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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Conversation About Jihad With Controversial Preacher Bilal Philips

The Islamic preacher Bilal Philips has long been a lightning rod for controversy. Born in Jamaica and raised in Canada, he converted to Islam in 1972 and studied Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia and the UK, eventually earning a doctorate.

During the first Gulf War, Philips ran a sort of Islamic tent revival for U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, which claimed to have converted thousands of soldiers to Islam. Subsequently, he used contacts made during that program to help recruit U.S. military veterans as volunteer trainers in the war in Bosnia starting in 1992. That program is described in great detail in my forthcoming book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, which hits bookstores on May 15.

Philips was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1995 prosecution U.S. v. Omar Abdel Rahman, in which almost a dozen people -- including Clement Hampton-El, an associate of Philips -- were convicted of conspiring to blow up the Lincoln and Holland tunnels in New York City, among other terrorism-related activities. Philips denies any wrongdoing in the case, blaming FBI informant Emad Salem for acting as an "agent provocateur" who actually instigated the plot and drew others into it. The extensive evidence in the case does not support this view.

Philips has not returned to the United States for some time, although he travels to his native Canada occasionally. In recent years, Philips has been banned from entering the UK and Australia on the basis of alleged links to terrorism (which he denies) and remarks at a UK mosque and elsewhere which appeared to say that it was Islamically acceptable for adult men to marry girls as young as the onset of puberty, or even younger. Philips spoke recently in Copenhagen, an appearance that was covered in advance with some apprehension by the local media, but which failed to deliver fireworks.

I contacted Philips during Ramadan last year primarily to discuss the Bosnia program. The results of that portion of the interview are detailed in the book. Afterward, we moved into a discussion of the evolution of the concept of jihad from the days when he was assisting Bosnian jihadists. The conversation took place late at night after a long day for both of us. I've edited the transcript significantly for readability, to remove verbal tics and trailing sentences from both participants, but I have not altered the views or content.

Whether or not one accepts Philips' statements at face value (and he tends to adjust his tone depending on his audience), his views shed an interesting light on one of the more difficult areas of Western-Muslim relations and one of the most challenging problems in counterradicalization -- preachers and opinion leaders in the Muslim world who clearly believe and preach in often stirring terms that Western civilization exists in sharp conflict with Islamic civilization, but who skirt, avoid, evade or simply stop short of openly endorsing violence.

Another example of this is Jama'at Al Muslimeen, a Baltimore-based Muslim organization I wrote about in February's CTC Sentinel (PDF).

Such people and organizations contribute to an environment that is a precursor to violent radicalization while engaging in self-protective qualifications, pitting Islam against the West in a scenario fraught with tension and extremes, while attempting to stop short of uttering the kind of rhetoric or taking part in physical acts which would lead to prosecution. For a long time, Anwar Awlaki was one such public figure, and his pre-radicalization rhetoric is likely more influential than what he has done since openly embracing terrorism.

The process of radicalization is not necessarily a sharp turn toward violence; it often begins in gray areas relating to ways of talking about the world and underlying assumptions about why people in both the West and the Muslim world do the things they do. In that spirit, I think there's a lot of food for thought in this interview. Comments are welcome on Twitter.

Q: How have attitudes about military jihad changed over the last 15 or 20 years? How do you determine what is a legitimate jihad?

Bilal Philips: In my view, much of what has been put under the general heading of jihad doesn't really comply with the shariah, or Islamic legal definitions. And many of the tactics which are being used, desperation-type tactics of suicide bombing, and these kinds of things, are illegitimate from the shariah perspective. So very few of the struggles that are going on are, from my perspective, really endorsable.

In some cases, like Chechnya, it went through certain stages. Afghanistan, in the earlier stages, when they were struggling against the Russians, then that was fine. But then what it evolved into, what it became, you know, is something that went awry.

And people began using techniques or tactics which are unacceptable, Islamically. So in terms of legitimate struggle around the world today, to me one is hard-pressed to identify. When people ask me, because of course, people ask me wherever I go, people may ask, you know, about something of that, "What about this struggle, what about that struggle?" and so on, I usually advise people that these things are confused.

You go there, you may have the best of intentions, but you don't really know what is going on, what is really behind the scenes, tactics and things we see that are not really legitimate, so I advise people to stay away from it. [I prefer] continuing to propagate the message of Islam, try to correct the media distortions, etc., help in that, if it's relief, medical, food, these kinds of things, ok. These can always benefit places, whether it's Chechnya, whether it's Afghanistan, whether it's anywhere.

So, you know, sending and supporting these kinds of things, fine. But to say, getting involved, on a military level, I think things have sort of deteriorated. The best of those struggles, that could come the closest to the definition of legitimate jihad, really have become corrupted. So, people are hard-pressed to find [just] causes, if that's the direction they would be involved in.

I think the effort now is a greater emphasis on community building, developing the kind of infrastructure to protect the Islamic faith, and to help it to grow in places like the U.S., Canada, U.K. Muslim schools have really come up in the last 20 or 25 years, there has been an explosion of Muslim schools. That people realize that this is the area that is really the big area that Muslims need to work on, in Western circumstances, to preserve the Islamic traditions, Islamic way of life, etc.

