Countering ISIS Needs Multifaceted Approach: Interview with Iyad Madani

OIC Secretary-General Madani at the International Peace Institute, September 19, 2014. (Don Pollard)

The Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Iyad Ameen Madani, said that to counter violent movements such as the Islamic State (ISIS), airstrikes and ground troops are not enough. “This will not do it,” he said. “This is necessary, but it has to be combined with efforts on other fronts.”

Mr. Madani said countering extremism requires a multifaceted approach, the first track of which is confronting those who are spreading a wrong interpretation of Islam, including some who call themselves Muslim scholars.  “These extreme notions and interpretations of Islam were not invented by the ISIS,” he said. “And these people have to be confronted, because they don’t realize that what they say is used to recruit young people with very little knowledge about Islam.”

Mr. Madani said a second track in fighting militants is to improve “the economic situation, the poverty, the exclusion, the sense of despair that most of these young people are going through.”

“We have to address this question,” he said.

Mr. Madani added that it’s unfortunate that the media calls the Islamic State “Islamic,” because they are not practicing Islam. He also noted that their victims are of all sects and religions. “Actually, they have killed more Muslims than they have killed others,” he said.

He spoke at length about the role of women in Islam. “The question about women’s rights is one of the most sensitive challenges that the OIC faces,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the more conservative interpretation [of the Quran] has taken over those concepts of a woman’s role in society. What’s promising is that even in places like here in the United States, you now see young and not very young scholars who have taken up that question very forcibly.”

Mr. Madani also gave his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the tension between some Muslims and the West over the issue of freedom of speech.

Mr. Madani became Secretary-General of the OIC in January 2014. With 57 nations and a collective population of 1.5 billion people, the OIC is the second-largest intergovernmental organization in the world, the first being the United Nations.

Warren Hoge, senior adviser for External Relations at the International Peace Institute, conducted the interview.

The Islamic State (as it’s called) is having great success in attracting a lot of young people, and is profiting from what I think you believe is a campaign of disinformation and stigmatization, such as claims that they represent Islam when they don’t, claims even of having direct communication with Allah.

How does the OIC recommend that the world stand up to the Islamic State and, specifically, is building a coalition the answer?

The OIC was, we think, among the first in the region to condemn IS. And we think it’s unfortunate for the media to call them Islamic, because in reality, they’re not. Their victims are of all sects, of all religions. Actually, they have killed more Muslims than they have killed others.

In addition to our condemnation of ISIS, we offered our humanitarian assistance to the Christians and Yazidis who were either deported or forced to leave their homes. We had no way to do that except through the Iraqi government. We had no access to these areas without going through the Iraqi government. And the Iraqi government at the time said it’s not the right time to come now. They had this political deadlock, as you know—it was the last days of Prime Minister Maliki. They said, “Let’s first get our government declared, and then we’ll talk about this.”

And the minute they declared their government, I talked to the foreign minister, His Excellency Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a gentlemen I’ve known for years. He used to head the Hajj delegation of Iraq at the time I was at the Ministry of Hajj. So I knew him in that capacity, and he was very welcoming, and we’ll continue to talk to him and others in the leadership there for us to go and do what we’ve just done in Gaza—to have an assessment of the needs, and then provide those needs in coordination with others who are also doing so.

Now, how do we face up to movements like ISIS? This is the question that everybody is contemplating now. Our conviction in the OIC is that it’s not enough to do military work. It’s not enough to attack with airstrikes, and drones or whatever—not even with ground troops. This will not do it. This is necessary, but it has to be combined with efforts on other fronts.

First, is whoever advocates such ideas, whether they are within ISIS or outside of ISIS, should be confronted. These extreme notions and interpretations of Islam were not invented by the ISIS. They have also been the views of some “scholars” in some of the Islamic countries. And these people have to be confronted, because they don’t realize that what they say is used to recruit young people with very little knowledge about Islam. So that’s one line, the intellectual, the theoretical, the source of justifying an Islamic battle.

The second one is the economic situation, the poverty, the exclusion, the sense of despair that most of these young people are going through. We have to address this question. So it has to be a multifaceted effort. I hope that this is what is being done.

