Dr. Omar Ahmad and The Agony of the 'Decent Muslim'

A sober look at the true “misunderstanders of Islam.”

Professor Emeritus Dr Omar Farouk Sheikh Ahmad is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS), Universiti Sains Malaysia. The current state and status of Islam in the world worries him. For Dr. Ahmad is a devout Muslim, but instead of denying the many attacks by Muslims throughout the world, he manfully owns up to them:

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States followed by a string of unconventional violent incidents have rocked the foundation of global and personal security raising concerns of the real prospect of a new civilisational war and the emergence of a world without peace. No country nor region has been spared and no one seems safe. Just to recapitulate, on the night of Friday, Nov 13 last year, gunmen and suicide bombers simultaneously attacked a major stadium, restaurants and bars in Paris, killing 130 people and wounding hundreds others. Almost a year earlier, on Jan 7 last year, the office of the weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked, killing 12 people. Recently, Brussels Airport and a metro station were attacked, resulting in scores of deaths. Earlier, in the US, in San Bernardino, it was an ordinary couple, Tashfeen Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, who shot and killed 14 innocent people on Dec 2 last year. Halfway across the world in Charsadda, Pakistan, on Jan 20 this year, gunmen attacked students and staff at Bacha Khan University, killing 22 people and injuring at least 20. In Jakarta, Indonesia, on Jan 14 this year, seven people were killed and many more were wounded in a brazen terrorist attack on civilians in an upscale shopping district. In Burkina Faso, on Jan 18 this year, a luxury hotel in Ouagadougou, popular with foreigners was raided by the al-Qaeda terrorist group, resulting in the deaths of 29 people with scores more maimed. In the Iraqi city of Iskandariyah, at least 29 people were killed at a football field while watching a trophy-giving ceremony. In neighbouring Thailand, a hospital in Narathiwat was occupied to stage terrorist attacks. Malaysia may appear lucky so far but the government has admitted that the threat of terrorism is real and that pre-emptive measures need to be undertaken to eliminate it…..

Dr. Omar Farouk Sheikh Ahmad cannot bear to believe that Islam, normative Islam, could possibly prompt these acts, and he worries about the damage being done to the image of Islam from “the perception of ultimate accountability [of Muslims for these terrorist acts]. Long-standing prejudices towards Islam have been reawakened.” Good Muslims, true Muslims very much like Dr. Ahmad himself are, he knows, horrified by all this: “Decent Muslims everywhere agonise at their inability to rationally explain the above phenomena apart from attributing them to a variety of complex factors.”

What “complex factors” might these be? Dr. Ahmad knows that it cannot possibly be Islam itself that explains the violent behavior of Muslims. After all, he assures us, “the word ‘Islam’ itself signifies peace and its message is clear, consistent, universal and inclusive throughout time.” (He chooses not to acknowledge the correction, for whenever the doctor-ahmads of this world offer up their “peace,” we must never grow tired of insisting that the word “Islam” signifies “submission.”) “Muslims believe that Islam is a blessing to all of mankind. They cannot accept the representation of Islam as a belligerent faith which was spread “by the sword and which continues to do mischief.”

Next Dr. Ahmad presents another staple of the apologists for Islam: a sanitized definition of “Jihad” and a soothing ranking of the “lesser Jihad” and the “greater Jihad”:

Jihad is an Islamic concept which has multiple meanings but is essentially about striving, struggling, persevering and fighting to defend the forces of good….Jihadul ashgar or “the little jihad” is the physical confrontation or fight in self-defence to protect one’s dignity and the honour of Islam but it is the Jihadul akhbar, the Greater Jihad, which is “the ‘fight’ within oneself for one’s spiritual enhancement and social development in line with the central commandment of Islam, which advocates “doing good and rejecting evil” ….It was reported that after returning from the Hunayn expedition, the Prophet had declared: “We are back from the lesser jihad”[effort, resistance, struggle for reform] to the greater jihad. A Companion then asked: “What is the greater jihad, Messenger of God?” He answered; “It is fighting the self [the ego].

