The Radical Middle Way was launched in London in 2005, following the recommendations of a Muslim task force set up after the London transport bombings in July 2005. In this interview, Fuad Nahdi, director of the Radical Middle Way and founding editor of the progressive Muslim magazine Q-News, talks about the organization's aim to bring a back-to-basics theology to Islam and how to counter an "estimated $15 billion" global investment in spreading extremist ideology. This is an edited transcript of an interview that took place in October 2006.
Q: Linden MacIntyre: Take me past the obvious contradiction in terms. How can there be a radical middle?
A: Fuad Nahdi: The radical middle way is based on the premise that most of the discussion about Islam is held in a context of extremism on both sides. So actually to be moderate, to be in the middle, is radical because it's different from the perceived notion around us.
Q: How did this extremist thinking become so prevalent in a faith and culture that tends not to be extremist?
A: It's not something that happened overnight. It has taken decades to develop. According to intelligence reports during the last 30 years, investment has been put into this extremist ideology. We are talking estimates of over US$15 billion. To the best of our knowledge, there is no ideology in the history of mankind that had such massive resources put into it on a global level.
Q: Where has that money been spent?
A lot of the money has been spent on creating the intellectual framework - books; university departments producing thousands of graduates and sending them across the world to promote this thing; building centers, some of them here in the West; paying imams and local leaders. If an imam gets a hefty salary, he is free from any local consideration. And if he is well educated, he's given the kind of intellectual tools to become influential in society. Then vulnerable young people, who have been rejected by the system, swarm around these people. Even now, if you look, some of the most dynamic professional Web sites belong to these kinds of people who run the extremist shop.
Q: What label do you put on this extremism?
A: Some people call them jihadist; some would call them salafist, which I think is a misnomer. The idea is not to identify them by names but by the issues they are raising.
Q: What are these issues?
A: Very simple. It's that the world is black and white, divided into them and us -- a very George Bush understanding. Anybody who is not like us, who does not think like us, is wrong. It's a very powerful message because it makes people look inward and stop exploring things. You start getting all the wrong kind of messages once you stop asking questions.
Q: What's the root of this investment in an essentially destructive process?
A: With the squashing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the late '50s and '60s, suddenly political Islam was found to be convenient to be exported all over the world, but not to be practiced in Egypt. Egypt had the ideas but did not have the money to take it abroad. Then in the early '70s, with the oil price explosion in the Middle East, suddenly the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, had the money but didn't have the ideas.
Q: Again, why not spend the money on better things?
A: If you're looking for a rational explanation, you're not going to get it. The crux of the matter is the theology. Islam is a belief system. It's a series of mistakes, one after another -- of bad analyses, reactionary negative responses and just total misunderstanding. To counter, we're trying to sustain and nurture a mainstream form of Islam that has been lost for decades now. We want to define Islam, not by the terms given it by the extremist and the radical elements.
It's nice to have political analysis, to have sociological analysis, economic analysis, why people are becoming radicalized or turning to extremism. But at the end of the day, the real issue lies with the theology because this is the real source of all that is happening.
Q: So, you're basically saying that the central message of Islam has been hijacked by extremists?
Q: And that the theology of Islam has no room for this violent jihadist culture?
Exactly. Everybody is trying to find a reason by saying more people are angry because of foreign policy. They're angry because of economic deprivation; they're angry because they're alienated. Young people are marginalized because of the racism in society. All are legitimate, tangible factors. But the real issue is the theology. The issue is, "Does Islam justify violence and terrorism?"
Q: And does it?
A: It doesn't matter. If you answer all the requests: take the foreign troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere; change foreign policy; provide economic equality; institute massive programs of inclusion -- still, at the back of the mind, people think that Islam justifies terrorism and extremism. Next, the problem they have is [that] they don't like Jews. So, they'll go back to terrorism and violence. They don't like gays, so, they'll go back to terrorism and violence. They don't like their neighbours … and so on. It's critical that we close this loophole in theological terms and say there is categorically no room in Islam for violence and terrorism as a way to bring change.
You're speaking into the face of a hurricane here. How do you expect to be heard with such a radical message?
That's why it's the radical middle way. In this environment of extremism, you become radical. One of the issues we face is, how do we negotiate within this extremism without compromising? I'll give you a good example. When we talk about modern societies, we talk about ideas of citizenship. And people will tell you, "Islam has the answer to everything." We say, "Fine." But the idea of citizenship is totally alien to the Muslim mind because, historically, we have never been citizens. We have either been loyal subjects to the caliph or the sultan, or we are part of the spiritual brotherhood. But the idea of citizenship engagement is totally alien.
