Revisiting the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory

al-monitor Lebanon's newly appointed grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul-Latif Derian, gestures during a ceremony for his appointment in Beirut, Aug. 10, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir.

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sharia, quran, mufti, lebanon, islam, coexistence, al-azhar

Mar 25, 2015

BEIRUT — The grand mufti of Lebanon, Sheikh Abdul-Latif Derian, has called for “replacing the concept of clash of civilizations with that of convergence of civilizations,” wondering, “How does Islam benefit in the actions of those who are spreading violence in foreign countries in the name of religion?”

Derian said that “moderation is power because it is an Islamic religious position that represents the direction of the vast majority of Muslims and non-Muslims.” In an interview with Al-Hayat on the eve of his departure to London, the grand mufti’s first visit there in decades, he said, “Despite all our suffering from the mounting waves of terrorism, we have to confront distorted concepts.” He stressed that he advocates renewing the religious discourse in the face of “random takfir. … Islam does not have concepts that are old and others that are new.”

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Hayat:  In your inaugural address, your eminence said last that moderation is not weakness. Aren’t the continual terrorist crimes in the name of religion evidence that extremism has a strong base of support among some young people compared with your moderation?

Derian:  Since I took over the post of grand mufti of the Lebanese Republic, we have been working hard to showcase the tolerance, centrism and moderation of Islam. Since then, particularly in the inauguration ceremony, I have been saying to Lebanon and the Arab world that one of our mission’s priorities will be to face extremism and terrorism in cooperation with all the religious authorities in Lebanon and the Arab world. There is no doubt that when reading the reality that we are going through in the Arab region and in the world, we see that extremism and terrorism are on the rise. To face the harsh practices of extremist groups, we have called for the raising of the voice of moderation and for following its path. We have said and continue to say that moderation is not weakness but a methodology to comprehensively confront extremism, the distortion of religion and terrorism. This moderate stance in the face of the onslaught to exclude and eliminate the other reflects commitment … and strength because it correctly reflects religion and its constants. We have the jurisprudence of the true religious concepts, and the jurisprudence to live with ourselves, with our citizens, and with the world, in deeds, not just in words. Moderation is power if all the efforts of the honest people who believe in this approach were combined. [This approach] is in fact a way of life for faith, Islam and religion in general. Yes, moderation is power because it is a general Islamic and religious position and because it represents the views of the vast majority of Muslims and non-Muslims, who reject violence and terrorism and who reject what is being committed in the name of religion or a sect, practices that, to say the least, are awful and incompatible with religious values.

The force of moderation is not weakened by terrorist acts committed in the name of religion, and it is not weakened if some of these groups found supporters in some Arab countries, because the force of moderation is expressed by the consensus of the Muslims and the followers of religions through conferences and workshops that are held in order to face the ideology of these groups that are committing abuses by claiming that all is being done in the name of religion and by claiming that their abhorrent actions are moving them closer to God.

There is no doubt that moderation will be strong if we implement the decisions of the conferences that were held and that will be held to counter extremism. We should not content ourselves with conferences, seminars and issuing condemnatory statements after every terrorist or criminal incident, but we should follow up on these statements, positions and decisions and put them into practice to protect our young people and our future generations from extremist ideology.

Despite our suffering from the escalating waves of terrorism, we have to work hard through religious, intellectual and civil society institutions to address the distortion of the [religious] concepts and to protect our young people and our future generations by embracing them and by undergoing serious reform, as well as by restoring confidence in ourselves and in the Lebanese and Arab people … who do not accept nor want violence and terrorism by any party. That is because violence and terrorism have no religion or sect, and their confrontation is a responsibility that is shared by everyone because they affect everyone without distinction. Moderation is power because it is a work method and the nation’s [umma] project and religion. Extremism and terrorism are weakness because they target innocent and unsuspecting people. A few individuals will not be able to harm the majority’s project and methodology.

The 'random takfir' problem

Al-Hayat:  How can we address what was missed by the moderates and the ulemas [scholars], who believe that Islam is a religion of moderation at a time when [Islam] is being used by extremists to mobilize segments of society through takfir [considering other Muslims as non-Muslims]. [What can the moderates] do to [counter] this thought in Islamic societies and abroad?

Derian:  Yes, it is true. We the moderates, ulemas and the major religious and educational institutions have missed many matters in the affairs of religious education, schooling, religious edicts and in religious care in mosques. But we now have to realize that great responsibilities in the above-mentioned areas lie on our shoulders.

