FaithWorld

Rabat bets on better imams to counter extremist Islam

marrakech-mosqueMorocco has shifted from mass arrests to tight surveillance in its fight against Islamic militants and hopes a new campaign to reinforce the authority of state-appointed imams will cut off support for jihadism.

As militants reach a growing audience through DVDs and the Internet, the government has tried to seize back the initiative, revising laws governing mosques and adding new theological councils to tighten control of religious life in the regions. (Photo: Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech at sunset, 7 Jan 2005/Tom Heneghan)

Now it is preparing to send 1,500 supervisors into the north African country’s towns and villages to make sure that imams are preaching the moderate local version of Islam and respect for King Mohammed in his role as leader of Morocco’s Muslims.

“In this era of satellite TV, people no longer accept to see religious officials who are not trained,” said Hakim el Ghissassi, a cabinet member at Morocco’s Ministry for Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs. “If today we deny religious instruction to the young, where will they look for it? On extremist Internet sites with self-proclaimed radical Imams.”

Read the whole analysis here.


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Lashkar-e-Taiba’s goals

In the aftermath of the Mumbai massacre, a lot of attention has been focused on the militant Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba that has been blamed for the bloodbath. Simon Cameron-Moore, our bureau chief in Islambad, has written an interesting piece on what they’ve done in recent years. As a religion editor watching this story unfold, I was also curious to know how they think. What kind of religious views do they have? My Google search has turned up an interesting answer.

An article entitled “The Ideologies of South Asian Jihadi Groups” gives a very concise and complete run-down of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s thinking (hat tip:Times of India). In today’s context, the article’s author is just as interesting as its content. An academic at the time he wrote the article in 2005, Husain Haqqani is now Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington. He’s been in the media quite often arguing that Islamabad did not support Lashkar-e-Taiba even if it was operating in Pakistan. Indian media arent’t buying it.

Sorting that out is not my job. I just wanted to note a list of the goals Lashkar-e-Taiba has set for itself. In a publication entitled Why Are We Waging Jihad? that Haqqani cites, the goals are listed as:

Bali bombers: martyrs or monsters?

Did the “Bali bombers” end up as martyrs or monsters? That’s what many must be wondering after the three young men convicted of the Bali nighclub bombings in October 2002 were executed in the dead of the night last weekend in an orange grove on Java. (Photo: Funeral of bomber Imam Samudra, 11 Nov 2008/Supri)

The run-up to the executions turned into a media circus. The three men from the Jemaah Islamiah group – Imam Samudra, Mukhlas, and Amrozi — were interviewed extensively by domestic and foreign media before they faced a firing squad last Sunday. They were defiant to the end, calling for more attacks like the one they perpetrated that killed 202 people, most of them foreign tourists. They had, in fact, become media celebrities and the public was fascinated with them. But as monsters or martyrs?

Mainstream Indonesia was nervous and unhappy about the public spectacle that “infuriated relatives of the victims and prolonged their pain”, the Jakarta Post said.

Andi versus al Qaeda — in Germany

Andi comic coverIt seems a bizarre tool in the hands of security officials, but German authorities believe a cartoon comic strip can help them get their message across to young people who might be tempted to flirt with militant Islamism. The unusual experiment in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany’s most populous state, has stirred international interest from as far away as the United States and Japan, according to the team behind the idea.

The comic is aimed at 12-16 year-olds and has been distributed in mosques and to every secondary school. “The reactions are almost entirely positive,” said Thomas Grumke, the interior ministry official who first thought up the hero Andi, his Muslim girlfriend Ayshe and the rest of the characters, including a militant imam and two young men who fall under his influence.

The story, which can be downloaded here in German, is interspersed with short passages of text addressing key issues and terms like sharia, jihad and the difference between Islam and Islamism. On that last point, it says: “Islam is a monotheistic religion (a belief in one all-embracing God), which is closely related to Judaism and Christianity. By contrast, Islamism is a political ideology which poses as ‘true Islam’ and wants to realise this as a binding, guiding principle for state and society. This ideology is directed against the free democratic order and thus is unambiguously extremist.”

