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Opinion: Of Extremism and Counter-extremism | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In this Friday, Sept. 21, 2012 file photo, a Syrian boy shouts slogans against the regime in front of a flag of the armed Islamic opposition group, the Nusra front, during a demonstration in the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria. (AP/ Manu Brabo)

Within days of each other, both France and Britain moved away from their initial enthusiasm to arm the Syrian opposition, adopting the US stance on the issue under the pretext of “the growing influence of Takfirist groups” among the rebel forces fighting against the rule of Bashar Al-Assad. On the other hand, the EU voted unanimously to consider Hezbollah’s “military wing” as a terrorist organization.

Many might find an attempt to achieve a sort of “equilibrium” in these two steps, particularly in terms of the West’s approach to the escalating crisis in the Arab Mashriq. Yet others might interpret this as adoption of the US’s negative stance both towards the Syrian revolution and its opponents regardless of the justifications for this stance, whether it is out of helplessness, reluctance or collusion.

One fact no sane analyst can ignore is that the state of polarization in the region is evolving in a manner that makes it impossible to continue to foster illusions and practice self-deception. The uncompromising factional discourse of both sides, whether we like it or not, has become a reality on the ground, and is threatening the region with dire consequences.

Even the most fervent supporters of the Syrian revolution have become apprehensive of the threat that radical Islamist groups pose. Even the pro-revolutionaries who warn against Iran’s regional ambitions are now worried about the radical Islamists’ threat to the future of the revolution, as well as the future of a unified Syria. This can best be seen in the public indignation towards radical Islamists’ transgressions in provinces of Syria where Sunnis constitute the majority, such as Al-Raqa and Hasaka. It is worth mentioning here that most of these groups came to Syria after the popular uprising erupted.

The violations of these groups, including those claiming the Nusra—“support”—of the people of Syria, and others planning to establish an “Islamic state in Iraq and the Sham (i.e., the Levant)” have caused strong aversion among Sunnis. It is these same Sunnis who have a vital interest in not only uprooting an oppressive, factional, and corrupt regime dependent on open foreign support, but also preserving Syria’s unity under an Arab banner that is tolerant of religious, racial, and linguistic differences. This has become increasingly obvious in the latest developments along the borders in northeastern Syria, as well as in the course of military operations in central, north, and western Syria. The developments that we have witnessed truly threaten the country with division and partition.

These extremist trends which are actually seeking to “hijack”, or rather usurp, the Syrian revolution, claim to be deterring Iranian expansionism. On the other hand, Iran—along with its allies and followers—claims under its Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist) theocracy to be leading a struggle against Takfirist groups and Arab regimes that gave up the jihad for the liberation of Palestine and instead signed a truce with the Israeli “enemy.” Ultimately, the behavior of both sides gives the Israeli extremists and their ilk—such as the Quran burning US Pastor Terry Jones—a pretext to be even more extreme and intransigent in refusing to offer any concessions or compromise solution to the Palestinians, or co-exist with their Arab neighbors.

Let us now leave the Syria-Lebanese-Palestinian scene for a while and look at Egypt.

In Egypt, where Sunnis constitute more than 99 percent of its Muslim population, ordinary citizens had enough of the one-year rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, resulting in an estimated 33 million Egyptians taking to the country’s streets and squares to protest against a president who failed to respect the spirit of democracy which had brought him to power. The ouster of Dr. Mohammad Mursi came as a practical and highly eloquent response to those who had been justifying Iran’s expansion in Iraq and the Levant on the pretext of protecting Muslim and non-Muslim minorities. That is to say that what happened in Egypt proved that the overwhelming majority of Muslims—namely, the Sunnis—are moderate and reasonable, and seek to broaden mutual understanding with the rest of the world.

Furthermore, what happened was an even more eloquent response to the fundamentalist Takfirists who claim to exclusively represent Islam, and continue to broadcast their poisonous ideas through television channels and the media. Unfortunately, I recently had the chance to watch some of these hate-mongering and hateful channels that condemn intellectuals and those who belong to other sects, as part of media “trials” reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition, or disgusting religious incitement practiced by some Christian televangelists in the US.

In Islam these practices are tantamount to sedition or fitna which is worse than shedding blood, and in my opinion, such people are Bashar Al-Assad’s partners in crime, whether they know it or not, because they are giving him the pretext of murdering people in self-defense, as well as prompting tens of thousands of frightened minorities to side with him and his forces.

Some days ago, friends of mine from several sectarian backgrounds forwarded me an e-mail from somebody claiming to be a Jewish engineer who, from her family name, appears to be of Yemeni extraction. In the message she said: “How do you tempt Jews to convert to Islam when this is the state of Muslims today?”

Although I could not verify the validity of the message, the question it poses could have been raised by any Muslim or anyone who admires the teachings and the sublime message of Islam.

In this e-mail the Jewish lady said: “A friend of mine sent me a beautiful story about Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and how he was patient with his Jewish neighbor who used to throw garbage on the Prophet’s doorstep. One day the Jew fell sick, so the prophet decided to visit him. Ashamed by the prophet’s behavior, the Jew converted to Islam.”

She added: “When I read this story I realized that it was the Prophet’s behavior that prompted this Jew to admire Islam, and convert to Islam even before reading the Quran. I wonder how Muslims can tempt Jews to convert to Islam today.”

The e-mail continued: “Muslims today belong to several sects, with followers of each considering those on the other side as apostates thus justifying their murder. As a Jew, if I wanted to become Muslim, should I choose to be Sunni, Shi’ite or a member of another sect? Which of the sects will ensure that I have a peaceful life without having my killing justified by any other sect?”

She continued wondering about the Firqa Najia or the “saved sect” (i.e. those going to heaven in Islamic teaching), and how Jews and non-Jews can join it.

Concluding her message, the lady wrote: “Muslims are fighting each other everywhere, murdering each other in the most heinous of ways. How would a Jew be tempted to convert to Islam while Muslims kill each other over issues of faith? On the other hand, you have never heard of Jews killing each other because of faith. On the contrary, the Israelis established their state because of faith.”

Indeed. This is truly a question that is begging for an answer.