We have to be aware of that. Reform can succeed, especially since most Muslims are with us in this. [Most Muslims] are hungry to hear the voice of religion, rational thinking and good exhortations.

Random and unjust takfir is a real problem. This takfir was taken by some as a means to harm people’s lives, freedoms, dignities and honor. It is used not only to enforce an opinion or a doctrine, but even to commit the three acts forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. In his farewell address, the prophet said that [your blood, wealth and honor are sanctified … until the Day of Resurrection]. Unfortunately, these sanctities have [been violated] in our countries and in some foreign countries. What is dangerous for all of us is that these few violent individuals have gained great destructive power. They are distorting religion and the jurisprudence of common living. And they are killing, slaughtering and burning all those who disagree with their ideology. They are sweeping towns and villages, demolishing houses and displacing innocent people. They are doing all this in the name of Islam, as they claim. But the message of this religion is compassion for all people (“we have sent you as a mercy to the worlds”). … So to preserve our religion and society, we have to confront, correct and reform in order to protect our young people, our societies and our future generations and to prevent the emergence of new generations of extremists.

We wonder: How does it benefit Islam or the Muslim living in foreign countries when some individuals commit violent acts in the name of religion in those countries? Our fathers and grandfathers went abroad and hundreds of thousands of us today are living there. Muslims have lived there in peace, security and satisfaction and by performing their religious rites and building mosques and Islamic centers. And they have coexisted with these countries in mutual affection. So is it an interest to fuel hatred in the [Muslim] communities abroad? We all have to re-form the bridges of closeness, harmony and mutual trust in the diaspora communities. We have to strengthen the elements of common living there. We have to show the tolerance of our religion in dealing with each other and with others, both within our diverse communities and in foreign countries.

We are meeting in order to conduct reforms

Al-Hayat:  You have said more than once in your sermons that “reform is absolutely necessary. It is a call of the prophets. And we have to re-qualify in order to do the tasks of teaching and jurisprudence.” From where should religious reform begin?

Derian:  Yes. Reform is a necessity because reform aims to clarify the correct concepts of the Islamic religion and to defend our religion from the distortion and slander campaigns. Reform will save our societies and allow Muslims to live in the world. For our part, reform starts, as you mentioned, in religious education from childhood and in the mosques. I have mentioned this in my speeches in the last six months. I mentioned this immediately after I was elected and in my inauguration on Sept. 15, 2014. These days we are in the midst of a comprehensive reform process. There is a reality that needs major reform. But our situation in Lebanon is relatively better than in other countries and societies. The desired reform is focused on our institutions, on our religious guidance capabilities and in our religious media. No doubt, all this will require long-term action. But we have already started and we have seen a great response from within our religious, educational and media institutions, and those of our society.

The Christians and the Yazidis

Al-Hayat:  Some believe that this reform needs to be bold. It is true that your positions are against perverting religion to justify killing. And [your position] has been greeted. But doesn’t the matter need courage in confronting the existing religious schools that are based on old concepts?

Derian:  In the Islamic religious establishment, we have no sacred authority. We can only impose something on the parties that are subject to our management and mandate according to Legislative Decree No. 18/1955, as amended. Even in our institutions, we need competence and the ability to persuade. More than half of religious schools were not set up by Dar al-Fatwa. They do not coordinate with us and are not subject to our guidelines. Of course, not all private religious schools are extremist, but only those that have problematic teachings or those who have violent men among their graduates. [With those schools] we are following a two-track approach: On the one hand, we are rebuilding our schools in a proper and reformed way, whereby they are attractive to boys and girls. On the other hand, we are following up on, criticizing and condemning [the schools that are not doing a good upbringing]. Then we will resort to the official authorities, which unfortunately permitted these schools to operate.

I would like to comment on two things that you asked about: the issue of old concepts and the issue of courage. Regarding the old concepts, I say that the concepts and the actions of the extremist groups are due to one of two things: distorting religious principles by resorting to incorrect explanations and understandings of some religious concepts, or by borrowing practices from other contemporary extremist groups. The Islamic religion, which has concepts on how Muslims and non-Muslims can live together, has nothing to do with this deadly violence. In the proper interpretation of the Islamic religion, there are no old concepts and no new concepts. The Islamic religion, according to its message of tolerance and the constants prescribed in the book of God almighty and in the proper prophetic Sunnah, is an integrated religion and way of life. All the legal provisions contained in this religion are to either serve man’s interest or protect him from harm. Of course, we advocate reinterpretations and renewal in religious discourse based on the true religion. This approach has entered major Islamic religious institutions hundred of years ago. The Islamic religion and our jurisprudence are based on reinterpreting issues and questions that do not have a religious text that decides them. Unfortunately, some extremist groups destroy, kill and burn people as a result of an understanding that is not based on fixed jurisprudential evidence. We wonder: What does Islam, a religion of mercy, love, morality, tolerance and good exhortation, have to do with what these individuals are committing in the name of this great religion?

