The Death of Moderate Islam
By Thomas Haidon
September 25, 2006
The Islamist junta of Sudan is often considered the second most despotic republic in the Muslim world. An Islamically based regime since 1983, the central government in Sudan has been responsible for the wholesale murder of hundreds of thousands of black Christians and animists in Southern Sudan and is undertaking a second genocide in the region of Darfur. The sources of Islam (along with a literalist interpretation of those sources) have served as the primary roadmap for these events. Political dissension in Sudan (and most Muslim states) is often equated with religious dissension, and far too often leads to accusations of blasphemy and apostasy. The purpose of this essay is to highlight (not necessarily memorialise of eulogise) a recent victim of this trend, and to discuss the impact and repercussions for the West and Muslim liberals of failing to respond accordingly to the burgeoning wave of Islamically inspired violence, which is becoming increasingly organised and sophisticated.
Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed Taha and the Muslim Brotherhood
On 4 September 2006, Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed Taha, the chief editor of the independent Sudanese daily Al-Wifaq, was kidnapped and later beheaded, presumably by terrorists sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. By all accounts, Ahmed was an Islamist. He was a founding member of the National Islamic Front (NIF) which established the murderous Islamist regime in Sudan, and established close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan. In his capacity as journalist and editor a number of occasions he both supported and challenged the government’s position on a number of issues. On a number of occasions he challenged the treatment of the peoples Southern Sudan, supported the liberalisation of shariah’, questioned the regime’s brutal tactics in the West and had criticised the economic direction of Sudan. However in 2005, Ahmed as publisher undertook the measure that would unleash an irreversible and deadly chain of events by commissioning of an article which dared to question the ancestral lineage of the Prophet Muhammad. At the time of publication it is said that Ahmed vehemently criticised the article but nonetheless printed it in the spirit of discourse.
As a consequence of the publication, thousands of Islamists from Khartoum Itnein, to Khartoum As-sharq converged on the central Court in Khartoum calling for the had’ of death for Ahmed for the crime of blaspheming the Prophet and for the crime of murtad’. Despite apologies and immediate retraction Ahmed was prosecuted for blasphemy and apostasy by the government, which sought the penalty of death. Leading the charge was the notorious Musa Mohamed Ali, a prosecutor well known in Sudan for his penchant for apostasy prosecutions. While the government of Sudan has attempted to shift responsibility of the killing to Al-Qaeda, it is well known on the ground that the Muslim Brotherhood (which myopic Western commentators have implored Western governments to engage with) is responsible.
The responsibility of the Brotherhood is more apparent when looking at the articulation of the crime of “intellectual apostasy”, to which the spiritual emir of the Muslim Brotherhood Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi recently articulated. Intellectual apostasy, according to Al-Qaradawi is a kind of apostasy among people who do not declare their explicit disbelief and openly wage war against everything that is religious. Those apostates are far smarter than that. They wrap their apostasy in various coverings, sneaking in a very cunning manner into the mind, the same way that malignant tumors sneak into the body. These people are not noticed when they invade or begin to disseminate their falsehood, but they are mostly felt when they affect the minds. They do not use guns in their attacks; however, their attacks are fierce and cunning. This apostasy, is noticed everyday in circulated newspapers and books, in radio and TV programs, and in laws legislated to govern people's affairs.
Qaradawi considers this form of apostasy “more dangerous than openly announced apostasy; for the former works continuously on a wide scale, at the same time, it cannot be easily resisted in the same manner as the latter, which always makes much fuss, attracts attention, and stirs up public opinion.”
I met Ahmed while working with the United Nations in Sudan in 2003. I met with Ahmed in several social settings, most notably through the French and German social clubs in central Khartoum (a place frequented by “liberal Islamists”, who often held no holds barred discussions from everything to the Prophet’s relationship with Aisha to the role of itjihad in contemporary Islamic jurisprudence). While he was an Islamist in many respects, he shared some of views of the “liberal” Hasan al-Turabi on the liberalisation of shariah’ and the empowerment of women among other things. Above all he believed that Islam must be questioned from all angles without fear of death or repercussion. While I disagreed with him on many points, I respected him.
