A mobile minaret is mightier than the sword (COMMENTARY)

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Laleh Bakhtiar is an Islamic scholar, translator, editor and author based in Chicago. Her latest work is a teacher’s manual called “Critical Thinking Quranic Perspective,” part of her upcoming Mobile Minaret campaign. Photo courtesy of Laleh Bakhtiar

Laleh Bakhtiar is an Islamic scholar, translator, editor and author based in Chicago. Her latest work is a teacher’s manual called “Critical Thinking Quranic Perspective,” part of her upcoming Mobile Minaret campaign. Photo courtesy of Laleh Bakhtiar

Islamic scholar Laleh Bakhtiar suggests incorporating "Quranic critical thinkin"g into a vibrant mobile experience for Muslim millennials. Graphic by Laura Hardwick.

Islamic scholar Laleh Bakhtiar suggests incorporating “Quranic critical thinking” into a vibrant mobile experience for Muslim millennials. Graphic by Laura Hardwick.

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(RNS) As American Muslims, many of us are working hard to counter Islamist extremist ideology. We have repeatedly condemned ISIS. We have held press conferences and taken to social media to denounce its hateful ideology.

But how can we be more proactive in preventing radicalization here at home?

We know that extremists are seizing control of the Quran with their particular interpretation of it. So we must begin with freeing it from them. Extremists forbid independent thought, teaching a strict literal reading of the scripture. When the Quran refers to the Hand of God or other physical characteristics, they don’t stop to consider the metaphor. “It means just what it says,” they say. “God has a face, a hand, he sits upon a throne.”

A Quran photographed in a Kansas City mosque in 2012. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

A Quran photographed in a Kansas City mosque in 2012. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

While adhering to scriptural rigidity, extremists simultaneously cherry-pick verses. The Quran clearly states that it is forbidden for a Muslim to kill another Muslim (4:93). To circumvent this, they developed a practice they call takfir that says whoever does not follow their ideology is not Muslim. Then, in their minds, it is no longer prohibited to kill the person.

These contortions only work because of Islamists’ suppression of active Quranic critical thinking.

“The suppression of my critical thinking was the most important factor that trapped me on the path to (Salafism),” writes Dr. Tawfik Hamid, a former member of a militant Islamist group in Egypt, in his book “Inside Jihad.” “All other techniques of indoctrination depend on it.”

There are between 3 million and 4 million Muslims in America. While we know that there are more than 200 full-time Islamic schools in this country and hundreds of Sunday schools, this means very few American Muslim children get Islamic schooling outside their home. While they learn history, sociology and other subjects in public high school through a process of critical thinking, some grow up with no formal Quranic education.

This vacuum is easily filled by the extreme, puritanical Islamist ideology so easy to stumble into online — on Web forums, on YouTube, on Twitter.

I’ve spent more than 20 years working on a Quranic studies critical teaching program. It’s clear to me that we can prevent radicalization by opposing literal and inaccurate interpretations of the Quran. But what I’ve realized over the past year or so is that this can only work if the lessons are digital, mobile and shareable. This is the only way to reach the dissatisfied Muslims at risk of turning from conservative to radical.

We need imams Periscoping about how more than one-sixth of the Quran’s verses are questions. We need apps that teach Muslims each one of the “say” or “qul” verses, which command believers to voice some tenet of Islam. We need to work with video production companies to create YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram content that can shake Muslims out of their passive Quranic stupor.

It’s important to note that for millennial Muslims across the world, mosques aren’t speaking to them. One 2015 study, which interviewed more than 5,000 Muslim youth between the ages of 15 and 34 in eight Arab nations, found that most young Muslims in each country “felt that the ‘language used to speak about Islam’ and the topics and issues addressed by scholars and preachers needed to be made more relevant to today’s life, which is why many also claimed that Friday sermons were either a ‘tirade,’ ‘boring,’ or ‘the government’s voice.’”

So how do we speak to vulnerable Muslim youth? We approach the problem from a human-centered perspective, engaging Islamic scholars and technology partners to identify our teaching goals. We iterate, iterate, iterate. We design a solution with capacity for social change.

