When 9/11 happened, I had been a young British Muslim for two decades – half of that time as an imam and leader within Muslim communities. I had been radicalized by a combination of “push” factors such as facing constant racism whilst growing up in London, and “pull” factors such as the edgy, anti-Western, extremist political narrative that added spice and camaraderie to the hours spent in pious worship in the mosques.
Aged 19, whilst on holidays from studying physics at Cambridge University, I had trained and fought with Sunni Arab mujahideen against Soviet-backed Afghan communist forces in 1990-91 in Kunar, eastern Afghanistan, where a localized Islamic emirate had been declared years before the Taliban even existed. British friends of mine had similarly fought in Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir during the 1990s, some of them laying down their lives for the cause.
A decade after my own Afghanistan adventure, one wing of this mujahideen movement had become al-Qaeda and attacked the West, my own home since childhood.
Forced to confront the horror of former mujahideen heroes now slaughtering civilians, including children, I had to reassess all my assumptions about political Islam and its interpretation of scripture and theology.
I participated in the first Hajj after 9/11, where the mood was especially somber and emotional, and earnestly prayed for guidance in Mecca. Over the next few years, as al-Qaeda attacked Madrid and my beloved hometown of London, I came to a firm realization about the fundamental flaws in extremist ideology that underpinned this senseless, indiscriminate violence.
Muslim extremist networks flourished, nourished by narrow perceptions of four Islamic notions: Ummah, Khilafa, Sharia and Jihad. Our loyalty was only to the Ummah, the Muslim nation: non-Muslims could, and we believed would, literally go to hell.
As a separate, global nation, we were entitled to our own homeland: the Caliphate (Khilafa), or utopian Islamic nation. Such a state would naturally enforce Sharia as the law of the land, and military Jihad would be constantly required to defend and expand this state until it conquered the entire world.
Years of study and reflection led me to realize that these Islamic notions lend themselves to much broader and deeper interpretations than the extreme ones. Ultimately, we are all one Ummah: the nation of humanity. The Qur’anic concept of Khilafa refers to doing God’s will on earth in general terms: establishing justice tinged with mercy, not to the man-made caliphate system that was often perverted into tyranny throughout Islamic history.
We cannot “implement Sharia,” except in general terms relating to the rule of law, justice and an accepted social contract, loosely inspired by the Prophet’s Medina model and the enlightened early caliphate, as opposed to later despotic caliphates.
Furthermore, there are dozens of schools and interpretations of Sharia. Most Sharia rules are private, voluntary and heavily-contested anyway, such as the details of prayer, fasting and dietary and dress codes. So, which Sharia would Muslim authorities force on people?
Jihad has multiple dimensions, including inner, spiritual and social aspects; military jihad was always subject to a strict ethical code that terrorist groups regularly and flagrantly violate.
I worked this all out for myself, with the help of many teachers and life experiences by the grace of God. Helping me along this journey was the realization that hundreds, nay thousands, of Islamic scholars and imams were similarly working on these concepts, many of them also former extremists and all of them galvanized by 9/11.
And I was honored to participate in some of the global Islamic conferences making major declarations around these fundamental concepts. The 2004 Amman Message tackled binary, divisive readings of Ummah. The 2014 Letter to Baghdadi addressed binary, medieval readings of Khilafa. The Marrakesh Declaration, Alliance of Virtue and Mecca Charter, all recently issued between 2016 and 2019, offered inclusive readings of Sharia on the basis of universal human rights.
In my new report for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, The State of the Debate within Islam, I summarize these important theological developments since 9/11 and highlight the fact that over 120 fatwas against terrorism have been issued in the Muslim world since 1998, when Bin Ladin issued his first fatwa in support of global terrorism.
Extremist Muslim movements developed, perhaps understandably, during the colonial period, when the decline of Islamic civilizations was accelerated. This is why they are ubiquitous in the Muslim world, and retain a vehement anti-Western element. Muslims everywhere have a duty to confront the divisive and destructive ideology of extremism and embrace inclusive interpretations of Islam that promote a collaborative human future based on shared, transcendent values. We owe it to our human nation to bravely undertake this most sacred of all missions.