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February 23, 2015

The "J" word - understanding extremism

Reuel S. Amdur

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Islam is a religion of moderation. That was the point made by Ismail Albatnuni, imam of Ottawa's Assunnah Muslim Association Mosque. He and Sikander Hashmi, imam of the Kanata Association of Muslims, spoke at a public education session held in conjunction with Friday prayer at the Assunnah Mosque on February 6.

The topic of the session was “The ‘J’ Word.” 

Imam Albatnuni discussed extremism in Islam historically.  He noted Arabic words used to describe such errors, one meaning “exceeding the limit, exaggerating” and the other referring to a position as being on “the very far side.” 

When faced with excessive adulation, Prophet Mohammed said, “Don’t praise me that way.”   In reaction to Christian worship of Jesus, he said, “Don’t do that to me.”  And, “May God destroy those who exaggerate in religion.” 

There are those who fast all the time, pray all day and night, and choose to live celibate lives.  According to Albatnuni, the Prophet rejected that kind of extremism.  The imam went on to describe what he sees as the error of contemporary extremism, the false jihad orientation.

To begin, those who adopt this route do not understand the reality of Islam.  Not knowing its reality, they do not know how to use it.  In amplifying the point he charged that these so-called jihadis operate out of ignorance.  Knowledge is the antidote, but not superficial knowledge.  In this regard he was echoing the thought of the 17th Century English poet and translator Alexander Pope:

          A little learning is a dangerous thing;

          drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

          there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,  

          and drinking largely sobers us again.

(The Pierian spring, located in Macedonia, was sacred to the Muses and hence stands figuratively for the source of art and science.)

He also held that these “jihadis” choose from sharia and Islam what they like and want, what is congruent with their personality.  Along with this comes fanaticism.  The fanatic focuses on one point of view and thinks it to be the whole of the faith.  He is blinded, unwilling to engage in dialogue or debate.

Extremism also looks at one thing in religion and inflates it.  Does a man have a beard, and how big is it? 

Albatnuni also noted that in Prophet Mohammed’s time women did not wear niqabs. 

True jihad, he explained, involves a person making his best efforts in the most difficult undertaking, struggling with oneself. 

The current extremist jihad is just a kind of fashion.  He noted that people who have experienced failure may be attracted to extremism to cover their shortcomings.  He commented that many who have come back from foreign jihadist adventures admit that they did wrong.

It was then Imam Hashmi’s turn to speak.  He is only in his early 30’s, with his entire education in Canada.  He acknowledged and indeed shares the concern about the suffering of other Muslims around the world. 

How should we react to oppression of others?  With care for both oppressors and oppressed.  Yes, help the oppressed.  We should also help the oppressor, by holding his hand back.  It is not for us to punish.  As Prophet Mohammed explained, Allah will do that.

In reading the Qu’ran and the hadith, we need, he argued, to know its original context in order to understand how the principles are to be applied today.  Reading the words is not enough.  As well, he said, we need to understand the spirit behind them.  That spirit is the need to protect everyone’s rights. 

Hashmi asked Muslims to reflect on the opportunities we find in this country.  Reflecting on the session underway, he remarked, “We couldn’t do this in many Muslim countries without government permission.”  He spoke of tax exemption for mosques and the level of freedom that exists here.  Following the killing of the reservist at the war memorial, he went there in his religious garb to pay his respects, and no one made any comment about his dress.

Canadian foreign policy is one area of concern for Hashmi.  “It hurts deep inside.”  He argued that Muslims need to act to correct government policy.  “There were times when Canada was not doing this.” 

When asked how Muslims should respond to attacks on Prophet Mohammed, he said that Muslims should be patient.  He would say to the offenders that he would not ridicule their sacred figures and ask them to be equally considerate. 

To act with anger and the effort to control them would only have them do it more.  Charlie Hebdo went from a circulation of 60,000 before the massacre to a run of five million after. 

A congregant spoke of the relationship of Muslims to the RCMP and CSIS. 

While he would not join such an organization to engage in surveillance on Muslims, he would not judge someone who did.  On the other hand, should he be made aware of something that was a danger to public security, he would act.

Another congregant commented bitterly that authorities engaged agents provocateurs to entrap Muslims.  The imam responded that that is why he would not personally take such a role, while not being categorical in criticizing anyone who did.

The answer to extremism, he urged, is to live as a good Muslim.  “Try our best and leave to Allah for the rest.”

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