I have recently attended two seminars about combating extremism and the revival of religious discourse in Morocco. One was held in Rabat and was organized in cooperation with the Muslim World League of Makkah and the Mohammedia League of Scholars of Morocco.
The second seminar was held at the Assilah Forum, in its 40th season. The two events were held to review the insights and experiences from counter-extremism and reform campaigns over the last decade. Participants at the Assilah Forum were mostly professors, intellectuals and civil organizations, whereas the participants in the other seminar were mostly religious scholars.
The Rabat seminar focused on jihadist attempts to distort concepts on issues such as religion, Sharia, jihad, loyalty, innocence and the relationship between religion and the state. It also called upon religious institutions and their scholars to combat this terrifying phenomenon by reinstating correct concepts, spreading the right interpretation of texts, instituting academies to train imams and teachers for dialogue and adopting soft power in order to restore the message of peace in religion.
Cultural and religious heritage is in no way linked to fanaticism or jihadism. One of the researchers was upset about the prayer when travelling by plane, while another person was upset over the quick burial of the dead, because “honoring the deceased is through burial”Radwan al-Sayed
Meanwhile, the intellectuals and the participants at the Assilah Forum vehemently objected to the role of political Islam, stressing its perils as well as negative impact on the state, and on understanding religion and its functions.
However, they argued too much against issues with cultural significance with many of them considering “religious mentality” to be one of the factors for underdevelopment in the sphere of education, health, and environment as well as in governance of the state and the practices which use religion in popular circles and in the proliferation of myths. Some even saw mythology as part of the most fundamental causes for underdevelopment and prevention of progress.
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If political Islam is a negative phenomenon because it believes that religion has a political solution to all problems, with its slogan “Islam is the solution,” then mythology and popular and Sufi Islam have nothing to do with political Islam.
Cultural and religious heritage is in no way linked to fanaticism or jihadism. One of the researchers was upset about the prayer when travelling by plane, while another person was upset over the quick burial of the dead, because “honoring the deceased is through burial,” and she thought this is narrow-minded, yet I do not see the reason why.
Half of the participants said the “religious mentality” is responsible for the regression of education, including religious education. One participant even went as far as to contend that Muslims had not thought of education since the days of Ibn Khaldun!
The two day long Assilah Forum on “religious thought as a cradle of terrorism” certainly drew serious discussions and debates but the statements of some amateurs and activists reminded me of Arab intellectuals’ statements on cultural and religious heritage and the methods of discarding it during the 1970s and 1980s!
Religion not linked to lack of progress
Without doubt we have been suffering from divisions in religion, which have led to extremism and violence in our countries and the rest of the world. Yet the problems facing education, health, environment, development and political and administrative regularity have nothing to do with extremism or the religious mentality.
It’s the national state’s responsibility to handle all these affairs and it’s neither fundamentalism nor religious mentality that do. The failure to resolve problems, rise and progress is not due to religion or heritage. Proof to that is that some Arab societies and countries having profound religiosity have taken great strides in development and progress such as the UAE.
An advanced Muslim country such as Malaysia has become an economic “tiger” in East Asia. In contrast, dozens of Arab and Islamic countries are failing when it comes to development and progress and this has nothing to do with religion.
We have to continue fighting religious extremism and its manifestations, yet our main problem is working tirelessly to renew the experiment of the national state as this experiment has greatly failed at many levels.
Of course reaching advancement through nations, societies and their elites requires progress and development in various sectors, which will neither be restricted by religious mentalities nor by superstition. And if it proves that returning to the right path is difficult, such as the case with Lebanon, we should not attribute this to religion, thus yielding to illusion and the evasion of responsibility!
The article is also available in Arabic.
Radwan al Sayed is a Lebanese thinker and writer who attained a bachelor degree from the Faculty of Theology at al-Azhar University and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tübingen in Germany. He has been a scholar of Islamic studies for decades and is the former editor-in-chief of the quarterly al-Ijtihad magazine. Radwan is also the author of many books and has written for Arab dailies such as al-Ittihad, al-Hayat and ash-Sharq al-Awsat.