$1.4 Million Templeton Prize Celebrates the Jihad of Religion and Politics

2018 Templeton Prize Ceremony HM (Credit Templeton Prize-Clifford Shirley)
His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan speaking at the 2018 Templeton Prize Ceremony at Washington National Cathedral, November 13, 2018. (Photo credit: Templeton Prize-Clifford Shirley)

At the November 13 award ceremony of the 2018 Templeton Prize for contribution to the spiritual dimension of life, Rev. Randolph Hollerith, dean of the illustrious National Cathedral in Washington, DC, invoked one political leader to pay homage to another.

“The struggle for peace and mutual understanding is truly God’s work,” he said, calling attention to a saying and on-grounds statue of Abraham Lincoln. “King Abdullah [of Jordan] has shown us how to truly make it our own.”

The $1.4 million prize, traditionally granted to religious figures, philosophers, and scientists, marks the Templeton Foundation’s goal to be an international catalyst for discoveries relating to the deepest and most profound questions facing humankind.

“It begins with the struggle—the jihad—within ourselves to be the best we can be,” Said Abdullah. “All it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.” [Jihad means “struggle” in Arabic.]

But just as Lincoln was a spiritually sensitive soul in a country divided by war, so King Abdullah II of Jordan was cited for his faith-based efforts to heal the Muslim nation—and the world.

“His Majesty King Abdullah the Second is a person shaped by temporal and political responsibilities,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, “yet one who holds the conviction that religious belief and the free exercise of religion are among humankind’s most important callings.”

In the wake of the Iraq war, Abdullah was pained at the sectarianism and violence Muslim groups perpetrated against one another. On November 9, 2005, they took aim at Jordan, as coordinated suicide bombings at three Amman hotels killed over 50 people.

The timing suggests deep offense against Abdullah’s leadership.

A year to the day earlier, the king launched the Amman Message from Jordan’s capital. Its three points declared the validity of the eight traditional Muslim schools of jurisprudence, forbade the practice of calling a Muslim an infidel, and set forth criteria for legitimate issuance of legal fatwas.

Eventually over 500 leading Muslim scholars endorsed the document.

But Abdullah did not content himself with peace between Muslims. In 2007 he led the effort to launch A Common Word Between Us and You, addressing the heads of Christian communities around the world.

Assuaging popular fears that Muslims were against Christians, it instead urged dialogue and cooperation around the twin commands to love God and love neighbor, which it declared common to both faiths.

Originally signed by 138 Muslim leaders, it has now been endorsed by nearly 20,000 individuals.

“Abraham pitched a grand tent in which all were welcome,” said Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College in California, in remarks at the ceremony.

“King Abdullah’s work, above and beyond his duties as head of state, is helping to restore that resplendent Abrahamic tent where all are welcome as guests of God.”

Yusuf was joined by Miroslav Volf, founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, and the lead author of the Christian response to A Common Word.

“Muslims and Christians had concocted together a poisonous brew,” he said. “The only instrument powerful enough to confront the differences … are seemingly impotent words.”

But to the words of these declarations, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added the importance of symbolism and practical help. He praised Abdullah, his “dear friend,” for the proposal to establish the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week, unanimously adopted and held the first week of February.

But in reference to his former role as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, he lauded Jordan’s reception of tens of thousands of refugees, both Christian and Muslim.

“I had to visit governments to ask them to do the impossible,” he said, turning toward the king. “But I would visit your majesty, and the impossible would become a reality.”

Performers at the ceremony included the Dozan wa Awtar choir and Jordan’s National Music Conservatory Orchestra, under the direction of producer and pianist Talal Abu Al Ragheb.

Vocalists included Zain Awad and Emanne Beasha, the nine-year-old winner of Arabs Got Talent.

King Abdullah II joins a group of 47 prize recipients including Mother Teresa, who received the inaugural award in 1973, the Dalai Lama (2012), and Desmond Tutu (2013). Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks won the 2016 Prize. The 2017 Laureate was American philosopher Alvin Plantinga.

Abdullah is the 41st direct descendant of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Monarch since 1999, he reigns over a population of roughly 10 million, estimated at two percent Christian. His Hashemite family has had custodianship over Holy Land religious sites since 1924.

Templeton Award prize money would be partially given to repair these ancient buildings, the king said, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The rest would be distributed to interfaith institutions in Jordan and around the world.

