Sri Lanka, Somalia, Islam and the West

By Dr.Ram Manikkalingam

I recently visited Somalia to attend a meeting of religious figures, clan elders and women leaders. Somalia is not a very stable place. But like all unstable countries, there are pockets of relative stability. While this is true of most countries that have an internal armed conflict, Somalia has the additional problem of having no state, though it does have an (Ethiopian-backed) government, and a number of militias, ranging from clan-based and Islamist-led to business-run. The meeting I attended could be compared to any such gathering of activists in the world concerned about their own country, in that the discussion was about how to reconcile conflicting groups. The question posed in this particular, Somali case was how to move from a situation of “semi-organized chaos” to “organized chaos” and then stability. As the only outsider present, I was asked to speak about “western and other methods of resolving conflict”.

However after the discussion the post seminar fellowship turned to the wider topic of Islam and the West and Mufti who had broached the subject outlined his thoughts.

It was clear the Mufti had given much thought to this issue, because he responded immediately and at length. This is what he said:

“In Islam there are things we must do as a Muslim and things we must not do. For example, the Qur’an says that we must pray a particular number of times a day, and that we must contribute a certain part of our income as charity. Similarly, we must not eat certain food and we must not blaspheme. As a devout Muslim, I follow these religious injunctions. At the same time there is another category of things that we may or may not do. Here Islam does not stipulate what we must do, but permits us as devout Muslims to make a choice, one way or another. But the extremists do not accept this category. What they are doing is to seek to reduce this category, so that everything comes under their control. They try to reduce the choice available to Muslims, by saying that we are required to do something or not do something, when Islam, itself, has made no such demand of us.”

Even if we disagree with these extremists, we can still argue with them. They can live their lives and we can live ours. But the problem really begins when some people use guns to tell us what to do and how to practise our religion. Not only do they argue that Islam requires us to do certain things, when it does not, or that it requires us not to do certain things, that we believe it permits us to do, they also threaten us with violence, if we do not follow their injunctions. This is the problem we have in the Muslim world.”

“What is the problem with the west?” I asked at this point. He had an answer to that too:

“The west says that it cannot integrate Muslims into its societies because it is Christian and we are Muslim. So it discriminates against us. When we respond that we thought you are tolerant of all faiths, and that your state is not linked to any one religion, it quickly changes its position. It says, ‘we are not Christian, we are secular. We have no place for religion and the problem with you is not that you are Muslim, but that you are religious. So we cannot integrate you into our societies.’ The west is not sure if it is Christian or it is secular. But, either way, it is sure that it does not like Muslims.”

Distinguish, don’t conflate

I was impressed with the mufti. He had summarized a quite complex debate into a very succinct articulation of the tension between Islam and the west. But there was still one question nagging me about his answer. How different is violent extremism from extremism without violence. Don’t the two go hand in hand? Isn’t political extremism the first step to violent extremism? And to fight violent extremism, shouldn’t one also fight political extremism? The mufti’s toleration of Muslim political extremism, even when he disagreed with it, sounded misplaced to me, given his resistance to violent extremism.

These questions were left unresolved in my mind until, at another seminar I attended, I met a general from a southeast Asian country with a severe terrorist problem. I asked the general a question about engaging extremists. He responded:

“We make a distinction between extremists and terrorists. We like extremists, because extremists are fifty-fifty: half may go the violent side, but the other half will not. And it is these extremists, the second half, who have an impact on those resorting to violence – not moderate or secular Muslims like me. To convince those killing and bombing to stop, we need the help of the extremists. So we must not alienate them. Rather, we must work with them to tell those using violent and terrorist methods: your views are alright, provided you express them within the democratic political system, without resorting to violence. And you must convince those who share your views and are using violence to do the same.”

His basic point-counterintuitive in terms of the “standard” anti-terrorism approach – is that extremists are or can become allies, and not necessarily enemies, in the fight against terrorism.

In reflecting on the general’s point, I thought about the parallels between the “war on terror” and that other high-profile war it has to a degree eclipsed: the “war on drugs”. In many ways the two “wars” are similar: each is led by the United States; each has been going on for a long time; each has consumed huge resources of cash, lives and state policy; each has put a lot of people in prison; each is by nature indefinite in duration; each offers no clear evidence of progress towards any sort of “victory”.

There is a further similarity in the way these wars are justified by their advocates. Those fighting terrorism argue that political extremism must be fought because it leads to terrorism; those fighting the war on drugs argue that “soft drugs” like marijuana must be eradicated, because smoking marijuana leads to the use of harder drugs like heroin. But only a tiny minority of those who have smoked marijuana end up becoming heroin addicts. To expend resources on fighting marijuana (which in any case has a smaller social cost) does not help with fighting heroin use. A conflation of the two can prove counterproductive.

