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Reflections on Boston Terrorism: On harnessing the power of education and moral training to fight extremism by Shaikh Ahmad Kutty

While mourning the victims of terrorism in Boston and elsewhere, it is not enough that we denounce such acts; nor it is enough to state that Islam is opposed to violence. Rather, we must take the next bold step: To address the root causes of violence and deal with them on both local and global levels. Such an initiative would call for thinking of long-term, preventive measures to forestall similar disasters in the future.

Before proceeding to discuss these, however, let me mention our immediate plan of action. We ought to monitor our children and youth closely in order to keep them from being exposed to pernicious ideologies. In order do this effectively, parents need to monitor their children’s on-line activities.

 As in the precedent set by an esteemed imam, leaders and members of the community at large must take the initiative to alert law-enforcement of anyone harboring or contemplating such actions. Furthermore, it is imperative that we keep our mosques, institutions, classrooms, and community platforms away from those who peddle or preach extreme views - in one form or another.

But these measures do not address the roots of violence. For this, we must be willing to think of long- term solutions and embark on educational reform. We cannot ignore the simple fact that there are many preachers and teachers in the Muslim world who thrive on preaching extremism - sooner or later, some may make their way to Canada.

Nor we can we ignore the historical context that these political ideologies thrive and flourish in. They are being exacerbated by the incredible misery, suffering, frustration and hopelessness affecting millions of people in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine in the wake of wars of occupation, drone attacks and settlements. Such campaigns have resulted in the devastation of entire countries, and caused the deaths of thousands and the maiming of countless others. Therefore, it behooves those in positions of power and influence to address such travesties of justice, to compensate the victims, and mount genuine efforts to bring justice and rule of law to govern all our relations.

We cannot, however, explain away all causes of violence in the Muslim community by blaming external factors, for they have as much to do with our own lack of sound moral and spiritual training. It is an undeniable fact that our educational curriculum does not place enough emphasis on transformation of character; it is mainly geared towards imparting the legalism and superficialities of religion rather than transforming inner character.

In the absence of an effective educational system geared towards transformation of character and personality-building, some of our teachers and scholars vent their anger and take their audience on an emotional roller coaster by listing endless grievances. It is no wonder that such anger and suppressed emotions could find violent expressions.

In this context, I recall reading an interview with Dr. Ali Jumu’ah, the ex-mufti of Egypt. On being asked why there was such a prevalence of violence in the Muslim world committed by Muslims, he asked the interviewer: “Do you find a single graduate of Azhar involved in such bloodshed? Mind you, we have graduated not less than twenty million!”

It is a recognized fact amongst scholars that a lack of sound Islamic knowledge has been one of the main sources of extremism in our history. Take the case of the khawarij who caused so much bloodshed. The well- known sage Hasan al-Basari attributed their actions to the lack of sound knowledge; he said, "Those who act without knowledge are bound to cause more destruction - although they presume they are building!” It is worth remembering that Hasan mentored the pious caliph Umar b. Abd al-Aziz; records show the latter could bring peace and reconciliation to a war-torn nation - all within a short period of thirty months - through reasoned dialogue and imparting authentic knowledge.

We cannot over-emphasize the need for sound education and moral training as the first line of attack against extremism.

Equally important is to complement sound moral and spiritual education with creative ways of empowering the youth. As Imam Shafi rightly said, “If the mind is not focused on beneficial and positive goals, Satan will occupy it with his work.”

We can draw inspiration from the Prophet (peace be upon him) in instituting effective youth- empowerment. He not only mentored them morally and spiritually, but also entrusted them with great responsibilities. Ali, Usamah, Mu’ad and others were all very young when they took on heavy responsibilities.

On closer examination of the Prophet’s method of training leaders, we see that he never shied away from making use of any available methods for empowering his people: men, women and youth. Recent studies have shown the importance of harnessing the power of peer pressure for bringing about positive changes in society. Muslims, therefore, should never underestimate the power of peer pressure in affecting moral transformation. Harnessing the power of peer pressure for positive change in society will serve as an antidote against the youth being swayed by the winds of extremism and violence.

To conclude: In order to tackle the issue of extremism engendering violence, we need to offer long-term solutions. Solutions focused on implanting sound moral and spiritual concepts; using the power of peer pressure; and providing youth with creative outlets to channel their energies.

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