As Irish Muslim leaders issue a declaration of anti-extremism, Roisin Guyett-Nicholson looks at how effective it could be.
Terrorism has become increasingly associated with Islam. When terrorist atrocities occur in Western Europe, the mass media usually attributes the attacks to Islamic radicals. There is a growing association in Europe that Islam is not a “religion of peace”, as a debate held earlier this year by the UCD’s Literary and Historical society concluded. The actions of a tiny minority of Islam often have an effect on the wider religious community. The number of people arrested in connection with terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris is miniscule compared to the amount of Muslims in the world, which stands at around 1.6 billion.
The disparity in these numbers is not always recognised. Last year, prominent media mogul Rupert Murdoch tweeted that all Muslims should take responsible for the “jihad” element of the religion which allegedly led to the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices. Such attitudes have sparked efforts to combat this assumption.
Earlier this month, the Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council (IMPIC) released an anti-extremism declaration that it proposes all visiting clerics sign. It claims that the signatory would “unequivocally reject, disown and condemn all terrorism committed in the name of Islam by any militant group.” The declaration also includes a stipulation that they would not encourage or recruit anybody to join a conflict in another country in the name of Islam.
“The actions of a small minority of Islam often have an effect on the wider religious community.”
Already signed by prominent South African Muslim scholar, Shaykh Fakhruddin Owaisi, Chairman of the Council of Sunni Imams in Cape Town, the declaration has also received support from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).
Shaykh Dr Muhammad Umar Al-Qadri, the chair of the IMPIC, explains that the reasoning of the declaration was in spreading the message that Muslims do not condone terrorism. “First of all, because people need to know the majority of the Muslims do not agree with what is going on and they don’t believe that the religion Islam that they adhere to condones such violence. So this declaration is important to show the public, the larger public, that there [are] indeed Muslims that absolutely disagree and condemn all the violence that is happening in the name of Islam… Secondly, it is to ensure that those that are radical and extreme, that have these ideas, distorted versions of Islam, they are unveiled, they are exposed within the Muslim community.”
Auditor of the UCD Islamic Society, Shadi El-Morsy, commended the declaration, saying that “what is outlined in the declaration are basic teachings of Islam. I would imagine most Muslims would not find anything there to be unexpected. It makes sense at a human level, without the need to quote scripture. However given the recent events and the narrative that we live in, it does not harm to remind Muslims and to let the community around us know what exactly our stance is on this topic.”
One of the driving forces behind the declaration is the desire to undermine potential clerics who visit countries simply to recruit Muslims to join conflict in other states. Dr Andrew Pierce, Assistant Professor in the Irish School of Ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin says that there is a vulnerable element in this regard. “Islam is a thoroughly diverse religion, and lacks any centralised teaching authority. In recent centuries the scholar class that provided a venue for debates over what is/is not lawful has lost its traditional voice; hence Islam is more at risk from occasional ad hoc guest speakers whose credentials may not be those of a true scholar.”
Yet this raises the possibility that by having such a declaration at all ties Islam to terrorism. The very fact that it needs to be refuted suggests that it is a significant issue in itself, as a growing threat among Muslims.
“The Irish Muslim community needs to clarify that this is not so as best it can.”
Pierce accepts this but states that in order to fully combat extremism the declaration is an important part of encouraging a discussion. “Irish kids have travelled to conflict zones, they have been sold the pup that this is a religious duty, and so the Irish Muslim community needs to clarify that this is not so as best it can,” he says. “The framers of the declaration are quite realistic; they know that an unscrupulous visitor could sign up to the declaration as a cynical way of ensuring access to an audience. What matters to them more, however, is that in a society where casual Islamophobia already sees Islam and terror as closely interlinked, this is a public conversation that Irish Islam is having with itself.”
Pierce further explains that this declaration cannot be viewed in isolation. While it opens up a discussion on the more extreme elements within Islam itself, in order to have a significant effect it needs to be viewed alongside other events. Two weeks ago, the Islamic society held a Discovering Islam Week in the Old Student Centre in UCD which included stands showing henna, Arabic calligraphy and how to wear the Hijab. Stalls were also included where people could ask questions about Islam.
“While events like this and the declaration are designed to open up conversation, Shaykh Umar also explains that it is important to note the difference between condemning and apologising.”
“I believe that these types of events are one of the keys to reaching harmony and peace,” El-Morsy says. “These events such as Discover Islam Week are a great opportunity for the communities to interact and understand each other. Once we can understand each other the peaceful nature of Islam will become clear.”
While events like this and the declaration are designed to open up conversation, Shaykh Umar also explains that it is important to note the difference between condemning and apologising. “We are not apologising at all and I don’t think that any community should apologise for acts that are committed by a minority from within that community… but we are condemning and condemning is necessary… To unconditionally express this condemnation is important to show within the community also, wherever there is ambiguity, to get rid of that ambiguity; that it’s wrong and never justified in the name of Islam.”