Contemporary Chaos and Muslim Youth:  Getting beyond Defensiveness and Confronting Our Own Demons
Posted Jan 24, 2006

Contemporary Chaos and Muslim Youth: Getting beyond Defensiveness and Confronting Our Own Demons

S. Abdallah Schleifer

Why should I , your after dinner speaker, a time for dessert – for sweetness— be the bearer of exclusively bad news – of chapters from the contemporary chaos that seemingly surrounds us.. “The Darkness that Surrounds Us” , to call upon the words of a great American poet Robert Creeley, who I imagine, never would have imagined that his own troubling personal vision would become an easily recognized metaphor to be invoked, as I invoke it,  at a gathering of Muslim social scientists. Well there are some good signs – like a nice after dinner mint that one discovers tucked just under one’s plate at the end of the meal, and I will get to them.

My assumption is that I am really not here to tell you of things you know, living as you do in the United States, things you know far better than I. Particularly since as a journalist I feel on safest ground when I report to you from personal experience, with, if you will excuse the expression, a minimum of academic footnotes. I could not, and will not even begin to address the many moments of humiliation and pain that many American Muslims have experienced in the backlash to 9/11 and the events that have followed— precisely because I have been personally spared any those experiences. So I will address experiences I have not been spared.

I have lived abroad, in what could be called the Arab-Islamic world for forty years and for me the trajectory of contemporary chaos and the crisis confronting the Muslim youth, has been a long one, long before 9/11.

More than half of those years in the Middle East were spent as a journalist, mainly as a foreign correspondent and producer-reporter for Western media. So my own sense of a deadly trajectory is conditioned by that..

In 19975-76 I covered the Lebanese civil war as NBC News producer reporter.  At that time I designed a T-shirt for myself and my crew – a white T sheet with the NBC peacock on the front, but more significantly with the words “Sahafi” – which means journalist,… written out in Arabic across the back of the T shirt – at the height of one’s shoulder blades. I designed that T shirt because I knew at that time that if either the Palestinian and Lebanese Muslim snipers or the Phalangist Lebanese Christian snipers on the other side of the barricades, were to find one of us in his sniper scope, and read “Sahafi” he would not fire.

Its true that if somebody in our embattled foreign press corps wrote a well publicized story critical of the Phalange or other members of the Lebanese right wing militia a rocket or two might be directed, from East Beirut,  at our base in West Beirut – the Hotel Commodore.

What is significant is that during that one year of some very nasty fighting – not one member of the foreign press corps killed for political reasons.  At the time, the prevailing ideologies among the Palestinian and Lebanese Muslim fighters were highly assorted and often a blend of such elements as Palestinian nationalism, Arab nationalism,  and of course, Arab socialism, Maoism and other variants of Marxism. What they shared among other things was a strong conviction that the American government was an ally of Israel. But we, as journalists, were spared. Significantly there was at that time no Islamist current among these predominantly Muslim movements.

Less than a decade later if a reporter wore that same T-shirt I had designed it would be an open invitation for the distinctly Lebanese Shiite Islamist groups to abduct him, hold him hostage and treat him badly.Two decades after that, my T shirt would be an invitation to murder – I’m not talking about journalists caught in crossfire, or gunned down at a roadblock by stressed out soldiers –strangers in a foreign land. I’m talking about being sought out for beheading, of being consciously targeted.

Let me go back even earlier in time. From 1968 to 1970 I covered the fedayeen guerrilla campaign against the Israeli occupation largely fought from the Jordanian East Bank across the river onto the West Bank. I was reporting for Jeune Afrique, the New York Times, and eventually NBC News.  Again the same assortment of seemingly secular ideologies —I say seemingly because the fedayeen I hung out with along the Jordan River or later, in southern Lebanon were not just generically Muslim – they prayed, many fasted even though exempt by virtue of combat and they could as easily quote Quran as they could Mao or Marx, or to less and less a degree, Gamal Abdul Nasr. No doubt some of their old fashioned, unguided land mines, mostly intended for Israeli Army patrols, would on occasion kill Israeli civilians but that wasn’t their objective.

I felt I was in the company of warriors, not of men who were convinced they had some sort of Higher Right ,as members of a Resistance—be it Religious or Nationalist,  to consciously target and blow away unarmed civilian men, women, and children.

