Homeland Security

Radical clerics can be sidelined

On June 29, France announced that since the beginning of this year it had expelled 12 radical clerics and preachers. This media release underscores the clerics’ role in spawning jihadists. Here in Washington, officials are increasingly fearful of terrorist attacks by home-grown jihadists.

Although the expulsions reduce radical clerics’ physical presence, their lectures and writings are easily accessible on the Internet. Indeed, France’s ad hoc response reveals a critical shortcoming: We still do not have a clear answer to the question of why these clerics have become so influential.

{mosads}To answer this question it helps to recognize that a competition has been underway between modernity and religions. Religious ideologues felt threatened by modernity because backed by science, modernity not only contests their worldview, but it also offers a credible alternative. Thus, modernity has reduced the need for religious guidance.

The ideologues in the Muslim world fought back. The prominent ones – including, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, Abul Maududi of Pakistan, Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran and Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia – pushed the simple theme that Muslims would be true to their religion, if they follow sharia, compellingly portrayed as an all-encompassing “divine law.”

With this self-serving definition of sharia, ideologues such as clerics, who act as primary interpreters of sharia, have inserted themselves into Muslim lives. They have done so at the expense of modernity, because sharia laws as an interpretation of Islam vary widely and in general, reflect the cultural norms of the Arab tribes of a bygone era. In many nations with significant Muslim populations clerical judges decide domestic and property disputes.

According to the 2013 Pew Research Center report titled World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, in 11 out of 20 nations and in 25 out of 38 nations, the majority of the Muslims surveyed supported at least some political role for clerics and favored making sharia the law of the land, respectively. Importantly, in all twenty surveyed nations there exists a strong correlation, wherein, clerics’ political influence rise and fall with that of sharia.

Evidence suggests that a cleric’s – including, a radical cleric’s or preacher’s – ability to get his message out depends on the extent of sharia’s local popularity. This conclusion has significant policy ramifications, as it is apparent that sidelining radical clerics requires undercutting their sharia platform. This calls for a coherent propaganda that those who characterize sharia as an all-embracing divine law do so for self-serving reasons, when in reality, sharia is an opinion.

Such religion-centric propaganda has precedence. In 2010, the White House’s the then top counterterrorism advisor John Brennan emphasized that, “jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community.” This effort was geared toward dissuading Muslims from identifying with jihad in an armed context. We now realize why this tactic failed, because it underestimated the influence and credibility of radical clerics in sharia-popular communities. For example, despite being a vocal supporter of armed jihad, the ideologue Muhammad Taqi Usmani served as a judge in the Shariat Appellate Bench of Pakistan’s Supreme Court for twenty years and still holds highly influential positions.

To be sure, many moderate clerics will be put off by this initiative, as they, too, depend on the sharia platform to build their powerbase. But the fact of the matter is that the moderate ones have not been able to rein in their radical counterparts. Besides, even moderate clerics have no business propagating the self-serving theme of sharia, especially when this can lead to socioeconomic stagnation of their flock (thanks to overemphasizing religious education and turning away from modernity).

On balance, this propaganda is a good thing, because it starts a conversation on an overdue topic: The role of clerics and sharia in Muslim communities.

To be clear, as a counter-narrative to modernity, sharia narratives define the ideological basis of Muslim radicals. And this ideology drives militant groups such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram and the Taliban to wage terror wars in order to conquer territory and people and impose their ways in the name of sharia.

The strategy of undercutting the sharia platform is essential to weaken the very ideology that sustains radical Islam and to combat the scourge of radical clerics.

Muthuswamy is a physicist and a scholar of radicalism.

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