Istanbul, Turkey

© Lex Kravetski

Why Can’t Islam Unite Against Violent Extremism?360°ANALYSIS

The war, battle or campaign against Islamic extremism is one that only Muslims can lead.

After at least 15 years of violent extremism within its ranks, Islam has still not organized an effective counter campaign toward the proponents of extremist Islam, such as the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda and others. One need only look at the events of last week during Islam’s holiest month, Ramadan.

Terrorist attacks in TurkeyBangladeshIraq and Saudi Arabia have claimed the lives of over 350 victims, mostly Muslims. The latter occurred in Islam’s second-most revered city, Medina, home to the mosque and tomb of the Prophet Mohammed. All of the attacks are believed to be the responsibility of the Islamic State. One might also add the Orlando nightclub attack of June, whose perpetrator claimed to be acting in the name of IS.

A Rising Death Toll

According to the organization The Religion of Peace (TROP), this year’s Ramadan “bombathon” is responsible for 238 attacks and 1,850 deaths. Since 2001, there have been 186,000 deaths in some 28,700 attacks by terrorists. In 2014 alone, more than 32,000 died in terrorist attacks, nearly twice as many as the previous year. Almost all of these were claimed by, or believed to be the responsibility of, groups designated as Islamic extremists. In 2016, we have seen 1,218 extremist Islamic attacks in 50 countries, taking the lives of more than 11,100 people and injuring 13,420.

These numbers stagger our minds and rock our faith in humanity. In the West, the reaction to extreme violence in the Middle East and Muslim world is increasingly met with something approaching indifference. And in the region, citizens wonder if anything can be done other than helplessly watch this tragedy play itself out. How can this happen? And why has the rampage been able to continue for so long?

Islam at War with Itself

In 2015, Jordan’s King Abdullah II called for Muslims to take up the battle against extremist groups responsible for terrorism. While acknowledging that both regional (largely Muslim) states and the international community have a responsibility to confront Islamic extremism, he rightly asserted that: “It is mainly our battle, us Muslims, against those who seek to hijack our societies and generations with intolerance and takfiri ideology.” The latter is the practice of declaring someone an “unbeliever,” justifying the taking of the unbeliever’s life.

And if there is an act to underscore that Islam may now be at war with itself, it’s the attack by one extremist Islamist group on Muslims in the city of Medina, the burial place of the prophet.


Islam has no single unifying leader behind whom to unite. Catholicism has its pope and orthodox Christians have their counterparts who speak up in the name of the faithful and are largely, though not blindly, followed by the faithful.


Terrorism experts and political leaders around the world largely agree with King Abdullah II. The war, battle or campaign against Islamic extremism is one that only Muslims can lead. That includes leaders at national levels, organizations, local institutions and individuals, all acting to stamp out such violence, the beliefs that justify them and the campaign to spread their infectious and deadly ideology. Non-Muslims can and must contribute to the effort. But it must be led by Muslims.

So, why haven’t they been able to unite? The reasons are several and do not bode well for future action.

Why Inaction?

First, sectarianism is real within Islam. Today, Sunnis remain genuinely concerned about what is happening to them in countries like Syria and Iraq, where Shia are seen as if not the enemy, then at least adversaries. And while Sunnis are not lining up behind Sunni extremists like IS or al-Qaeda, they are nevertheless reluctant to openly oppose groups like IS aggressively taking on Shia antagonists and their Iranian backers.

To Sunnis, the largely Western-led counteroffensive appears one-sided—i.e., eliminating violent Sunni extremists while seemingly only talking about the role of the Shia aggressors. That view is shared at the local level as well as at the most senior levels in countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Therefore, uniting Sunni and Shia in a common undertaking to defeat extremism in all of Islam is simply untenable and unlikely in the near term.

Second, Islam has no single unifying leader behind whom to unite. Catholicism has its pope and orthodox Christians have their counterparts who speak up in the name of the faithful and are largely, though not blindly, followed by the faithful. Islam has influential imams and sheikhs but no single person. Iran, in the person of the supreme leader, has its unifying figure but he certainly doesn’t speak for Sunnis or even Shia outside the Islamic Republic. In fact, Islam even lacks a charismatic or political figure, not necessarily clerical, who could speak to and for all Muslims convincingly.

So, without someone like a John Paul II to confront communist repression, or a Lech Walesa or Vaclav Hovel to unite a nation in common cause, or even an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Andrei Sakharov to speak to the moral imperatives, it is hard to imagine all Muslims coming together behind a unified effort.

It must be pointed out, however, that a lack of unified effort does not mean the absence of widely shared antipathy among the worldwide Muslim community toward religiously motivated violence. Muslims the world over do, in fact, condemn such violence. But in the absence of a moral authority as unifying figure, they haven’t actuated that rejection or coalesced behind a common effort.

Third, if Muslims are the only ones who can lead the effort against this ideology, it stands to reasons that they must have a countervailing ideology. While there have been many condemnations and criticisms of the extremists’ ideology, no one has offered anything so persuasive that it has convincingly set back or eroded the attractiveness of that of the terrorists.

One idea perhaps might be simply to promote Islam as a “religion of life and humanity,” as opposed to the culture of death promoted by so many of the extremists, from the Islamic State to Hamas and Boko Haram to Abu Salaf. John Paul II and Solzhenitsyn, for example, were able to expose in compelling fashion the evils of communism and also offer more humane philosophies for human interaction, governance and behavior even in conflict.

Fourth, governments in the Arab world are not consensual. So, leaders and senior officials lack the mandate to call people to action other than through the sheer exercise of power. This insecurity may lead to inaction or hesitancy to place their positions on the line, so to speak, by taking a hard and firm position and then calling their citizens to genuine action with real authority. Their publics simply lack faith and trust in their leaderships, a serious detriment to common and concerted action.

Finally, when it comes to initiative on most issues outside of self-preservation, governments of the Middle East have an unfortunate tendency to depend on the West. And the latter is often all too eager to step up. The current effort to staunch the Islamic State is led by the United States with strong backing from other Western governments. Arab governments had failed to act outside their respective borders.

The West’s support is certainly vitally necessary, but one must ask why was initiative so late in coming until the West—i.e., the US—acted? And when will Muslim leaders and governments seize the initiative to come together to present the desperately needed, overarching counter-narrative to the extremists as only they can do?

Looking at some of these reasons for failure and the continued absence of leadership on this issue in the Muslim world, one may have to conclude that prospects are slim for rapid change. Little action can be seen in any of the cited areas at the moment.

Until these shortcomings are addressed successfully, we may have to endure more Baghdads, Dhakas and Istanbuls.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Lex Kravetski


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