We also wonder … the Christians, the Yazidis, and the followers of various sects and religions have lived with our communities for centuries and centuries; why is coexistence being shunned now? Why are they being killed and displaced despite the fact that our Lord almighty ordered us in the Quran to treat well those who do not fight our religion or do not displace us (“God forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them, for God loves those who are just.”)

As for the courage that you are requesting from us, courage is necessary to correct the concepts that have been distorted by some who belong to Islam. We must say what our Islam and our beliefs are. Muslims should not [call other Muslims apostates] nor question the faith of those who proclaim the two shahadas [testimonials] [i.e., “There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God”] and work in accordance with them. The religious edicts of our clerics and our teachings were based on that for hundreds of years.

Reforming religious discourse

Al-Hayat:  Are there any projects to modernize the religious discourse across the religious corps in Dar al-Fatwa. Aren’t the jurisprudence institutions hesitant to remove what Mufti Shawki Allam called “vagueness and ambiguousness that diverted it from the right path”?

Derian:  In Dar al-Fatwa and in our endowment institutions, and in cooperation with the muftis of the Lebanese regions, we have projects to modernize and reform religious discourse so that it can achieve its desired role in our communities, with our young men and women and for our future generations. Our Arab tours and our meetings with religious officials in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and the conferences that we participated in were to coordinate and exchange experiences in the fields of proselytizing, training and rehabilitation so as to reform the religious discourse. Regarding my dear friend the mufti of Egypt, Shawki Allam, he and I have the same vision and direction and we agree on how to work together. This also applies to my relationship with the grand mufti of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, and the Minister of Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Juma. We are in fruitful and joint coordination, whose results will appear in the coming day, God willing. I must commend the role played by Al-Azhar and its authority in Egypt and the Arab and Muslim worlds in the defense of Islamic issues and in correcting concepts through the world conference, which was held in Al-Azhar under the title “Al-Azhar in the face of extremism and terrorism.” There is no doubt that the global statement that was issued as a result of this conference was a very important historical document reflecting the attitude of Muslims toward the distortions of Islam. It took a general Islamic stance to condemn all violent and terrorist practices perpetrated by extremist groups in the name of religion.

I must commend all the expressive attitudes issued by the Islamic authorities in the Arab and Islamic countries that reject extremist discourse and practices that distort the image of Islam and its greatness. This includes the positions of the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia and his excellency the secretary-general of the Muslim World League.

Reassured about the situation in Lebanon

Al-Hayat:  You always stress coexistence in your position. Doesn’t the promotion of coexistence require tolerance, for example, optional civil marriage, which many in society want? Shouldn’t you follow this path in order to be in line with Al-Azhar’s document about the four freedoms?

Derian:  Al-Azhar’s documents on the four basic freedoms — freedom of religion, freedom of scientific research, freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of literary and artistic creativity — are all progressive and reformist interpretations of jurisprudence. Of course, during my inaugural address, I announced compliance with these documents. And I hope that these documents are published so that they can be accessed and so that a consensus is formed around them because these documents confirm the tolerant Islamic Sharia principles and the freedoms regime supported by international conventions.

Coexistence, which I like to call the “one living” within a diverse community, is an essential part in our understanding of our religion and our dealings with each other in our different religions and sects, and with our communities and world communities. There is no doubt that this living should be cemented by a set of understandings, procedures and formulas. Other religious heads and I are honestly and sincerely working to promote the “one living” values in our homeland, Lebanon. I think we have come a long way in promoting these values. We have had a spiritual summit in Dar al-Fatwa after I assumed the position of grand mufti. We have issued a statement emphasizing the unique and distinctive formula in Lebanon and in our diverse East, and that this formula should be promoted. We have also emphasized the shared responsibility of the Muslims and Christians in confronting extremist and exclusionary thought and practices that are taking place in some of our countries. We will have regular Islamic and spiritual summits to promote Islamic-Islamic and Islamic-Christian relations. And I am very contented regarding the strength of our situation in Lebanon and I think that we have a sufficient immunity against sectarian strife because society is aware of Lebanon’s role and mission inside Lebanon and around the world.