One of the groups I covered was the PFLP – the jebha shabiyya , who pioneered the hijacking of civilian commercial aircracft, including an Israeli aircraft.  In every case I covered what was significant how they went out of the way not to kill the passengers… taking them off the planes at Dawson Field or in Cairo before blowing up the planes, and even giving the passengers biscuits and a lecture before releasing them. Or in Zurich shooting out the wheels of an El Al plane, so it couldn’t take off, and then surrendering to the Swiss, without harming a hair of any Israeli other civilians on board.

Forgive me, but thinking about that behavior sort of makes me, Astafra’Allah, nostalgic for the Old seemingly secular Arab Left.

The jebha shabiya,  the PFLP were led at that time by Dr. George Habesh, an Evolved Arab Nationalist Turned Marxist of Palestinian Christian background. During one of my many interviews with Habesh, he conceded my observation that his fighters, in contrast to his political cadre,  were what I as an ex-Marxist and an ex-atheist — would describe as Nominal Marxists. These nominal Marxists were men and women who overwhelmingly, were believing, and to one degree or another, practicing Muslims .

Indeed – as an ex -Marxist and as a practicing Muslim, I felt I was in the company of Muslims – which 40 years ago meant young men and women fedayeen, raised in traditional Muslim homes – where Islam was precisely the five pillars and not an ideology.

I could give you some very dramatic examples of this phenomena and I shall, Insh’Allah, in an extended essay I hope someday to publish. That I felt I was in the company of Muslims, given their manners, their traditional courtesies and even a certain elementary but noticeable spiritual bearing, has been particularly troubling to me all these years.

And that is because in the decade that followed—the eighties —when again, as I journalist , I found myself covering radical Islamist militants in Egypt and Sudan. I would frequently feel, on a psychic plane that took me beyond the sight of these militants at prayer, that I was back in the company of Marxists. Well cleary I was not.

But what was going on was an existential response on my part to men who believed and declared that Islam was not just a religion, not just the five pillars – that Islam was an ideology. Indeed these young militants were pious – but they were pious ideologues, not pietists. And their piety had an edge, like the combative way they stood for prayer, not like the ordinary pietists in the medinas of Morocco, whose spiritual grace and beauty of gesture and movement had so deeply moved me more than forty years ago when I was in flight from ideology.

Now at this moment, for those of you who are wondering, what sort of weird, gut-reaction analysis is being offered up at a gathering of Muslim social scientists, let me invoke, if not necessarily, in my defense – the name of Dr Hassan Turabi. I first interviewed him when he was serving in Jafaar Numeiry’s government as Sudan’s Attorney General.  I was so intrigued by his obvious and extensive knowledge, that after my camera crew took leave, I told Dr. Turabi of my curious existential response, as an ex-Marxist,  in the company of militants from his own movement. Turabi laughed and said that I was not alone – that even though his movement, the Islamic Front – the Jebha - had far different slogans and a far different program than that of the Sudanese Communist Party., somehow, out in the countryside, the traditional Sudanese farmers couldn’t tell the difference. And, again laughing he said, that his opponents from the Umma and Itihad parties would tell the farmers, that the reason why they couldn’t tell the difference, was because there was no difference.

Of course my own personal apolitical if not anti-political perspective was so close and yet so different from the Islamists of Sudan and Egypt. My flight from Marxism was as much a flight from revolutionary ideology in general as it was a flight from a specific ideology.  It was a flight from Leninist Utopia – for I would argue that nearly all modern revolutionary ideology is Leninist in assumption and method. I was in a flight from the vision of a society that could be truly and collectively perfected by organized collective struggle —be it the primordial classless society or a pure righteous Caliphate leading the umma as a redeemed global collectivity. A Utopia so righteous that it justified, or moralized ( in religious terms) whatever means it choses to employ.

Many of the young Islamists I met were directly or indirectly in flight from what was perceived, after the 1967 Arab Israeli War as the failure of Arab nationalism and eventually even Marxist socialism. Not a spiritual failure, but a worldly one. The answer for them was not the rejection of ideology but the search for a more viable one. And this was reinforced by the profound misconception that Israel had triumphed in 1967 because it was a religious society and a religious state.

