Islam in the Rear-View Mirror

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It is a long article, and is worth reading to understanding the birth of Islamism within Islam.  The only way to go back to the pristine Islam is for more of us to repeat and denounce what the guys like Banna, Maududi, Qutub and their likes have mangled up Islam. Until recently no one dare question these men who messed up Islam, but now, it is becoming a common place and I have written a number of articles.

Here is one.

The mistake we have made is to give their word a near equivalence of Quran and the Prophet; we can judge them against historical relativism but should not regard their work as integral component of Islamic teachings. All said, we must admit that whatever their intentions might have been, the medieval scholars messed up the interpretation of Quran. Instead of building cohesive societies, they were inclined to forge exclusive authoritarian societies. – Two Islams; mangled up and the pristine one at 

Mike Ghouse

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Islam in the Rear-View Mirror

Sir Muhammad Iqbal, (left) of British India and Malek Bennabi of Algeria were two prominent Muslim reformist philosophers and writers in the 20th century.

Broadly speaking, the struggle within Islam is between Muslims who embrace the values of the modern world in terms of freedom, individual rights, gender equality and democracy on the one side, and Muslims opposing these values and insisting on a Sharia-based legal system on the other. Any Muslim who even questions this version of Islam they refer to as a heretic or, worse, an apostate to be killed.
For Muslims who embrace modernity, Islam is a matter of personal belief, not a political system.
A reformed Islam — greatly desired and sought after by swelling numbers of Muslims — cannot succeed without the support of non-Muslims.

A decade after operatives of al Qaeda attacked the United States, the Arab and Muslim world was seized by popular uprisings. The so-called “Arab Spring” erupted in Tunisia, swept into Libya and Egypt where dictators of long standing were toppled and, as of this writing, the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria appears doomed in a bloody stand-off against insurgents who are steadily gaining ground.

It is perhaps too early to state definitively that the “Arab Spring” is the direct consequence — which no one imagined — of hijacked jetliners flown into tall buildings in New York. Eventually, however, the political success of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, and its parties in the Middle East, might be viewed as the fall-out strategically anticipated by Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network if they hoped to precipitate a war. They may even have hoped that the war’s twists and turns would destabilize established regimes in the Middle East and North Africa to the advantage of the region’s Islamists.

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 did not erupt out of the blue. The nineteen hijackers of the four American jetliners were all Arab Muslims selected by the leadership of al Qaeda, and financed and trained for such an operation. Their mission was an act of war as carefully planned as the attack sixty years earlier on December 7, 1941 by the Japanese imperial navy on Pearl Harbor. The differences between the two acts of aggression were many, but the one striking fact was that the United States in both instances came to be viewed as the enemy to be drawn into war. The varying responses of the government and the people of the United States to these two acts of aggression also indicate how greatly American society changed in the intervening years.
What is of greater interest is that most Americans on that September morning were just as unaware of the intense turmoil raging within the Muslim world in general and the Middle East in particular, as they were in December 1941 of Japanese politics and of the extent to which Japan was already militarily engaged on the Asian mainland.

The renowned Middle East scholar, Bernard Lewis, in “The Roots of Muslim Rage”[1] was possibly the first to point to an increasingly hostile attitude among Muslims in general, and Arabs and Iranians in particular, toward the West and, especially toward the United States.

“Muslim rage” was evident in the 1979 Iranian revolution, which brought about the overthrow of the Shah and the monarchy. The Shah had been a loyal ally of the United States in a region endowed with oil resources that gave it immense strategic importance. The revolution, however, under the leadership of aging cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — about whom most Americans, including those in government, knew very little — became Islamic and anti-West.

Also in 1979, there was a siege of Ka’aba, the holy mosque in Mecca. The siege was begun by armed militants from inside Saudi Arabia who were enraged by the perceived corruption of the Saudi ruling family and Western influence inside the kingdom. The siege of Ka’aba — the holiest site in Islam and the location of the annual Muslim pilgrimage — and the violence that followed, shocked Muslims around the world.
Two years later, in October 1981, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat was assassinated while attending a military parade. His murderer was an Egyptian military officer with ties to an extremist wing of the radical Islamic movement in Egypt headed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Part of the reason for Sadat’s murder was the peace treaty he had signed with Israel two years earlier.