Our response is, "Look, this is really not part of our history, but it's a useful thing. It is something that is demanded of us in society. Let's clear the table and see how we as Muslims can define this idea and how can we "Islamacize" it? I hate using that term, but how can we make it relevant and get ownership of it in our own terms?
Q: Are you talking about countering with your own form of jihad?
A: What does jihad mean, really? For me it's about challenging the environment around you that is not acceptable. Looking after our elderly, looking after the well-being of our neighbours, making sure that there is equity in society, there is security -- working for the betterment of everybody around. Once we achieve that, then we can look abroad. Otherwise, I think it's arrogant and stupid to worry about agendas if they have nothing to do with you.
Q: What agendas are you talking about?
A: Any agenda in the Muslim world. The issues of Iraq, of Chechnya, of Palestine. I think some Muslims make a mistake that we are the only ones worried about these places. But I know many non-Muslims who are equally worried about these places.
Q: How is the theology of Islam under threat?
A: There is a lot of call for the reformation of Islam. The teaching of Islam says that, after every hundred years, there will come a transformer who will transform religion from the inside. Now theologians in Islam see Islam like an onion, and every transformer who comes adds an extra sheath to protect the theological discussions about Islam, not to expose it. We are reminded of what happened in Christianity through the Reformation and how nasty Reformation can be. A third of Christendom perished under religion. Islam runs away from that situation of chaos, theological chaos. The genius of Islam over the years has been to protect this from taking place.
Q: And now it's beginning to unravel.
A: It took only 12 years for the Germans to create the Third Reich after the Treaty of Versailles. Osama bin Laden and one of his preachers talk about 800 years of Muslim humiliation. That anger has come partly through the teaching of Islam -- through the idea of reformation, of trying to open it up. The emergence of the suicide bomber is a very clear manifestation of the reformation. Think about this: There are roughly 1.3 billion Muslims. If only 1 percent of them took this Islamic reformation to heart, we are talking about, how many? -- 130 million potential suicide bombers. What kind of world will we live in? Thanks to Allah, this religion has got its own inside mechanism not to allow such a situation to develop.
Q: It strikes me that moderates like you and your counterpart, Hamza Yusuf in the United States, can't do this alone. What help do you need?
A: We need help particularly from the media, so we don't focus our cameras always on the absurdities of life. Most young, second-generation Western Muslims don't wake up in the morning thinking how I'm going blow myself up and kill my neighbours. They're thinking how I'm going to get through today, get my work done; how I'm going to get my new mortgage, get married.
Western societies need to understand one thing -- the Islam they invest in today is the Islam they're going to get tomorrow. We want to bring in scholars who can close the East-West divide, who can speak to Muslims living in the West. Scholars like Sheik Hamza Yusuf or Abdullah Binbaya, who's based in Saudi Arabia, a Mauritanian sheik of very high repute. The legitimacy these scholars bring is that they have made an effort to understand what Islam says, not what the people are saying in the streets.
Q: In the face of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the continued questioning in the West of Muslim identity, how do you hope to get the message of moderation across to impressionable, volatile young people?
A: My message isn't to do with Western occupation of Iraq or what's going on in Afghanistan or Palestine. I'm working with Islam, the faith. And I can only argue that this is what Islam teaches me about this situation. You judge a faith or a religion or an ideology by the way it reacts to adversity. We say these problems are not permanent. The way we react to adversity, the way we behave as people of God, that's a permanent thing. We're allowed to be black; we're allowed to be Asian. But we have never been allowed to be Muslim. And we have found that, the more liberal a person is, the more they tend to be hostile to someone whose religion is a source of their identity. So you grow up as a Muslim in a sense of negativity.
Q: How else do you tackle this well-funded, well organized extremism?
A: We are not going to have even one percent of the resources that the other party has in terms of developing this moderate form of Islam. But what is on our side is that we are not reinventing the wheel. The idea is to find within the genius of Islam -- in 1,400 years of history -- what works. Mainstream Islam -- based on nonviolence, on a sense of justice, on a sense of honesty, on a sense of fairness -- is something that has developed over centuries in Islam. It's up to us to go and find people who know where this is in our history, bring it into the forefront and share it with others. The worst thing we can do is to push this radical agenda underground. I wrote an article two or three years ago to say the war against terrorism and the new antiterrorism laws will push the whole debate and agenda underground. And then we will not have a clue what is happening. When 7\7 [the London transport bombings of July7, 2005] happened, it just blew up in our face. Believe me, the intelligence people in the West have no clue what is going on.
Q: How do you measure success?
For me, the success will be when somebody sees a Muslim in the street and identifies him, not with the collapse of the twin towers, but with the beauty of the Taj Mahal; then I will know that we have succeeded.