Rather than recognise that often decisions forged in the fires of political expediency can have tragic future consequences, the United States has embarked on a course in its War on Terror that seems almost certain to bring about disastrous consequences. In its conflation of Islamic extremism with Islamic fundamentalism, the United States has ignored one of its most potent and powerful allies in the struggle against terrorism.
Muslim extremism did not begin with September 11, nor did it begin with the Gulf War. The first extremist movement appeared shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and has continued, in various manifestations, until the present day. It is a well studied phenomena and Muslim scholars have long dealt with the two empirical causes of extremist behaviour: a pervasive ignorance of Islamic law and a detachment and distance from the bone fide scholars of the religion. The cause of extremism is not, as has been too often argued, simply poverty or political disenfranchisement - although such conditions make fertile ground for the uptake of extremist ideas. Rather, the empirical cause of extremism and the political violence that flows from it, is an ideological and intellectual phenomena.
The question must then be asked: if the root-cause of terrorism is ideological and the Bush Administration has taken upon itself the objective of fighting terrorism, then how does it address the ideological cause? The answer, if the actions of the Administration are any indication, is to attack Islamic fundamentalism and prosecute a war against those who espouse an austere, puritanical version of Islam; a version of Islam that, to the casual observer, resembles extremism in many of its outward appearances and attitudes.
For this reason, the Bush Administration has targeted Islamic charities that espouse what it terms an "extremist" version of Islam although these groups would, more accurately, be considered fundamentalist. Likewise, it is for this reason, that the Bush Administration has pursued an aggressive war against clerics and intellectuals who promote Islamic fundamentalism. In many respects, the reaction of the Bush Administration to Islamic fundamentalism resembles the case of the child with a hammer: every problem is a nail. However, the tragedy is that by conflating Islamic fundamentalism with Muslim extremism, the Bush Administration has hindered and obstructed the only people in the Muslim world who are able to successfully engage the extremists in the ideological war - the scholars. Since September 11, the Bush Administration has, domestically and internationally, taken action, ostensibly to fight terrorism, against individuals and organisations whose natural position is as allies with the United States in their War against Terror. Indeed, many of these organisations and individuals were themselves engaged in an intellectual war against extremism for decades before September 11 and yet by virtue of the United States' ill-conceived and superficial definition of extremism, they have found themselves targeted. There is no doubt, of course, that Islamic fundamentalists will differ with the United States on periphery issues and their appearance and attitudes may resemble what, to the average American, seems "extreme". However, as even a cursory viewing of the books and legal rulings of fundamentalist scholars demonstrates, they have been vociferous and aggressive critics of the kind of political violence that visited the United States on September 11 (but had plagued Muslim societies such as Egypt for years earlier).
In formulating its War on Terror, the United States has relied on bad advice about the nature and scope of its enemy. The objective of many of those who have proffered advice to the United States seems not to address the threat to the American people, so much as a desire to solve Israel's problems in the Middle East. This can only be achieved, they opine, by confronting not just the notion of Muslim extremism which causes Muslims to lash out at non-combatant states such as the United States but rather the Islamic fundamentalism that demands of Muslims that they resist occupation. It is possible that the United States might be able to kill its way to an abatement in extremist-orchestrated violence, but it will never be able to win a war declared against Islamic fundamentalism no more than the Islamic extremists can readily win their war against the nostrums of the secular West. It is this bad advice and flawed understanding of the nature of their enemy, that has led the United States to wage a quixotic campaign against even long-standing and respected institutions and leaders of the American Muslim community: such as the various Saudi-based charities, educational institutions and scholars whose traditional role has been to guide their Muslim communities towards a correct understanding of Islam. Some of these individuals and groups have made repeated and explicit denunciations of terrorism and extremism for years preceding September 11, yet by virtue of their fundamentalism they have been targeted by a US Department of Justice that seems almost desperate to conjure up 'wins' and 'progress' in its War against Terror.
Perhaps no case better demonstrates the misguidance of the Bush Administration's myopic view of Islamic fundamentalism than the recent indictment of American cleric, Shaykh Ali Al-Timimi.