But to return to Hassan Turabi; he did not end that particular conversation just with a joke .He went on to observe that as an ex-communist I had to acknowledge, on the other hand,  it was his movement – be it called the Islamic Front, or as The Muslim Brotherhood—which had stopped the Communists in the Sudanese universities—not the Umma or the Itihad – the two political parties with ties to two rival traditional religious communities in the Sudan whose rivalry dated back more than one hundred years. I conceded the point and noted that in Pakistan—where I had been based to cover the second Indo-Pak War and the post-war fall from power of the military – it was the Islamist party, which never seemed to get more than 15 percent of the vote in those days, just like the Sudanese movement, which was far more effective in blocking Communist control of Pakistan’s universities than the more traditional Muslim League.

I took me a couple of decades to look back at Leninist revolutionary movements be they left wing or right wing – what is known as fascism,  and to try and figure it out –  and my conclusion is that on an even playing field fascism, be it secular or clerical fascism as the occasion permits – will always defeat communism.

Let me also note parenthetically, and to avoid the danger of indiscriminate catch-all definitions of Islamism that even Marxism at its most historically significant time was not monolithic, anymore than what I am alluding to as Islamism is. Indeed the great victims of Stalinism in Eastern Europe after world war 2, were the non-Utopian , non-Leninist Marxist political and trade union movements characterized as socialist, or democratic socialist or social democrat., as this same democratic Marxist current would be, in the cold war years, one of the most effective forces against the Communist parties of Western Europe. Nor should any analysis ignore the particularly important development of post-Islamist political movements in the Muslim world – most significantly, the governing party of Turkey, as well as elements associated with the Dawaa Party in Iraq which are as responsive to what one now describes as democracy, but what we could as easily call the Rule of Law and the decencies of a constitutional political order.

Indeed one of the good signs I promised earlier to allude to, is the imperative –felt by many Islamist as well as all traditional Muslims, to unambiguously denounce terrorism. To make it increasingly clear in a series of declarations over the past year, that nothing can justify the intentional, targeting of unarmed civilians – and that what has been described by extremist Islamists as jihad is in fact is hirabah a classic Islamic legal category that can best be translated as “terrorism”

In his critically important essay, “Domestic Terrorism in the Islamic Legal Tradition” –which appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of Muslim World, Dr. Sherman Jackson noted that in the classic legal literature defining hirabah, it is the elements of intimidation, of the terrorist spreading fear and a sense of helplessness in the community, that is central. 

Jackson quotes the 11th century Spanish Maliki jurist Ibn Abd al Barr who defines the agent of hirabah as:  Anyone who disturbs free passage in the streets and renders them unsafe to travel, striving to spread corruption in the land by taking money, killing people or violating what God has made it unlawful to violate is guilty of hiraba… be he a Muslim or a non-Muslim, free or slave, and whether he actually realizes his goal of taking money, or of killing or not.” And it is clear, in Jackson’s extensive review of all of the classic legal sources from all of the schools of Islamic law, that the very impersonality of hirabah, of terrorism, in which there is invariably no personal relationship between the terrorist and his victim,  is what makes it more criminal than homicide; and in the eyes of the classical jurists that is why the terrorist deserves to be sentenced to death sentence regardless of the status of the victim, be he or she Muslim or non-Muslim.

There have been many declarations this past year from representatives of the Muslim community condemning terrorism and what is particularly pertinent is that it is precisely in the juridical part of the extensive literature of traditional Islam that Muslim thinkers have found a very precise, very applicable and unsentimental definition and unambiguous condemnation of terrorism.

That is why in my opinion, the Amman Initiative called last Spring by Jordan’s King Abdallah the Second was so important. The conference made manifest by the Amman Iniative was organized on the King’s behalf by the Aal al Bayt Insitute for Islamic Thought –an institute that embraces both ulema in the most classic sense and contemporary Muslim intellectuals of various perspectives. Together – ulema and intellectuals signed off on a document that affirmed the mutual recognition of all of the madthhab or classical schools of Islamic Law, be they Sunni or Shiite, and condemned all attempts to taqfir Muslims – a doctrine that allows one Muslim to classify another Muslim as an apostate, worthy to be slaughtered. It is the doctrine that has attempted to Islamically justify terrorism within Egypt since the mid-seventies and now is the basis for the almost daily mass murder of Shiites in Iraq.

