As American Muslims many of us are trying to play our part in defending our religion against Islamist extremism. We have repeatedly condoned ISIS. We have held press conferences and taken to social media to denounce their hateful ideology. It’s also a fact that law enforcement depends on Muslims to call-out extremists. But how can we be more proactive in fending off radicals here at home?
Many young Muslims in America grow up with no formal Islamic education. The internet is the tool they turn to when seeking information and also justifying violence, leaving some vulnerable to radicalization. The greatest fear of extremists is that young Muslims move from being passive to active Quranic thinkers. Let’s present Quranic critical thinking through a series of YouTube videos that are engaging, shareable, and open to all to view and study.
Muslim-American students learn history, sociology and all others subjects in public high school through a process of critical thinking. However, a disconnect grows when it comes to their faith. A vacuum is created which is easily filled by extreme, puritanical Islamist ideology leading to radicalization.
Extremists teach a strict literal reading of the Quran. For example, when the Quran says: The Face of God, the Hand of God and other physical characteristics, they say: “Why ask what this means? It means just what it says. God has a Face, a Hand, He sits upon the Throne” and so forth.
In addition to this scriptural rigidity, they cherry-pick verses to suit their own purpose. The Quran clearly states that it is forbidden for a Muslim to kill another Muslim. How do they circumvent this prohibition? They developed a practice that is called takfir, that is, whoever does not follow their ideology is not a Muslim, so it is not prohibited to kill them along with everyone else!
Many Muslim scholars, such as Professor Mohammad Hashim Kamali of Malaysia, assert that the way to defeat extremist ideology is to teach Muslims Quranic critical thinking. “More recently, a certain abuse of Islamic authority operates with a dogmatic radicalism that has exacerbated the decline of critical thinking among Muslims. The situation is not helped by the prevalence of passive thinking in popular culture in regard to the dogmatic excesses of [these extremists]. One of the salient features of this mindset is a certain ignorance of the essential impulse of the Quran on critical thinking.” (“Reading the Signs: A Quranic Perspective.”)
Many studies have also been done in the West that emphasize the importance of Muslim-Americans learning Quranic critical thinking. For example, Dr. Tawfik Hamid (Inside Jihad) of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies’ International Center for Terrorism, speaks from first-hand experience of his radicalization at the hands of Islamist extremist groups. He states that many Quranic verses teach critical thinking and that “it is vital that Islamic education systems teach young Muslim the value and skill of critical thinking.” When referring to Islamic extremism, Hamid points specifically to alienated Salafi jihadists and says “Passive thinking is central to global Salafi jihad—be it in the movement’s ideological basis ... or members’ recruitment.” It is his belief that the first step in defeating these extremists group is by attacking them at the ideological level.
Another study by Samurai Atallah (https://browntia.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/poster.pdf) argues that the lack of critical thinking skills are central in explaining the radicalization of youth to extremist ideology. The author’s view is that work needs to be done at the grassroots level against the “passive-thinking model” by teaching critical thinking skills.
However, as it is not possible to teach Quranic critical thinking in an American public school setting nor it is possible to teach it in the present American full-time or weekend schools because in many cases elements within these organizations are themselves beholden to the extremist ideology—not violent, but extremist.
Critical thinking brings self-awareness. As the late Richard Paul and his long-time collaborator, Linda Elder, of the Critical Thinking Community write if ego- and socio-centricity are the disease, the cure is critical thinking that brings self-awareness where Muslim students can use “their reasoning and behavior; to make their assumptions explicit, to critique them, and, when they are false, stop making them.”