Correcting Religious Misconceptions

Correcting Religious Misconceptions

The Jordan Armed Forces has developed a cutting-edge counterextremism curriculum


Three indispensable factors are necessary to defeat terrorism: a professional army skilled in fighting, an accurate intelligence apparatus, and experts who can diagnose the extremist thinking that feeds terrorism.

The strongest armies in the world cannot defeat terrorism with just battle tanks and aircraft, because terrorism will rise again wherever it finds another security gap. However, when terrorist forces are destroyed, sleeper cells and financiers are traced by intelligence agencies and religious men denounce the lies of terrorists and prevent society from falling into the trap of extremist thought, then real victory be accomplished.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was among the first states to enact an anti-extremist ideology program under the guidance of the Jordan Armed Forces’ Fatwa Department, implemented by the Prince Hassan College for Islamic Studies.

Brig. Gen. Dr. Majed Aldwarsha, mufti of the Jordan Armed Forces, wrote Unipath to explain the strategic use of this important program. Joining him were Brig. Gen. Dr. Ibrahim Abu Eqab, dean of Prince Hassan College, and the college’s team of counterterrorism experts.

Unipath: Describe the counterextremism program.

Brig. Gen. Dr. Ibrahim Abu Eqab: First, extremist thought is fought only with correct thought. The best way to prevent extremist thought is to bolster correct thought in advance. From the beginning, we in the Ifta Department have worked hard to spread moderate Islamic thought. However, after the barbaric terrorist attacks against the innocent and the seduction of youths in the name of religion, and after the release of the Amman Message — which was a look to the future by our wise Hashemite leadership in 2004, warning of the dangers of extremism and urging a moderate path to reveal true Islam — our program received general acceptance and became the overall message of His Majesty the king in response to all such events.

In 2006, a book was published by the Ifta Department on how to approach the problem of extremism. I assure you that we are the first official military institution to write about this subject. We released a book about extremism and drew up counterextremist-thought courses that countered extremism through persuasion and evidence. We not only speak about the phenomenon, but we also diagnose it and provide the cure by examining concepts that form the basis of the erroneous philosophy of extremists. The most prominent issues are jihad and takfir and the related subjects of allegiance and disavowal. We make sure to examine these issues in this course in an academic way, and the materials are prepared by proficient and specialist professors.

For example, today’s lecturer is Professor Mohammed Alkufhi, who will speak about Sharia policy and its impact on counterextremist thought (citizenship as a model). This subject was part of his doctoral thesis. My doctoral thesis was about jihad, and I have delivered lectures about the subject. Sheikh Ra’ad Bani Khalaf wrote about the Prophet’s hadith and how misunderstanding it leads to extremism. Dr. Amer wrote about the creed and the thought of the khwaraj. He is a specialist on this subject. The duration of this course is two weeks, and we offer a package of relevant topics. The course has been successful, thank God, and the students give it positive reviews. I heard one of them saying that “we did not understand these topics until we took that course.” That person works in the Islamic judiciary, where extremists are tried. This is proof that the issues we approach through the course are complicated and that the average person cannot understand them by themselves. This is because they are not educational issues — they are specialized ones.

We thank God for the feedback we have received from our Saudi brothers who attended this course, saying that it was of great benefit. In the previous course, we had two brigadier generals from Saudi Arabia. We will continue to offer this successful program.

Unipath: Extremists cherry-pick legal opinions from imams. The hadith and stories they cite differ from those used by Muslims in general. How do you manage dialogue with extremists whose religious and historical references are incorrect?

Dr. Amer Alrajoub: I quote the verse of God, “And thus we have made you a just community” (Al Baqarah: 143). Islam is a moderate religion, and extremists have strayed so far from understanding religion that they declare Muslims to be disbelievers and kill innocent people. They may depend on texts that are shared by moderates, but the problem lies in their misunderstanding of these texts. They may take the superficial meaning and apply it to all Muslims. An example from the alhakimya verses (Dominion of Allah) is the verse, “And whoever does not judge by what God has revealed — then it is those who are the disbelievers” (Al Maidah: 44). If we use the superficial meaning of this verse, we can say that every person who does not judge by the Sharia regulations of God is a disbeliever. That is what the extremists did. This was how they allowed the blood of innocents to be shed. This is due to ignorance in interpreting Sharia texts. These texts are not to be taken separately. Extremists also depend on cutting texts from Islamic books to give them another meaning. Take the verse, “So woe to the worshippers” (Al-Maun: 4). It gives a different meaning if it is read without the later verse, “Who are neglectful of their prayers” (Al-Maun: 5). They also selectively edited a text to justify killings and bombings and then attributed that text to a jurist. They use modern technologies to make movies and dub voices and introduce them as a saying by a well-known jurist. Their leaders deceive them. The biggest problem is the absence of awareness and knowledge among their followers. Thus, such thoughts must be fought by thought. Thank God, the dialogue fostered by specialists in Jordanian jails is fruitful, and many extremists there have returned to the right path.

