Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Salman (centre) stands with chiefs of staff and defence ministers of a Saudi-led Islamic military counter-terrorism coalition during their meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Nov 26. REUTERS PIC

THIS past week has demonstrated how challenging the fight against Islamist extremism and terrorism is going to be going forward. It is because of the lack of understanding of the phenomenon, the competing and often diametrically opposed interests of both the Muslim countries and the major powers.

Perhaps, United States President Donald Trump’s latest faux pas in re-tweeting the Islamophobic posts purportedly by Jayda Fransen, leader of the British far right party, Britain First, to his 40 million followers, was intentional.

The president had tweeted a Theresa May (in reality a namesake in Bognor Regis, whom he thought was the prime minister), telling her to focus on tackling “Radical Islamic Terrorism in the UK”.

Those of us who oppose violent extremism of whatever colour and creed should be careful to distinguish between the legitimate fight against violent extremism per se and those feigning to fight terrorism, but who also have a socio-political agenda against Islam and Muslims.

Sometimes, the most vociferous campaigners against violent Islamist extremism are also the most Islamophobic transcending normal discourse and entrenched in a base hatred of what Islam stands for.

As such, the inaugural meeting of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) in Riyadh on Nov 26, which was attended by defence ministers of the 41 member countries, including Malaysia’s Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, assumes a much wider importance, because it is the first pan-Islamic attempt to recapture the moral compass in the fight against Islamist terrorism.

The IMCTC is “a willing coalition of 41 countries that forms a pan-Islamic unified front in the global fight against terrorism and violent extremism”.

It is the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed Salman, the heir apparent to the Saudi throne, currently held by his father, King Salman, under whose aegis it was established in December 2015.

The coalition says it will fight terrorism through four domains: ideology, communications, counter-terrorist financing and the military. In Riyadh, the clarion call was that “terrorism is a critical issue that receives considerable attention worldwide and causes all to suffer alike. Our Islamic world is regarded as the first and highly affected victim of terrorism as many Muslim nations languish in this global epidemic, suffering from its scourges and tragedies”.

This harsh reality indeed requires Muslim states to play a more effective role to combat it.

The recommendations of the Riyadh meeting and the IMCTC vision and strategic objectives are well-meaning, but they are nascent and well short of operational capacity and institutional governance. This will take hard work, cross-border cooperation, political will, resources, leadership, and above all, a sense of urgency to develop.

IMCTC’s four domains may not adequately cover a phenomenon that is characterised by complexities. Given human nature with its strengths and shortcomings, who becomes a violent extremist can be difficult to predict.

What is needed is a “catch-all” approach, which takes into account also the various strands of societal needs and individual aspirations. Would-be terrorists were once card-carrying members of their communities.

IMCTC should embrace a multi-pronged minimum of 11 areas of action. Political consensus is essential. There are 57 members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, but IMCTC’s membership comprises 41 members.

Notable absentees in Riyadh were Qatar (a member) and Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation (not a member) and a victim of several brutal terrorist attacks. Excluding the majority Shia countries, Iraq and Iran, would be self-defeating because it would pit Muslim against Muslim and perpetuate the modus operandi of the terrorists and detractors of Islam.

The coalition has to find the political will to engage Teheran, Baghdad and eventually Damascus.

Ideological convergence implies that mainstream theological thinking has to recapture and reaffirm the moderate and middle-of-the-road values of Islam and its principles of peace, tolerance and compassion.

In Surah Al Baqara (Verse 43), the Quran mentions the ummatan wasata (the middlemost) community, based on a just and balanced society away from two extremes. One of the failures of mainstream ulama has been to not robustly counter the warped ideology of extremists, whether on the concept of jihad, suicide bombings and the slaughter of the innocents. The tendency has been to sit on the fence and shy away from engagement.

IMCTC also promotes countering radical ideology through communication campaigns to refute radical and extremist narratives and propaganda. The media, especially social media, are expected to play a vital role. My research shows that media, including the western majors, often are not fit for purpose in the use of their terminology. Islamic State has been described by the BBC alternatingly as rebels, militants and insurgents, when, in fact they are violent terrorists.

Concomitant with the communications function is the need for education enlightenment in Muslim societies. Education in some Muslim societies is political and gender-biased, and sometimes slanted towards religious education, much to the detriment of the sciences and liberal arts.

Information and intelligence sharing between countries and organisations is a precondition for the future success of the IMCTC agenda, and the precursor to any military action to flush out and eradicate terrorist threat or action.

The writer is an independent London-based economist and writer

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