The limits to tolerance

The implication of the foregoing is threefold:

* political extremism, while clearly a major challenge, does not invariably lead to violence and terrorism

* tolerating those with extremist views need not imply tolerating those who use violence and terror to propagate them

* Those with extremist views are more likely than those at a remove from the conflict to understand the motivations of those who resort to violence and terrorism; thus, they can be a source of support in the struggle to move towards more stable and less violent societies.

However, tolerating or engaging extremists in a dialogue must not be confused with accepting their views as reasonable. For example, the general’s focus in the dialogue was to stop extremists from using violence to secure their goals. While he disagreed with their goals, his point to them was that they should use democratic political means and then ensure that a robust democratic political system can find a way to accommodate them and politically blunt their extremism.

But this leaves open an important additional point about specific practices in communities that violate what might be considered as basic democratic and liberal values, including a commitment to equal rights. What happens when political actors (even if unarmed) seek to use the political system to advance these kinds of aims?

What are the limits to tolerating extremists?

* There is such a limit, especially when the extremists’ aims include intolerance and an explicit rejection of others’ civic equality-whether based on race, gender, caste or class

* Extremists, especially those who are intolerant of others, have no general right to be tolerated based on reciprocity, since they themselves do not tolerate others

* If tolerating extremists leads to the weakening of a democratic constitutional order, then extra care must be taken before the step is taken-though the default judgment should be to have confidence that a stable democratic structure (where it exists) will not be so weakened

* There should be a working principle that extremists (even intolerant ones) should be tolerated-on the assumption that they too may give voice to concerns that are in fact reasonable and should be addressed.

The broad expectation and hope raised by such an approach is that over time intolerant (even if non-violent) extremists themselves will change their positions as they participate in a democratic political process and see that they are treated fairly as equals, even if not all their demands are accepted. The point, as I understood it, is that you must engage with extremists, but you need not concede extremism to them, politically. []

(Dr. Ram Manikkalingam served as an Advisor on Ethnic Affairs to President Kumaratunga and is presently a visiting professor at the University of Amsterdam)


  1. ilaya seran senguttuvan said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 7:05 am

    Islam preached today is not as simple as in the case of the Mufti mentioned here. Unlike the Islam of – let’s say – the previous 50s today’s Islam is violent in most cases and lacks tolerance.

    Bin Laden himself makes it clear “those who do not practise the Islam we do are traitors and should be killed.” The Borahs of the world today – a peaceful Islamic sect – chose to come to violence-prone Colombo to hold their Annual Conferences although they are in larger numbers in Mumbai and other parts of India, Pakistan and East Africa. Their last 2 Conferences were held in Colombo and most Sri Lankans, including the Govt, do not know why but pat themselves on the back re-assuring themselves Sri Lanka is still considered a safe place at least by some. Borahs wanted to hold their last Confab in Mumbai but at the last moment changed it to Colombo because other Muslim radicals were said to be planning to violently disturb the Confab if held in Mumbai. Until Saddam came along Sunnis and Shiaites lived in relative peace in Iraq. I am told inter-marriages between them were common there but Saddam ruined the equilibrium and the blood-letting continues.

    Lebanon is ruined by intra-Muslim local war-fare. The Wahabis are in hiding everywhere – although they are Muslims. When Christiane Amanpour did her week-long Programme on Christianity, Judaism and Islam a few months ago the Egyptian Islamic clerics were clear there “the Islamic-Christian war fare now on will have to be fought to the finish”

    Personally, I see the Islamics who see “tomorrow belongs to us” (read Naipaul) will not rest until the world sees more bloodshed. The Americans have no intention of allowing the attackers of 9/11 go un-punished. Iraq was the first they went after. Even Barak in his speech at AIPAC yesterday at Washington made it clear he will go after the Iranians and Al Quida/Osama Bin Laden. His Statement Jerusalem belongs to the Israelis will be resisted and the Islamic world (including strong American allies like the Saudis) will have to take a position against the Americans. I am afraid the peaceful Islam and adherents we knew in our days have been hijacked by the extremist Muslims brain-washed by the growing madrasas

  2. S Galpotta said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 12:11 am

    On what basis an indivdual is labled as a muslim, christian, buddhist or of any other religion. Who can certify without any doubt that such individual is of such religion ?

    Indivdul’s behaviour, attitudes and way of thinking which may decide his or her religion is not visible at all. Onthe the other hand these factors are subject to change continuesly due to changes in his environment on continues basis.

    On this ground it is meaningless to lable a country as a muslim, christian or buddhist country.

    It is meaningless to fight for religious rights when the individul’s religion is questionable and subject to change continuesly.

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