View of Kuala Lumpurs High Rises, Malaysia
Skyline of the capital of Malaysia Kuala Lumpur; Photo: Indra Gunawan (CC0) via Pexels

The Battle of Narratives

Aizat Shamsuddin knows how attractive and captivating the offerings of religious fundamentalists can be. He himself was part of the Salafist movement in Malaysia, an ultra-conservative movement within Islam. He then came across the ideals of a progressive interpretation of Islam. This information opened up a new world to him: A world, in which Islam is understood as a source of dignity, justice, compassion and love for all humanity.

Today, Shamsuddin works as Chairman of the "Alliance of Inclusive Muslims" (AIM) in Kuala Lumpur. The purpose of the non-governmental organisation is to counter radical, intolerant and supremacist attitudes and behaviour in Muslim communities and to consolidate the efforts of progressive Muslims from around the world. AIM stands for freedom of religion, freedom of expression, women rights and progressive Islamic knowledge in terms of research and science. Within the scope of ifa's CrossCulture Programme, Shamsuddin spent several days at "Inside-Out", a German initiative against Islamist-motivated extremism. In February, we had the chance to get to know the organisation in Stuttgart. We met Shamsuddin and the project leader of "Inside-Out", Tilman Weinig. A table conversation about similarities and differences in the fight against extremism.

By Wolfgang Kuhnle

ifa: Mr Shamsuddin, you have decided to stand up for an inclusive and progressive movement within Islam. Why is bringing these movements together so important?

Aizat Shamsuddin: We consolidate the efforts of progressive Muslims around the world because we think that progressive Muslim voices are not heard. They are very under-resourced which is one reason why in Muslim majority countries, they have limited space to express themselves. AIM wants to put all the progressive knowledge together on one online platform so that everyone can find and access it easily and organize programmes at the grassroot and policy level to change attitudes and mindsets.

ifa: Mr Weinig, is a liberal-religious information offer also important in Germany?

Tilman Weinig: In Germany we often experience that the internet can inspire young people with radical ideas. Making progressive knowledge accessible is therefore a very important point in Germany, too. If a young Muslim does not know a lot about his or her religion and he or she wants to know how to deal with a topic from a religious perspective, he or she uses the Internet to find answers. What they find there is very often religious extremism. Therefore, we need a contra narrative. We need to offer information, which shows alternative representations off the extremism.

ifa: The approach of "Inside-Out" is to take preventive action against all forms of religious extremism – especially Islamist-motivated extremism - at an early age. To do this, your work often starts in schools. What characterizes your work on site?

Weinig: The strength of our school projects is that we bring a new impulse into the familiar learning processes. When we go to schools, mostly for one day, our task is not to talk down to the students from above, but to get in touch with them. We use the advantage of being outsiders of that school. We might also use tools that teachers do not use, for instance to provoke discussions or to emotionalize the audience.

Aizat Shamsuddin at the CCP-Workshop of ifa im Februar 2018
In February 2018 Aizat Shamsuddin participated at a
Workshop of the CrossCulture Programm;
Photo: ifa / Alena Kolle
Aizat Shamsuddin talking to other participants of the CrossCulture Programme
At the workshop Aizat Shamsuddin met other participants
from different countries;
Photo: ifa / Alena Kolle

ifa: What kind of tools do you use in order to attract the attention of your students?

Weinig: Most of the time, we don't tell them the topic of our sessions in advance. We approach the pupils via an experiment or an event. For this we often use methods from theatre pedagogy. In the beginning, we usually try to create a common basis and then hope that they will get to the topics themselves. For example, we conduct a game on discrimination. Perhaps a Muslim girl will tell us about her experiences with that topic, because she is veiled. The pupils then successfully connect themselves with the topics. This is the big difference compared to everyday school life.

ifa: How does the states of Germany and Malaysia position themselves itself in terms of the prevention of extremist radicalisation? Do they have anything in common?

