x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Muslim nations attempt to clear Islam's association with terrorism

One resounding message is heard loud and clear from leaders of the Islamic world: "We're not terrorists".

NEW YORK // One resounding message could be heard loud and clear from leaders of the Islamic world during two days of speeches at United Nations headquarters: "We're not terrorists". In organising his interfaith summit, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah explicitly stated that terrorism had stained the name of Islam, leaving Muslims no choice but to extend "hands to their brothers in other religions".

Critics have suggested that the interfaith project is a public relations stunt designed to improve Saudi's reputation in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, orchestrated primarily by hijackers from the desert kingdom. But the association of Islam with terrorism was firmly tackled by delegates from the Islamic world, notably by Jordan's King Abdullah II, who warned of "misinformation and stereotypes? creating fears, suspicions and even hatred".

The Hashemite royal warned that "Islam is being subjected to injustice and accusations arising from ignorance about our religion - Islam calls for moderation and tolerance and eschews extremism, violence and bigotry". Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, described the association of "bigotry, terrorism and extremism" with a faith such as Islam as "failing to grasp the phenomenon in its real nature".

"The terrorism we know is political rather than theological," he told delegates on Wednesday. "The terrorism we know is the historical product of bad politics and the reckless pursuit of narrowly defined interests." Throwing theological weight behind the debate, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar in Cairo, described terrorism as a "religious and worldly tragedy" which the "wise have agreed to reject".

Analysts argue that despite the memories of September 11 and bombings in Madrid, London and Bali, Arab leaders have as much to fear from terrorism as western governments - pointing to the insurgency in Saudi and attacks on Amman hotels in 2005. While some criticise King Abdullah's interfaith event given the tough restrictions on religious freedom within his realm, others highlight the monarch's nerve in tackling hard-liners at home.

Signalling support for the Saudi monarch, Tony Blair's opinion article in Wednesday's International Herald Tribune described the interfaith seminar as "bold, courageous and potentially far-reaching". The former British prime minister described two competing narratives dominating the Islamic world, the first of which wholly rejects western values and pro-western Arab leaders. While linked to hard-line clerics, extremists and terrorists, the idea appeals to many across the region.

The second narrative, according to Mr Blair, seeks not to replicate western society in the Middle East, but focus on educational and social reform and forge a Muslim identity capable of negotiating with the world of the 21st century. "Saudi Arabia is seen by many as home to those who espouse the first narrative. King Abdullah is showing how his country can and should be part of the second, that of peaceful co-existence," Mr Blair wrote.

"The fact that the country's ruler, with his unique position within the Muslim world, is holding this conference extends an opportunity for the future that we should embrace." jreinl@thenational.ae