By Sumaya Hendricks
The pursuit of being a devout Muslim who strives to embody the values, personality and mission of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is inextricably interconnected with practising fairness, justice, kindness, peace and other moral superlatives. As Muslims in the 21st century, who are blessed with enormous potential and opportunity, it is our responsibility not only to guard ourselves from the temptations which society presents (and not be deluded into thinking that this makes us “pious Muslims”) but also strive towards the betterment of society through active participation. There are many spheres in which we as Muslims can and must bring about positive change — the list is endless.
While engaging with this notion of transforming society, I asked myself “are we as Muslims associated with social progress and the clichéd ‘making the world a better place’ ”? Are we merely associated with what the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) looked like and not how he acted? Are we seen as a blessing on earth or a curse and evolving threat?
As a young Muslim trying to carve out an identity for myself and contribute to the broader Muslim identity, I find myself stifled and burdened by the distorted image of our faith. This image, communicated through the media, imposes a characterisation of Islam on its followers. Debate about the deliberate persecution and victimisation of Muslims by the ”West” via the media aside, what I speak of here is the misrepresentation of the faith by those who claim to truly follow it.
Prominent examples of such misrepresentations include al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, Boko Haram and other violent Islamic extremist groups in North Africa and the Middle East. As a Muslim I cringe and am ashamed that these groups shape and contribute to the global image of what it means to be a Muslim. I must emphasise this, I am a Muslim and violent Islamic extremist groups disgust me and do not represent me or the majority of my fellow Muslim sisters and brothers.
There are great Muslim scholars among us, exciting Muslim initiatives, a willingness and recognition that we as Muslims need to know and do more, a resurgence in Islamic intellectualism, people of all walks of life embracing Islam and so much more. There is a lot to be hopeful and proud of, but positive actions and voices are being crowded out by the extremist few who have prevented these positives from forming the nucleus of the Muslim identity.
I was raised in a home where I learnt that kindness and peace is fundamentally part of what it means to be Muslim. I was taught that as a Muslim, one needs to aim to touch humanity and the world at large, not destroy and spread anarchy, kill and harass, abuse and oppress. Not only do I feel misrepresented by violent extremist Muslim groups but am deeply disturbed that these people believe their actions to be righteous and in keeping with Islamic doctrine.
We need to counter such extremist activity through public condemnation so as to isolate these groups from being associated with mainstream Islam, but we also need to embark on a mission of educating, re-educating and reorienting how Islam is taught and understood so as to ensure the true message of Islam is reaching people. This process and battle against extremist forces is a continuous one and requires us to thoughtfully and skilfully plan ways to overcome it. We, especially young Muslims, cannot be silenced by the few.
Sumaya Hendricks is an honours student in economics at the University of the Witwatersrand.