Extremism is often the product of our own actions

Sent On: 
Wed, 2019-12-11
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Russian intern Yana Kabirova conducted a most fascinating interview with Professor Emeritus Abdallah Schleifer (b. 1935) about the origins of extremism. Schleifer, who grew up in a Jewish family had become a Marxist and later converted to Sufi Islam, provides a very alternative but convincing view on modern history. I have gone through the text with Prof. Schleifer word by word to ensure that all information is correct. This resulted in fascinating elaborations on how we humans are very often responsible for the violence we see around us.



Professor Abdallah Schleifer - photo by Cornelis Hulsman


Many Western nations have alienated the children of Muslim immigrants which made thousands of them susceptible to what appeared to them as “heroic” propaganda of ISIS. They are susceptible because of a spiritual emptiness, neither deeply religious nor convictions that would give them a stable worldview that promotes the good for the wider society. He compares this with young Europeans and Americans, such as himself, who did not have a particular worldview but were attracted to join the revolutionaries around Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in the early 1960s.  In the past decade young men from Muslim countries have been attracted by ISIS in their search for a new revolutionary ideology in place of the failures of Arab nationalism and socialism.


We see so often in history that gross injustices and violence lead to radicalization but often more is involved then a concern for social justice alone.


The Russian Revolution of 1917 was to a large extent the result of the Tzarist Imperial Guard shooting at a demonstration of Russian peasants led by pro-Tzarist Russian Orthodox priest Georgy Gapon in 1905. Russian peasants were until that moment overwhelmingly pro-Tzar and had come to beg the Tzar for help. At some point troops opened fire on the demonstrators causing between 200 and 1000 deaths. This event, that has become known as Bloody Sunday, pushed large numbers of peasants into the hands of the revolutionaries and gave them the strength needed to topple the Tzar in 1917. Schleifer believes it is conceivable that the Russian Revolution may have never succeeded if the peasants would not have joined the revolutionaries.


Many people, and in particular ideologues, are often misreading and misinterpreting history, blinded as they are by their own ideological convictions.


We often believe Jews left Russia because of the pogroms but not all did. Abdallah’s grandparents, for example, left Russia because his great grandfather’s business partner had stolen all the money which had thrown him into severe difficulties that forced his great grandfather’s family to emigrate to the USA. Abdallah’s grandfather came as a young teenager to the USA. Abdallah remembers him as a very pious man and was struck when his grandfather told him that he was not religious before he came to the USA but had started to dig into his roots because of anti-Semitism in the USA in those days.


Prof. Schleifer continuously compares the past with today. “What Syria is today with its terrible civil war Spain was in the 1930s with different countries supporting different parties there which tore Spain apart. Anti-Semitism was not something one can only attribute to Hitler and Nazism but was wide-spread in Europe and the USA. Hitler came to power not just because of his radical nationalism but also because his Nazism contained an element of socialism. He helped the Germans get out of a terrible economic crisis. Ideologies often work with powerful symbolism. For the Bolsheviks this was the clenched fist. For the Nazis it was the outstretched arm. They, however, added to that their uniforms, and this looked much better than the shabby looking communists with their clenched fists. Nazis also combined their ideology with aesthetics which made it more powerful.”


Today we witness the tensions between Russia and Ukraine. This is partly related to Crimea and Odessa. Odessa was a fully Russian territory before 1919. After the revolution the Soviet Union created the Ukrainian Soviet Republic and included Odessa. Crimea was transferred in 1954 from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic for political-administrative reasons at the time but it remained predominantly Russian. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union and after Vladimir Putin had become president, he suggested Russia would become part of NATO but he was haughtily snubbed as the head of a former super power. Abdallah Schleifer believes that was a serious mistake. This was an opportunity to reconcile but the West initiated, with what he calls, the second cold war between Western nations and Russia and thus leading the world into a dangerous escalation of weapons of mass destruction.


Egypt is suffering of Islamist violence but this was to a large extent created by the USA and Jamāl ʿAbd al- Nāṣir who had allied himself with the Muslim Brotherhood prior to and during the 1952 revolution. Sayyid Quṭb, already a well-known Egyptian literary critic, went in 1948 for his studies to the USA and stayed here for a period of 25 years. His friends believed this would help him to escape the ire of King Fārūq. Sayyid Quṭb experienced deep racial prejudices in the USA and a drunken American woman tried to seduce him. It was here that he decided that his only salvation lay in full allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood which made him plot against King Fārūq who had allied himself with the West. Abdallah Schleifer says “When Nāṣir came to power he was allied with the Muslim Brotherhood in staging the coup, the revolution against [King] Fārūq. At a meeting in Helwan Nāṣir told Sayyid Quṭb, who by then was the ideological leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and other senior Muslim Brotherhood officials: ’We are going to make the coup against Fārūq. And if we succeed, we want you to be with us, we want your militia in the streets supporting us. And if we fail, we want you to help us get out of the country.’” Nāṣir knew has chances of a successful coup against the King were slim and unlike the Brotherhood he did not have large popular support. Thus, he needed the Brotherhood militia.


A few years later the alliance fell apart and Nāṣir put thousands of Brotherhood members in prison, including Sayyid Quṭb. Here Quṭb developed his Takfīr doctrine, a new concept allowing “believers” to revolt against a Muslim government and kill other Muslims if they do not adhere to the “right“ understanding of Islam. This was diverting totally from what the shayks of Orthodox Islam had been teaching until that moment. Sayyid Quṭb, the ideologue, had further radicalized in prison and had become even more dangerous to the regime than before and was sentenced to death and hung in 1966. Yet his ideas live on and are further developed in the various radical Islamic groups. Schleifer says “What people do not realize in the West is that for every European or American that has been killed by the Takfīrī Jihā, they, the Takfīrīs, had killed thousands of Muslims. The atrocities of al-Qāʿidah: 2000 soldiers of the Syrian army who surrendered were then lined up with their arms tied behind the back and executed. Two thousand prisoners of war. They were all Muslims, many of whom were Shīʿah. If you are an extreme Salafist or an extreme Takfiri, you don’t consider the Shia to be Muslims, you consider them heretics who left the faith which then, according to the Takfīrīs means they can be killed.”


American media have long claimed that Mursī was the “first democratically elected president of Egypt.” This is nonsense. His election was disputed (see this article from our archive) and when he was president he did not behave democratically, did not work towards a free press and in obtaining a constitution of his choice he placed himself above the Constitution.


Prof. Schleifer shows with his rich experiences that we need to be better aware of all historical facts and not be selective, either out of unawareness or blinded by ideological beliefs. We need to look more at what we (either as individual or as group) have done that created developments that we abhor. We need to realize that we are not without blemish which does not mean a justification for the horrors we see. For the full interview click here.


Prof. Abdallah Schleifer also spoke with our students about the Divine Order which you can read here and wrote a beautiful review of Shems Friedlander’s book “Winter Harvest: Bob Dylan to Jalaluddin Rumi. Memories and Illuminations.” Both texts give you a glimpse in the Sufi way of thought of Prof. Schleifer who believes no single religion or way of thought can fully comprehend the greatness of God which should bring us to humility and the brotherhood of all men.



December 11, 2019


Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-Chief Arab-West Report