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Fight against terrorism in Africa: a mission impossible for Ulemas? 0

Nouakchott (Mauritania) – “The role of Ulemas, in clarifying religious precepts is important, but almost impossible to fulfill, in states which marginalize religious scholars”, assures Cheikh ould Zeïne ould Limam, member of the High Council of Islam and Secretary General of the Forum for Islamic Thought and intercultural dialogue in Mauritania, in an interview with the Mauritanian weekly newspaper, Le Calame, media partner of Afronline.

How do you feel about each new act of violence attributed to Islam?

It’s frustrating to see our holy religion attacked and distorted by both its supporters and its enemies. Islam is being held hostage. Every time innocents are killed in the name of Islam; whenever individuals are deprived of their freedom… Yes, Islam is being held hostage: do we not see its values trampled and transformed for mere mercantile purposes? I am appalled.

Islamist terrorists seem to split humanity in three airtight categories: disbelievers, hypocrites and “real” Muslims. Can this rather simplistic reading of the Qur’an be justification enough to blow oneself in the midst of an unsuspecting crowd?

This classification has to do with the Hereafter; and is not meant for our present earthly life. We are bound by an altogether different set of three relationships: the Muslims, the Mu’âhiduns, who share with the Muslims a peace treaty and, finally, the enemies; essentially all those who fight the Muslims. I would like, here, to clarify the position of religion with respect to each of these three categories. Muslims are bound by the same charter: to believe in the oneness of God and that Muhammad is His messenger; this is the Muslim Profession of faith or Shahadah. The Prophet tells us: “I received the divine order to fight the people until they testify that there is no god but God and that Mohammad is His messenger; perform prayers (salat) and pay the purifying tax (zakat). If they agree, they protect their families and their property against me.”

There can therefore be no reason to attack someone so long as he believes in it and proclaims it, regardless of one’s attitudes and positions on all matters of debate. This is universally recognized by Islamic theologians, from the very first generation of the Companions of Prophet Muhammad. As for hypocrites (munafiqun) who call themselves Muslims while they are actually unbelievers, the Prophet also defined the way to behave towards them: he treated them like other Muslims. And when some of them explicitly announced their alliance with the enemies of Islam, he said to his companions who asked permission to fight: “No. I do not want of a history where Muhammad killed his men”. Thus hypocrites lived in cohabitation with Muslims, as true Muslims, without anyone daring to touch their lives or their property.

The second category, the Mu’âhiduns represent those people who enjoy a pact of peace and non-aggression with Muslims. Those whom God has referred to in verse 8 of Surah Al Mumtahana: “God does not forbid you from being kind and equitable with those who do not attack you because of your religion or do not expel you from your homes. God loves those who are fair”. In a hadith – the Prophet’s saying – authenticated by Al-Bukhari, it is said: “Whoever kills a person who has a truce with the Muslims will never smell the fragrance of Paradise. Yet, its fragrance is perceived at a distance equal to 40 years of uninterrupted walk”. This category, nowadays, include all non-Muslims who come into Islamic countries with official visas. The third category includes all the enemies who fight Muslims. If they are explicitly involved in the fighting, they may have to pay the price. But, contrary to what some of its enemies want to suggest, Islam did not come about to kill people or exterminate non-Muslims.

Such remarks only seek to tarnish the image of our religion; one that preaches tolerance and preserves human lives. Abu Bakr, the first caliph to lead the Muslims after the death of Prophet Muhammad, devoted his farewell message to the Muslim army commander headed for the holy war, and left him with ten instructions to be respected: never kill a woman; never kill a child; never kill an old man; never kill a man of worship; never cut a fruit tree; nor vandalize anything; do not kill a goat or a camel, except for food if absolutely necessary; never burn a palm tree; never drown anything; never plunder; never turn your back on the enemy. Hence, being a non-Muslim does not expose oneself, in and of itself, to being killed or spared by Muslims in their legitimate battle. That is the position of Islam.

The purpose of jihad is not to exterminate the non-believers but rather to repel the attackers. Moreover, if the mere fact of being a non-Muslim was reason enough to be assaulted by a Muslim, then clergymen would be the first to be attacked. This is an unfortunate misinterpretation of jihad.

Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), ISIS, have all settled in the Sahel, with their cohorts of deaths and misfortunes. Why? And what can the Ulemas do to counter their influence?