This declaration, which embraced fewtas by Sheikh Al Azhar, by the Mufti of Egypt, and by the Rector of Al Azhar University as well as by the Grand Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Sistani and many other outstanding Shiite ulema of Iraq and Iran; by Muftis of Jordan, Oman and other Sunni countries as well as by an officer of the Fiqh Council of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi— struck at the very roots of theologically justified terrorism.

Not only by the mutual recognition of all of the Sunni and Shiite schools of law, but also by insisting that only those scholars who have mastered the traditional legal disciplines within the respective schools, have the authority to issue fetwas. The mainstream ulema and the Muslim intellectuals also participating in Amman, have explicitedly declared that Islam is not a do-it-yourself storefront religion.

Why I find the Amman Initiative particularly significant is precisely that, like the unsentimental legal prescriptions against terrorism derived from Quran and Sunna by the ulema of the 10th , 11th and 12th centuries, the Amman Initiative - -which clearly reflects a traditionally mainstream Muslim perspective – if not necessarily an overwhelmingly popular perspective, illustrates the naivite of those – usually but not exclusively, non-Muslim journalists, and Washington think tankers – I have a Rand Report specifically in mind— who call for a Protestant Reformation of Islam.  Well, if we appreciate that at its most radical or self-defining, the Protestant Reformation was based on the legitimacy of individual interpretation of holy text outside of on going tradition and the hierarchy that interpreted that Tradition – then we are living through a radical reformation –equivalent let us say to Cromwell’s Regicide and Puritan dictatorship, his desecration of holy places and mass murder of the Irish or the One Hundred Years War for that matter. And the most outstanding Reformer in that historic context is none other than Usama binLaden.
Let me put it another way – madressas have been providing basic education, literacy and sacred texts to otherwise uneducated youth in the Muslim world for hundreds of years without producing terrorists or suicide bombers. Indeed thanks to the maddressas, an ordinary or not-so-ordinary Egyptian prior to the Egyptian Revolution could live out his youth as a playboy or even a criminal but at a moment of spiritual retrospective—say at middle age – he or she had the memorized Quran implanted in their souls to fall back on.,  Or in Indonesia where the largest and most tolerant of the Muslim movements is itself a product of the Indonesian extended version of the maddressa and led by traditional scholars, not ideologues.

  So the problem isn’t the maddressa system but what happened to the maddressas – but what extremist doctrines, funded by what monies, made their way into established maddressas or provided the dynamic for many new ones.

If many liberal and neo-Conservative inclined journalists or think tankers haven’t gotten it, the very secular Western left certainly has and they have formed close alliances, particularly in England, with alienated Muslim youth drifting towards radicalism—whether in support of Palestine, or Opposition to the Iraqi War which have stimulated that sense of grievance, that becomes a substitute for Muslim identity, and which if scratched at enough, like any sore, becomes the basis of that moral equivalence which has allowed such an ambiguious response within much of the Muslim community in the wake of the Second Intifadah , 09/11 and even before 9/11 –think of the first bombing of the New York Trade Center and the guarded response of many in the Muslim community to its perpetrators.

One of the reasons why I have taken solace, in these terrible times from a spate of declarations over the past two years – from CAIR’s refreshingly unambiguous “Not in Our Name,” and most clearly, the Spanish Ulema’s condemnation in clear Quranic terms of radical Islamist terrorism in general and Bin laden and al Qaeda in particular and by name – is because the phenomena these condemnations is reacting to – Madrid and London in particular and Iraq in what is now a daily occurrence, is overcoming the lack of clarity that has allowed communal grievance to displace religious morality

Over the past few months I briefly participated in an American Muslim online debate about the importance of these declarations in which much of the discourse reflected the sort of defensiveness and moral equivalence that we, and in particular, the Muslim Youth must transcend. This is a current of thought so prevalent among us – as if all of the sins or crimes of everyone else are valid reasons for Muslims not to continuously denounce terrorism committed in the name of Islam.

And perhaps even more unfortunate, that we can believe that these injustices are reasons for us, as Muslims, not to attempt to understand what it is in many Muslims modern understanding of our religion that allows such crimes to take place in the name of Islam and to be justified.

