Tackling extremism the wrong way: Defining yourself in opposition to something else

Tajikistan has been in the news after the government pushed through legislation to ‘encourage’ men to shave their beards, adopt names that were more in keeping with the local culture/language and clothing that is more in keeping with the countries tradition rather than importing ‘foreign ideas’ from outside of the country.

The basic argument is put forward is that part of the lure of extremism is due to the lack of a positive self identity of who one is, where they came from and what traditions one is born into but when those are undermined it creates fertile ground due to those foundational components of ones identity are fragile and open to manipulation and replacement with ideas and values that are incompatible with the local tradition that has emerged in the country. The end goal is admirable but the methodology of getting their is just appalling because ultimately it’ll create more problems that it’ll solve, it’ll create a myth that secularism is anti-Islam (Islam as it is defined by those who feel victimised by the law changes), it doesn’t actually go about creating a positive self image of what it means to be a Tajikistani other than “I don’t know what we are but we sure as hell aren’t one of those people over there”.

If the long term goal is to create a positive self image as to protect and encourage the development of a uniquely Tajikistani interpretation of Islam then what the government should have done was to take a more productive approach when dealing with such a matter. First of all we in the west need to take on the responsibility as we did when countering Soviet totalitarianism (a political system masquerading as communism or socialism – depending on who you talk to) and that is to address the conditions aka the breeding ground for extremism to develop – the ideology itself maybe the exclusive purview of the self appointed vanguard but the material conditions of one’s day to day reality are the fertile soil in which these ideologies take advantage of in mobilising large numbers of people who have genuine grievances and provide an outlet to get back at the source of the injustice they face even if it means lashing out at those who have nothing to do with the system.

Secondly, through the education system create a sense of national identity – what does it mean to be Tajikistani? teach history, how did Islam come to Tajikistan – how as it spread, what are some of the unique aspects of Tajikistan Islamic tradition in contrast to other traditions that have developed in other countries. Through understanding the development of the various regional interpretations and traditions it allows one to see that the idea of a ‘gold standard of Islam’ that Wahhabi’s so readily like to point out that they’re the standard bearers for simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Thirdly, through the network of mosques, to adequately critique what the extremists say and reference history – the fact that these extremists aren’t any different to previous loud mouths (Ibn Tamiyyah, Muhammad Ibn Abd Al Wahhab, the Kajarites etc.) are no different back then as they are now – going against the grain with the claim that they have the ultimate and pure form of Islam and that everyone else is apparently wrong along with the 1400 years of scholarship from some of the greatest minds within Islamic scholarship.

Will those three steps prove to have a 100% success rate? no but the rate of success will be a whole lot better than the current approach by the Tajikistani government when it comes to dealing with extremism. Deal with the source of the problem and you’ll find that the lure of extremism will dampen then eventually wain as the next generation realise that at the core of these extremism ideology is power – not the self righteous piety they parade but power for power’s own sake. It isn’t a situation of a group getting power to change things for the better but rather getting power to dominate and subjugate for its own sake. Reminds me of the quote regarding how the world is filled with two types of people, people who build and those who destroy, take a guess which group the extremists fall into.

Something to end on a lighter note, a bit of Bektashi Order humour:

A Bektashi was praying in the mosque. While those around him were praying “May God grant me faith,” he muttered “May God grant me plenty of wine.” The imam heard him and asked angrily why instead of asking for faith like everyone else, he was asking God for something sinful. The Bektashi replied, “Well, everyone asks for what they don’t have.”

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