There was also popular unrest, violence, terrorism and war found in the Middle East and across the Muslim world. The list is long. Independence from European colonial rule had consequences contrary to the expectations of prosperity in an independent future. Unrest among Muslims was also symptomatic of their anger, disillusionment, and frustration with the state of affairs in their native lands. Independence did not bring any substantial improvement to the prevailing social and economic conditions for most people. Instead, the situation deteriorated as the population grew, and, with it, poverty. The promise of freedom and democracy with the end of Europe’s colonial rule over Muslims was often belied by what came to be dictatorships in the newly independent Muslim majority states. There were wars — Arab states against Israel, Pakistan against India — with non-Muslim armies repeatedly humiliating the military forces of Muslim countries.

Lewis described with much sympathy the sense of Muslim frustration, or rage, arising from the failure to meet the requirements of the modernity the West had pioneered in politics, arts and sciences. He spoke of Islam as “one of the world’s great religions,” and emphasized that it “has brought comfort and peace of mind to countless millions of men and women.” He went on to note that Islam

“has given dignity and meaning to drab and impoverished lives. It has taught people of different races to live in brotherhood and people of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable tolerance. It inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievement, enriched the whole world.” And yet, Lewis observed, there were periods in Islam’s history “when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence. It is our misfortune that part, though by no means all or even most, of the Muslim world is now going through such a period, and that much, though again not all, of that hatred is directed against us.”

Such was the situation in Muslim lands entering the final decade of the twentieth century. This rage among Muslims, fuelled by grievances and the sense of past humiliations suffered at the hands of Western powers, turned ominous.

Although a Jew and an outsider, Lewis read the pulse of the Muslim world well. He was not alone. Muslim thinkers had also reflected on the condition of their culture and civilization and the extent of Muslim backwardness relative to the non-Muslim West. The disparity between the West on one side, and Islam or the Muslim world on the other, was so vast that it raised questions as to whether the Muslim world had become moribund, decrepit and, more specifically, whether Muslims might have to jettison their culture in order to embrace modernity and follow the West.

In the early years of the twentieth century, before the First World War had turned Europe into a killing field, Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938) spoke in verses of immense power, beauty and passion about the malaise of the Muslim world. Iqbal, revered as the poet-philosopher of Pakistan, was of Indian birth, and wrote his poetry in Urdu and Persian.

In his controversial, yet frequently cited, two long poems, Shikwa (“Complaint”) and Jawab-i- Shikwa (“Answer to the Complaint”)[2], Iqbal discussed the failure of Muslims to maintain the dynamism of Islam and its civilizational values. In “Answer,” Iqbal made God respond derisively to Muslims who complained of being ignored and forgotten despite their fidelity in good and bad times. God, in Iqbal’s stirring verses, reminded Muslims that they succeeded when they were dynamic in thought and action: when they were bold, took risks and were creative.

Iqbal was not alone in advocating reform and re-awakening Islamic civilization from its stupor. Iqbal admired Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic in the aftermath of the First World War. Kemal was an ardent modernizer and an enthusiast in adopting Western values in culture and politics. He abolished religious rule based on Sharia law.

There were others, such as Malek Bennabi (1905-73), an Algerian born in Constantine and educated in Paris. Bennabi reflected upon the possible causes for the decay of Islam as a civilization and concluded, as had Iqbal, that the loss of internal dynamism and critical thought had impoverished Muslims. He conceived of history in cyclical terms according to Ibn Khaldun, the immensely influential 14th century thinker from Tunis: birth of civilization, followed by growth, expansion, contraction, loss of movement, then demise. Bennabi commented that the Islamic civilization, once the Quranic pressure at its beginning “deadened, little by little the Muslim world came to a stop like a motor that had consumed its last litre of petrol.”[3]

During the first half of the twentieth century, the views of modernist Muslim thinkers, such as Iqbal and Bennabi, were ascendant within the Muslim world. Again according to Lewis, “At first the Muslim response to Western civilization was one of admiration and emulation – an immense respect for the achievements of the West, and a desire to imitate and adopt them.”[4]

But an alternative view emerged among Muslims that rejected the West and all of its cultural and political values. This alternative view hearkened back to an idealized picture of the first century of Islam (7th-8th century C.E.), when the Arab-Islamic Empire was in the making and Arab rulers laid down the template of the Islamic civilization. It viewed the West as an implacable enemy of Islam and Muslims, and it set its goals in driving Western powers out of Muslim lands and bringing to an end Western influence among Muslims. It spoke about the necessity of jihad (holy war) to achieve its goal of returning Muslim lands to the rule of Sharia. And it declared jihad to be one of the central pillars of Islam – contrary to the traditional consensus of religious scholars.