As we write and produce Quranic critical thinking content, we must focus on the mobile Muslim public. We need to design analytics and metrics for success. We need to build a mobile minaret agile enough to reach youth in all the ways they’re already consuming information: texting, messaging apps, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Periscope.

The greatest fear of extremists is that young Muslims may move from being passive to active Quranic thinkers. So to prevent radicalization at home and abroad, we need to move beyond memorizing what the Quran teaches and make sure our youth understand how the holy book teaches us to think. Older and more traditional religious leaders may be uncomfortable with this, but the quickest way to do so is to present Quranic critical thinking through short, engaging, shareable visuals.

When extremist leaders act as gatekeepers to Quranic understanding, a mobile movement can be a game changer in nurturing critical Quranic thinking among Sunni and Shia alike. The mobile approach moves the minaret from its time-based architectural structure to the open mobile space, calling Muslims throughout the world to awaken, to become active Quranic thinkers.

Laleh Bakhtiar is an Islamic scholar, translator, editor and author based in Chicago. Her latest work is a teacher’s manual called “Critical Thinking Quranic Perspective,” part of her upcoming Mobile Minaret campaign. Photo courtesy of Laleh Bakhtiar

Laleh Bakhtiar is an Islamic scholar, translator, editor and author based in Chicago. Her latest work is a teacher’s manual called “Critical Thinking Quranic Perspective,” part of her upcoming Mobile Minaret campaign. Photo courtesy of Laleh Bakhtiar

If Muslim youth learn that the Quran actually teaches them to think about what is being said to them and to reflect on it, they are less likely to fall into the hands of those hoping to manipulate them.

This isn’t a new idea. Islamic legal scholar Mohammad Hashim Kamali wrote about dogmatism and the decline of creative thought in 2006; a King’s College London lecturer pointed to critical thinking education as a solution to British radicalization in 2013.

What’s new are the technologies extremists are using to infect our youth — and technologies that moderate Muslims can use with which to fight back.

(Laleh Bakhtiar is an Islamic scholar, translator, editor and author based in Chicago. Her latest work is a teacher’s manual called “Critical Thinking Quranic Perspective,” part of her upcoming Mobile Minaret campaign.)

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  • American Muslims keep coming up with excellent ideas. This is another one.

    Muslims are less than 1% of the American population yet they are excelling in a dozen industries and comprise 5% of some medical and technology sectors. For those who bother to notice, the Muslim population is also more secular than Muslims elsewhere in the world and more highly educated.

    The success of American Muslims, their ability to integrate into our society and to adapt is wonderful for Muslims and wonderful for Americans.

    Next, I hope many will also feel free to admit their Atheism. According to Pew Research 4-8% of any random population will be non-believers.

  • Earold D Gunter

    Critical thinking is the path to enlightenment, but the path needs to be followed all the way to realit, not just to another illogical conclusion. Only then will one figure out that any belief based on faith, is belief that not only requires believing things that are known not to be possible, but also requires treating things know to be real, as not.

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  • Thank you for your comment. You and all others are free to believe as they want to believe as the Quran says: There is no compulsion in religion. (2:256)

  • Thank you for your comment. Faith needs to be preceded by reasoning. The purpose of the Mobile Minaret is to show HOW the Quran teaches us to think, not WHAT the Quran teaches. Quranic thinking becomes critical when it evaluates the reasoning of a verse or sign (ayah): Such evaluation must, however, as Islamic scholar Mohammad Hashim Kamali points out, “be carried forth in a constructive manner. The purpose of critical thinking is to achieve understanding, evaluate viewpoints, ask questions and solve problems. In general, our thinking is likely to become critical when concrete learning experiences precede abstract thought, that is, when there is thinking wedded with wisdom (hikmah).”

  • @Lelah,

    “There is no compulsion in religion”

    But you are not being truthful. The Q’uran is ignored on that point as it is on many other. Muslims are forbidden to reject Islam – every Ex-Muslim has a target on his head. There are many Fatwas against non-belief.

  • I fully support Muslims coming to America and to freely practice their rights to their religion without the slightest fear. No bigotry against Muslims having that right shall be tolerated.

    But to respect a person’s right to believe in Allah, Jesus or Leprechauns is not the same as to respect the beliefs. I do not respect the beliefs and think all religions are just options and ideas worthy of intelligent debate and discussion.