KARACHI: Non-state actors of the extremist Islamist variety are among the major threats to world peace at the current time as these forces — largely cultivated during the anti-Soviet Afghan War in the 1980s — are now uncontrollable.

This was stated by former ambassador Shahid M. Amin on Thursday while speaking on the last day of a two-day international conference on religious harmony in Europe, South Asia and the Middle East. The event was organised by the University of Karachi’s Area Study Centre for Europe and the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

“Peace has been the eternal quest of mankind but has been elusive. [The major] threat to peace at this time comes from non-state actors,” Mr Amin said. However, he pointed out that terrorism was present in non-Muslim countries before the present wave of Islamist terrorism began, giving the examples of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka and Basque separatists in Spain.

He traced the roots of the current wave of terror to around 1980, specifically to the Afghan War. “At that time it seemed like a good idea to support the jihad. But in hindsight the [holy warriors] turned into Frankensteins.” He said terrorism only increased in the wake of the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’, though the “root causes” of terrorism remained unaddressed.

The former ambassador said the foremost reason for the rise of extremism was the occupation of Muslim lands, Afghanistan and Iraq being the most recent examples. He also described Israel as a “festering wound in the heart of Arabs and Muslims. There is a feeling that injustice has been done.”

The senior diplomat felt that there was a need for dialogue between Muslim states and the West “to understand each others’ concerns” and that harmony could be achieved by working on commonalities”. Describing the relationship between Europe and Islam, he said over the centuries Europeans and Muslims had fought each other while they had also learnt from each other.

Dr Thomas K. Gugler of Germany’s University of Münster said that Christianity had early in its history ensured a distinction between the divine and the human spheres of power. He added that 1648’s Peace of Westphalia had declared parity between the two main Christian denominations — Catholics and Protestants.

“In Europe people see themselves as aligned to nation states first, rather than having religious identities. In Pakistan people consider themselves Muslims first,” he said, adding that “Muslims in Europe may feel safer than in so-called Muslim countries”.

Dr Gugler said there were around 2,500 mosques in Germany and that about one third of German Muslims were “cultural Muslims”, who were in fact non-practising. He said the veil contradicts the values of European society. He revealed that the rise of the so-called Islamic State was fuelling sectarian tensions in Germany, citing incidents where Muslims of a particular sect had been forcibly removed from Arab mosques and had to pray in Turkish mosques.

“The message of pluralist Islam needs to be addressed to Muslims. We live in an age of extremism. If religion is not part of the solution, it will certainly be part of the problem.”

Dr Jamal Malik of the University of Erfurt, Germany, said there was a feeling in Europe, promoted by right-wing populist forces, that Muslim immigrants were unable to integrate into European society. He said it was a mistake to look at contemporary Islam without looking at the legacy of colonialism. “Orientalism has caused Muslim thinkers to look inwards.” He added that while many Pakistani students in Germany knew about Karl Marx, they knew very little of their own tradition.

Dr Syed Nomanul Haq of the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, said that what we consider to be theological and religious problems are actually political issues, and that sectarianism was “part of a political programme”.

Discussing the current predicament of the Arab world, he said following World War I new identities had been forged in the region. “Until this day the Arab world has not come to terms with borders and passports.”

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2014

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