The OIC, from its inception, has been dedicated to addressing the plight of the Palestinian people. There seem to be two or three paths open now to pursue, and I wanted to ask you your judgment as to which the OIC—which is a political organization—favors.

One is to adopt the Arab Peace Plan put forward in 2002 by the Saudi king. I should say there is sort of renewed talk now—even though it’s twelve years old—of going back to that document and saying maybe the solution lies there. There is talk, of course, of continuing negotiations toward the creation of a Palestinian state. And the third thing is there is an idea that maybe the Palestinians should be pursuing statehood here at the United Nations.

Does the OIC take a position as to which of those three paths—or maybe a fourth path—it would recommend to the Palestinians?

Any position the OIC takes has to be based on the reality of the situation. And I think, from our perspective, the most threatening factor is that the Israelis negotiate forever, they keep changing the situation on the ground. If you compare the size and spread of settlements over the past years since negotiations have been launched, you’ll be amazed. Some people say it makes no sense anymore to have a two-state solution because there isn’t enough real state for a Palestinian state. It’s all taken by the settlers.

There is nothing on the horizon [suggesting] that the current Israeli government is going to take any action in terms of freezing the settlements. It keeps going on in spite of some public stands by secretaries of states in the United States. Everybody objects to them, but Israel chooses to ignore that.

And of course, there is the wall, the wall that has divided Palestinian communities, divided their farms, divided even some homes—sometimes the wall would cut through a home. It’s unbelievable until you see it, until you physically stand there and see the wall. It’s unheard of what Israel is doing—nobody else is doing this. Nobody else is allowed to do it. And this is the irony, that we allow Israel what any other state, any other country cannot dare do.

So the international community has a responsibility. We hope that the bigger supporter of Israel, the United States of America, has to also take a stand based on American principles. And we also are hopeful that Jewish people around the world can see what Israel is turning into. It’s turning into an apartheid state. And I don’t think this was their dream when they wanted a homeland. I don’t think this is what they want a Jewish state to look like.

Now, President Abbas is saying, “We will go back to the negotiating table, but first tell us what borders you want for your country.” He wants the Israelis to say what their borders are. The Jewish people may have steep history, but they have very little geography; they don’t talk about geography. I don’t know any Israeli leader who has said, “These are the borders of Israel as we see them.” They talk about defensible borders, they talk about secure borders, but they don’t tell you where their borders should be. They say this is a subject that should be settled through negotiations. Fine, but the negotiations have been going on for more than three decades now. I think Mr. Abbas—and I hope he will stand his ground—said we will negotiate, provided we’ll go back to the table, provided that the first three months are set for only one issue: “Tell us where your borders are, and then we will proceed.”

Everybody still talks about land for peace. Everybody refers—at least in the Arab world, in the EU, and here sometimes in the States—about the Arab Peace Plan—is it still relevant? Is it still valid? I think the principle is valid.

Declaring a Palestinian state in the United Nations, as you said, as an alternative—I think the amount of pressure exercised on the Palestinians now will not let them do this except as a last act. The consequences will be great.

What is a fourth or another alternative? I think if the situation continues like this, we will continue to have explosions, we will continue to have violence, and I think that violence is not good for anybody, including the Israelis. The Israelis must understand that military power alone cannot give them peace. This is the fourth time they’ve tried it in Gaza. They have devastated Gaza—you know this. But then it happens again a few years later.

So it’s not giving them the peace of mind, the security, acceptance in the region, the potential to have a normal relationship with all the surrounding countries. So they have themselves to think of alternatives, but the two-state solution is still being talked about—we hope it’s not too late.

One of the major areas of misunderstanding between the Islamic world and the West, which comes up repeatedly, is instances where Muslims perceive unacceptable insults to their religion and Western people believe it to be simply an exercise of freedom of expression.

You have lived in this country—you were educated in part at Arizona State University—and your command of English is complete. You obviously have thought about this, and I would love to have your explanation of how we can bring those two concepts together.

We have to better understand each other. We have to understand what freedom of speech means to those who think of it as an absolute right that has no limit. And we also have to understand those who think that at some point, at some red line, it becomes an incitement to hate against a group.

