Too often we associate moderation with the supposedly weaker qualities of leadership: compromise, pragmatism, process over substance. In the context of the theological and public relations battles fought over the essence of Islam in recent times, it is hard to disagree that the extremists have been most effective in promoting their brand of violent fundamentalism.
But the battle is not over. In fact, for the moderate majority, the secret weapon may have arrived. He is Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, the Islamic Shaykh and PhD holder who I was fortunate enough to hear speak recently at a US Institute of Peace event in Washington DC. He rose to prominence in March 2010 when he published his ‘Fatwa against Suicide Bombings and Terrorism’, though in fact his entire life has been one of public service and religious devotion – driven by a rigorous commitment to the peaceful tenets of his faith.
His resume is inspiring: Pakistan’s leading Islamic scholar with over 400 books published; a world renowned Islamic jurist and adviser to the Supreme Court of Pakistan; Chairman of the Board of Governors of Minhaj University in Lahore. Most consequential is his founding of Minhaj-ul-Quran International, whose educational branch has established over 570 schools and colleges in Pakistan, and whose humanitarian wing has sought to spread the message of peace around the world by building centers in more than 90 countries.
Impressive, no? Yet for the majority of us in the West his name remains unknown – limited in scope until he is able to garner a critical mass of media coverage. Until now the extremists have held the trump card with chilling (and enthralling) plots of bombs hidden in printer cartridges flying over western cities. With the release of al-Qaida’s English-language ‘Inspire’ magazine the task has become even greater. For many it is becoming (dangerously) plausible and easy to believe that the worshiper at the local mosque just might resemble the plotters hiding in the hills of Yemen and Afghanistan.
But this time it can, and must, be different. The Shaykh is a moderate of the radical variety – innovative and uncompromising, a standard bearer for his belief that Islam was designed as an outlet for spirituality and harmony, not ideology and violence. Thus he has sought to reclaim ancient Islamic concepts from Bin Laden and co. by issuing the recent fatwa calling for an end to the slaughter of innocents, and by tackling the misrepresentation of jihad head on – not simply through recitations of peace, but through a systematic explanation of the Quran designed to prove the other side’s distortions. His unqualified rejection of these practices was evident as he answered a question about the proper definition of al-Qaida-type suicide bombers. To define them, he said, as ‘Islamists’ was to legitimize their violent actions and to falsely link such acts with the religion itself. Rather, they should be known as “terrorists, killers, enemies of mankind”, he argued.
There is no doubt that Shaykh Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri is a passionate and skilled defender of religious moderation. He will surely need all the assistance we can offer if he is to remain on the offensive against the extremists that so defile his religion, and to be heard over the din of fear and suspicion that too often flourishes in western disourse.