Regarding civil marriage, whether voluntary or compulsory, and you asked us for courage, we affirm that the multiple projects in this regard have nothing to do with tolerance and intolerance nor with strengthening or weakening [coexistence]. I have already confirmed that we are with the virtue of tolerance to promote “one living” among our Lebanese communities. But we are in greater need for love because love is superior to the value of tolerance. In Lebanon, we need to live together under the formula of the one Lebanese family. And I aspire with other religious leaders to create the House of the Lebanese Family just like the House of the Egyptian Family, which was created in the Al-Azhar and whose presidency rotates every six months between the mufti of Al-Azhar and the Coptic pope.

With such initiatives and formulas, and to uphold the “one living” formula, tolerance, love, and respecting and accepting the others, we will protect our homeland Lebanon from any setback that could spark sectarian strife.

Al-Hayat:  What are the aspects of future cooperation between the Arab and Islamic jurisprudence institutions to develop solutions to the problems encountered when facing extremism?

Derian:  We have already begun to cooperate. And we participated in the Al-Azhar Conference in the Face of Extremism and Terrorism, in the Muslim World League in Mecca and in the conference of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Cairo, in addition to participating in several workshops in preparation for the holding of conferences to explain the greatness of Islam and a statement about its right concepts, its moral values and its ethics of dealing with [noncombatants] in war. There are continued contacts with Arab and Islamic religious institutions for the purpose of closer cooperation in all fields that promote mutual relations and to exchange experiences. We are close to cooperating with Al-Azhar on the issue of religious education and programs. And we are close to signing agreements with the ministries of Islamic affairs, endowments, preaching and guidance in Arab countries. There is ongoing consultation between us and religious institutions in the Arab and Islamic countries to reach solutions and procedures in order to cope with extremist and terrorist ideas, and to gain mutual benefit in the field of programs that have achieved great success, such as the counseling and care program.

Al-Hayat:  In your statements, you hope that the dialogues lead to a reduction in sectarian tension. Do you have a role regarding this matter in the relationship with Shiite religious leaders (in Lebanon) and especially in the Arab countries?

Derian:  Dar Al-Fatwa is an Islamic and national reference. It has good and excellent relations with Muslim and Christian religious references in Lebanon. We are trying hard to ease sectarian tensions, promote moderate discourse and establish good relations with other Muslim groups. And of course other parties have responded in this regard. We have started feeling the positive effects of this cooperation and responsiveness.

In Lebanon, we are very keen on having good relations among Muslims in their diverse sects. We always strive for convergence and dialogue. We have encouraged the current political dialogues among the Lebanese political parties. There is no doubt that these dialogues have removed a lot of tension. We have high hopes regarding these dialogues because they protect our homeland, Lebanon, from a lot of crises, especially in these difficult conditions being experienced by some Arab countries. These dialogues are also an essential entrance to arrive at a set of understandings about current Lebanese issues, the most important of which is to preserve the coherence of the Lebanese people and to maintain security and stability in our country. We hope these dialogues reach a political consensus that would take Lebanon out of the current crises and lead to a compromise to accomplish the major tasks, the most important of which is the presidential election, because it is no longer acceptable that the office of the president remains vacant. This vacancy will reflect negatively on the Lebanese situation in general, and on state institutions and their performance.

The London visit

Al-Hayat:  What do you hope to achieve from your visit to London? What is the role of that visit amid the growth of takfiri incitement among the expatriates on the one hand and the West’s moving toward repressive measures against Muslims by considering them as pro-Islamic State or due to Islamophobia on the other hand?

Derian:  We have received a formal invitation from the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs to visit the United Kingdom. This is our first visit to Britain. Of course we accept this invitation because we are committed to confirm the mutual understanding between cultures and religions, and to strengthen the Lebanese-British relations for the benefit of both countries. The visit will include meetings with high-level British officials. And we will have meetings with Muslim and Christian religious figures. During the visit, we will meet with Islamic societies and the Lebanese community. We consider that human differences require convergence and knowing the other in order to live in peace and love and mutual respect. The theme of the Islamic-Christian dialogue, how to promote it and how to rebuild the bridges of communication and understanding between the civilizations will be a topic of discussion during our meetings. We have to replace the concept of clash of civilizations with that of convergence of civilizations because it would be beneficial for all humanity to live in peace, love and cooperation, not to live in mutual fear, strife and collision.

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