Guest post by Waleed El-Ansary, University Chair of Islamic Studies, Xavier University in Cincinnati. El-Ansary addressed faculty, students, and members of the public at a Kroc Institute event last Friday (Sept. 9) marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He is the author of The Spiritual Significance of Jihad in the Islamic Approach to Markets and the Environment.
One of the key lessons learned in the decade since 9/11 is that the “hard power” of military might is no longer sufficient to influence and control events. The “soft power” of diplomacy and development is also clearly necessary to resolve national and international security problems. But truly integrating soft and hard power into “smart power” to address current and future challenges in the Islamic world requires a deep understanding of the role of religion in peace-making, not just conflict. The failure to recognize this can easily lead to counter-productive strategies that exacerbate conflict, particularly in the Middle East.
A prime example of how this lesson was partly learned by the Bush administration was its decision in 2008 to launch a new front in the war on terrorism, this time targeting language. Federal agencies, including the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counter Terrorism Center, told their personnel not to describe Muslim extremists as “jihadists” or mujāhidīn. Describing our enemies in terms derived from jihād, broadly defined as “striving or making effort” for the sake of God, actually validates their claim to legitimacy on one hand, and implies that the “war against terrorism” is a “war against Islam” on the other.
Leading Muslim scholars such as the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Ali Goma‘a, therefore argue that the correct translation of “terrorist” is irjāfī, one who brings commotion to society, causing “quaking of the hearts” (the social analog of an earthquake). The punishment is execution, making the term legally and linguistically far more precise than its alternatives and depriving extremists from using it to validate their claim to legitimacy. The correct use of Qur’ānic terminology could therefore provide a powerful linguistic weapon in the on-going intellectual battle for the minds of would-be terrorists. Unfortunately, federal agencies appear to be unaware of the correct term, subsequently employing much less effective and even problematic alternatives. Although progress has clearly been made, much more remains to be done.
Smart power is also clearly vital in the U.S. response to the “Arab Spring.” In the case of Egypt, which represents one of the largest military and economic powers in the region, a sophisticated approach to the various forces at play in the political scene is of the utmost significance. Many Western observers are understandably worried about the role of religion and religious forces in light of recent outbreaks of sectarianism. But the narrative that we must choose between the secular, media-savvy elite that led the revolution on one hand, and the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood on the other is a false one. It ignores a third alternative represented by the “home-grown” understanding of Islam at al-Azhar University, established over a thousand years ago in Cairo. Egyptians consider it to be the most prestigious school of law, and its scholars are seen as some of the most reputable scholars in the Muslim world, including those such as Shaykh Ali Goma‘a. By marginalizing this indigenous understanding of Islam and advocating a strict secularism for Egypt along the lines found in the United States and Europe, one does not wipe out the poison of religious extremism. One loses the antidote.