And it's just going farther and farther away from the military routes. Of course, those that are bent on that particular route, they are still there, trying to recruit people. And there are also agents, you know, causing people to be drawn into different circumstances. I know cases in the, in Canada where youths were drawn into ridiculous projects and ended up in jail.

But I think those are getting fewer and farther between. The overall leanings of the community is more towards community building than it is to going over and fighting, Islamically. This is my feeling in the communities that I have visited in the west.

Q: Have the conflicts changed? Or is it the people involved, who are steering the activity, that have changed? I guess the more direct would probably be, I listened to a lecture of yours from some years back, in which you said you believed in the "clash of civilizations," and that America was the enemy of Islam. Is the west at war with Islam in your view?

Yes, from the clash perspective, I mean, of course, Huntington's argument, and I'm not promoting his whole argument, just one element of it, which was this concept of globalized western civilization as portrayed in secular democracy, you know, being pushed down the throats of the rest of the world.

This is how I see it. Basically all societies have fallen to this. They've accepted it. In some cases it was better than what they had, and it was the best option they had to go with. You know, places like India, etc. But there is a clear conflict between the concept of secular democracy, and I have written a book on this, a book called, "The Clash of Western Civilization and the Islamic View." [...] Basically, it's identifying the elements of the clash, because of course, from a secular perspective, that secular outlook on life, is completely, completely opposite to the shariah perspective, where everything is looked at from the perspective of God and the law of God.

You have another perspective, which is, which is where God doesn't have any role to play in all of this. It's all looked at from humanist or human perspective, you know? Without God having any involvement, or shouldn't be involved. If you want to believe in God, that's your business, so and so. But it shouldn't come into public policy, and etc.

So that obviously is a foundational clash. It's a clash of concepts. I'm not necessarily saying it has to be a military clash, but it's a clash of concepts, right? And then the issue of democracy, you know, where the fundamental concept of human beings making laws for the whole society, in all aspects, again, in conflict with the shariah perspective, where that is the role of God.

That you may have a limited democratic principle, as we call it, shura, in Islamic law, where, you know, in areas that are not already prescribed by God. Through the Quran and through the Messenger, in those common, day-to-day areas, the people can come together and choose what they feel is most appropriate in their given circumstances.

So it this limited scope, which is acceptable. But this other approach, where it is, you know, you have to accept this, you know, "We are the most highly evolved civilization on the earth, and obviously if we are the most highly evolved, our systems must be the most highly evolved. So this is what, this is where mankind is headed, you know? And we need to help you get there. It's our duty to help you reach this point."

So, this attitude fuels the clash. I feel that with the rise in Muslim consciousness around the world, and awareness of the Islamic systems, and people looking to it now as alternatives away from the colonial heritage and legacy, I think that the powers-that-be sees this as the last frontier, the last major threat, the one to standing firm.

Even though governments have been undermined, and the Ottoman empire broken up, and replaced by British, German, French law, etc., still, with this consciousness in the scholarship, Muslim scholars around the world, it's not going away. It's the teachings and those teachings continue to be propagated, and it's reaching a wider and wider audience, in this last 10, 15, 20 years.

So with this heightened awareness, we see things in Algeria, we see things elsewhere, Sudan and elsewhere, where this consciousness is coming to a political arena, you know, even in Turkey, in Indonesia, in different parts of the Muslim world, you know, more and more we see this consciousness and awareness, taking a greater and greater role, a political role. So I feel that obviously, the forces that are behind this promotion of globalized secular democracy and western civilization naturally find this as their enemy.

I mean, America thrives on an enemy, you know, where you can identify the bad guys, and then you can mobilize the military industrialized complex, all this stuff, you know, it works for them.

Q: But does Islam thrive on enemies? I've read 20, 30 years of the Muslim World League's journal, month after month, article after article, about the enemies that are constantly circling, and trying to close in on Islam. Can't the same thing be said about not Islam, but the Islamic world, the Islamic nations, the Muslims?

No. I think you know, when you look at it from the Muslim perspective, it's defense. You know, the sharks are circling, beware. Hey, the sharks are out there, you need to preserve by education, being aware, setting up institutions, whatever. These kind of projects, and things like this, supporting Muslim communities, so they don't get overrun completely, lost in the sauce, as they say.

So it's more a defensive. It's not, you know, an offensive, "We need to go out and make America an Islamic state." This is not what you are going to be finding in those kind of readings, what you've read from there. This is more identifying the problems that the Muslim world face to day. Because we've got to understand that, they came under a concerted attack, which decimated the Muslim body.

The Ottoman empire was the last of the Islamic states, you could say, which had to least a large degree, had that Islamic spirit of unity, of, of territory, you know, the Muslim nation, concepts, where people interacted on the basis that there were Muslims in this area, non-Muslims functioned OK under it, to varying degrees. That unity, which is something found in the Islamic teachings, that Muslims should be one. The state of affairs where Muslims are split up into different countries, this is an unnatural state.