Let me give you an example from here as I understood it. You know in the 1960s, there was a very active civil rights movement. At that time, Martin Luther King was the symbol of that movement, and he advocated peaceful confrontation: people demonstrated, they would go and sit in restaurants, sit in the front of the bus, and they accepted the insults and sometimes physical punishment. People sort of accepted that, the federal government supported that, and eventually we had the famous Civil Rights [Act passed by] Congress at the time—I think it was 1964.

But if you notice in the process, people were frustrated. And then we had the Black Panthers. And the Black Panthers did not advocate peaceful confrontations. They said, “If you hit me once, I’ll hit you twice; if you kill one of us, I’ll kill two of you.” The American society did not tolerate that, and the Black Panthers were eventually eliminated. So advocating hatred and statements of speech that may turn into violent acts against a group of people is something we have to define and see where the line between your freedom of speech and the security of my belief is.

When you tell them that Prophet Mohammed means so much for Muslims, they tell you, “But we make all kinds of fun where Jesus is concerned. Why should your Mohammed be any different from our Jesus?” But this is a comparison that is misleading because the Christians of today—most of them anyways, there are other groups who think otherwise—don’t think of Jesus the same way Muslims think of Mohammed. And what is the advantage of insulting other cultures’ symbols?

There is no society I know of that has no taboos to freedom of expression.

If we respect that—and we should—then we should respect the other’s as well. But it is something that we have to debate, something that we have to talk about—it is something that we don’t need to be holding our grounds for. We should see what the other side is actually saying.

I’m a journalist, and what journalists often do before they interview somebody is go to the clips, see what’s been written about before. And I noted that in 2013, you praised the decision by Saudi King Abdullah to give women a presence on the Shura Council—I should say this is before you would be Secretary-General of the OIC—you were quoted as saying that it was good to give women a role in the political process. Islam gets, and I acknowledge this, sometimes a bad name for its treatment of women. Is that a perception or misperception that the OIC actively takes on and tries to correct?

Well, the question about women’s rights is one of the most sensitive challenges that the OIC faces. Islam is a religion that as we know has a holy book and then the life of its prophet—prophet Muhammad. But actually most of what we call Islamic laws in Islamic societies is the work of Muslim scholars over the centuries. And these have accumulated and some of them have taken the same “holiness” of a verse in the Quran.

Like any other statements, religious or otherwise, the Quran is interpreted in different ways, especially when it comes to women’s rights. It’s unfortunate that the more conservative interpretation has taken over those concepts of a woman’s role in society. What’s promising is that even in places like here in the United States you now see young and not very young scholars who have taken up that question very forcibly. There is now an increasing literature on the question of where women’s position is within Islamic tradition.

But this is a social thing. This is something that cannot be done away with by some politician doing something. I think what King Abdullah did was excellent in terms of enlarging the horizon, providing a stage. But that just opens the door, somebody has to go through that door, and if there is wind and snow outside, they have to survive and find their way there. This is our role. This is the role of society as a whole.

If I can speak of Saudi Arabia as an example—the Saudi Arabia of today in terms of the question of women is very different from the Saudi Arabia of 10 years ago, which is a short span of time in terms of social issues. And when I say this I mean in the sense of confidence, in the sense of the role females play, and in the sense of what they share in the society. You know, about 40 percent of government employees in Saudi Arabia are females, and more than half are students, whether university or general education. About 30 percent of the private sector is owned and managed by women. So there is movement.

Some people of course would like to see that movement done at a faster rate; others feel that social equilibrium is always important, “Let’s not break that agreement but create the circumstance that will take it a little bit higher.” So there is movement, and it is certainly a priority for us, and it’s wonderful when you see the many activists, whether organizations or individuals, that are involved within the member states in that very same question.

Actually, there is one lady here living in New York. She is originally from India. She is the wife of Imam Faysal, if you’ve heard of him, who gained some prominence during the Ground Zero Islamic Center. Her name is Daisy Khan, and she has this wonderful network of more than 5,000 or so women activists or institutions or NGOs that are involved in this question. And they are active, I can tell you. They persuade, they lobby, they confront, and I think this is the spirit that is taking place.

We as OIC would like to take advantage of what exists, use it, and build on it. But we are optimistic—and I hope that the next Secretary-General will be a woman.