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A Counter-Narrative Against Extremist Interpretations of Islam

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This wonderful book is an analysis of the Hizmet movement’s refutations of the extremists’ theological and ideological underpinnings which clearly shows that the mainstream moderate narrative of Islam, which the movement adheres to, is completely antithetical to the extremist Islamist doctrines.

A Hizmet Approach to Rooting out Violent Extremism
Authors: Ozcan Keles and Ismail Mesut Sezgin
Publisher: Centre for Hizmet Studies, London
Year: 2015


Reviewed by Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi

Violent extremism in the name of Islam cannot be rooted out until an effective, coherent, comprehensive and well-reasoned counter-narrative is evolved. For that, all the theological, religious, political, historical, instrumental and socio-psychological underpinnings of global jihadism have to be counter-argued and dismantled. A Hizmet Approach to Rooting out Violent Extremism by Ozcan Keles and Ismail Mesut Sezgin produces a case study in this context. It provides a critical and detailed analysis of Hizmet, an Islamic movement launched by the Turkish scholar Fethullah Gulen, and its refutations of the ideological, theological and text-based rhetoric of the violent extremism in the name of Islam, or ‘radical jihadism’. It discusses the contribution of Hizmet’s founder-ideologue in inspiring the movement’s multi-faceted anti-extremism initiatives.

True Muslim cannot be a terrorist
The authors assert that the Hizmet’s arguments against violent extremism mainly rely on a “robust” understanding of the spirit and teachings of Islam’s primary sources, the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Gulen stresses that a true Muslim cannot be a terrorist, and a terrorist cannot be a true Muslim, because the two are fundamentally and diametrically opposed to each other, not just according to the ‘letter of Islam’ but also according to the ‘heart, soul and spirit of Islam’.

Confront the totalitarian ideology
The Hizmet movement’s ideological underpinnings against violent extremism can be summed up in the following five points, as put forward by Gulen:
“Muslims must confront the totalitarian ideology because every terrorist act in the name of Islam profoundly affects all Muslims, alienating them from fellow citizens and deepening the misperceptions about their faith’s ethos”.
“When terrorists claim the Muslim mantle, then they bear this identity, if only nominally, and members of the faith must do whatever possible to prevent this cancer from metastasizing in our communities”.
“Muslims must denounce violence and not fall prey to victimhood”.
“Having suffered oppression is no excuse for causing it or for failing to condemn terrorism.”
“That the terrorists are committing grave sins in the name of Islam is not merely an individual opinion; it is the inevitable conclusion of an honest reading of primary sources: the Quran and the accounts of the life of Prophet Muhammad.”
The authors tell us that in order to promulgate his narrative of peace and counter-extremism, Gülen sought help from the works of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1877″“1960), an influential moderate Turkish Islamic scholar. For instance, in his interpretation of the famous Qur’anic verse that forbids unjust killing, equating it with ‘the killing of all humankind’ (Al-Ma’idah 5:32), Nursi is reported to have said: “Every form of life manifests a unique combination of God’s names and attributes which we as humans were created to see and reflect upon in our spiritual journey of ‘travelling’ from the created to the Creator and arriving at a higher form of understanding and awareness of ourselves and God ““ that is the purpose of creation. Therefore, in addition to its inherent value, every form of life, be it human or not, is a unique species in and of itself”.

Refutation of the jihadist ideology
Based on his understanding of the primary Islamic scriptures and scriptural reasoning, Gulen’s writings and statements have evolved a complete and coherent refutation of the jihadist ideology point by point, clause by clause. For instance, Gulen has For instance, Gulen has critiqued the medieval jurisprudential terms Dar al-Kufr (‘abode of disbelief’) and Dar al-Islam (‘abode of belief’) which have been instrumentalised to present a wrong, dichotomous worldview of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. He strongly exhorts Hizmet volunteers to replace all such exclusivist terms with the spiritual Islamic concept of Dar al-Hizmah (‘abode of service’), viewing the whole world as one family of God (Ayal al-Allah), hence enjoining them to serve and help all fellow human beings.
Letter and spirit of Islam
The authors are of the view that Gülen has developed a ‘positivist’ counter-narrative against extremist, xenophobic, intolerant, radical and violent interpretations of Islam. Some inspiring quotes of Gulen that the book has reproduced deserve our special attention: “A person who believes in the letter and spirit of Islam is called a Mu’min (literally, ‘believer’), which stems from the Arabic roots Amn and Amanah, meaning trust, trustworthiness, peace and security”“ attributes that should be upheld by a true believer”.
“A believer must always follow the concept of Sirat al-Mustaqeem [The Straight Path], avoiding harmful extremity at every level of life including thought, feeling and even in the practice of religion.”
The book also reproduces many of Gulen’s talks delivered on the subject of “Islam and violent extremism”. In one of his talks, Gulen is reported to have referred to a hadith narrated by Ibn ‘Abbas, which states that faith leaves the body of a believer when he or she commits a grave sin. Accordingly, then, since suicide bombers die in the state of committing their murderous acts, they die not only while committing a great sin but also outside the fold of the religion they falsely claim to be serving.
A critical analysis of the Hizmet movement’s refutations of the extremists’ theological and ideological underpinnings clearly shows that the mainstream moderate narrative of Islam, which the movement adheres to, is completely antithetical to the extremist Islamist doctrines.
(Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi can be reached at [email protected])