Din Syamsuddin: Terrorism, Religious or Political?

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M. Din Syamsuddin (two from the left) in the Levant Gathering forum.

PWMU.CO – The editor published Prof M. Din Syamsuddin‘s paper on “Dialogue is Way of Life and Path to Peace” which was held by Levant Gathering, October 14, 2019 in Beirut, Lebanon.

The paper’s original title is Banishing Violent Extreemism Our Common Responsibility and Collective Actions.

Preface
First of all, I would like to thank the Levant Gathering for inviting me to this important and timely conference. For me, attending this kind of dialogue among religions and civilisations has always been a reminder that dialogue and cooperation and peaceful relationship among people of different faiths and cultures is not only desirable but also possible. Peace is always possible.

Despite the persistence of violent extreemism that we see today, I continue to hold on to my belief and conviction that we, as men of faith and peace loving people, should never give up in our struggle to provide guidance for the creation of a world without violence. We should never abandon the mission to eradicate violent extreemism, no matter how difficult the task is. We should continue reminding the world that violence would never resolve any problem. In fact, it will only breed more violence. In other words, violence never becomes a solution.

It is indeed disheartening to see that conflicts and the use of violence remain a defining characteristic of today’s world. When we look at the world today, the absence of peace continues to be a key feature of many countries in the world. In many parts of the globe violent extreemism can be found, either motivated by religious belief, ethnic and nationalistic sentiment, or political and economic interest. Radicalism and extreemism are not peculiar to a particular religion, but almost all religions.

Extreemism and furthermore violent extreemism are against all religions, as there is no root of it in any religions. Though the creation of man (khalq al- insan), as indicative in the Holy Qur’an (Chapter 2: 30), has shown human destructiveness of leaning to corruption and killing others, yet to be an extreemist is contradicting the human potencialities (al- fitrat al- insaniyyah). Human potencialities have also a tendency to goodness and piety. Since men were created by the Creator through divine custom and pattern (sunnat Allah) they embodied a divine dimension. Then, why some people failed to overcome their human ambivalence to win human constructiveness rather than destructiveness?

There are both internal and external factors, push and pull factors.The internal or push factor is a degree of human consciousness derived from the understanding of values from religion and culture, while the external or pull one is any given situation from non religious and cultural factors that leads to react in a such a way as violent and desctructive. In many occasions religion is used as a mean of justification. This is the case with terrorism which has, indeed, a long history since the era of French Revolution. The modern terrorism, especially that has emerged since September Eleventh 2001 and its aftermath, needs to deeply studied and prevented.

Terrorism: Religious or Political?
Every civilized nation and their citizens share the conviction that terrorism as a heavy violent extreemism is an evil and extraordinary crime against humanity. Every one agrees that it is a global and national obligation to combat terrorism, and that all nations should act and work together to fight terrorism. The problem, however, emerges when nations differ on how to address the threat and even disagree on what constitutes “terrorism.” The picture becomes even more complicated when an adjective –which currently refers to a particular religious dimension of the problem—is attached to the concept. In this regard, unfortunately, the world has become accustomed to speak about the presence of “Islamic terrorism” as if the two words–Islam and terrorism—give a mutually reinforcing meaning to each other.

From the Islamic perspective, it is very clear that terrorism of all kinds is an evil and in contradiction with the very teachings of Islam which emphasize love, mercy and peace. Islam is a religion of peace (din al- rahmat wa al-salamah). It is imperative for Muslim from the Quran to engage in peace. “Oh ye who believe! Come, all of you, into peace wholeheartedly , and follow not the footsteps of the devil. Lo! He is an open enemy for you” (Chapter 2: 208). Terrorism and any forms of violent extreemism which creates fears and kills innocent people is strongly prohibited in Islam, as the Quran stated: . . . that whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind . . .” (Chapter 5: 32).

In this context, terrorism and violent extreemism has no relation and root in religion, particularly in Islam. And, the fight against terrorism would not be effective if we cannot think clearly about what we mean by terrorism and what motivates a terrorist act. In other words, the fight against terrorism requires an understanding about the nature of terrorism. This is not an easy task. Before September 11th, 2001, the debate and discourse on terrorism had focused on the definition of terrorism itself; a debate that has not been resolved even until now. After September 11th the debate has received additional dimension, namely, on the nature of terrorism: is it religious or political?

The Problem of Understanding
The complexity of the problem is soon evident when we are confronted with the fact that there are different definitions of “terrorism”. In the US, for example, different state institutions use different definitions of terrorism. The State Department, Department of Defense, and the FBI uses offer different definitions of terrorism. The United Nations (UN) itself has been locked in a prolonged debate to find a consensus on what terrorism means.

However, it seems that there is a degree of consensus that terrorism, regardless under what name it is waged—be it religious, ethnic nationalism or an ideology—always has a political purpose behind it. It uses violence in order to create fear, and the target is random. The purpose is to create a political change.