To some, Sudan is a nation of oddities in terms of national Islamic practices. While the teachings of Ibn Tamiyya, Azzam Abdullah, Hasan al’Bana and Sayid Qu’tb are prevalent and form the backdrop of the state theocracy, there are strong elements of mysticism and modernism which have led “Sudanese Islam” to be presented in at least two different faces. For its part, Sudan has also produced a number of liberal Islamic reformers such as Mahmoud Mohammed Taha (executed under the Bashir regime for apostasy for advocating the rejection of the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad)) and Abdullahi Na’im. Sudan has also produced Hasan Al-Turabi, the man partially responsible for hosting Osama Bin Laden in Khartoum in the 1990’s. While Al-Turabi is clearly an Islamist, he has questioned the infallibility of the Prophet Muhammad, openly challenged Islamic jurisprudence’s understanding of the role of women, homosexuals and apostates and has openly called for the re-introduction of itjihad into the contemporary Islamic discourse. Of course, Turabi has done this while simultaneously supporting the jihad against the Southern Sudanese and the Darfurians. Adding to the “confusion” is the unique influence of Sufi thought on Islamist movements in Sudan. (The Sufi community was among the most vocal in seeking the death of Ahmed).
There is an underlying and sympathetic assumption by Western commentators however that that the ideologies espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood and its progeny are the primary source of Islamism in Sudan. This understanding is of course incorrect. A significant proportion of extremism in Sudan also emerges from the Sufi community, which built strong religious and social ties with Bin Laden during the 1990’s. Many in Sudan consider Bin Laden to actually follow Sufism. The implications of this development are significant, as they undermine the popular understanding that “extremism” in Islam is some how limited to Sunni/Shia or Wahabbism/Salafi.
Ahmed’s death is a stark warning to moderate Muslims and Islamists, not only in Sudan but in the region as a whole which has developed a fervent sympathy to the stricter Islamic interpretations of Ikhwahn an Muslimuun, or other Islamic based group for that matter. In Egypt those sympathetic to Ikwhan murdered Farog Foda, and have menaced Ayman Nour, Sa’id Ebrahim, and Abu Za’id for infractions against the Prophet Muhammad and Islam. Ahmed’s murder however can be distinguished from those of his predecessor Mahmoud Mohammed Taha and others. Ahmed was in many respects an ally of the regime and a fervent supporter of the Islamist revival. Further, Ahmed did not openly or constructively advocate the views supported in the particular article and immediately condemned it.
Ahmed’s death demonstrates that liberalisation and grass roots reform movements in Sudan and the region, spoken of by many “moderate” Muslims in the West are regressing if they truly exist at all. More importantly it further demonstrates the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood, its unequivocal understanding of Islam, and the implications of its ascendancy in the region. Many Western commentators and policy makers (including officials in the State Department) have implored states to actively engage the Muslim Brotherhood with the view that the Brotherhood is a conglomerate of “moderate Islamists”.
Substantive Islamic reform cannot take place under such circumstances. Such discussions will be relegated to the quiet corners of social clubs and not through the khatib at Juma’ prayers. Reform in Islam is often viewed (wrongly) by non-Muslim (and Muslim) commentators as an impossible exercise, as the Qur’an, Sunnah and entire body of Islamic jurisprudence is immutable. As long as the current Islamist revival which rejects critical evaluation, rejects itjihad, rejects new principles of Islamic jurisprudence, and is allowed to murder those who not only call for such reforms, but provide a forum for these discussions exists in the region and in Muslim countries, liberalisation and reformist movements will never have the impetus to progress.
