For those who take traditional Islamic learning seriously, the very notion of reading the work of Islamic scholar through a critical lens, especially one who is recognised the world over for his scholarship, can present itself as a daunting task. We have embedded in our cultural and religious practices important notions of the Qur’anic injunction, that we should turn to those who know. As I read this book by Shaykh ‘Abd Allah bin Bayyah, I was forced to remind myself that I have spent almost every single day of my life since I first studied international law in 2002, to studying terrorism, counter-terrorism and their impact – this is the subject I chose to specialise in and dedicate my understanding to.
Over the years, there have been many occasions where I have found myself furiously nodding in agreement with; or shaking my head in concern over statements made by Islamic scholars on the subject of terrorism. So often, the debates are presented through a lens that is constituted by a western framing that exists outside of a sound epistemology, leading to errors in analysis, and thus in the advice that needs to be given.
I had not heard of Shaykh bin Bayyah’s book until very recently. It was originally delivered as a speech in Jeddah in 2007 as part of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), but more recently was translated by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. Having finished the book, my overall assessment is that it was written/delivered in a moment that is not of this time, and has not had the opportunity to avail itself of the numerous critical studies into terrorism and political violence that have become prominent since. Further, the fact that it was written prior to any inkling of an Arab Spring taking place, gives the book an increased feeling of being outside of its time, something that almost writes of a world that no longer exists. I do feel that whether Shaykh bin Bayyah himself, or if Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, had chosen to write an updated preface to the book, it would have perhaps taken on a different meaning.
Political violence or terrorism?
The Shaykh begins his book with a narrative around the history of ‘terrorism’ (a problematic term itself) that is extremely brief – although he does acknowledge that it is difficult to define. He moves very quickly over large historical periods, largely picking up the actions of non-state actors. Most of the examples that he provides are covered by both Matthew Carr in ‘The Infernal Machine: An Alternative History of Terrorism’ and by Marc Sageman in ‘Turning to Political Violence’ – who both take the view that the violence of the state, as a player in not only committing terrorism, but also producing ‘terrorism’ through programmes of repression is something Shaykh bin Bayyah nods his head to without great detail.
The Shaykh draws his main point of contention out quickly by the end of his introduction, which is that Islam itself is being conflated with terrorism in the post-9/11 environment, and he rightly feels that there is a duty to correct his message. He is not unaware though of the politics of this construction, and provides a very useful critique of the framing of the West:
“As a result, individuals, agencies and governments in the Muslim world risked being included in this category. The determining factor – the litmus test – was one’s allegiance to the West. One was either “with us,” meaning with the West, or “against us,” meaning with the terrorists.
Clearly, this is not a helpful way to view the world or to address the core problems that lie at the root of terrorism.” [p.4]
Shaykh bin Bayyah moves into trying to understand the genesis of violence in his first main chapter. He rightly recognises that one cannot limit oneself to assumptions when trying to determine root causes, otherwise you will come to false conclusions. As empiricism seems to be important to the Shaykh, he relies on a University of Montreal study into the causes of terrorism that posit five distinct reasons behind terrorism:
• Personal motives – psychological
• Religion – not specific to any faith
• Political relationships – lack of democracy and terrorism
• Poverty – not necessarily a direct cause
• Culture – not given particular attention [pp.6-7]
It is immediately after this, that Shaykh bin Bayyah makes perhaps one of the most revealing statements in the whole book. He claims that to this list he would add injustice as a cause of the emergence of violence [p.7]. Taking UoM’s factors first, I think it is problematic to cage within any debate around terrorism to specific factors, even if they are broad, because of the highly contextualised ways in which state and non-state violence occurs. Effectively, the Shaykh is pointing to environmental factors as being causative, but has not referenced the complexity of studies beyond this specific study.