In his acceptance speech, Abdullah assured his lifetime of effort was to please God, not the world. And like with Lincoln above, he urged the audience on to a greater jihad.

“It is time to do all we can to maximize the good in our world, and bring people together in understanding,” said Abdullah.

“We can create the future of coexistence that humanity so desperately needs. Let us keep up the struggle.”

Please click here for a full video of the award ceremony.


How Many ISIS Jihadis in America?

ISIS Jihadis Returning
Photograph by Bram Janssen / AP, via the New Yorker

A recent edition of the New Yorker tackled the problem of ISIS fighters returning to their home countries. Given the controversies in the US about Muslim bans and extreme vetting, it is interesting to note other nations have it much worse:

A new report, to be released Tuesday by the Soufan Group and the Global Strategy Network, details some of the answers: At least fifty-six hundred people from thirty-three countries have already gone home—and most countries don’t yet have a head count.

On average, twenty to thirty per cent of the foreign fighters from Europe have already returned there—though it’s fifty per cent in Britain, Denmark, and Sweden. Thousands more who fought for ISIS are stuck near the borders of Turkey, Jordan, or Iraq, and are believed to be trying to get back to their home countries.

Dozens of governments face similar challenges. Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that ten per cent of the more than nine thousand foreign fighters from Russia and the former Soviet republics who went to Syria or Iraq have come home. (In private, other Russians have given me higher numbers.)

The report, titled “Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees,” notes that countries in Southeast Asia, such as the Philippines, and in North Africa, such as Libya, are particularly vulnerable.

Here are some more numbers, concluding with America:

Over all, since 2011, more than forty thousand people, from more than a hundred and ten countries, travelled to join ISIS—in addition to the local Syrians and Iraqis who became fighters. Among these jihadis were seventy-four hundred from the West—five thousand of them from Europe.

So far, the numbers of ISIS fighters from the United States have been comparatively low.

More than two hundred and fifty Americans tried to leave the country to join the caliphate in Syria or Iraq.

About half—a hundred and twenty-nine—succeeded, the report says. Some were blocked.

Only seven of those who made it to the battlefield have returned. As of August, the United States has charged a hundred and thirty-five people for terrorism offenses linked to ISIS; seventy-seven have so far been convicted.

Of course, these are the numbers we know, and even small numbers are significant. Terrorists do not need major manpower to succeed.

Even so, allow statistics to guide conversation and the processing of spin. Ideology knows no borders, but two oceans provide valuable buffer.

So does an already robust processing system. Vigilance must never falter, but neither must we surrender to mischaracterization.

Those returning have rights. Muslims coming are human. Let us protect ourselves, but keep our soul.



Islam, Jihad, and Syria

An image distributed by Islamic State militants on social media purports to show the destruction of a Roman-era temple in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra
Translation: Blowing up a pagan temple in Palmyra.

Two days ago I shared my new article at Christianity Today contrasting Muslim and Christian polls about eschatology. As ISIS surged in the Middle East, it activated also Christian visions of Armageddon.

But it is good also to look at the raw material. This article by Josh Landis contains many interesting tidbits on how Syria ignites the Muslim imagination. Not only the sometimes jihad-bent Salafi trend can be animated, but the generally assumed peaceful Sufis also see the early centrality of Sham, as greater Syria is called in Arabic.

If some judge this as confirmation of Islam’s essential violent core, here is one passage to highlight. I suppose it could be read either way, but it does show the focus of the early community on empire-building:

Salafi-Jihadis may be very different from classically conceived Jihad but they believe that they are continuing in the footsteps of an old tradition which goes all the way back to the earliest days of the Prophet.

Whilst it is noteworthy that Jihad occupied a very small part of the Prophet’s life, the first books written about his life was about his battles. From there a whole literary genre called maghazi developed.

Moreover, there are historical compendiums such as Futuh al-Buldan of al-Baladhuri, one of the earliest surviving texts on how Islam conquered the classical world with offensive jihad.

Apart from the jurisprudence dealing with the legal issues surrounding the concept of religious warfare, there are plenty of works written on the battles of the Companions, as well as books dealing with the concept of Futuwwa, martial and spiritual chivalry, and of course there are biographies of famous warriors.

