Dr. Sheema Khan is a former academic in the field of chemical physics; Lorna Dueck is host of Context TV, seen Sundays on Global and Vision TV.
Lorna Dueck: These are difficult days to be a Muslim, and I want to go public with some private conversations you and I have been having on the trouble of radicalization in Canada. First, let's put this in the global context. Last week's horror of Baga, Nigeria, of Charlie Hebdo, and the public relations monster that extremism has left in its wake makes it hard for many of us to accept that Islam is a "religion of peace." What are the core beliefs in Islam that are being used to justify violence?
Sheema Khan: These are indeed, very trying times. It is easy to give into despair, cynicism, and hatred. However, let us remember the words of Malala Yusufzai, who said the following:
"The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born."
So, let us begin our dialogue from a place of strength, power and courage.
Muslim extremists and Islamophobes are two sides of the same coin – in their exclusivist vision based on hatred. Thus it is not surprising that both quote (or should I say, misquote) the same Koranic passages as justification for their views. Violence is not a "core belief" of Islam. Violence has a role in armed conflict, but with strict conditions.
As an example, extremists will use Koranic passages 2:190-193 to justify the killing of those who do not ascribe to their worldview. But these verses have a historical context, in which they refer to a specific tribe in Mecca that persecuted the nascent Muslim community for more than a decade. Permission is given to defend oneself, with the exhortation not to transgress, and to cease fighting if the other side ceases hostilities. There are many other examples of taking verses out context – namely, those that were revealed in the context of conflict between armed combatants. In addition, the Prophet explicitly forbade harming non-combattants, houses of worship, crops and the like.
Lorna Dueck: Help us understand the Muslim community in Canada; there are four varieties, can you describe them for us ?
Sheema Khan: The Muslim community is by no means a monolith, and would be more accurately described as "communities". They hail from a variety of countries in the Middle-East, South Asia and Africa, along with those born here. The largest "group" are Sunni Muslims, followed by Shia, the Ismaili community and other small sects.
Lorna Dueck: Within those Canadian Muslim communities, how do you recognize extremism?
Sheema Khan: Extremism can be defined in a number of ways, but a few signs may include rejection of all aspects of Canadian norms, combined with a feeling of exclusivity and judgment – namely, that one is on the only true path, and that everyone else (including other Muslims) are on the wrong path. Extremism is often accompanied with harshness, rather than compassion and mercy (which were the hallmarks of Prophet Mohammed).
Lorna Dueck: A Canadian Imam, attempting to show he was a peace maker, just sent me his last sermon on speaking out against aggression, (it was remarkably shorter than a Christian sermon.) Nowhere did this sermon reference global events of jihadist violence or condemn them. Why would that not have been mentioned?
Sheema Khan: I can't speak for the Imam, and I have not seen the sermon, so I don't believe I can make a fair comment. In late December, I caught a few lectures at the largest annual gathering of Muslims in North America held in Toronto, called "Reviving the Islamic Spirit". There, Muslim theologians unequivocally denounced the massacre in Peshawar by the Taliban, the bloodthirstiness of Islamic State, the mass murders of innocent civilians in Syria, Nigeria, Somalia (etc) by extremists, and domestic terrorism here and in Australia. They clearly denounced the mistreatment of minorities, slavery of women and children, and forced conversions by IS. They also highlighted the atrocities committed by the majority Bhuddist community against the Rohinga Muslims in Burma.
Lorna Dueck: What about all the Koranic injunctions, and the other sayings, that say non-believers should be second class citizens?
Sheema Khan: When you speak of second-class "citizens", you are talking about a state. In the past, members of "states" were primarily defined by religious affiliation, and governance of the state was based on interpretations of the Koran in that time and age. Within that paradigm, Muslims and non-Muslims had different rights and obligations within the state. That still holds true today, for example, in Saudi Arabia. Today, governance of nation-states has changed in many parts of the world, where citizenship is based on individual human rights and obligations to the state – irrespective of religious affiliation. Modern nation states with Muslim majorities have a range of statutes regarding minorities.
At a personal level, the Koran, and the life example of the Prophet, make it very clear that we are to treat people with kindness and respect, for we are all part of the human family. He was a mercy to humanity, and Muslims are to carry forth his legacy of compassion.
Lorna Dueck: What about the injunctions against blasphemy and graven images? Cartoons of the Prophet?
Sheema Khan: The Koran is replete with the insults hurled at Prophet Mohammed, and the prophets that came before. It also instructs how to respond to mockery of the faith (leave the company of those who mock, and rejoin them once they cease), to hurtful words (be patient and forgive), and the like. The life of Prophet Mohammed is filled with examples of his forbearance in the face of criticism, insults, and opposition. The best way to "avenge" caricatures of the Prophet is to live his example. That does not mean that Muslims should not express their feelings of hurt at seeing the denigration of a man they love. Of course they should. But with dignity and integrity, which means not insulting the beliefs/personalities cherished by others. Murder is completely antithetical to the Prophet's life example.
Lorna Dueck: Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, a Muslim, boldly told Islamic leaders on Jan. 1 that core Islamic texts were "antagonizing the entire world", and challenged "You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move… because this umma (Muslim world) is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost–and it is being lost by our own hands."
Sheema Khan: I rechecked the speech by Sisi, and nowhere did he say "core Islamic texts" were "antagonizing the entire world". He was clear that it was not religion, but "ideology" as embodied by medieval texts and thoughts that have been sanctified for hundreds of years that is the problem. Namely, that rulings and views, made by fallible scholars at a certain point in time, need to be updated (to say the least) and adapted to modern times. What worked in the 14th century does not necessarily work today, as is clearly evident by the situation of so many Muslim societies today. The key is reformation while remaining authentic to the spirit of the Koran and the example of the Prophet.
In conclusion, we should start to look to ways of breaking the vicious cycle anytime a terrorist incident occurs. There is shock, anger, followed by condemnation of these acts, and then the backlash against Muslim communities, thus further creating divisions, which in turn alienate Muslim youth who become susceptible to the message of extremists (i.e. the West is at war with Islam, they reject you because you are Muslim, etc). For Muslim communities, we really have to start looking in the mirror, and ask in view of atrocities occurring in the name of Islam at a higher frequency, "what is happening to the moral core"? During the days of terror in France, almost 2,000 women, children and the elderly were massacred by Boko Haram, which has also resorted to child suicide bombers. Almost 40 Muslims were killed in Yemen by a Muslim extremist. And the killing of Muslims, by Muslim extremists continues in Syria and Iraq. All of this on the heels of the horrific murders of schoolchildren and teachers in Peshawar by the Taliban. We need to take a deep look and acknowledge that the cancer of extremism is growing, and come up with strategies on how to deal with it.