This view was the seed of what would grow into, and might be rightly described as, Islamism against Islam. The most prominent exponents of this view among the majority Sunni Muslims were two Egyptians, Hasan al-Banna (1906-49), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sayyed Qutb (1906-66); and from the Indian subcontinent, Maulana Mawdudi (1903-79), the founder of Jamaat-i-Islami.

In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-89) became the most prominent exponent of Islamism among the minority Shi’a Muslims.

In the middle years of the last century, at the end of colonialism in Muslim lands[5], there was an effort to bring about rapid modernization through the adoption of Western ideas. There was a keen interest in building heavy industries, constructing dams and hydroelectric projects, encouraging urbanization, expanding communication networks, investing in higher education, encouraging female education and women in professions, and raising modern armies. But these efforts were not accompanied by an equally urgent commitment of the ruling elites for democracy. This division among Muslims turned out to be a recipe for the eventual collision between those who espoused modernization and those who came to oppose it, due to negative effects in dislocating traditional societies.

In explaining the reversal of Muslim reformers and modernizers, Lewis again observed,

“For vast numbers of Middle Easterners, Western-style economic methods brought poverty, Western-style political institutions brought tyranny, even Western-style warfare brought defeat. It is hardly surprising that so many were willing to listen to voices telling them that the old Islamic ways were best and that their only salvation was to throw aside the pagan innovations of the reformers and return to the True Path that God had prescribed for his people.”[6]

V.S. Naipaul, the celebrated writer awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, published in 1981 an account of his travels in Muslim lands. Naipaul’s Among the Believers was an eyewitness report of the Muslim world in turmoil. His journey took him to Tehran in the midst of a crisis, when Iranian students, following the radical Islamist prescriptions of Ayatollah Khomeini’s sermonizing, took fifty Americans at the U.S. embassy as hostages and held them for over a year. Naipaul described the situation as if “the Muslim world had been on the boil.”[7]
As the 1979 Iranian revolution became a tipping point for the Muslim world, opponents of Western-style modernization seized the political initiative while Muslim reformers began to lose ground and turned defensive.
In 1971, Pakistan, then the most populous Muslim state, broke apart as a result of a bloody civil conflict and a self-destructive war with India. This Muslim-against-Muslim violence in effect turned genocidal, with massacres in Bangladesh by the Pakistani army, after the people of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) had voted in a national election for a secular, democratic government to be formed, but the generals rejected the election results, sparking unrest and military brutalities.

In the decades that followed, violence inside the Muslim world became commonplace. Modernization came to be viewed disparagingly, and the modernizers were blamed for the wretched situation of Muslims. The “Muslim rage” insisted, instead, on a return to the past.

This newly acquired consensus was reflected in the Cairo Declaration of August 5, 1990, released by the foreign ministers of the member states of the Organization of Islamic Co-operation [OIC]. Evidently intended as a response to the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the Cairo Declaration stipulated that all rights and freedoms for Muslims were derived from the Sharia. “Sharia,” it states, “is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification to any of the articles of this Declaration.” This signified the long and dispiriting retreat of modernizers who, like Muhammad Iqbal, had greeted with enthusiasm the creation of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal some seventy years earlier.

By the time the second millennium drew to an end, the internal unrest in the Muslim world had reached a breaking point. The decade long war between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Khomeini’s Iran in the 1980s displayed the ferocity inherent in sectarian Muslim conflicts. The Arab states were divided over how to confront Israel once Egypt had made peace with the Jewish state. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the long war that invasion set in motion, aroused Islamic sentiments. Ironically, in this instance, Muslim “rage” was harnessed by the United States to deliver a punishing defeat to the Soviet Union’s imperial overreach.