Is it time to scrap the term “jihadist”?

Filipino Muslim shouts “jihad” at ant-U.S. protest, 9 Oct. 2001/stringerAt a conference on terrorism in Brussels this week, debate on how to tackle al Qaeda was punctuated by repeated arguments over the terms “jihad” and “jihadist”.

The terms have became synonymous in the West with “holy war” and “holy warrior” against the West, and al Qaeda itself has used it in that sense. But for most Muslims, as our Security Correspondent Mark Trevelyan points out, it originally means a spiritual struggle and they don’t want it hijacked anymore.

Now to call jihadists as terrorists is either reflective of …lack of understanding of Islam, or it is I must say an intended misuse, which again is unfortunate,” General Ehsan Ul Haq, former chairman of Pakistan’s joint chiefs of staff, told the annual conference of the EastWest Institute think-tank. “It might have been somewhat excusable in the trauma post-9/11 but I don’t think it is any more.”

Q&A: Karen Armstrong on Pakistan, Islam and secularisation

Karen Armstrong at an interview with Reuters in Islamabad, 3 Feb. 2008/Mian KursheedKaren Armstrong, the best-selling British writer and lecturer on religion, has given a long interview to Reuters in Islamabad after addressing a conference in the Pakistani capital. A former Catholic nun who now describes herself as a “freelance monotheist,” she has written 21 books on the main world religions, religious fundamentalism in these faiths and religious leaders such as Mohammad and Buddha. Her latest book is The Bible: A Biography. The short version of what she said is in the Reuters story linked here. We don’t publish the Q&A text of our interviews on our news wire, but we can do it here on the blog.

Q:You were last in Pakistan in 2006. What brought you back this time?

A: There is a really poignant hunger here, as well as in other parts of the Muslim world, to hear a friendly Western voice speaking appreciatively of Islam. It is a sad thing for me that this should be such an unusual event, but given the precarious state of relationships between so-called Islam and the West it seems something that is important to do.

Q: Pakistan seems to be a crucial place for the future of Islam at the moment. How do you see the impact of events in Pakistan in terms of developments in Islam as a whole?

Back to the blog — first impressions after a break

Returning to news reporting after two weeks off feels like you’ve been away for two weeks. Returning to blogging after a holiday break feels like you’ve been away for an eternity. So much going on! My colleague Ed Stoddard in Dallas was minding the shop, but he was unexpectedly sent off to report the news from the campaign trail. That gave FaithWorld a very American accent, which was a timely twist given the role of religion in the Iowa vote. It’s back to the view from Paris now — here are some inital comments on recent events concerning religion around the world:

Bhutto’s upcoming bookBenazir Bhutto — The assassinated Pakistani leader will speak from beyond the grave next month when her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West is published. HarperCollins has announced it has brought forward to Feb. 12 the release of the book that Bhutto worked on before returning to Pakistan in October. In a statement, it called the book “a bold, uncompromising vision of hope for the future of not only Pakistan but the Islamic world. Bhutto presents a powerful argument for a reconciliation of Islam with democratic principles, in the face of opposition from Islamic extremists and Western skeptics.”

It will be interesting to see what she has to say about the role of Islam in Pakistani politics, especially after all the praise for her as a modern, secularist Muslim leader in comments after her assassination. Bhutto’s party is politically secularist and she pledged to fight against Islamist militants now challenging the Islamabad government. But let’s not forget that the Taliban emerged during her second stint as prime minister in 1993-1996 and were a key element in Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan at the time. She worked with an Islamist politician close to the Taliban then and now. It was also on her watch that, as historian William Dalrymple put it, Kashmir was turned into “a jihadist playground.” Whether she supported all this, couldn’t oppose the military people behind it or both (that’s my hunch) is something historians will debate long into the future. But it is clear that her record is more complex than some of the eulogies would have it.