The following was written in the course of an e-mail discussion on the topic of Islamic extremism and strategies for tackling such extremism. Aziz at City of Brass (and Brass Crescent fame) suggested I should blog one of my e-mails, which consists of rough thoughts on the topic of extremism and how we might go about deflating it. Further e-mails drew upon a distinction which I think is important to make, namely that between political and religious extremism, and whether the two reinforce each other and, If so, how. I was very much interested in what my readers think. Do feel welcome to chime in, to disagree and to elaborate.
Updated: The discussion spreads. Aziz has a great post on the same topic, with far more ground covered, and a conversation could erupt on TalkIslam.
Just some thoughts:
One of the biggest problems in countering extremism is the absence of resources devoted towards Islamic education. While the media and other such content is no doubt helpful, we also need religious scholars who are at the top of their fields. Instead of constantly drafting the bottom of the barrel to go memorize some books and deliver fatwas, we have to create mechanisms and incentives to encourage the best and brightest to want to become scholars. That means on our part that we in our communities recognized the need for incentivizing scholarship. If we expect more from the Imam perhaps we should pay in a little more than poverty level wage. Who wants to go get a graduate degree and become an Imam when it means no social respect, no prospects of marriage (at least in a lot of communities) and no ability, and, in a country as hardheaded capitalist as America, to provide for a meaningful education for one's family?
I realize this is a much more cultural discussion, but I think there are practical components to it, albeit ones which would involve governments. Here is a bigger part of the problem as you pointed out. Many of the governments of the world profit from extremism, engage in extremism and create it. More often than not, the crazies running around were at some point financed by one government or another.
Governments need to put resources into enabling a higher standard of Islamic education. This means investments in libraries, digital and other resources, scholarships and conferences -- like you pointed out in a previous e-mail, we need to raise the quality of education and that means raising the quality of institutions. There is no reason why Muslim scholars training in Pakistan do not have the chance to meet Muslim scholars training in Egypt. We tend to think that everything must relate somehow through a Western country, whereas the fact is Muslim countries do not talk to each other or engage with each other nearly enough. They structure their foreign and cultural policies around relationships to economic powers and (former) colonial powers, which is understandable but insufficient, especially in the case of extremism, since such isolation prevents a cheap and simple exchange of ideas and perspectives which could ameliorate the worst cases.
Lastly, we need to have a broader discussion on what constitutes "extremism". Why is it that when a nonstate actor kill civilians, it is terrorism, but when a state actor places sanctions on a government and in so doing to kill civilians -- namely, the point is to kill civilians -- that is not immoral? Extremism profits off of the very obvious reality, to so many people in the world, that there is a massive double standard. This means a willingness to engage in the kinds of discussions that are not too often heard. This means that we Americans as well should encourage an open and honest dialogue between different parties to air their grievances, and to provide mechanisms for these dialogues even if the conclusions are somehow at times contrary to apparent interests.
The Muslim world is not going to get out of its funk until it has institutions which are devoted to the empowerment of its citizens, one part of which is imparting serious scholarship and raising the standard by which scholarship is judged. Muslims in the United States similarly require institutional independence and financial resources appropriate to the growth and potential of our community. Many often seemed to turn into extremism because of a perceived inability to take part in global conversations and discussions; of course, there is a serious moral deficit involved, but there are wider causes which can be to some extent ameliorated by empowering people with some level of knowledge. In the long term, hopefully, such education and such interconnections between Muslim communities and countries can help promote democratic reforms and civic improvements. Because extremism, as in non-state violence, is intimately related to the state.