Dr. Ahmad needs to believe all this, so as not to shake his Muslim faith. But we who are not Muslims feel no such need. We who are not Muslims are perfectly capable of reading the Qur’an, Hadith, and Sira, and observing the behavior of Muslims toward non-Muslims through time and across space. What appears to you, and to me, from these texts and this observable behavior, more important in Islam? Is it really the “Greater Jihad” of “spiritual enhancement and social development,” or is it the “Lesser Jihad” of fighting and warfare that best characterizes Islam’s texts, and teachings, and history?

Dr. Ahmad, a kindly soul, obviously considers himself to be speaking for all those “decent Muslims” who share his sanitized view of Islam. They are deeply puzzled, unable to explain the terrorist attacks of their co-religionists, and thus incapable of preventing such incidents as they continue to believe “that Islam is a peaceful religion with a civilising and humanising mission. They must know that none of the acts [Muslim terror attacks] are in any way justifiable. The nature of violence that has been committed is unacceptable. The attempt by perpetrators and sympathisers of these acts to invoke the call of jihad to justify their actions is misplaced and does not represent the essence of Islam.”

For Dr. Ahmad, all over the world too many Muslims have been violating that essence — peaceful, civilizing, and humanizing – of Islam, the “Islam” that means “peace” and that puts the most stress on the Greater Jihad of spiritual self-improvement. Why they do so remains a mystery for him, as for all the peaceful Muslims who “agonise at their inability to rationally explain the [terrorist attacks] apart from attributing them to a variety of complex factors.” Dr. Ahmad never does offer even a partial list of that “variety of complex factors” that he claims explain Muslim terrorism. Should he ever get around to doing so, I am fairly sure the texts and teachings of Islam would not be among them.

I don’t think there’s much point in reminding the doctor-ahmads of this world that when Bin Laden and Al-Zarqawi and Al-Baghdadi used the word “jihad,” it was never conceived by them as a “spiritual struggle”; that killing and subjugation of the Unbelievers, the expansion of Dar al-Islam, has always been, since its earliest days some 1350 years ago, the duty of Muslims, the real point of Islam. The true “misunderstanders of Islam” are those who, like Dr. Ahmad, have managed to ignore the texts and the history in order to convince themselves that Islam is all about peace, that the “Greater Jihad” is the spiritual one of self-dominance. And greatest of all the forms of jihad is that of the heart: ”‘scholars identify four categories of jihad: jihad of the heart, jihad of the tongue, jihad of the hand and jihad of the sword. But it is the jihad of the heart that can be considered as the highest manifestation of pacifism and the search for excellence within Islam.”

Islam’s essence is “civilizing, and humanizing.” Dr. Ahmad simply cannot allow himself to look steadily and whole at Islam, and to draw the logical consequences, unlike such celebrated (and threatened) apostates as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Magdi Allam, and Ibn Warraq. He does not dare to quote any of the more than 160 “Jihad verses” in the Qur’an, or hold up for inspection and discussion incidents in the life of that exemplary Muslim warrior Muhammad, at Khaybar, or the Battle of the Trench, or with little Aisha, or in connection with the killings of Asma bint Marwan and Abu ‘Afak.

What should we make of the more-in-sorrow views of Dr. Omar Farouk Sheikh Ahmad? Some part of me – and of you, no doubt — wants to believe that he actually believes what he says, that he has found a way to substitute his own version of peaceable-kingdom Islam, a version that allows a decent man like himself to dreamily hew to this make-believe faith, and to convince other Muslims to misunderstand that faith in the same reassuring way. Wouldn’t it be nice if more than a billion Muslims could be persuaded to willfully misunderstand their own faith? In fact, isn’t what Muslims like Dr. Ahmad do exactly what so many non-Muslim leaders in the West — Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Angela Merkel all come to mind — have done, constructed a false but hopeful “Islam,” and asked us to follow their example and accept this comforting fiction, in order to avoid having to deal with an unpleasant and frightening reality?

But there is no textual basis for the Islam Dr. Omar Ahmad and Barack Obama have allowed themselves to believe. All the Islamic texts are with the jihadis. He quotes not a single Qur’anic passage, not a single Hadith, in support of his assertions. And Islam’s 1350-year history of conquest fits the Jihad of the Sword, not Dr. Ahmad’s treacly “Jihad of the heart.” As much as we would like to participate, along with so many others, in Dr. Ahmad’s game of make-believe, in the long run, as Samuel Johnson once said in another connection, the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.