Contrast, perhaps, with the Civil War and WWII literature popular among Americans. Yes, it is a contrast between a nation and a religion, and therefore not exact.

But it also highlights the difficulty of examining Islam, which stands in between ‘religion’ and ‘nation’.

Let it at least be an example of the shared propensity of mankind to glorify battle. Most Muslims, and Americans, would quickly defend the rightness of their particular historical cause. Perhaps they are not wrong.

But allow it to give pause in defending the rightness of any particular current cause –  religious, national, or otherwise.

And if you like, review again the CT link showing how some read forward the battle into the future, perhaps the near future, perhaps even the present.


The Return from Syria

(from Sputnik news)
(from Sputnik news)

Writing for Carnegie, Mukhtar Awad writes a long but thorough history of Islamist radicalization since the movement to oust Morsi as president. Towards the end he issues a warning that might not be on everyone’s radar:

The eventual return of Egypt’s many itinerant jihadists—probably several thousand—is another factor that will likely increase jihadists’ recruitment of Islamist youth and the possibility that nonjihadi violent groups embedded in the Egyptian mainland will turn into active cells of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. There is a precedent for this. When Egyptian fighters returned from jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, their actions precipitated the bloodiest years of the previous insurgency.

The brutal and successful Islamic State has inspired many young Islamists to wage jihad, particularly after its conquests in Iraq and Syria and its infliction of significant casualties on the ranks of the Egyptian military. An increasing number of Islamists have joined its ranks, and others have fought under the banner of jihadi groups in Libya. Al-Qaeda also remains a popular touchstone among those who reject the Islamic State’s claim to the caliphate and its gross barbarity. Its branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, is another successful model in the view of young Islamists, and some Egyptians have traveled to join its ranks.

Many Egyptian jihadists who left in the 1980s stayed overseas to fight in regions like the Arab Maghreb—one estimate by a pro-government center run by a retired senior officer puts the number at anywhere between 8,000 and 10,000 Egyptians, though these numbers could not be independently verified.47 Egyptian authorities claim that at least 3,000 Egyptians have traveled to join the Syrian jihad since 2012, a number that peaked during Morsi’s presidency.48 This number is also impossible to verify, but an Egyptian Islamic State fighter based in Syria interviewed for this paper confirmed that the number is likely close to several thousand.

As escalating as Russia’s intervention in Syria has been, having them at the table could ironically serve as a basis for an eventual political solution. Far too much blood has been shed to offer even the faintest praise to anyone, but at least there is coordination among the major powers, including efforts to involve Turkey and Saudi Arabia as well.

If peace can eventually take hold, where will all the foreign fighters go? As Awad states, Egypt has dealt with this scenario already. But in the ongoing effort to regain stability, it would be the oddest of consequences that peace in Syria might throw Egypt off kilter again.


The Brotherhood as the Jihadi Source

Former President Mohamed Morsi, wearing the red uniform of a prisoner sentenced to death
Former President Mohamed Morsi, wearing the red uniform of a prisoner sentenced to death

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry recently called the Muslim Brotherhood the source of all extremist ideology. The article does not give a detailed rationale, though the accusation is repeated often by many anti-Islamists in Egypt.

This article in al-Monitor, however, explains how it works:

The Islamists see a wide systematic conflict between the Brotherhood and Salafist jihadist groups, from which IS defected. However, one of the defectors from a Salafist jihadist group in Sinai (which the sheikh did not name) believes that the Brotherhood is the main generator of organizations fighting in the name of religion.

The jihadist — who defected from Salafist jihadism but still believes in the jihadist ideology — told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Jihadist groups classify the Brotherhood as democratic, whose way of ruling is no different than that of political regimes.

There are fundamental differences, on both the systematic and doctrinal levels between the Brotherhood and the jihadists. It is a political group with an Islamic cover that aims at political reform, and does not mind the idea of ​​jihad, but under terms that are subject to political calculations and interests. The jihadists, however, believe that this [ideology] is a blasphemy and that those who follow politics and leave jihad are secular infidels, even if they constantly repeat Islamic slogans.”

So the two entities are against each other in tactics, but the Brotherhood is an incubator for later jihadi action:

The jihadist said, “The Brotherhood is the oldest organization that has the most experience in lobbying human resources. It educates its cadres from childhood, teaching them jihadist slogans and explaining to them the [importance] of establishing an Islamic caliphate and applying Sharia. [They say], ‘Allah is our objective, the prophet is our idol and the Quran is our constitution; jihad is our fate, and death for the sake of Allah is our highest aspiration.’”

