While the debate in Western capitals has focused on the wisdom of being sucked into another Middle East quagmire, in the Arab world the brutality of the self-styled “Islamic State” (IS) has sparked some unprecedented soul searching.
Departing from the usual conspiratorial discourse that sees foreign plots in all that befalls Arab societies, a growing number of voices are laying the blame for the proliferation of groups such as IS squarely on Arab-Islamic culture.
First to come under attack after the IS leader appointed himself caliph this summer was the hallowed notion that the historical caliphate was some kind of a golden age, a lost utopia, that Muslims should strive to resurrect.
One writer after another exposed the ruthlessness of successive caliphs in their pursuit of power and suppression of dissent and concluded that IS, far from being an aberration, was in fact a textbook example of brutality in the name of Islam.
Instead of blaming foreign powers for a home-made malaise, critics are saying it is time to examine Islamic tradition and purge its literature of books that glorify military prowess and supremacy in the name of Islam.
A Saudi scholar, Ibrahim al-Belahi, lambasted Islamic culture for its obsession with the myth of the golden past and its chronic inability to think of the future as something completely different.
Speaking on primetime TV, Al-Belahi said ethics for the Arabs meant only sexual morality, adding that his countrymen fail to realise that Western culture has higher moral standards in all other aspects of life when compared to Arab societies – a highly unusual thing for a Saudi to say publicly in the ultra-conservative Gulf region.
Several other critics picked on the oral tradition, known as hadith, attributed to the Prophet Muhammad in which he is reported to have threatened his enemies saying that “he had come to slaughter them” – a line that was quoted in one of the propaganda videos released recently by IS.
A prominent Egyptian broadcaster launched a scathing attack on that tradition, which was written long after the death of Muhammad and is still used today to bestow religious legitimacy on everything from female genital mutilation to the killing of apostates. The authenticity of such tradition is the subject of much controversy, not least because it has been elevated to the status of the Koran itself. As a result, the broadcaster is now being investigated for blasphemy.
Incubator of extremist ideologies
This has added more fury to the burgeoning rage against the official Islamic establishment, which has been accused of being the incubator of the very ideas that led to the emergence of militant Islamic ideologies.
While traditionally secular critics have directed their wrath at the Wahhabi (Saudi) brand of Islam, this time the oldest seat of Sunni Islamic learning, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, has come in for a lot of harsh criticism.
Despite being often touted as the bastion of moderation and a bulwark against intolerance and extremism, writers and scholars have sought to expose this as a fallacy, highlighting that the extremist views propagated by IS are part and parcel of the religious education offered by the thousands of schools and seminaries run by Al-Azhar, which also trains thousands of imams for Egypt and the wider world.
Far from inoculating the youth against militant Islam, its critics argued, the Azhar curriculum contains the very seeds of extremism that blight some Muslim-majority societies today.
The whole tenor of the debate is that Muslim societies should stop blaming others for their woes, and acknowledge their own complicity.
The moral of this debate is simple and frightening. The ideological sources of extremism have firm roots in traditional Islam, and unless this is widely acknowledged and uprooted, bombing IS out of existence, if that is at all possible, will provide the world only with a reprieve, before another clone takes over in Yemen or Libya or Somalia.
Root and branch reform
Contrary to the mantra repeated by Western politicians that IS offers a distorted or warped view of Islam, the debate in the Arab world points exactly in the opposite direction: IS, Al-Qaeda and other militant groups draw upon the mainstream texts of Islamic tradition. The sermon by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadiafter IS captured Mosul this summer could have easily been delivered in any mosque in Cairo or Riyadh or Morocco.
Only a root and branch reform of the way Islam is preached and taught would drain the swamp from which the likes of IS grow and flourish.
The debate in the Arab world today may just be the beginning of a process that will inevitably be very difficult and long.