Actually, the motives of violent movements that give themselves Islamic names are not entirely religious. Most of these armed movements have rather political objectives. Boko Haram, for example, began as a protest movement of Nigerian Muslims who considered themselves a majority ruled by a Christian minority. The fighting methods they adopted resemble those used by the rebellion of Christians in Uganda for instance. Frustration among parts of the population was behind the violence. It is true that the confrontation with the West, the main support behind regimes in place, has led these movements to confine in a diametrically opposed paradigm now. They then adopted the religious slogan of jihad, even if the facts on the ground have proven that they do not care about the precepts of Islam.

This situation puts Muslim scholars in a difficult position. On the one hand, they cannot tolerate this violence advocated in the name of Islam. On the other, they can only acknowledge the legitimate claims of the oppressed who yearn for justice and fairness. That said, the system of modern states has marginalized the role of Ulemas, in terms of leadership, guidance and dissemination of the values of peace and tolerance. Most states of our continent are thus founded on secularism. That is why Muslims from Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria, for example, do not feel administered by a state consistent with their faith. Contradiction: the role of Ulemas, in clarifying religious precepts is important, but almost impossible to fulfill, in states which marginalize religious scholars.

Can our mahadras (traditional Islamic schools) contribute to eradicate this evil of the century in our country?

Clearly, people no longer see one single Islam, but many. For instance, we can perceive a political Islam, and an ideological one, now a widespread classification in intellectual and media circles. But there is in fact only one Islam, and while we reject this distinction… we can only acknowledge its existence. Certainly, we can attribute to ideological Islam, the origin of Islamist movements that have produced extremist organizations that advocate violence. This Islam is not condoned by the majority of Muslims. Posing as scholars, those who adhere to this ideology remained, always in small groups, sometimes strong and influential, sometimes weak and powerless. As for official Islam, it is embodied in Egypt by Al Azhar and in Mauritania by the mahadras. It is recognized by its three fundamental precepts: the Ash’arit paradigm, the Maliki rite, and the way of Junayd Al Salik.

According to this school, it is forbidden to index a Muslim of disbelief and obedience to the governing authority is a matter of religious duty. No rebellion or dissidence is tolerated under any pretext whatsoever. That form of moderate Islam is the one that has always prevailed in Mauritania. We must acknowledge that this official Islam suffers from an efficiency crisis that poses a threat, in the near future. This deficiency could – inevitably, if it is not addressed quickly – cause a rupture in the pact organizing our society, opening the doors to chaos. In an ever-changing world, the Ministries in charge of religious affairs cannot continue to work following approaches and theories of the sixties.

Plagued by the terrorist attacks for some time, our country has, in recent years, been spared their violence. Is this due to the traditional tolerance of our Islam; the effectiveness of the measures that our country have deployed; or, again, in support of Western countries, such as France and the USA?

Islam, as we have always known and practiced it, is a religion of tolerance. Our country has known throughout its history, no organized violence or terrorism. This is obviously a key factor making it more difficult for potential jihadists to recruit fighters among our youth. Secondly, yes, our country’s approach is both good and efficient. It combines two fundamental aspects. The intellectual aspect and the security aspect, which helped initiate a scientific debate between clerics and young prisoners. This dialogue yielded tangible results that have helped eliminate all the false pretenses underlying the terrorist movements’ attempts to enroll fighters in our country. Meanwhile, our armed forces have shown great professionalism and steadfastness in their military operations to eliminate this threat. 

Is it poverty or the injustice of globalization which form the breeding ground for Islamist violence?

As I have noted, the main reason for many of these violent movements is not necessarily religious. They are more often motivated by a sense of marginalization, poverty or injustice. But this does not mean that these are the only causes of the phenomenon. Extremism is in itself a known human phenomenon, and often a result of satanic provocation. One can point to extremism even in wealthy environments. The attacks of September 11, 2001 confirm this fact: none of those involved were poor. Could it be that democracy is the only force, as some think, capable of eradicating this scourge? Personally, while I do not believe that the relationship between despotism and violence, is well established, I recognize the value of democracy as a useful tool when it comes to power and governance…

By Ahmed Ould Cheikh – Le Calame (Mauritania) and VITA/Afronline (Italy).

Translated by Manel Fall

This interview was published within the framework of an editorial project co-financed by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MAECI) that associates 25 African independent media.

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