The recently concluded White House summit to counter violent extremism made much of root causes like poverty, illiteracy and political alienation but missed an opportunity to address a more immediate and critical issue – the culture of intolerance that has been allowed to fester in much of the Muslim world.
Muslim leaders – both political and religious – insist that Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and respect. The relevant passages of the Koran that are repeatedly quoted by these leaders clearly bear this out. However, looking around the Muslim world today, it is equally clear that Muslim leaders have spectacularly failed to integrate these fundamentals of their faith into the fabric of their own societies – in their judicial and governance systems as well as in their educational and religious institutions.
In fact, a very narrow, exclusive and often virulent interpretation of Islam that breeds contempt, hate and suspicion of others is being preached, practiced and taught. Other cultures and religions are viewed as inferior, corrupt and evil, deserving to be shunned and annihilated rather than understood, appreciated and respected. In a worldview premised upon an existential struggle between Islam and the rest of the world, there is little room for compromise and accommodation.
To understand why thousands of young men and women from across the Muslim world are sympathetic to jihadi groups, look no further than this culture of intolerance that is shaping young, impressionable minds and rendering them susceptible to radicalism.
Groups like ISIS have simply tapped into this culture of intolerance, twisted it further, and taken it to horrifying new extremes.
Crucially, many Muslim political and religious leaders are themselves complicit in fostering this culture of intolerance. Indeed, many survive only by the politics of exclusion, by co-opting extremist agendas or by exploiting imaginary fears and insecurities. Few have exhibited the moral courage and conviction to champion the tolerance and respect for diversity that is essential in countering extremism.
Thanks to this staggering hypocrisy, many Muslim societies today are on a slow-burner of hate with immediate consequences for minority communities and, increasingly, for the rest of the world.
Even a cursory review of the Muslim world will quickly bring home the deleterious effects of this intensifying culture of intolerance. Throughout the Middle East, for example, intolerance together with official indifference is driving beleaguered minorities, some with roots in the region going back thousands of years, to the verge of extinction.
Hitherto moderate Islamic nations like Brunei and Malaysia are also being sucked into this vortex of intolerance. Following the imposition of Sharia law last year, Brunei has incrementally cracked down on non-Muslim cultural and religious freedoms. In Malaysia, inter-communal harmony has sunk to new lows as minorities are demonized and harassed.
At the epicenter of this culture of intolerance is, of course, Saudi Arabia where the royal family is patron and protector of Wahhabism – one of the most radical, exclusionist and puritanical interpretations of Islam. Thanks to the royal family’s largesse, amounting to more than US$100 billion over the last three decades, the reach and influence of Wahhabism has spread across the Sunni Muslim world, gradually transforming traditionally moderate indigenous Islamic societies into more puritanical and intolerant clones.
It is no coincidence that almost all current jihadi movements, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda, draw inspiration from Wahhabism. Muslim radicalism simply cannot be contained without confronting both Wahhabism and its Saudi backers. And yet, the Saudis are given a free pass to continue their destructive influence over Muslim societies and communities across the world.
To be sure, there is a huge debate going on in the Islamic world with many genuinely moderate Muslims valiantly fighting to reclaim the gentler, more tolerant interpretation of Islam that they believe truly reflects the fundamentals of their faith. They need to be supported and encouraged. Liberal democracies do them, and themselves, no favors by pretending the problem does not exist or by refusing to confront leaders who fail to practice at home what they proclaim abroad.
A coherent response to the whole issue of radicalism and extremism must, therefore, necessarily include a clear commitment by Muslim political and religious leaders themselves to integrate into the fabric of their own societies the tolerance and respect that they insist reflect the essence of their religion.
They must be urgently persuaded, cajoled if necessary, to go beyond words and empty gestures to reform their judicial systems, abolish discriminatory laws, protect fundamental rights, and promote respect and tolerance for diversity in universities, schools and mosques.
President Obama, in his keynote speech at the White House summit, said that the Western world was not at war with Islam but with those who have perverted it. It is time to recognize that the people who pervert Islam are not just on the battlefield.
Dennis Ignatius has had a distinguished career as Malaysian diplomat, serving in London, Beijing and Washington. He was subsequently appointed ambassador to Chile and later to Argentina. He was concurrently accredited as ambassador to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay and Uruguay. From 2001 to June 2008 he was the High Commissioner for Malaysia to Canada.