Why we should speak loudly of extremism

The world has seen the brutality of the Islamic State (IS) movement as a form of extremism. All is publicly shown and IS seems to have proudly released the videos of atrocities it committed. The question raised throughout the world remains the same: Do those acts have something to do with Islam?

For Indonesia, this issue really needs to be addressed as Indonesia constitutes the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country by population and in Southeast Asia, IS supporters and jihadist volunteers mostly come from Indonesia. 

The recently concluded sixth Congress of Indonesian Muslims in Yogyakarta, organized by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), did not deal with the issue. Unfortunately, congress participants were mostly concerned about political and economic issues as evident in their final recommendations submitted to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

And more alarming is the fact that the organizers did not invite Ahmadiyah representatives and canceled invitations to Shia organizations, while on the other hand invited hard-line groups like the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI) and the Islam Defenders Front (FPI). 

The MMI is renowned for its jihadist ideology; it was once led by Abu Bakar Ba’asyir who is now supporting IS. The group is pushing for literal interpretation of sharia, similar to what IS has done. The media reported recently on a gathering intended to support IS in Makassar. Among other attendants were local FPI leaders. 

There are two things worthy of observation regarding the congress. First, the congress failed to consider the rise of IS a big issue while favoring an Islamic unity narrative to combat what they call the deviant sects (apparently Ahmadiyah and Shia). The congress, thus, has a political dimension of preserving domination.

Second, MUI chairman Din Syamsudin once said that Shia was a legitimate madhhab (school) within, and hence a part of, Islam. He even once attended an international conference of Sunni-Shia reconciliation. The congress organizers’ cancelation of invitations to Indonesian Shia organizations therefore contradicts Din’s standpoint. Worse, in the last few years MUI regional branches have often spread Sunni-Shia sectarianism narratives. 

The manual of the jihadist movement, entitled Idarah at-Tawahhush (Management of Savagery), written in 2004 by Abu Bakr Naji, promotes sectarianism. Al-Qaeda and the likes, including IS, use the book, which is available on the Internet. The book reveals the strategy of the jihadist movement, which starts from sectarianism that will lead to societal polarization and result in public distrust in the government and finally pave the way for extremist groups like IS to come in. This strategy worked in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Sectarianism that some MUI chapters are sowing through their campaign for a Sunni-Shia divide will endanger not only Muslim unity but also Indonesian unity. 

Some analysts say IS deliberately perpetrates atrocities to build its distinctive brand. Most likely the acts of barbarism are part of IS’ strategy of deterrence. Besides, it could serve as a means to woo potential recruits. 

IS has now emerged as a relatively self-sustaining “state”, no longer a mere terrorist organization given its military force, economic resources and vast territory. 

Having said that, however, the question about a connection between IS brutality and Islam remains there. It cannot be denied that the way IS kills its captives is justified by scriptural sources, at least in a literal way of reading. 

For instance, beheading is cited in the Koran (8:12), as are crucifixion and cutting off hands and feet (Koran 5:33). Furthermore, capital punishment by way of burning alive is stated in several hadiths, or prophetic traditions, some of which are considered authentic and promoted by medieval Muslim scholars. 

Many Muslims may seek an excuse for the fact that violent verses or passages are not unique to Islam. Christianity has the same. By literally reading some passages in the Bible (e.g. I Samuel 15:3 and Matthew 10:34), it could be said that Christianity is a religion of genocide and inherently not peaceful. 

And like the case of Christianity, Muslims would say that the scripture must be wholly and comprehensively read given the fact that there are many other verses and hadiths preaching mercy. Cherry picking, they say, is the very problem of IS as well as Islamophobia. But still, that apology does not remove the fact that there exist violent verses; and their existence matters very much.

One cannot ignore that IS theologizes and moralizes its brutality by those so-called violent verses. This theologizing looks appealing to many young Muslim men, even educated ones, as we know that the scripture is not an ordinary book in terms of its power to influence, and to some extent brainwash, its believers.

Having that implication, Muslims should provide counterarguments to challenge IS’ ways of interpretation, if they really and wholeheartedly maintain that the extremism is not Islamic. There is no way to detach Islam from extreme thoughts other than combating the way of cherry picking the Koran.

Regardless of the outcome of the Congress of Indonesian Muslims, the country’s moderate Muslims should loudly speak of extremism and sectarianism propagated by IS through its brutality. Their silence will send the wrong message that IS is a true face of Islam.

— published in the Jakarta Post, February 13, 2015

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