Event ReportsPublished on Oct 23, 2017
Extremist groups making use of vacuum in true interpretation of Islam

Anarchy reigns in the Muslim world about who speaks for Islam and what Islam means in the 21st century, according to Dr. Radwan Masmoudi, the President of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy, a non-profit think tank based in Tunisia.

Dr. Masmoudi delivered a talk on “Islam and Democracy: Deradicalisation and Counter-Radicalisation” at Observer Research Foundation on September 5. The ideas behind the talk included Islam in the modern world, the compatibility of Islam with democracy, and how Islam and democracy can be used to fight extremist and terrorist ideology. The session was chaired by Mihir Swarup Sharma, Senior Fellow and Head, Economy Programme, ORF.

Dr. Masmoudi began the talk with a general overview of issues involving religion today, by stating that religion has become a more important factor in politics and society, as the world becomes increasingly globalised. In some cases, religion is used in an exclusivist manner, to form an “us vs. them” narrative, thus creating divisions between different groups in society.

Dr. Masmoudi moved on to talk specifically about the Muslim world, and touched upon the existence of a vacuum in the region regarding the true interpretation of Islam. Extremist groups have also been involved in taking advantage of these divisions and the vacuum, thus paving the way for more anarchy in the Muslim world. Some of these extremist groups have also been funded by states or regimes, such as the Taliban.

According to Dr. Masmoudi, the concept of ijtihad is essential to defeating such extremism. Ijtihad refers to the re-interpretation of the Islamic texts, he said, and is used by Muslim scholars to analyse, rationalise, prioritise and understand the meanings of the texts. It allows scholars to come up with new answers and solutions to changing situations in the world. While it is not a new concept, it has not been in use over the past few centuries in the Muslim world. Dr Masmoudi stressed the urgent need for ijtihad today, to answer questions such as what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century, especially for younger Muslims currently facing dilemmas regarding their religion.

Dr. Masmoudi continued to shed light on ijtihad by explaining its intellectual and practical levels. The intellectual level applies to Islamic scholars, thought leaders and experts to provide solutions to such dilemmas. The practical level, on the other hand, refers to the implementation of these ideas to common people. At the end of the day, the ideas have to apply to everyday life, making ijtihad an interactive process with society.

Dr. Masmoudi also pointed out the importance of secularism and finding peace between the religious and the political spheres in society. He pointed out that not only is the French model of secularism (laïcité) adopted in Tunisia not truly secular as it views religion as an enemy, but there is also a vacuum for religious teaching in Tunisia. He reiterated this importance of finding a compromise between religion and this form of secularism, as well as ensuring that political institutions do not control religious institutions and vice-versa.

In order to do so, Dr. Masmoudi claimed, the political sphere has to be inclusive for both religious and non-religious people. The religious sphere must be inclusive as well, and be a marketplace of ideas, allowing people to express their views about religion, provided that there is no violence involved. According to him, there are various interpretations of Islam and secularism so both spheres must allow for such dialogue to emerge.

Dr. Masmoudi further emphasised the necessity of democratic institutions and principles, in order to provide the space for this dialogue to take place. According to him, the Muslim world is in a Catch-22. Ijtihad is urgently needed, but cannot function in the absence of democracy, freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The dictatorial nature of regimes in the Muslim world today thus represent a major problem.

Dr. Masmoudi restated the need for enshrining an environment of dialogue and freedom, instilling the values of democracy and showing its compatibility with Islam. The goal, he said, is to provide a tolerant, compassionate, modern and democratic interpretation of Islam, which can only thrive in a democracy, and is thus, the only way to defeat extremism.

Dr. Masmoudi’s remarks were followed by a stimulating question and answer session, which covered several topics such as liberal democracy, secular institutions in the Arab world and countering extremism through pop culture. During the discussion, Dr. Masmoudi highlighted oppressive regimes as a major reason for backwardness and prevalence of violent extremism in the Muslim world. Using the Arab Spring as an example, he stated that the transition of these dictatorships to democracies is complicated and is a long process that will take time.

This report is prepared by Raghav Bikhchandani, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi

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