The complexity of the problem of terrorism increases when the concept is used in conjunction with the word “Islamic” as an adjective. Here, the notion of “Islamic terrorism” could suggest two meanings. First, it represents a notion about the existence of a religious-motivated terrorist act. Second, it could also presuppose the existence of a religion that propagates terrorism. While the first notion could be easily misunderstood, the second one clearly flaws. It is often misunderstood because religious arguments can in fact be used to justify an act of violence, including terrorism. However, it should be noted also that in such cases, certain aspects of religious teachings used to justify terrorism always become a subject of contestation. In other words, it represents a case of misuse and abuse of religion. It is a flaw because no religion condones and propagates acts of terrorism. If the perpetratours claimed themselves as Muslims or used the name of Islam their acts are an self-claimed Islamic terrorism.
In that context, it is indeed a serious and fatal error to equate terrorism and Islam simply because the terrorists justify their evil acts in the language of Islamic discourse. Indeed, Muslims around the world are obliged to defend their religion from such misuse and abuse of Islam by terrorists. It is the obligation of all Muslims to make sure that their religion to be understood as a great religion that teaches preaches and practices tolerance, non-violence, moderation and peace.

From the above discussion, it can be said that terrorism could be both “religious” and “political.” It is “religious because there have been cases of the misuse and abuses of religion in order to justify the terrorist acts. It is also political because the purpose of terrorist acts has always been to achieve certain political goal.

Now, let us turn to the problem of contemporary terrorism. As mentioned earlier, it is unfortunate that many, especially in the West, have tended to link today’s terrorism with Islam. Indeed, the misleading notion of “Islamic terrorism,” as it is often used by the international media, usually refers to the phenomenon in the Muslim World, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. This has been exemplified by the discourse at the beginning on al-Qaeda and Jamaah Islamiyah, and now on ISIS that have been labeled as terrorist groups. If we are to consider whether the contemporary terrorism is “political” or “religious,” then the answer is both.

Nevertheless, of most important is the way the world has responded to the problem of contemporary terrorism. From the above perspective, the war on terror project launched soon after the terror attacts in the United States has made three big mistakes, namely attributing terror to Islam, making generalisastion to all Muslims, and stigmatizing Islam by Western media. It is undeniable that mode of reaction has encouraged the emergence of Islamophobia in many Western countries, which then received a kind of xenophobia in many Muslim countries. This dialectic situation is, of course, not good for the world and contra-productive in our common endeavor for a peaceful world. As a result, tension and conflict continue to appear and even exacerbated in line with a new problem such as refugees from Muslim countries to Western countries. The absence of peace, which has manifested in poverty, illiteracy, injustice, illness, climate change, violent extreemism and war, is now added with the problem of human mobilisation across the borders.

Roles of Religions
Given such a situation in our world today, the key question is this: “how can religion and religious leaders contribute to the creation of a world without violence?” Is there a role that we can play so that the relevance of the use of violence as an instrument of problem-solving would be diminished or banished if not become obsolete?

I do believe that the answer to these questions lies in the continuing efforts by those of us who believe in the imperative of a world without violence and to continue seeking a genuine dialogues among religions and civilisations. We should continue pursue our common dream of a new world civilisation based on social justice, equality, harmony, and prosperity.

In this regard, religions clearly speak the language of peace. We should never surrender even though the challenges to our efforts to spread the message of peace are increasingly becoming more and more difficult. Indeed, the proliferation of dialogues among civilisations seems to have not completely removed the danger. The flurry of inter-faith dialogues, both state-driven and society-driven, seems to have generated little success in removing the prejudices, misconceptions, and misunderstanding among people of different religions, especially between Islam and the Christian West. Though Islam has become an element of the Western culture and civilization, mutual suspicion continues to characterise the ongoing relationship between the Muslim World and the West. Islamophobia is still existing and even increasing amids the growing ultra nationalism in many Western countries.

This reality clearly points to the imperative of not only doing more, but also doing it right. So much has been done to address the problem. But, progresses have not been entirely satisfactory. However, it would be misleading also to claim that the ongoing initiatives on inter-faith dialogues or dialogues among civilisations are no more than pointless exercises. These dialogues do create a greater space for mutual learning process. They expand the boundary of mutual understanding among people from different religious and civilisational background. They create the imperative of enhanced interaction among people from different faith. Dialogues have also opened up more opportunities for closer cooperation among faith-based organisations and communities to address problems of humanity and for the betterment of the society.

Various initiatives in this area have also reminded that religion and religious leaders do have a positive role to play in international relations. Religion does serve as a source of values and norms that could provide guidance for a healthy inter-state relations based on mutual understanding, mutual respects, and equality. Those dialogues also serve as a venue for religious leaders to articulate their aspiration for a peaceful and just world. At grass-root level, inter-faith dialogues can provide the basis for peace among communities of different religions. Dialogues could remove mutual suspicions which often result from ignorance, lack of knowledge about each others, and the absence of mutual respect.

