Contemporary Issues

Violent Extremism is a Socio-Political Problem  

It seems we are caught in an endless loop.

Political conflicts, violence, terrorist responses, condemnations, increased efforts in the War on Terror, violence, condemnations, etc.

In light of this I have heard some prominent figures state with confidence that the great struggle of our generation is violent religious extremism. I think this is wrong. This usually leads to feel good efforts and conversations about the need for reforming religious beliefs and practices (usually targeting Islam in particular). Speaking from the perspective of a Muslim I DO think we need some reform in how we think and learn about Islam, but I do not think we need reform in Islam itself. HOWEVER, to engage that discussion masks from the bigger point:

It’s not a religious problem in the first place.

In my opinion violent extremism is not a religious issue, it is a socio-political issue. [1] In light of this let us look back in history to one of the first instances of violent extremism in Muslim history.

The reign of the fourth Muslim ruler after the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Ali ibn Abi Talib (ra) was a tumultuous time. There were all kinds of political upheavals and difficulties. One of them was a group of zealous individuals who eventually declared Ali to be a disbeliever.

The consequences of this kind of pronouncement cannot be understated. From their perspective this meant that the blood of Ali was permissible, that they could justifiably kill him. Their understanding was twisted and rejected by the vast majority of believers at the time, but they still held it. Ali’s initial response to this was to disagree with them and try to help them understand but he was eventually required to take the measure of exiling them from the city. They were banished to the outskirts and he gave them specific orders, “If you don’t bother anybody we’ll leave you alone, but if you cause problems we will have to fight you.”

His approach did not work. They committed some terrorist acts against innocent people who were passing through the area where they were living and Ali was forced to fight them.[2]

Our question here is not as to what religious justifications they used for their actions, those were refuted. Our question is, where did they come from?

What we find when looking into that question is interesting. In essence this was a political group that broke off from the larger group of Muslims as a result of some differences in response to socio-political issues. They were a political fragment.

This political fragment then began to take on different interpretations of textual sources as a justification for their politics. They would come to be known as the Kharijites.

To put it plainly, they saw what they felt was an injustice and responded to it.

The problem was not their religion, their victims, like their modern day counterparts, largely shared their religion. Their problem was their inability to cope with the realities of their political climate.

Unfortunately, that is a problem that is more pronounced today than ever. Choose any issue and there is hardly a day that goes by where there is not a tragedy. Child poverty rates in the US, banks getting off the hook for the recession, slaughter of civilians in any number of countries, drone strikes haunting the lives of regular people, wide scale manipulation of people through mass media, the CIA torture report, etc.

People’s ability, or rather inability, to deal with these issues is what leads to violent extremism and terrorism. As long as we’re knocking on the wrong door, we’re not going to get the answer we’re looking for.



[1] Dr. Juan Cole has an interesting article on his site showing the religion of major sources of violence in the twentieth century, here.

[2] Dr. Yasir Qadhi gave an interesting sermon on the development of this group. It can be accessed, here. Their development and Muslim responses to it is also largely the content of Dr. Khaled Abou Fadl’s book, “Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law.”

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