Geopolitics & Security

The State of Debate Within Islam: Theological Developments in the Muslim World Since 9/11

Paper8th September 2021

In our 9/11 – 20 Years On collection, we take this milestone anniversary as an opportunity to reflect and reassess, looking at what leaders and policymakers should consider to deliver lasting change.

Chapter 1

The issues in the Muslim world that led to the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 have been vigorously contested in the two decades since. What is more, it is not only Western countries that have lost thousands of civilians, soldiers and security personnel due to extremism since 9/11. During this period, the Muslim world has lost many more civilians and members of the armed and security forces, killed by violence caused by Islamist extremism.

The past two decades have also seen intensified debates in the Muslim world on ideological issues, as the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath laid bare internal problems to do with extremism, Islamism, Islam-state dynamics and relations with the rest of the world.

Detailed data from the Global Extremism Monitor (GEM), published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, show that in just the two years 2017 and 2018, over 33,000 civilians and nearly 18,000 security personnel were killed around the world due to violent Islamist extremism. In the same period, a further 70,000 people who had joined Islamist extremist groups died in clashes with security forces or terrorist attacks. This adds up to over 120,000 casualties, the vast majority of whom were Muslims.

By extrapolating these GEM data, the Institute estimates that since 9/11, there have been tens of thousands of Muslim civilian victims of Islamist terrorist attacks as well as thousands of non-Muslim ones. The former have comprised lay Muslims, imams, Islamic clerics, Muslim activists and aid workers. Islamic sites targeted in Islamist terrorist attacks include mosques and shrines of saints that are places of pilgrimage for many Muslims. Thus, the Muslim world has been as traumatised by violent Islamist extremism as the rest of the world – if not more so – over the past two decades.

Islamist extremist violence will never be solved without a resolution of underlying ideological issues in the Muslim world. Despite the awful statistics about violence, the good news is that significant intellectual and theological developments have taken place in the Muslim world over the past 20 years to address and resolve many of these issues. The issues in question relate especially to the struggle between progressive, modernising forces and regressive, fundamentalist ones for the soul of Islam. Both sides in this struggle were arguably galvanised by 9/11 and its aftermath.

According to the Institute’s open-source research, senior Islamic clerics, political leaders and community leaders have issued over 120 major fatwas and statements against extremist and terrorist groups since 1998. These declarations have been published in over 60 countries, including every nation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The fatwas have been issued by the official grand muftis of many countries and by the OIC’s official fatwa body. Thus, they represent the theological positions of thousands of Muslim clerics and Islamic scholars who influence hundreds of millions of Muslims. Original research presented in this report shows that the 175 leading Muslim scholars who signed an open letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, between 2014 and 2019 have a combined social media following of over 85 million on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

Furthermore, at least a dozen major international Islamic charters and declarations have been issued in the past 20 years. These initiatives have covered the four ideological foundations of Islamist extremism, human and women’s rights, the rights of non-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries, the rejection of theological justifications of violence by Islamist terrorist groups, the promotion of human coexistence, support for scientific endeavour and climate change.

This report summarises some of these debates, with an emphasis on good news and positive developments in the Muslim world since 9/11. It also identifies gaps in these debates and highlights some areas that need further attention and discussion.

Governments, policymakers and decision-makers should take note of the intense ongoing debates in the Muslim world. They should enable and support those voices and forces that are more open, inclusive and universalist with respect to the rest of the world. Such forces are more likely to be durable allies in efforts to build a shared, equitable future for humanity.

Download the full report

Lead Image: Getty Images

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