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Filling a leadership vacuum

By Michael Harris

Alhamdulillah! Or, as a Christian would say “Praise God”. For after years of inexplicable silence, the Anjuman Sunnat ul Jamaat Association (ASJA) has finally stepped into the public light and assumed its self-proclaimed role as “the largest and most influen­tial Muslim organisation of Trinidad and Tobago”.
It did so last week by issuing a strongly worded statement on the atrocities being committed by the Boko Haram group in Nigeria. The ASJA statement stated categorically the organisation does not “subscribe to (the) behaviour of this group” and made it clear the group’s actions were “repugnant to the teachings of Islam and must not be tolerated by any civilised people”.
If the statement is in any way to be criticised, it is in its identification of the “sinister” nature of Boko Haram’s action as the kidnapping and holding of “young Muslim sisters against their will”. The fact is many of the girls who were kidnapped were not Muslim and the repugnance that is to be felt against such action is not thereby diminished.
But I certainly do not wish to focus attention on any shortcomings of the ASJA statement when the fact the organisation issued any statement at all is a cause for wonder and rejoicing. For the fact is Boko Haram is not unique. For years now, all over the world, atroci­ties and repugnant and sinister acts have been committed in the name of Islam and ASJA has kept silent, abnegating its leadership role to set the record straight and to condemn such actions as contrary to Islam.
So now that the organisation has awoken from its self-imposed hibernation, we should do everything to encourage it to continue to speak out fearlessly and truthfully on behalf of all Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago.
And there is certainly no scarcity of issues around the world on which ASJA can make its voice heard. For example, the Boko Haram issue had not even moved off the international headlines when the news broke that in Sudan a pregnant woman had been sentenced to death for the crime of apostasy or rejection of one’s faith.

The issue here centres not only on the details of the woman’s case (from all appearances, she had been raised a Christian), but even more importantly on the issue of whether apostasy can even be regarded as a crime under the tenets of Islam.
In this regard, ASJA could certainly help to explain how the crime of apostasy could be on the books of some 20 Islamic countries when the Qur’an makes it abundantly clear there is no “compulsion in religion” and the affirmation of the unity of God must be made voluntarily and without duress.
These are not easy issues to discuss and debate, but precisely because they are difficult there must be a sustained effort to explicate them both for the benefit of the Muslim and the non-Muslim population of Trinidad and Tobago.
For it is here, in our country, that ASJA must see itself as fulfilling a leadership role. And while it is important for ASJA to speak out on issues around the world, it is even more imperative it speak out on issues relevant to Trinidad and Tobago.
As of this moment, such an issue is front and centre of the local news headlines and already dire implications are being drawn as to its meaning and consequences. I refer to the arrest and incarceration of five Trinidadians—Muslims—in Venezuela “on suspicion of terrorist activities”. It is alleged the five were under­going military training in Venezuela and were planning to travel to war-stricken Syria en route to Saudi Arabia.
Whether that is true or not, what is an open secret in this country and certainly should be well known to ASJA is that scores of young Trinidadians have been recruited, in some cases converted, in all cases indoctrinated, and sent abroad as jihadists to fight in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria.

Now this is a phenomenon not unique to Trinidad. Just two or three weeks ago, British police announced a campaign, which will rely on family members—and particularly mothers—to persuade young Muslim men from travelling to Syria to fight.
And in Europe several governments have expressed concern about the flow of hundreds of Muslim volunteers from their countries to fight alongside the rebels in Syria.
But whether in Europe or in Trinidad, but definitely more so in Trinidad, the problem this raises is what happens when these jihadists return to their respective countries. (In the UK, such people are stripped of their citizenship and banned from returning.)
In a recent article, Independent Senator Rolph Balgobin alluded to this problem in a very circumspect and non-offensive way when he stated these people “return home radicalised, well-trained, battle-hardened and extremely violent. And they are really hard to spot because they cluster in places people associate with peace and love—places of worship”.
The senator may have been circumspect out of respect for Islam. But make no mistake he was referring to the jihadists. Youth recruited out of the ghettos of poverty, inequality and hopelessness and radicalised with perverted doctrines of Islam. We have been here before. This is exactly (with the exception of the foreign battle training) the explosive mix we saw in 1990.
At that time, ASJA stood by silent­ly. It must not do so again. It must now exercise its leadership role not only among Muslims but in the country as a whole, to call together a Council of Ulema, Qur’anic scholars, who could communicate to the entire country, on every issue, and particularly to our endangered young men and women, on what Islam truly means.
Now that it has awoken from its hibernation, we look forward to ASJA filling a significant leadership vacuum in our society.

• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator
on politics and society in Trinidad
and the wider Caribbean.
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