BY ANTONINO OCCHIUTO
The Struggle Over Scripture report by Milo Comerford and Rachel Bryson from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, in partnership with the Euro-Gulf Information Centre (EGIC) and the Center for American Studies (Rome), provides an empirical analysis of the Quran in an attempt, in the words of the authors, ‘to create a rift between extremism and mainstream Islam.’
In his opening remarks, Mr Paolo Messa stressed the importance of the topic and hoped a global solution to face the problem was found. Mr Messa is active in raising the awareness on extremism. For his part, Dr Mitchell Belfer (EGIC President),spoke on the enduring EGIC mission to bridge gaps between the peoples of Europe and the Arab Gulf. This implies providing voices and spaces for experts who focus their work on de-radicalisation — to build mutual understanding and international cooperation.
Comerford’s commenced the discussion by outlining how Muslims are the first victims of jihadi violence and how the report aims to challenge divisive political instincts spreading across Europe and resulting, dangerously, in the rise of xenophobia and anti-Muslim propaganda. As such, the report analyses Islam’s holy scriptures in their entirety, and in their context, and provides an intimidating amount of empirical evidence that demonstrates that Islam is a religion of peace and coexistence. According to Comerford, the report clearly shows how extremists carefully pick and over-reference some specific verses of the scripture without providing adequate context. Both Comerford and Bryson suggest the need to involve universities, Imams and religious scholars to contextualise religious scripture while giving traction to anti-extremist narratives. Comerford calls for state support for mainstream religious leaders who openly challenge Islamist and jihadi interpretations of the Holy texts. Individuals, such as Mauritania-based Imam Abdullah bin Bayyah, must be involved in public forums and strongly supported to challenge the web content of religious messaging, which has been largely monopolised by extremist discourses. As such, the report encourages initiatives, such as the one currently undertaken by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, involving the targeting of extremist preaching and the promotion of a de-radicalised state religion in order to permeate all sectors of society.
Bryson continued by presenting evidence of the worryingly similar use of the Holy scripture by Islamist groups and jihadi organisation, while outlining their common distance from the language and the purpose of mainstream Islamic scholarship. Both Islamist and jihadi groups manipulate religious content by over-representing themes and concepts which remain marginal in mainstream Islam. Bryson points to the fact that religious misinterpretation, continuously undertaken by Islamist preachers and jihadi recruiters, is shaped by the deliberate reference to prominent historical and international personalities with little or no religious authority. Various US Presidents, alongside Al-Qaeda co-founder, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and Sayyid Qutb, of the Muslim Brotherhood are among the most referenced personalities by extremists. This leads to a careful consideration of the staggering similarity between the methodological approaches of Islamist political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadi groups. Despite the difference of objectives between jihadi terrorism and political Islam, the report evidenced how some 77% of people who committed jihadi violence had Islamist links. This is increasingly problematic considering how some governments — currently Turkey and Qatar — are explicitly forging deep ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and supporting political Islam for foreign policy purposes. Government support for Islamist interpretations of the scriptures entails the risk of creating a new standard that could replace mainstream scholarly interpretations and, as a consequence, enhance religious extremism worldwide.
Comerford and Bryson reinforced the need to oppose non-violent extremism as an additional counter-terrorism strategy. This is strongly needed as only a common understanding of extremism can ensure the level of global cooperation needed to avoid the transformation of Daesh into Daesh 2.0 and the proliferation of jihadi groups into the future.
The Euro-Gulf Information Centre, through its analyses, conferences and cultural events is constantly working to build a network of experts in all relevant fields with the ultimate goal of contributing guidance to policymakers for effective cross-regional and international cooperation against jihadi terrorism. Past events such as From Crisis To ISIS and The Saudi-Western Security Cooperation in Combating Terrorism constitute some relevant examples of events that aim to demonstrate the importance of network building and exchange of best practices to combat the challenges affecting Europe and the Arab Gulf states alike.