He added, “This is how the Brotherhood is the main generator of jihadist groups, as I previously mentioned. Complicated political differences often emerge between the Brotherhood and its political opponents, such as the harsh violence [campaign] launched by the Egyptian army against the Brotherhood. These political differences reached their peak following the bloody Rabia al-Adawiya massacre.

When such incidents occur, the Brotherhood youths rush to come up with mobilizing jihadist slogans and deviate from the Muslim Brotherhood’s path. They either turn to extremist [organizations], such as IS, or they turn to the radical right or convert to atheism when they realize that the jihadist and religious group [they belong to] cannot protect them from death.”

The Brotherhood is clear it is in support of jihad as a core and central concept of Islam. In other documents aligned ideologues declare they seek a caliphate. Brotherhood supporters have many answers to smooth the jagged edges of these religious terms, and alternate interpretations are possible.

But if the accusative warning of the foreign minister is heeded, the choice is between a slow ascent into a jihadist caliphate, or a bloody effort to birth one.

The international system has rules of governance, and respect for democratic choice is one of its pillars. While open jihadist groups like ISIS reject the system altogether, the Brotherhood seeks to work within it. But as this anonymous sheikh explains, the line between them is fluid.

So what is the answer? Hope that inclusion moderates core Brotherhood conviction? Or stamp out a confessedly democratic movement? Apply international pressure against the illiberal and jihadist impulses of popularly-chosen sharia? Or put out the fires of violence-bent radicals around the world?

Tough choices. Suggestions?


A Jihadi in the Making

Islam Yakan, an Egyptian jihadi, not the character described in this story.
Islam Yakan, an Egyptian jihadi, not the character described in this story.

Powerful testimony from Rana Allam, about her former work colleague and fellow Tahrir demonstrator, in Daily News Egypt.

The difference between us, and it was quite minor back then, that he came from a family that believed in the Muslim Brotherhood and he was a religious young man, while I believed in a secular civil state. We never had a problem discussing such matters, and just as he was neither a hardliner nor ultra conservative, we agreed on the basis of democracy.

But then Rabaa happened.

Eventually he found his young brother, after weeks of torture at some detention facility. He could tell the torture was brutal by the marks on his brother’s face and body. They were then informed that the student was facing charges of terrorism and that his trial was due in a few days. By then, and because of the extended absence from work along with his psychological status, our friend was out of a job. He did not appear to mind the unemployment much, being too busy with his mother and sister who lost a husband/father and his tortured brother in detention facing terrorism charges.

Other troubles followed, and eventually he fled the country with his family. He is not described as in Syria, as I was expecting. But the attitude is similar.

My genius sweet colleague has become a bloody, vengeful, bitter man. He has joined the flock of those who rejoice at the murder of police officers, judges and soldiers. He is hailing the Almighty every time a death toll is announced. He is praying for God’s strength to be given to those “martyrs” dying for the cause. He goes on and on about jihad in Islam against those infidel murderers. He also calls for the heads of their supporters, from government officials to idiotic pro-army demonstrators. Right now, I do not think he minds killing his neighbour if he was a mere verbal supporter of the regime.

Early on after the fall of Morsi, many Islamists and others warned that in keeping the Brotherhood from democratic gains it would push them into violent efforts for power. I recognize the power of the logic, but have argued against it, though with troubled reservation of spirit. It is too akin to blackmail, even as many principles are violated.

But to the extent this account is an accurate description of the post-Morsi environment, the logic is different, and more unassailable. It is not the whole story of extremism, but Allam sums it up, in rhetoric surprising to appear in Egyptian media, even if in English.

Our rulers still deny this fact and continue to breed violence completely oblivious or uncaring of what that leads to. There are almost five million Brotherhood sympathisers in Egypt, given the parliamentary and presidential elections figures. The number might have decreased after the Brotherhood’s rule indeed, but how much? A few hundred thousands are enough to turn this country upside down. We should also count those who are not Brotherhood sympathisers but had their loved ones go through the same suffering. The families and friends of the tortured, murdered, unjustly imprisoned will be bitter enough to hate everyone else, and hatred is the root of evil. Does no one in this regime see that?