by Ram Manikkalingam
I recently visited Somalia to attend a meeting of religious leaders, clan elders and women leaders.
Somalia is not a very stable place. But like all unstable countries – there are pockets of relative stability. While this is true of most countries that have an internal armed conflict, Somalia has the additional problem of having no state, though they have an Ethiopian backed government, and a number of militias, ranging from clan-based and Islamist-led to business-run. The meeting I attended could have been like any meeting of activists in the world concerned about their own country, except the discussion was about how to reconcile the conflicting groups in Somalia. The question was how does one move from a situation of semiorganised-chaos to organised-chaos and then stability. As the only outsider present, I was asked to speak about “Western and other methods of resolving conflict”. The Somalis were keen to learn about the world from me. But, as usually happens in these situations, you quickly find that the two worlds are not that different, and that you (who were supposed to teach) learn as much, or even more, than they (who were supposed to learn).
The meeting consisted of three parts. The first was on the Koran and conflict resolution, led by a sheikh from a local mosque. The second was on traditional Somali methods of resolving conflict, led by a clan elder. And I led the discussion on western and other methods of conflict resolution. After my session we went to have a Somali lunch of rice and goat meat. As I was tucking into my food, one of the participants – a Mufti from a large town – inquired politely through my interpreter – if he could ask me a small question.
And as I invited him to, he blurted out:
“Prof. Ram, how can we solve this problem between Islam and the West?”
This was not an easy question to answer over lunch. And while it had featured tangentially in our discussions over two days – we had focused our thoughts on the far more pressing issue of the civil war in Somalia. With my mouth full of tender goat meat – I struggled to think about how I could even begin to answer his question. Unable to do so, I fell back on asking the question back, rather than providing an answer. I said:
“Mufti what do you think the problem is between Islam and the West?”
It was clear the Mufti had given much thought to this issue, because he responded immediately. This is what he said:
“In Islam there are things we must do as a Muslim and things we must not do. For example, the Koran says that we must pray a particular number times a day, and that we must contribute a certain part of our income as charity. Similarly, we must not eat certain food and we must not blaspheme. And as a devout Muslim, I follow these religious injunctions. At the same time there is another category of things that we may or may not do. Here Islam does not stipulate what we must do, but permits us as devout Muslims to make a choice, one way or another. But the extremists do not accept this category. What they are doing is to seek to reduce this category, so that everything comes under their control. They try to reduce the choice available to Muslims, by saying that we are required to do something or not do something, when Islam, itself, has made no such demand of us.
Even if we disagree with these extremists, we can still argue with them. They can live their lives and we can live ours. But the problem really begins when some people use guns to tell us what to do and how to practice our religion. Not only do they argue that Islam requires us to do certain things, when it does not, or that it requires us not to do certain things, that we believe it permits us to do, they also threaten us with violence, if we do not follow their injunctions. This is the problem we have in the Muslim world”
“What is the problem with the West?” I queried.
He had an answer to that as well.
“The West says that they cannot integrate Muslims into their societies because they are Christian and we are Muslim. So they discriminate against us. When we respond that we thought you are tolerant of all faiths, and that your state is not linked to any one religion, they quickly change their position. They say we are not Christian, we are secular. We have no place for religion and the problem with you is not that you are Muslim, but that you are religious. So we cannot integrate you into our societies. The West is not sure if it is Christian or it is secular. But it is sure that it does not like Muslims – either way.”
I was impressed with the Mufti. He had summarized a quite complex debate into a very succinct articulation of the tension between Islam and the West. But there was still one question nagging me about his answer. How different is violent extremism from extremism without violence. Don’t the two go hand in hand? Isn’t extremism the first step to violent extremism? And to fight violent extremism, shouldn’t one also fight extremism. The Mufti’s toleration of Muslim extremism, even when he disagreed with it, sounded misplaced to me, given his resistance to violent extremism.
A General from a South East Asian country dealing with violent terrorism set me straight, at another seminar I attended . I asked the General a question about engaging extremists. He said:
“We make a distinction between extremists and terrorists. We like extremists, because extremists are 50-50. Half may go the violent side, but the other half will not. And it is these extremists who have an impact on those resorting to violence, not moderate or secular Muslims like me. To convince those killing and bombing, to stop, we need the help of the extremists. So we must not alienate them. Rather we must work with them to tell those using violent and terrorist methods – your views are alright, provided you express them within the democratic political system without resorting to violence. And you must convince those who share your views and are using violence to do the same.”
His basic point – which was counterintuitive to the standard approach against terrorism – was that extremists are the allies, not necessarily, the enemies in the fight against terrorism.
His explanation began to make sense as I thought about the other war that had been a priority for the US – “the war on drugs” – until it was eclisped by “the war on terror”. In many ways “the war on drugs” is much like the “war on terror”. It has been going on for a long time; it has engaged a lot of resources; it has put a lot of people in prison; it has cost a lot in money and lives; it is indefinite; and it is not clear how much progress has really been made, when compared with the approach taken in other countries – such as The Netherlands.
Just as those fighting terrorism argue extremism must be fought because it leads to terrorism, those fighting the war on drugs, argue that “soft drugs” like marijuana must be eradicated, because smoking marijuana, leads to the use of harder drugs like heroin. But most of us who have smoked marijuana (though I never inhaled) do not end up becoming heroin addicts. Clearly some do, but they are in the minority. And expending resources on fighting marijuana, which has a relatively smaller social cost, does not help with fighting heroin use. And lumping the two together can be counter productive.
So extremism, while a challenge, does not invariably lead to violence and terrorism. And tolerating those with extremist views need not imply tolerating those who use violence and terror to propagate them. Moreover, it is those with extremist views, rather than others, who are more likely to understand the motivations of those who resort to violence and terrorism and therefore can be a source of support in the struggle to move towards more stable and less violent societies.