However, problems remain abundant with regard to the ongoing inter-faith dialogues and dialogue of civilisations. The key obstacle in using inter-faith dialogues as an instrument to address the problem between the Muslim World and the West is the gap between the ideal world of religious actors on the one hand, and the cruel world of political players. Inter-faith dialogues have often been constrained by the gap between society and the state. When religious actors work hard to create a better world based on mutual understanding and mutual respect among different faiths, the results of the works by political actors tend to undermine it, intentionally or not. When religious actors advocate the method of peace, political actors continue to value the utility of force and even war. When religious actors emphasise national and global spirituality, political actors exaggerate the importance of national and global security.

The Way Forward
In order to address the problem mentioned above, there are four steps that we need to take:

First, there is a need to reform our mindset and our way of thinking. Here, a paradigmatic shift is necessary. Instead of looking at the problem through the framework of “clash of civilisation,” we need to advocate the framework of “alliance of civilisation.” Within this paradigm, a way of thinking that juxtaposes Islam and the West becomes an irrelevant exercise. Islam and the West should not be seen as a binary opposition. Islam and the West should be seen as the pillars of a common global civilisation. Islam and the West should be treated as two forces that compliment each other in ensuring and preserving the future of mankind. Islam and the West should be seen as partners in a common struggle to preserve the sanctity of religion as a source of values for mankind. Islam and the West should work together to prevent the use of religion as a political tool in the quest for supremacy among nations. In fact, the quest for supremacy among nations should be removed from any nation’s agenda.

Second, in order for any mutual understanding to prevail, it is necessary to conduct dialogues in a context of equality. Dialogues should proceed from the presence of mutual eagerness to learn and understand about each other. Society-driven dialogues, especially among religious leaders themselves, have to a certain extent managed to conduct inter-faith dialogues on this basis. However, there is still the question of authenticity with regards to the state-driven dialogues. Are politicians genuinely trying to reach a mutual understanding and mutual respects among different civilisations? When the gap between declaratory intention and the actual policies remains wide, the utility of inter-faith dialogues would gradually be questioned. If this happens, then it would be difficult to sustain the progress that has been achieved so far through various initiatives of inter-faith dialogues.

Third, the problem in the relationship between the Muslim World and the West could be resolved if there is a parallel efforts by both religious and political leaders. Religious leaders should provide an atmosphere of spirituality for better mutual understanding and mutual respect, while political leaders should work to eliminate global injustices. Religious leaders should advocate a genuine adherence to religious principles and norms, while political leaders should avoid the practice of double standards in pursuing their politics. There should be no gap between words and deeds. Indeed, the root causes of the tension between the Muslim World and the West can be among others found within the persistent global injustice. We should work together to eliminate this global injustice, which serves as a structural cause to the global tension. The West is in a better position to address this problem.

Finally, the elimination of global injustice alone cannot guarantee the birth of a world free from any tension and conflict between the Muslim world and the West. The Muslim World has its own predicament also. Many Muslims, in fact the majority of Muslims, continue to live within the control of despotic regimes and authoritarian states. This characteristic of most of the Muslim World needs to be addressed by both Muslim population and Muslim rulers. Respects for human rights, and a democratic political order, is the path that all of us should take. Freedom is an essence of Islamic teaching. Islam teaches and preaches that human beings should be liberated from exploitation by other human beings. The creation of a political order that ensures and respects human dignity should be made a priority by Muslim rulers. Genuine tolerance, and a sense of self-confidence among the population, can only prevail in a truly democratic order.

Concluding Remarks
Violent extreemism remains a challenging threat to human civilization. It is our common responsibility to meet that challenge based on our commitment of one humanity, one destiny, and one responsibility. By so doing, religions should play roles through emphasizing their teachings on humanity, that is the respect on human rights and human dignity. Interfaith dialogue and cooperation is the best and effective way for that aim. The people of different faiths, despite their differences in theology, they share commonalities in humanity. They differ each other in belief respectively, yet they are at utmost the same God’s creature, and belong to the same origin.

Violent extreemism is an heavy violation against human rights and dignity. It is an extraordinary evil against humanity. Therefore mankind should joint hand and hand to banish that evil in order to saveguard humanity. It might be done through mainstreaming the humanist orientation of religiosity by all religionists. Worships, in this context, are only an instrument to prove noble characters with a peaceful personality. The people of different faiths, despite their differences theologically, they may arrive at that aim teleologically. it is the time to formulate a shared peace theology, which the theology of the middle path, and work and walk together to the right path. (*)

M. Din Syamsuddin, Chairman Center for Dialogue and Cooperation among Civilizations (CDCC).