Unipath: However, when you debate an extremist and mention the nonextremist rulings of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, he will reply: “But Ibn Taimiah said otherwise.” That is, he prefers the words of a sheikh born centuries after those Caliphs.

Dr. Amer Alrajoub: The answer here lies in the reference of ummah (the whole Muslim community). We have four jurists from whom to take regulations. In addition, we take instruction from people known for their knowledge and effort (mujtahid). We cannot say that Ibn Taimiah is an absolute mujtahid in this matter. Of course, he furthered knowledge in some matters, but he lived under different circumstances, and we cannot use him as a reference. Therefore, our reference is the four jurists. The problem of extremists is that they do not refer to the Rightly Guided Caliphs. In addition, there is a large time gap between the these Caliphs and Ibn Taimiah. Ibn Taimiah lived in different and exceptional circumstances. Thus, we cannot take fatwas or texts from Ibn Timaiah and apply them to our time. That is what extremists do. They select the fatwa tied to certain circumstances and a certain time to justify their crimes.

Brig. Gen. Dr. Ibrahim Abu Eqab: Everyone who has a question should go to a specialist. God creates specialists for every religious and scientific subject. The big mistake these people make is that they have not specialized in Sharia studies. They may even not have any Sharia qualifications. We feel sorry for people who are deceived by their opinions. God said in the Quran, “So ask the people of the message if you do not know” (Alanibia: 7). People in one specialization seek advice from those in other specializations. It is not reasonable for a sick person to go to a jurist to cure him. He will go to a physician. Likewise, a physician in need of a Sharia opinion will go to a religious jurist. If this matter is resolved, many extremists will leave extremism, which they adopted because of misunderstanding. It is proven that the most important reason for extremism is misunderstanding, not circumstances. Ifta without knowledge is the most dangerous thing when it comes to extremism.

Unipath: Many extremists are recruited inside jails. How can you inoculate prisoners against extremist thought?

Sheikh Ra’ad Bani Khalaf: Most people who enter jail are not qualified to interpret Sharia. Thus, they must be protected against extremist thoughts. This is what our security agencies do through separation and classification of prisoners. Every category has a different place to sleep and live. The advice and dialogue committee specializing in extremist ideology visits prisoners. If an extremist is convinced of the opinion of the committee, he is transferred to another place to avoid harm at the hands of extremists in the same jail. In this way, thank God, the committee managed to convince many extremists to abandon takfir thoughts after the committee showed them the right path, knowing that some had high status among extremists. Now, they have discovered the difference between that way and the right path.

Brig. Gen. Dr. Ibrahim Abu Eqab: This is a problem that needs to be solved. I do not know the condition of jails outside Jordan, but in Jordan jails need to be managed, because if extremists are put in the same place, they learn from one another. Special care should be given to classifying them accurately, and everyone should be engaged with appropriate discussions. If they are left together, I expect it would be dangerous for others. This is a diagnosed problem and there have been attempts to solve this, but no comprehensive solution has been found. Condemned extremists who return to the right path and reject extremism are granted a special royal pardon. This is a powerful incentive to encourage the rest to think seriously about leaving extremism.

Unipath: What are the goals of the counterextremism program, and what does it offer students from other Arab states?

Dr. Amer Alrajoub: One of the important goals of this course is presenting a variety of topics and not approaching them as a single issue. Another thing is that this course and its topics were put together by specialized jurists. We have been fortunate to select external lecturers from the universities of the kingdom, the military judiciary, and the general Ifta Department. This means that it is not a purely religious approach. It is integrated and approaches the matter from all religious, judicial and security aspects. Lecturers provide a realistic image about what happens to them. For example, our brothers in security departments give us a realistic image about what happens in their departments. There are targeted classes in this course for persons working with extremists in security or judicial departments. We have a section for assessing the course at the end in a questionnaire to evaluate how effective the course has been in accomplishing its goals. We develop the curricula for each course based on the proposals gathered from the previous course.

Unipath: How do graduates use what they have learned in the course of their daily work?

Dr. Mohammed Alkufhi: For example, we give our brothers in the security departments theological information they can use to identify and dissuade extremists. Attending this course gives trainees a lot of information that can be used in their particular department. Another thing is that our Saudi brothers have appreciated this course, and the commander of the Saudi Land Forces has described its positive impact. For example, in the previous course, we had four trainees from Saudi Arabia. In the present course, we have seven. This is a positive indicator of the success of the program and proof that it is appreciated in other Arab countries. Not only do security departments and Arab countries benefit from the course, but we also have imams from the armed forces who play an important role in their military units in providing a good model in the workplace. This course may help them identify persons at risk of becoming extremists and help them manage this early.

