Sultan Shahin, editor of www.newageislam.com, spoke to a January 10 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about his website, which refutes methodically the incitement to Islamist-inspired violence made on jihadi websites.
According to Shahin, the Islamic "radical ideology" of ISIS and Al Qaeda has become more "far more powerful and well entrenched today than it was on 9/11." It attracts "educated Muslim youth" and disseminates its "venomous ideology" in such countries as Afghanistan and Africa. A principal target is Indian Muslims, who are encouraged to launch "jihad against their own government."
Shahin's own experience contradicts claims that "U.S. foreign policy mistakes post-9/11" were to blame for the spread of Islamic radicalism. As a London-based journalist in the winter of 1986-87, he "had a chance encounter" with a radicalized Muslim youth in Nottingham who was trying to convert a friend's children to Ahle Hadith, an Islamic sect supported at that time by Saudi Arabia that held they were the "only true Muslims." Asked how to deal with the other 99 percent of non-Ahle Hadith Muslims, the student's "unhesitating response" was "kill them."
Shocked by the student's casual advocation of mass murder, Shahin began investigating radical Islam and discovered that "already 60 to 70 percent of Muslim students in most U.K. universities had acquired a medieval mindset under the influence of a charismatic Salafi, Omar Bakri," later to become spokesman for Osama bin Laden. Thanks to radicalism's influence among Muslims, "Islam has now become almost synonymous with terrorism," Shahin said. He thinks the "traditional Muslim" agrees with Islamic theologians who believe "Islam needs to conquer" the globe, and that non-Muslims, although permitted to live and practice their own religion, must remain powerless.
Shahin attributes Islamism's success to not only "Islamic scriptures," with their many interpretations, but to the nature of Islamic history. "The scriptures, many do not understand, but history, everyone can relate to" because seventh century Muslim armies conquered so much territory so quickly. Against all odds, "Muslims destroyed the two reigning superpowers [the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia]; then, the world order was overturned," Shahin said. Today's radicals again claim to have defeated two superpowers in the U.S. and USSR in "another miracle" comparable to the first.
Moderate Muslims seeking to "reverse the trend" called upon the "ulama," Islamic clerics and religious scholars, to sign onto "fatwas against terrorism." Shahin said these fatwas, signed by "hundreds of thousands of clerics" from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, "had no impact" because the rulings are only "rhetorical statements" that leave the "foundations of the radical narrative" unchallenged. He explained: "The jihad theology is a theology of consensus" encompassing "all sects of Islam over the last 1,400 years" that "cannot be countered merely by rhetorical statements like 'Islam is a religion of peace.'"
So, while "eminent scholars from all sects of Islam" were busy publicizing lengthy fatwas condemning terrorism in 2015, that year "40,000 educated Muslim youth joined ISIS ... from eighty-six countries around the world."
Shahin believes the failure of a fatwa issued by the 126 clerics "renowned as moderates" stemmed from a quote they included saying the "Hadith is akin to revelation," the same obligatory claim that jihadis make to their youthful recruits. The clerics, purportedly representing "moderates," cited the Quran 2:25-6, "there is no compulsion in religion," but also "implied" that the peaceful Meccan verse was "abrogated" by the later militant Quranic verses on Mohammed's battles in Medina. "They clearly agree with the militant doctrine of abrogation," he added, where the single militant verse 9:5 "abrogated 124 peaceful verses revealed in Mecca." Shahin summarized the problem as one in which supposedly moderate theologians promulgated "the same traditional theology on which the jihadi narrative is based."
Shahin's counter-narrative is consistent with Islamic teachings and strikes at the root of jihadi theology.
He also outlined an eight-step alternative, a "counter-narrative" he believes is "consistent with Islamic teachings" and "will strike at the ... root of jihadi theology." Assisted by technology's ability to bypass the traditional ulama's "mosques and madrassas," his first proposal challenges the claim that the Quran is "uncreated," a term used to forestall scholarly debate about its history, considered a challenge to the direct word of God. Instead, Shahin said the moderate's narrative should be that the "Quran was created by God," with its collection of peaceful, pluralistic verses "initially" revealed to Mohammed in Mecca that "constitute the fundamental message of Islam."
Shahin's second proposal challenges the jihadi narrative by supporting the need to place Quranic verses in context, since many do not apply to Muslims in the modern world. In his third, he revisited the doctrine of abrogation, calling it a "false doctrine" asserted by radicals: "God cannot be giving orders only to abrogate them later." Fourth, God does not authorize "any human" to mete out punishment for "blasphemy and apostasy." Rather, with any such crimes committed in the "eyes of theologians, the punishment has to be left to God."
Fifth, because we are not "living in a world of modern nation states, our international relations are guided by the charter of the United Nations," signed by all Muslim states. Therefore, all "talk of performing jihad" should halt. His sixth proposition is "there is no scripture and sanction for the call of a global caliphate," as modern pluralistic states are "very much in tune with the first Islamic state," which evolved under Muhammad under the Charter of Medina. Seventh, "modern democracy is a fulfillment of the Quranic exhortation Quran 42:38, which calls on Muslims to "strengthen democratic institutions."
His final challenge, number eight, holds that "Islam is primarily a spiritual path to salvation." Among the Quranic verses affirming this is 5:48, which confirms that Islam is "not a supremacist political ideology." The theological doctrine of "al-wala' wa-l-bara'," translated as "loyalty and disavowal for the sake of God alone," as part of Islam's spiritual directive to "accept and respect all other religions as paths to the same divinity." Shahin insists that this phrase, as used by radicals to justify their ideology, is "misconceived and impractical in the present highly complex and intricately interwoven global society."
Jihadis' insistence on convincing Muslims to enforce sharia over the entire world is "absurd."
Shahin says jihadis' insistence on convincing Muslims to "enforce sharia on the world" is "absurd," and amplifies his challenge to jihadi narratives by "remaining within the Quran and Hadith parameters." He has been disappointed by Muslims' refusal to even discuss the Quran and insists it is necessary to understand the collection of verses that constitute "instructions that came to the prophet from time to time for over two decades, and in bits and pieces" were "basically advising the prophet as to how to tackle a certain situation that had arisen," a situation that "no longer exists."
"There is a hole in Islamic theological training," Shahin said, noting the concept of shani nazul, or the context of a verse. "How, and at what time, did" a verse appear? "What was happening at the time when this verse was revealed," he asked. Moreover, "what is the point of understanding and studying shani nazul if you don't also say that since context no longer remains, these verses are no longer applicable? This should be the logical conclusion from there."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.