Fires of extremism must be fought from within by Muslims

EVEN from its own stellar standards of savagery that the so-called Islamic State has established in a very short time, the cold-blooded killing of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh is truly chilling and unprecedented. It has shocked and outraged a region that has seen more than its fair share of shock and awe - in the words of former United States Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld - and blood-curdling barbarity in the past few years.

And that is clearly what the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) wanted - to shock and awe countries in the region and their Western allies on the one hand, and win more recruits and converts to its nihilistic, cynical cause on the other.

Predictably, the immolation of the Jordanian pilot in a cage and filming it for posterity has drawn the strongest denunciations from across the Arab and Islamic world.

The Cairo-based Al-Azhar, the 1,000-year old centre of Islamic learning, called for matching punishment for the killers, describing the ISIS as a "Satanic" cult.

An angry Al-Azhar Rector Sheikh Tayib argued that the killing "required the punishment mentioned in the Quran for these corrupt oppressors who fight against God and his Prophet: Killing, crucifixion or chopping of the limbs".

In Qatar, the International Association of Muslim Scholars headed by cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi, spiritual guide to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's Islamists, condemned it as "a criminal act": "The Association asserts that this extremist organisation does not represent Islam in any way and its actions always harm Islam."

Saudi cleric Salman al-Odah wrote on his Twitter account: "Burning is an abominable crime rejected by Islamic law regardless of its causes. Only God tortures by fire."

Even ordinary Muslims, usually mute, helpless spectators to the antics of groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, seem to have concluded that enough is enough.

"This is a barbaric act which has no place in Islam or humanity.

Islam bears no responsibility for them and their claim to be an Islamic State is ridiculous," Palestinian engineer Nawaf al-Dweik, in Ramallah told Reuters.

"There should be a joint Arab force to go in and destroy these killers and be rid of them once and for all."

Understandably, Arab governments and leaders in the region have severely attacked the killing, signalling a further toughening of stand against ISIS.

Jordan responded by swiftly executing two ISIS/Al-Qaeda-linked death row convicts.

The graphic murder of the 26-year old Jordanian pilot, who was captured in December when his fighter jet, part of the US-led bombing campaign against the militants, went down, comes close on the heels of the coldblooded beheading of the two Japanese hostages, one after another, by ISIS.

The Japanese journalists were killed on tape again apparently in response to Japan's offer of US$200 million (S$269 million) in aid to the Middle East nations fighting against militancy.

The Daesh, as ISIS is known in Arabic, demanded the same exact amount in ransom for the Japanese hostages.

Of course, under pressure from Western governments, Japan refused to "negotiate with the terrorists" with chilling consequences.

Last year, the ISIS shocked the world when it beheaded American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff in their regulation orange jumpsuits.

Indeed, since it burst on the scene last year, the group has been on a relentless killing spree.

And every massacre and killing - from the butchering of Yazidi tribesmen to gunning down of blindfolded Shi'ite militia men and Iraqi soldiers - is calculated and aimed at delivering maximum impact in an age and time when news and images travel at the speed of light.

And death by fire delivered the ultimate shock value for a people for whom fire represents the ultimate punishment from God.

Even in its earlier avatar, as Al-Qaeda in Iraq led by the dreaded Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the group was known for its exceptionally brutal ways.

But faith is not what killed the Jordanian pilot, the American journalists and the Japanese.

Islam has nothing to do with this death cult, no matter what these cynical killers say or claim to justify their actions.

Indeed, Arabs and Muslims have all the more reasons to despise these groups because they have suffered the most at the hands of terrorists.

Besides, they claim to speak and perpetrate these shameful acts in their name and in the name of their faith.

As Iraqi academic Ibrahim al-Marashi argues, "what killed Kasaesbeh was not Islam.

What killed him are the new dynamics of globalisation and transnational violence that have consumed the Middle East and the Islamic world, unleashed by the 2003 Iraq war and the 2011 Syrian civil war".

Unless the world acknowledges and confronts these "dynamics", it cannot effectively deal with groups like the ISIS.

You cannot ignore the fact that the group was born in response to a brutal, cooked-up war and occupation that killed more than a million people in Iraq.

Groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda and their competitive shenanigans to attract the world's attention are mere symptoms, not the disease itself.

Unless you do something about the germs that cause the sickness, you cannot conjure up a cure.

That said, the Arab and Islamic world can no longer content itself by blaming the West or by issuing condemnations every time an atrocity such as this is committed.

Muslim societies have to come up with more imaginative and effective ways to check this sickness in their midst.

We can no longer deny the fact that extremism has emerged as the greatest challenge to the Islamic world.

And this scourge within can be confronted and eliminated by the community itself.

External and spurious solutions can only aggravate the malaise.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Dubai-based journalist who was opinion editor and associate editor of Khaleej Times, the Gulf's oldest English daily.

This article was first published on Feb 6, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.