From 9/11 until recently many of our community spokesmen would insist that these crimes were the work of a tiny minority without significant support or sympathy and that this terrorism had nothing to do with Islam.  But one could argue that to the contrary – the willingness to taqfir Muslims and then murder them, and to justify the murder of whoever –Muslim or non-Muslim, does not assent to whatever utopian vision one is ready to kill for, afflicted Islam in its earliest time.

I refer, of course to the Khawaraj —who murdered the Khalifa, Imam Ali, and put women and children as well as non-combatant men to the sword, by virtue of a utopian doctrine. This – the first and most grievous heresy in Islam, was suppressed and universally repudiated by the ulema in the earliest centuries but it revived as an operational arm for radical Islamist revolutionary ideology in the mid-20 century – the mid- nineteen sixties and at a time when it had little or no reference to Palestine, or Iraq or Chechnya.

That is why we must reject the insistence, that echoes within all of us, on finding only quote “roots and causes of terrorism unquote that are exclusively outside of a particular way in which some Muslims understand Islam.

Is the “cause” colonialism? Emir Abdul Qader al Jazeeri warred for years in the mid-19th century against one of the cruelest strains of European colonialism – the French conquest of Algeria –without committing one atrocious act. On the contrary he punished his own troops if they committed atrocities in retaliation for the atrocities committed by French troops – atrocities that are now par for the course among Muslim terrorists.

And this same Amir Abdul Qadar, exiled by the French to Damascus, intervened with his own corps of armed bodyguards to save the lives of Syrian Christians threatened by a murderous Muslim and Druze mob in 1860, a mob responding—no doubt, to legitimate economic grievances— as some sort of moral open season for mass murder.

Perhaps the answer, I would suggest, and particularly to the Muslim youth is that Amir Abdul Qader – unquestionably a great warrior, was also a noble warrior and he considered Islam above all as a personal path to a Spiritual Reality, and not as a religion emptied of spiritual content and then turned into a modern revolutionary ideology in which utopian ends justify any means.

Indeed, the duties –sources or imperatives of social justice—towards one’s family, towards one’s neighbors and by analogy towards one’s nation all stemmed from that personal struggle on that personal path to God that characterizes the Greater Jihad.

Traditional Islam – be it in the Indian subcontinent or the Arab world, was once perfumed by an inner spirituality. In the UK far more than the case in the United States, the Muslim youth have but two options – to either hold onto a traditional Islam that was entirely enveloped in an immigrant ethnic idiom – particularly   language and dress – which was inconceivable for most of the UK Muslim youth for they are precisely that – British youth of Muslim faith and the language and the dress are foreign and when imposed, embarrassing. The alternative, was to assimilate to the prevailing mass youth culture, which tends in the UK to be particularly mindless , promiscuous, drug and alcohol afflicted and often criminal

Now this narrow prism has been increasingly radicalized by grievence-obsession. We must recognize that a grevience, however real, in fact particularly if it is real, can become self-defeatingly obsessive. Every successful immigrant group, or successful sector of an immigrant group to America and Europe, Muslim or non-Muslim,  seems to understand this intuitively.

So radical versions of Islam offered an alternative – that combined the fashionable left-wing identity politics of the past few decades with a Muslim identity that claimed universality. A universality in denial that all living and worthwhile human culture, Muslim or not, beyond the most basic religious rites and law, is invariably local. The alternative that was not particularly available was a traditional Islam, with its core of spiritual priorities, enshrined and expressed in our Anglo-American English language and in those strands of Anglo-American culture – one thinks of Shakespeare, the Lake poets, and the school of politeness and good manners, massively endangered but still alive and easily assimilated into an Anglo-American Islam.

And in a world of overreaching materialism and an militant secularism that could be described as fundamentalist, this evolving British traditional Islam and its American equivalent must find true allies. I suggest those true allies are to be found among those Faith communities – Christian and Jewish— ready to acknowledge our common Abrahamic origins.


September 30, 2005, Keynote Speech AMSS/ IIIT

S. Abdallah Schleifer is professor emeritus of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and a veteran journalist who has reported and commented on the Middle East for more than three decades. This keynote speech was delivered at the annual dinner of the 34th AMSS Annual Conference, held on September 30-October 2, 2005, at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Originally published in American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, vol. 22, no. 4, Winter 2005 and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author