Shamsuddin: I have been in Germany for one month now and I can already see how the government supports preventive initiatives that work against radicalisation. In most Muslim majority countries, it works the other way around, although I believe there is effort from the governments to counter extremism. That means that radicalisation is commonly caused by the state or by state funded authorities themselves, such as a Sharia police. If you do not dress properly or think critically, for instance, they can arrest you. It sends a message to the society to moral-police other people, sometimes with an act of discrimination or violence. At the same time - ironically - the state frequently claims to be at the global forefront fighting against extremism. However, they prosecute minorities in their home countries. This contradiction is very problematic.

ifa: Where does this hypocritical attitude come from?

Shamsuddin: In Malaysia, I think one reason is that religion has become very institutionalised and politicised by politicians and religious leaders. Consequently, Islam is seen monolithic, undebatable and rigid by the people. This blocks any dissenting view on religion and affects the minorities with discriminatory policies.
Policies based on Islamic values should reflect full protection of human rights and prevent extremist ideology. But the state-sanctioned policies, not all, failed to take this into consideration. Politicians think that they have to "choose" between two legal interpretation while they don't have to, they can protect all citizens. As long as their policies are coherent with the principles of justice, fairness, proportionality and empathy emphasized in Islam.

ifa: From these statements I hear a strong plea for an early promotion of critical thinking.

Weinig: Definitely yes. It is well documented that people who get radicalised do not have a dialogic or discursive understanding of their religion. So, usually people who do not know much about religion are susceptible to radical thinking. Some of them do not even know what Suni and Shia means. If they learned from debates how pluralistic Islam really is, there would be less chance that they would opt for radical ideologies. This kind of educational work is a big part of what we do.
Shamsuddin: I agree. The monolithic thinking is not only a problem of the German society but also one of Muslim societies. In my opinion, the basis for critical thinking is academic freedom in schools and universities. In many countries young people are persistently taught that theft must be punished with draconian punishments such as amputation. Much more important than speaking about punishments, would be to reflect upon the economic situation. Some people have no choice but to steal. Also the proportionality of the punishment and justice has to be taken into account seriously. Selected best practices in Muslim-majority countries, such as Tunisia and Indonesia are exemplary of how to improve equal rights for women and religious pluralism without abandoning the Islamic values.

Aizat Shamsuddin and Tilman Weinig with a publication of "Inside-Out"
Aizat Shamsuddin and Tilman Weinig work against islamic motivated extremism; Photo: ifa / Wolfgang Kuhnle

ifa: It is not always easy to stand up for a renewal in matters of religion and thus society. There is often a strong headwind. What is it like to fight against religious extremism in Malaysia and the region?

Shamsuddin: In our neighbouring country of Indonesia, colleagues who are campaigning for a tolerant Islam are often celebrated for their work. Unfortunately, sometimes threatened with death by extremists. It includes physical threat of violence. In Malaysia, however, we are experiencing more defamation on the Internet. I would say that the problem of vigilante attack is rather under control in Malaysia. It is more like a "clickbait" of negative fake news. Extremists might, for instance, use your logo in combination with an Israeli flag so that people start questioning your integrity. But these people have no guts! They wouldn't say that to your face.

Weinig: If you are a liberal Muslim in Germany, you might also face problems. Of course, not in the same way as in Malaysia. Let us just take the case of the reform-oriented and liberal "Ibn Rushd-Goethe" mosque in Berlin in summer 2017. Its female founder, Seyran Ateş, known so far for her criticism of the Islamic associations in Germany, was threatened by German Islamists with death after the opening of the mosque.

Shamsuddin: The big difference between Malaysia and Germany in that regards is that the police came to protect Seyran Ateş as well as the mosque itself. This would not happen in Muslim majority countries. Instead, they might say "You cannot practice this kind of faith here anymore. You should close the mosque." The best would be, of cause, the police protected all people from imminent threats.

"Inside-Out" is a project of the Stuttgarter Jugendhaus gGmbH. It develops and tests concepts for radicalisation prevention of religious extremism. The project is networked nationwide and cooperates with international organisations and institutions. Through various educational offers, democratic attitudes and values as well as a plural understanding of religion are to be promoted. "Inside-Out" is funded by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth as part of the federal programme "Living Democracy". 41 youth centres in the Stuttgart area form the local basis. With the help of a specialist centre for religious fundamentalism, multipliers are to be enabled in further training courses to recognise processes of radicalisation and to counteract them with pedagogical measures.

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