Moscow’s admission of defeat and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan emboldened militant Muslims as they insisted that their jihad had defeated a military superpower. These Muslim warriors took the message of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-i-Islami — that Islam is jihad and jihad is incumbent on Muslims — to its logical extreme. Like the Bolsheviks in 1917, al Qaeda’s jihadists were revolutionaries in a hurry. They wanted to push history on their terms. They argued that confrontation with the West and its most powerful representative, the United States, was inevitable, and that they planned to precipitate it. A return to authentic Islam, to a time and place before the West and its corrupt ways had contaminated the cradle of Islam, required jihad. Accordingly, al-Qaeda developed as a network of militant Muslims in a political climate of spreading Muslim rage. Driven by its utopian view of an Islamic society, al-Qaeda and its supporters prepared for an asymmetrical war waged through indiscriminate terrorism against the West by Islamic warriors of Allah.

The collapse of the Soviet Union caught the West by surprise. Some saw the end of the Cold War as the end of history. After the long, demanding and exhaustive effort that went into the containment of Soviet Communism, Americans turned inwards. Few in the West paid serious attention to the troubles brewing inside the Muslim world, and which were heading for an explosion.

September 11, 2001 was a return to history with a vengeance. It is not a mistake to view 9/11 as an evil act committed by evil men posing as men of faith and acting for a cause driven by faith. Terrorism in the name of Islam exposed a civilization’s internal rot as it wrestled with its own demise.

The modern world, which many Muslims dislike and oppose, cannot be “un-invented.” Despite their rage, Muslims face a challenge in a new century that is essentially the same as one described by Iqbal at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is also somewhat similar to the one Christians and Christendom confronted over five hundred years ago. This challenge consists in determining how to maintain faith in the context of the revolutionary advances in philosophy and science.
Christianity met the challenge at the dawn of a new age, which came to be defined as the Enlightenment, by separating the realms of faith and politics. Once the Muslim world has overcome its rage, it would do well to draw on the experience of Christianity in accommodating modernity.
The Muslim world cannot remain in a boil indefinitely. There is no ready answer to how a civilization can be repaired or one master key available to insert to repair a broken civilization. Yet Muslims need to find a way of adapting their customs, values and beliefs to the requirements of the modern world, and this will be their burden for much of the present century.
The West, however, cannot stand apart at a distance while the Muslim world confronts its problems. As the West did in its relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it now needs to work out a prudent, safe and firm set of policies for its relationship with the Muslim world in the years ahead.
As Muslims in rage fail to stop their descent into an inferno of their own making, the West is inevitably being drawn into the troubles of the Muslim world.

* * *

Two authors — Britain’s Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, and an American historian, John Lukacs — placed the twentieth century in brackets between the outbreak of World War I and the collapse of the Soviet Union.[8]

In contrast, the nineteenth century was the age of European powers. Britain, as the pre-eminent power, ruled the seas across continents. The two world wars of the last century might be seen now as one massive terminal conflagration of the European powers. The age of Europe came to an end in 1945 with the continent divided, the United States and the Soviet Union locked in a contest for supremacy, and the colonial possessions of European powers in Asia and Africa acquiring independence.

In this view of history, the Bolshevik, or Communist, Revolution of October 1917 in Russia was as much a pivotal event as was the outbreak of World War I. The war exposed Czarist Russia as the weakest link in the European capitalist system and allowed for communist agitations against the Czar’s rule eventually to succeed. The emergence of the Soviet Union as a communist power was a threat to the liberal democratic political order based on capitalist economics. But the Soviet Union was overshadowed during the first half of the twentieth century, despite the threat it posed to Europe, by the rise and success of National Socialism, or Nazism, in Germany under Hitler. The deranged German dictator brought Europe to ruin, and set the stage for the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. That conflict ended only when the Soviet Union collapsed nearly five decades later.