Although unknown to many Americans, Shaykh Ali Al-Timimi has, for over ten years, been one of the most influential and important figures in Islam in the West. His lectures and writings are a feature of countless Islamic web sites, and he has toured throughout the world exhorting Muslim communities to goodness and uprightness. At no stage, was any suggestion ever made that Shaykh Ali Al-Timimi was promoting terrorism much less involved with terrorists, and indeed his message has always been characterised by an aggressive criticism of both extremes of Muslim thought: the extreme laxity of some and the extreme harshness of others.
One year before September 11, Shaykh Ali Al-Timimi had made the remark to me that the greatest tribulation (fitnah) that the Muslim world faced moving forward came from the Jihadi groups whose fundamental ignorance of Islamic jurisprudence coupled with blinding emotionalism posed a threat to both Muslims and non-Muslims if not properly checked. It was a sentiment that manifested itself in many of his lectures where he frequently opposed any suggestion of violence against civilians, the overthrow of governments or terrorism and extremism in any of its many manifestations. It was also an assessment whose veracity was proven with the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001.
Despite his well-known opposition to such things, Shaykh Ali Al-Timimi has now been indicted on terrorism-related charges. The basis is that because some people, identified by US authorities as his students, were found to have breached the Neutrality Act by lending support to the Kashmiri struggle for independence, Shaykh Ali Al-Timimi is somehow complicit. Only now, over one year since these youths were arrested, has Al-Timimi been himself charged which raises serious questions as to both the evidence against him and the sincerity of the government's view that Al-Timimi genuinely has links to terrorism.
In fact, if everything that Al-Timimi has said or done throughout his career as a leading Muslim scholar is to be believed, then he neither poses any threat nor is he a supporter of terrorism. On the contrary, the evidence clearly shows that Al-Timimi is perhaps one of the greatest friends that the United States could find in its effort to eradicate the sort of religious extremism that begets terrorism.
In the aftermath of September 11, Shaykh Al-Timimi recognised the grave threat posed to both Muslim and non-Muslim worlds by the event and the reaction on both sides of the civilizational divide. He realised that there was a need in the Muslim world for a more nuanced and informed understanding of what is taking place in the United States and how Americans truly see Islam and the Muslim world. To this end, he and I worked on a series of extensive and detailed reports that examined in detail the relationship between East and West and the need for peaceful coexistence to be found between both civilizations. The report was distributed throughout the religious leadership of Saudi Arabia and was used as the basis for forming the current and dominant view that we must all work towards a more balanced view of each other; that peace between our two civilizations is preferable to war. Of course, there is no doubt that Ali Al-Timimi is a fundamentalist Muslim who, like America's fundamentalist Christians, objected to many aspects of our increasingly secular society. He didn't see violence as the means by which change could be effected on his community, but rather he saw the need to work cooperatively with all sections of society - particularly America's Christian community - to build a better and more just society. For this reason, in December, 2003, Shaykh Ali authored a letter, sent in the name of a committee of Muslim scholars and intellectuals, to every major Christian institution in the United States. The letter expressed solidarity with the Christian community in their efforts to reform many aspects of their society, particularly the social problems faced in the United States and elsewhere. Clearly, this is hardly the approach of a terrorist or an extremist; but rather this is the approach of a man who cares deeply about his society and wishes to enact change within the context of American democracy. Shaykh Al-Timimi has been, for many zealous youth, a significant force in guiding them away from violence and extremism.
I, like most of those who know him, can personally cite countless examples where he has openly confronted individuals advocating extremism or political violence. That he should now be indicted based on the actions of people who may have been, like many hundreds of other people around the world, people who turned to Shaykh Al-Timimi for advice is outrageous and demonstrates not only the failure of US authorities to look at anything that Shaykh Al-Timimi has written or spoken about over the last ten years, but more alarmingly it demonstrates a willingness to pursue the very people who have been fighting the intellectual war against extremism and terrorism since long before September 11. The equation is simple: without moderating yet credible voices such as Al-Timimi, more Muslims will remain ignorant and out of this ignorance will be born more extremists and, ultimately, more people whose ignorance leads them to violence against the United States and her people. The attempt to imprison Shaykh Al-Timimi is a modern day enactment of Aesop's fable of the Eagle and the Arrow: by pursuing scholars such as Al-Timimi, America's most natural allies in its war against terrorism, the United States is feathering the plumes of its enemies' arrows; and like the eagle noted in the fable, is paradoxically giving her enemies - the extremists - the means of her own destruction.
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