THE BLOG

Religious Middle Way Is the Antidote to Extremism

03/06/2015 12:14 BST | Updated 01/06/2016 10:59 BST

In today's 24/7 social media and headline-driven world, the average Muslim wakes up each day either surrounded by a depressing narrative on the Islamic faith or a depressing narrative about its followers. Criminality or terrorism, or disaster, Muslims today appear to have a monopoly of the world's woes.

In response, it is the instinctive habit of some Muslims to point fingers at others for their misery, offering frustrating chatter but doing little; this is one way of abdicating responsibility. Others, the majority of Muslims, are struggling to cope with the challenges; some are probably expecting the storm to pass by.

The unfortunate fact in much of the Muslim world today is that criminal incompetence and moral bankruptcy has, for decades, become the hall mark of political leadership. Terrorism that has suddenly appeared in the beginning of 21st century from amongst some Muslims has much to do with the bad governance of weak states in combination with imposed wars.

Muslim communities living as minorities elsewhere are caught in the middle; overall they are not doing better either.

Some cynics would gleefully argue that this state of affairs is down to the faith itself. This may be partially true, as faith belongs to the heart and has more emphasis on spirituality and 'feelings', whereas the physical world is empirical and requires focus from our conscious mind and thoughts.

But we should not forget that head and heart are intricately linked and this was not the case with Muslims in their better period.

The Muslim community now faces complex challenges and, in my opinion, they are more internal than external. There are excellent examples in many places, but overall the community must look around their mosques and institutions to check if they are welcoming and inclusive enough; if their governance system is fit for purpose; if their attitude and approaches towards their youth and women are inadvertently alienating them. They must also ask themselves if much of their disjointed activities are not just legacy tasks.

This introspection is vital for the still evolving community to know why some of their own youth are disenchanted with the community leadership; why some are losing their bond with their religious roots; why a small section are being indoctrinated with extreme ideas from sources unknown to them; and a group, although tiny, is ending up committing terrorism in faraway lands and putting all in the dock as a result.

It is widely acknowledged that extremism and terrorism germinate and flourish in the crevices of our society, in the gaps that we generally ignore, and are exacerbated by the extremists' creative use of digital media.

There has been extremism for as long as humans have been on this planet. The young are particularly vulnerable, especially where idealism crosses over into action. Lacking the wisdom that comes with deeper and contextual knowledge and life's experience, they are impressionable and vulnerable to being groomed by older, more cynical minds.

Extremism has also existed within all religions, often under the cover of dogma or righteousness. In Islam both the Qur'an and the Prophet warned against the lure of the extreme. Islam also argues against excessiveness, as this can lead to rigidity, bigotry and extremism.

Extremism is also exacerbated by ignorance, personal weaknesses, one's upbringing and social pressures, unsympathetic educational and cultural environments, and a lack of understanding of the moral principles and the wisdom underlying religious teachings. External factors such as prejudice, discrimination, undignified or inhuman treatment or oppression also contribute to this potentially potent mix of trouble.

Contextually relevant knowledge is the antidote to extremism. Such teachings, if imparted with empathy and relevance for our time, increases belief in human goodness, patience and wisdom, and a belief in God's mercy. Knowledgeable believers are often happy and confident members of society.

Religious teachings tell adherents to stay in the Middle Way; this keeps them away from extremism on either side; for them faith has intricate links with their social attitudes, too, and with the political and economic centre-ground. The majority of electorates in countries such as ours, and other developed and stable democracies, detest extreme political left or right. In the economy too, people feel safe in the middle way between over-regulated and unregulated industries.

The middle way is the best approach in our individual and collective life, especially in Britain where practicing one's faith is not only socially acceptable but also enshrined in law.

If a serious intellectual, social and political leadership is to arise among faith groups, Muslims in particular, then it will need to remain true to these "middle way" teachings and action.

Human beings are generally pragmatic: we can and have learned to live with difference many, many times ... and in this, like other faith communities, Muslims are no exception.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, author and parenting consultant. He is former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.