Due to his own specific learning and leaning, Shaykh Bin Bayyah sets out that he wants to take on the issue that is worthy of specific focus, which is the cultural, stating that it can also be understood as ideological. He attempts to show how any ideology can produce ‘terroristic’ violence in attempts to seek a utopia, and how often that journey has resulted in acts of revolution and violence. Poignantly, the Shaykh highlights the dialectic with the state:
“While at any given time, the balance may tip in favour of one ideology over another, reactions to oppression or coercion often result in popular support for the oppressed, and a steady strengthening of their ideology.” [p.7]
It is at this point that Shaykh bin Bayyah makes a deeper philosophical/religious claim: that what is desired from the people, is stablitlity and security, rather than any move towards a just Utopia. This is the question that sits at the very centre of the rest of the book. It is also where the Shaykh also reveals his hand in terms of his particular slant towards movements that emerged in the struggles against colonisation and then communism. Although Shaykh bin Bayyah does not specifically name any specific movement, his descriptions leave very little doubt as to who is talking about for the majority who know something of the history of this period. My concern, is that after all the careful prefacing remarks about the complexity of why violence emerges, these movements are reduced to lens of ideology:
“Thus, the ideology of the Khawarij resurfaced, clothes in the garb of reviving Islam, employing “jihad” as a rallying cry.” [p.8]
To return the Shaykh back to his own remarks however, something is betrayed in the way that he forms this entire section. For while he specifically states that he wants to focus on the ideological aspects, he reduces an entire history of their formation not only in relation to their own thinking, but the thinking of all those around those movements at various points. Thus, no mention is made of those ‘ideological’ groups that used religion to collaborate with colonial authorities, resulting in critiques of certain readings of Islam, rather, the ideology itself is a producer of violence by its very existence. One can only think that there is something ironic in the Shaykh’s conclusion to this aspect of ideology when he writes:
“In short, generalizing about the causes of terrorism and ignoring many salient facts prevents us from reaching a sound decision on how to handle this phenomenon. We must therefore consider that there is a culture that perpetuates such abhorrent views, and one that is characterized by their limited insight, close-mindedness, fanaticism, literalism, ignorance of the aims and objectives of jurisprudence (fiqh-al-maqasid), and an inability to assess benefit and harm. All of this results in the extremism that lies at the heart of terrorism.” [p.9]
These two pages, 8-9, really establish for the reader, how Shaykh bin Bayyah, while attempting to present a more complicated view towards how political violence occurs, chooses instead to narrow his focus in a way that is unhelpful.
Good governance as a panacea
I personally benefitted a great deal from the second half of chapter 1, where Shaykh bin Bayyah presents a view of justice and good consultative governance as being an important tool in finding a panacea to political violence. The Shaykh provides an excellent overview of the theological arguments that centre ideas of justice and the way that a just governance can help quell sedition. He quotes the fifth rightly-guided Caliph ‘Umar bin ‘Abd al-Aziz as writing about the khawarij: “Extinguish their sedition with justice.” [p.10]
Good governance is not presented by the Shaykh as being specifically limited to democracy, rather he recognises that democracy itself is imperfect, but that the idea of a consultative government is deeply rooted within ideas of justice within Islam – justice is achieved through mutual consultation. Establishing his proofs, he writes of the role of the ‘Arif, the representative who is known to the people, who can make representations on their behalf. That Shaykh is careful to mention that within an Islamic/Eastern context, this may look very different to democracy, but that the idea of consultation (shura) was central to good governance [p.11].
The significance of his establishing this idea of a consultation process becomes crucial in setting up Chapter 2, which in my mind is perhaps the weakest of the chapters. Much of what the Shaykh describes has been dealt with more explicitly by Muhammad Haniff Hassan in his ‘Civil Disobedience in Islamic Law’ especially in relation to tension that exists between the leader of a state and the people. In tracing the roots of ‘violence and terrorism in Islamic law’, there is much discussion around ideas such as hirabah (brigandage), baghi (insurrection) and al-ifsad fi al-ard (spreading corruption in the land). The Shaykh uses these terms in order to analogically reason that there already exists an Islamic jurisprudence that deals with the typologies of contemporary terrorism, but then goes further by suggesting that the word that should be used to describe ‘terrorist’ phenomena within an Islamic framing, should be takhrib or subversion – in his mind – this covers the complexity of its manifestations [p.18].
Before we can assess the impact of this policy, we must understand how Shaykh bin Bayyah views the world. He takes a very traditional approach to rulership. Thus, anyone who attains power, who can maintain public security and also who does not openly encourage acts of disbelief, should not be fought. The Shaykh puts forward a compelling case for this citing Ibn Qudamah, Qadi ‘Iyad and many others – stating that if a group seek to be involved in an insurrection, then not only should they be quelled, but that they should be killed. I should make it clear here that a traditional look does not make it inapplicable, rather it should should be understood within the context of a modernity that the tradition did not conceive.
What then of the contemporary world we live in? Suppose we take it for granted, that despite the modern Gulf states having been born in khuruj or splitting from the central Muslim polity, and that they have de facto control according to the Shaykh’s two-part test above, then what implications does this have for Muslims living under their rulership – in an environment of modernity that was never conceived in classical jurisprudence. Rightly, Shaykh bin Bayyah refers to rulership rather than states, but this does mask the issue at hand, which is the attempt to somehow normalise the system of governance in the Muslim world – one that is wholly inadequate to meet the needs of the very justice he earlier claims to be central to ending threats.