Unipath: After Daesh took control of cities in Iraq and Syria, inhabitants were brainwashed. What can military imams do to prevent Daesh from reappearing under a different name?

Brig. Gen. Dr. Ibrahim Abu Eqab: I believe that extremism is a matter of thought. This means that it starts and ends with thought. The best weapon to counter extremism in most countries of the world is to protect thought. This is because a correct understanding convinces people. Otherwise I cannot convince even the closest people to me if they misunderstand the texts. However, if I can attain a correct conception of religion, especially regarding cases that inspire extremists, I will have achieved some success. I think these courses are part of the cure for extremism. Awareness and prevention is an important part of this cure. Scholars in these states should fill the gaps by spreading forgiveness, by protecting society, and by correcting wrong concepts. Extremism is a social phenomenon that is not confined to Islam. Every human being, regardless of his beliefs, may be prey to extremism and the exclusion of others. There are historical examples of violence by non-Muslim extremists. Our job as imams and sources of guidance is to explain the correct interpretation of Islam. If you can accomplish this goal, extremism will vanish eventually.

Dr. Mohammed Alkufhi: With regard to inhabitants who were subject to brainwashing, I believe that the most trusted persons in society are mosque imams and schoolteachers. This is especially true because the targeted group is youth. We know that Daesh recruited young children to commit killings. You cannot protect the thought of such kids, and you cannot provide them Sharia evidence — they do not understand such matters. They do not have the ability to debate. If this matter is not managed by mosque imams and schoolteachers, killing will be a natural thing for these kids.

Unipath: Societal dissatisfaction can be exploited by extremists promising to relieve oppression. What is the cure for this?

Brig. Gen. Dr. Ibrahim Abu Eqab: The cure is what we have in Jordan. All citizens are equal before the law. There is religious freedom and peaceful coexistence. We do not have a problem like that, thank God. This principle is well-established in Jordanian society, law and constitution. Our leaders foresaw the future on this matter. The situation here in Jordan did not happen arbitrarily. It occurred through laws. I think that other countries should follow Jordan with regards to religious coexistence and tolerance since such countries have a social makeup similar to Jordanian society.

Dr. Amer Alrajoub: Of course, prevention is better than cure. The cause should be diagnosed before the disease spreads to the vital organs of the nation. When the king launched the Amman Message, it was a vision of the future for the region involving coexistence and religious tolerance. It was about love and familiarity between people. It was a message of peace between religions launched by the king that was widely accepted. This is prevention against a dangerous disease. We here in Jordan live in peace, brotherhood, and coexistence. There is even marriage between Muslims and Christians and Muslims and Jews. As I said, in this matter, prevention is better than cure. The process is common among all people all over the world. Each person has a role to play. The home, the workplace, the society, leaders and the media. Even social media plays a major positive and negative role in extremism. I mean, extremists use social media to promote their ideology and seduce youth, while society uses it to dispel the lies of extremists. We have a problem facing society that needs the effort of all members of society.

Brig. Gen. Dr. Ibrahim Abu Eqab: You said that oppression found in society helped extremism to insinuate itself into society. I look at this from another prospective. The first cure for the problem of extremism is knowledge and awareness, a balanced and a correct view of verses of the Quran and the hadith. If a person has a clear understanding of religion, he will not go as far as the extremists did. We should also speak about the economic factor and its impact on the deviation to extremism. Oppression and poverty have an influence but the fix is correct knowledge and awareness. Sahaba (the companions of the Prophet) experienced oppression and persecution owing to their religion. They, too, had difficult economic circumstances. However, none of them became an extremist. Why? Because they had knowledge and a correct understanding of religion.

Dr. Mohammed Alkufhi: As an example from Islamic history, Imam Ahmad, may God rest his soul, faced great oppression during the reign of Alma’moun Alabassi. When someone said to him, “Why did you not incite the people against the Caliph?” although he had been whipped, he refused to incite the people against the state. He put the interests of community above his private interests because he was a man of awareness and knew the repercussions of inciting the street. He preferred to be insulted than to shed blood and encourage extremism. In fact, religious understanding and protection are the pillars of everything.

Sheikh Ra’ad Bani Khalaf: The focus should be on the values of citizenship. In this way, no group or division will feel excluded or underappreciated. Citizenship calls for equality among all citizens regardless of ethnicity or sect. All persons are equal before the law. His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein confirms that the Jordanian Constitution provides that all Jordanian citizens are equal before the law, regardless of race, doctrine or religion differences. I think that confirming and establishing the values of citizenship are key to eliminating oppression.