ideology and violent conflict).

This book, therefore, aims to fill this gap by exploring the causes of radicalisation from theological perspectives with an objective to offer criti-cal epistemological responses while at the same time offering sociological understandings of literalist non-traditional (i.e. unprecedented) religious interpretations as well as a scholarly deconstruction of radical narratives.

In doing so, this book includes a number of chapters from scholars working across a multitude of academic disciplines from Islamic studies to political science, from history to international relations, and from sociol-ogy to philosophy and philology. The book’s chapters were presented at the third Australasian Conference on Islam, which focused among others on examining and refuting the theological foundations of violent extrem-ism and radicalisation. As the conference highlighted, there is a growing body of literature and discourse about the various causes of radicalisation, such as its psychological, social and political. However, there is very little focus on the theological underpinnings and framings of radicalisation; a study undertaken without negating or neglecting all the other causes dis-cussed in the literature.

This book, therefore, offers a theological interrogation of violent extrem-ism that includes carefully selected case studies from contemporary groups across the world. Their religio-political narrative is analysed in detail and put to the test in relation to the foundations it seeks to build on. The aim is to delve into the epistemological basis for refuting the theological justifications for radicalisation and violent extremism that many jihadists often invoke.

Book structure

Given its ambitious nature, this volume aims to bring together critical scholarly appraisals of violent extremism from the point of view of theol-ogy, contemporary politics and circulating public discourse. To achieve this multi-faceted analytical task, the book is organised thematically around three interconnected sections: (1) contesting the theological foundations of violent extremism; (2) the socio-political currents influencing violent extremism; and (3) the role of Muslim scholars in promoting and prevent-ing radicalism.

The first section dealing with contesting the theological foundations of violent extremism starts with Zuleyha Keskin and Fatih Tuncer’s chapter, which argues that, in addition to the social, political, emotional and psy-chological causes attributed to radicalism, Islamist radicals have a further underlying driving force for their actions: a misinterpretation of their reli-gion. The chapter argues that the ultimate trigger for radicalism by Muslims is the theological arguments used to endorse and encourage violent extrem-ism. Such distorted theological arguments have an extremely destructive effect since religious texts are cited to support atrocities committed in the name of religion.

Delving more specifically into the role of misinterpretation of religious texts and traditions, Hakan Coruh’s chapter focuses on specific verses from the Qur’an to refute ISIS’ narrative by relying on the mainstream majori-ty’s understanding of such war- and peace-related scriptural texts. Qur’anic verse 2:256 states ‘there is no compulsion in religion’, and it is a sine qua non of Islamic teaching regarding freedom of religion. However, propo-nents of offensive jihad claim this verse was abrogated by the sword verse (ayat al-qital, Qur’an 9:5).

Coruh’s chapter analyses the verse from various traditional exegetical and juristic aspects and emphasises that certain classi-cal jurists were influenced by ongoing war-based relationships in the medi-eval period. Therefore, some verses from the last stage of the Qur’anic revelation are interpreted in such a way that fighting against unbelievers unconditionally will be a continuing norm and other verses are interpreted accordingly. Coruh argues that verse 2:256 declares a final universal prin-ciple about the freedom of religion, and unconditional fighting due to faith is not a mainstream Islamic approach. The natural state of affairs in rela-tions between Muslims and others is peace and cooperation, as many main-stream Islamic authorities emphasise.

Arguing along similar lines, Jan Ali’s chapter examines the conceptuali-sation of human dignity and jihad in the ethical discourse of Muslim vio-lent extremists, such as ISIS members. Ali shows that human dignity and jihad are conceptualised differently by these groups because their ethical discourse, while being coloured by the notion of seeking redress of socio- religious and political crisis of Muslim societies, is nevertheless grounded in a politically expedient interpretation of Islamic scripture. Notions of jihad and human dignity have assumed a priority status in ISIS’ language with almost unique meanings and, as such, are rendered social constructs. Ali’s chapter further analyses the influence of ISIS and other radical groups through the use of such concepts by considering social constructivism and the resultant power of language.

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