The current Islamist/Brotherhood revival is not a phenomenon limited to Dar al Islam, but also in the Dar al Harb. The Brotherhood operates, in some capacity or another, with impunity in almost every non-Muslim country where Muslims reside. Is there any wonder why many Muslims are silent, particularly in the West? The fear of social and community exclusion, and of course physical harm is a contributing factor in collective Muslim silence or the failure to do more than retort “Islam is a religion of peace” in the face of terrorism. The elimination and/or marginalisation of such movements from the West provide the opportunity to test this theory.
Western support/dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated organisations, whether in government or opposition, or whether in operation through Muslim advocacy groups or Islamic centre’s in the West not only harms Western interests, but also contributes to the constraints on Muslims who wish to openly speak on the reform of Islam, or who wish to leave Islam altogether. Governments must take a multi-faceted approach in confronting Islamist movements (as well as “moderate Islamist movements”) and their supporters through foreign policy and domestic legislation.
At the same time, truly moderate Muslims cannot heed the advice of Brother Ahmed that reform can only occur through gradualism. While gradualism has played an integral role throughout the development and regression of Islamic jurisprudence, it is not a luxury that moderate Muslims can afford to rest on. As each passing day which is accompanied by countless examples of Islamic intolerance, the West’s tolerance wanes correspondingly. Moderate Muslims must begin to immediately distinguish themselves from Islamists not through words or assurances to non-Muslims, but through internal academic discourse which comprehensively identifies the failings of Islam, and attempts to reconcile these failings with radical re-evaluation and re-interpretation of the various sources of Islam. This is possible because the shari’ah is partially capable of adaptation and modernisation. A significant portion of shari’ah is not based in divine guidance but on rules of law developed by fuqaha over centuries which have stifled any chances of Islamic liberalisation. Nonetheless, the risks of “rushing” reform however are also substantial, as the examples of Kassim Ahmed, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, and countless others demonstrate. Effective reform which is able to reach the masses must still maintain, and sustain to a degree the orthodoxy of Islam, or such movements will be reviled and eliminated (eg the Qur’anic movement).
Even comprehensive reform/liberalisation, when viewed through a Western perspective may be of limited probative value, because many aspects of a “watered down” version of Islam may not sit well with contemporary Western notions of human rights and justice. (This is something that over-ambitious reformers and non-Muslim commentators must grasp). This is because, while the body of shari’ah contains man-made jurisprudential elements, the ability to interpret the Qur’an is limited by the fact that it is considered a direct divine revelation, as opposed to divine revelation explained by human beings. The introduction of liberal hermeneutics cannot necessarily invalidate the concept of nansakh (abrogation) and blunt the force of seemingly clear commandments is difficult when the Qur’an is viewed as the direct word of Allah (eg the Qur’an provides clear direction on the treatment of non-Muslims in a Muslim state).Further , the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (which is technically not divine revelation, but is often treated as if it were) is a primary source of Islamic law which is often used (and misused) to “clarify” the Qur’an.
In summary, the challenges facing moderate Muslim reformers are formidable and constrained by the need for immediate reform (and at the same time gradualism in order to establish credibility at a grass roots level), and the fact that even comprehensive reform may not reconcile all of the key and important differences between Islamic and Western civilisations.
Nevertheless, such work must be undertaken within Islam and externally in order to marginalise and relegate Islamism and render it as innocuous as possible. Before any liberalisation can occur in Islam, there must be established forums to discuss these issues and to clearly and comprehensively identify problems facing Islam which impact the West and the development of solutions. Such a forum/discourse must also provide those Muslims who wish to leave Islam with safe passage and effective mechanisms to facilitate their decision.
The death of Ahmed, an Islamist and at the same time a reformer, is a stark reminder and an escalation of the challenges that face Muslim liberals today.
Thomas Haidon is the Chief Legal and Policy Advisor of the Free Muslim Coalition and a member of its Board of Advisors. A commentator on legal issues surrounding counter-terrorism measures and Islamic affairs, he currently serves as an advisor to the New Zealand government and has provided guidance to parliamentary committees on counter-terrorism issues. His works have been published in legal periodicals, newspapers and other media.