Chapter 3, on building just and democratic societies stands as a conundrum in this instance. The Shaykh points out that western style democracies are inimical to the history and experience of many eastern societies. Surprisingly, he believes that the legacy of colonialism allowed for some Muslim countries to “have a political apparatus established along democratic ideals”, a position that is perhaps far too salutary of the legacy of that period. For those who were not impacted directly by colonialism, he suggests that there should be some degree of understanding that western democracy is not a perfect fit. [p.23]
These positions put forward by Shaykh bin Bayyah become increasingly difficult to understand though, as what he posits as being a forward way for humanity, doesn’t seem to take into account how modernity itself has become problematic. Thus, he references that poverty, unemployment and disenfranchisement are potential factors that sit behind terrorism, but posits free market economies as being the solution to them [p.25], although to be fair to him, he does mention that these economic agreements can lead to ‘hegemony and tyranny’ [p.26]. The Shaykh’s guidance on this, is that an atmosphere of coexistence must be fostered where all monotheistic religions, using reason, can agree upon “Applying secular moral principles” [p.26]. At a time when the deployment of secularity has been harmful in various contexts, I am left wondering as to what the Shaykh really intends by this call?
With all the above in mind, I come back to the politics of takhrib or subversion that Shaykh bin Bayyah cited as the way to understand contemporary terrorism. For me this is problematic, even if the Shaykh sees it through the lens of hirabah, baghi and ifsad. Both in colonial and post-colonial contexts, the idea of subversion has been used in multiple situations in order to discipline populations from doing the very thing that Shaykh bin Bayyah has rightly been calling for, a genuine form of consultation that is legitimate to the experience of the people who live under any given system. Legislation or policy that specifically allow for anti-subversion, have nearly always resulted in repression.
If we return to the Shaykh’s acknowledgement of injustice as being one of the causal reasons for injustice, and that fostering environments of justice can help to stem any forms of terrorism, then we begin to understand that the root causes of terrorism (in line with contemporary scholarship on the subject) are environmental, rather than being ideological. Thus to deal with it at an ideological level, suggests that the individual will come to terms with the prevailing environment of injustice, and become resolved to its de facto nature.
If we take the example of the United Arab Emirates, where Shaykh bin Bayyah has a presence alongside Jeddah, then we can perhaps see a case study in how an emirate, that has long been accused of despotism, repression, oppression, racism, injustice, rabid neoliberalism and the list of accusations goes on, can create an environment where change is required. The Shaykh hints at all of this, but then spends the vast majority of the book focusing on building moderation in Islam, and a culture of tolerance.
My repeated question throughout the text comes back to me, to what extent is Shaykh bin Bayyah’s work an exercise in disciplining Islam to fit it through a narrow view of how certain types of governance are to be accepted? While it is the duty of any state to maintain its security, the Shaykh’s overwhelming emphasis on how to tackle change and promote a certain ideological understanding of Islam, negates where the emphasis of change must lie, in changing the environment itself.
Had the book contained a chapter, that was an admonishment or advice to Muslim rulers/kings/leadership, in order to explain how they are inextricably involved in the dialectic, then this book would have seemed to be far more accurate in its understanding of how to build solutions to the issues we face. In his concluding chapter, the Shaykh provides ten points that require attention, point 9 being the necessity for meaningful reform, however this is in absence of any real description of what type of reform is required, except to say that the Muslim world is in need of its own indigenous forms of reform. What that means in the context of the current state of politics in the Muslim world, is barely addressed. [p.70]
One cannot read the book without thinking of the close links that Shaykh ‘Abd Allah bin Bayyah has to the Emirati government through his appointment to the Muslim Council of Elders and more recently to their Ifta Council, but also to the close cooperation and promoting through the multi-million dollar funded centre for counter violent extremism based in Abu Dhabi, Hedayah. Even a cursory glance through the work of the Hedayah Centre establishes how its emphasis on the ideological aspects of terrorism, are entirely political. A recent report produced by Arun Kundnani and Ben Hayes ‘The Globalisation of Countering Violent Extremism Policies: Undermining Human Rights, Instrumentalising Civil Society’ places the work of such institutions and narratives in a much larger problematic framework of counter-terrorism, one that has perpetuated the disenfranchisement that Shaykh bin Bayyah seeks to reduce.
To conclude, I return to my acknowledgement that this book was written over a decade ago based on a speech, but its recent translation and dissemination give it a new life that is important for us to consider. There are many positives to take from the book, and in particular from the last chapter where the Shaykh is clearly trying to address points that are wide-ranging. In particular, I appreciate his emphasis on transparency in judicial processes and a return to a presumption of innocence, however, there remain too many structural issues in the way he has diagnosed the problem, to make this work of any specific contemporary use. Rather, there are vignettes that are important, but as the subtitle of the book claims to identify ‘tenets and treatments’, I’m afraid that it misses the mark.
My advice to Shaykh bin Bayyah, would be to revise the book with a more forensic look at the environments that fostered political violence at various historical moments, and then give guidance on how to reduce the environmental causes of terrorism that exist more explicitly. It is not good enough to simply say that the Muslim world needs reform, it has to be far more incisive a critique than that, and crucially, must speak truth to power. In that environment, the necessary work of education and teaching of younger generations about the rights and wrongs of violence in various contexts, takes on an entirely new meaning of authenticity, one that does no place all the burden on the disenfranchised.1