From the shariah perspective, this is unnatural. Because, you've got lines, borders which were drawn, where you have half of people on one hand, and half, like the Kurds, for example, right? You've got Kurds in Turkey, you've got Kurds in Iraq, you've got Kurds in Iran. I mean, who drew these lines?

You know, if this area is without borders and lines, then those people are people of that area, and they can function and move freely back and forth. When you draw, draw those lines and set countries, and nationalities and these kind of things, then this is a formula for disaster. It's a time bomb.

So, I would say that the Muslim World League and others, when speaking of these kind of issues, they're really addressing more this kind of approach, where the Muslim world need to come back together. We should be able to do things together, ultimately come back as one nation.

Q: When you look at Americans who have become radicalized to the point of terrorism, within the last ten years. I'm not talking about a situation like Bosnia or Afghanistan, where the morality and the motivation is more obvious. I'm talking about these, these kids who are getting on the Internet, and then get up to go to Somalia, or who get involved with trying to bomb something. And their narrative starts with, "There is this war on Islam that is being perpetrated by the United States."

Does the narrative precede acts of war? Do you think that the United States is at war? Do you think [radicalized individuals] are just responding to a factual state of affairs, or are they receiving a message from people who want to manipulate them?

Well, I think in their case, you know, most of that is manipulated. The situation of America, America basically being the leading nation in this Western civilization, this globalized role, is that they're the leading force. I mean, they are the force. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it.

To what degree it is a focused, I don't feel that it is focused probably across the nation, that this is our enemy, and we're gonna go fight this enemy, and this. No. But there are powers within the country who are looking at globalized interests from other perspectives, which have to do with economics.

It's not necessarily a religion thing, per se, but these economics are there. Whether it's oil, or it's you know, minerals, or whether it's whatever, they would like to remove whatever will hamper their ability to exploit the resources of the rest of the world.

So Islam, and I mean, we have no end of statements, you know, we can put it under the general heading of Islamophobia, but we have no end of statements by leading figures in the American establishment, from the military and from elsewhere, you know, where they very clearly identified Islam as the enemy.

You do have these things. I mean, I won't say it is on the news, 24-7, but definitely in some circles it is there, it pops out, it comes out from time to time, in individual statements, that perception is definitely there. What I feel, personally, is that the struggle is fundamentally an ideological struggle.

Which, from the Muslim perspective, that's where or how they need to tackle it. You could say, from a Western civilizational perspective, it is ideological also, but the issues of economics and politics play a greater role.

You know, people might go into Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, which were made up, as an excuse to go in. Bin Laden becomes an excuse for Afghanistan, to stop any trends of that nature. I mean, I have my own doubts, though I've heard about bin Laden's things, and what he's involved in, and no doubt he may be dedicated to what he perceives, how he sees it. But I wouldn't be surprised if 50 years from now, it came out that somehow he was connected with the CIA, FBI, whatever. Actually, he was a plant, and this was this. The way things go, I just wouldn't be surprised. I would not be shocked that, wow, that was the case.

Because really, I see him, when I look at his role, in terms of what happened with Afghanistan, he became a reason for the destruction of the Islamic state of Afghanistan. Which, initially, was something which was quite innocent, I felt. It was innocent Muslim people trying to bring that country back together after how many years of destruction, with what happened in the country. And there was a lot of positive, good things happening.

I feel maybe their knowledge, Islamic shariah knowledge base, you know, needed upgrading, whatever, but their intent was good. They were trying to do good things, and then this thing just turned into something else altogether. And it seemed to me that you know, bin Laden played the biggest role in turning it around. He had another agenda; their agenda was Afghanistan. Let's get this thing together, make an Islamic state here, run this country and benefit the country. Whereas his thing was, it's about America, we need to attack America. We need to hit them this way, that way and the other way.

However, when I look back at what happened with Emad Salem, you know, I just hear things like that in the background when I think of bin Laden. So, it may not be him. It may be those around him. Ayman Zawahiri or others, who were the ones that changed the direction. Maybe initially bin Laden wasn't in that direction. From what I heard, he really wasn't.

But that change took place, at the later point, when people from the former Ikhwan, the extremist Gamaat, Al Jihad and all this, came around him, and started to feed. So that changed his direction. So there's that element that does have a desire to want to bring about change immediately and by any means necessary. And by any military means necessary. That is really a very dangerous group which remains, and has its offshoots which continue to pick up innocent, ignorant young people who have no Islamic background.

This is why my philosophy, my encouragement is more in the area of education, because where people are properly educated, and they understand, the Islamic shariah as a totality, and understand what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, they're better able to resist those kinds of attempts to recruit them, and to draw them into these kinds of illegitimate conflicts.

But when they are ignorant, then they become susceptible. So this is why I have tried to, my focus is encouraging the establishment of formal education institutions which would spread knowledge about Islam on a wider scale in the Muslim community.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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