The grand strategic objective of the United States during the Cold War years was to contain any further expansion of the Soviet Union beyond the gains made by Moscow during World War II. Called the “containment policy,” it drew a line running parallel along the frontier of the Soviet client states in Europe and Asia. The real or perceived threats of Soviet expansion beyond this line required an adequate response of the West. That strategy took America into wars in the Korean peninsula, Vietnam, proxy wars in Africa and Central America, and the Cuban Missile crisis. The last terminal confrontation between the two superpowers occurred in Afghanistan, when the Soviet Union sent troops in support of its Afghan allies in Kabul, and Washington armed the Afghan resistance with the help of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The Cold War years also affected the domestic and foreign politics of Muslims countries. The states of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, located on the southern perimeter of the Soviet Union and at great distance from the United States, possesses an abundance of easily accessible fossil fuels — by some estimates, more than a third of the world’s known reserves.
Next to a divided Europe, this was the region most vulnerable to Soviet penetration, and the most strategically important to the interests of the West. The West had a long, troubling history of relations with the people of the region, and with their religion and culture. But the shadow of the Soviet Union falling over the region required the United States to paper over differences and all likely difficulties between itself and the Muslim-majority states located between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf — as well as those between Turkey and Pakistan — and draw them close to Washington through defense arrangements. It meant looking at the politics of this region through the prism of security concerns: of “giving a pass” to the rulers of these countries for violations of human rights. In particular, it meant overlooking almost any unacceptable behavior by whoever possessed oil reserves, so long as they pledged to co-operate with the United States to secure Western interests in the region.
The political and military leadership in Washington and other Western capitals seems to have concluded early in the Cold War that the religion and cultural traditions of the people in the region — Islam and Muslims — were intrinsically hostile to godless communism and would, therefore, be natural allies of the West against the Soviet Union. This view went mostly uncontested, and it served well the converging interests of the Western powers and the political rulers in Muslim countries who supported the political status quo, both domestically and in terms of regional stability.
If our knowledge of the world and its usefulness is generally conditioned by our needs, our needs might well be unlimited — but our resources are finite and our knowledge incomplete. During the decades of the Cold War, the knowledge of both superpowers and regional actors about each other, about the situation at hand and what it meant in terms of their respective needs, and about the unintended consequences of their choices and actions, were warped by the logic of the Cold War itself.
The relationship between the modern West and the Muslim world is inherently unequal. The modern West is the progeny of Christendom with its own distinct history of borrowings and influences from ancient Greece, the Romans, the Jews, and the political thinkers of Europe. The Muslim world, although near Europe, has always viewed itself as a civilization distinct and separate from the West. The history of these two civilizations has been one riddled with rivalry, conflicts, suspicions and claims of wrongs done against one another. The Cold War only tentatively masked this history; once the Cold War ended, the troubled past of the two unequal civilizations, historically at odds, was bound to re-surface.

The Cold War, however, as it played out through the twentieth century, distorted the images that the West and the Muslim world held of each other. The West, liberal, democratic and secular, came to see the rest of the world gradually adopting its values, consistent with the idea of progress in history. The collapse of the Soviet Union lent support to the view that the ideals defining the West were indeed universal and, notwithstanding differences among cultures, that the world was headed towards globalization under the tutelage of the West.

This optimism was reflected, for instance, in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, published after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it, the discrediting of communism as an ideology. Fukuyama pointed out that the world’s most developed countries were also successful democracies and liberal societies. The future in the new century, without ideological rivalry among great powers, looked promising, as competing ideologies had only generated conflicts in the world. “A world made up of liberal democracies, then, should have much less incentive for war,” wrote Fukuyama, “since all nations would reciprocally recognize one another’s legitimacy.”[9]

In the midst of the optimism prevailing at the end of the Cold War, although such optimism was not shared by all in the West, there was little apprehension about people in non-Western cultures reading differently the meaning or lesson of history. There were troubles in the world during the decade after the Berlin Wall was taken down in 1989 — local conflicts in the Balkans and the disintegration of Yugoslavia into its constituent parts based on ethnic and religious identities; conflicts generated by failed states, as in Somalia, Rwanda and Sudan; war over Kuwait and its aftermath as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a disaffected power, threatened its neighbors; tribal conflicts in Afghanistan, as the Taliban consolidated their hold on Kabul and the rest of the country; Palestinian unrest; Arab grievances; Israeli insecurity; India and Pakistan acquiring nuclear weapons; nuclear threats in the Far East from North Korea; and the rise of China and India as emerging powers — but these were all considered as manageable within the rubric of UN authority and “great power” diplomacy.
The preoccupation with the Cold War made political leaders and policy advisors in Washington and other Western capitals fail to assess properly the long-term threats of the Muslim world “on the boil,” in V.S. Naipaul’s apt description. The politicization of Islam, and its effects on the social order of the Muslim world, were not given proper scrutiny. The turn of events leading up to 9/11 and its aftermath therefore came as a shock. More than a decade after 9/11, this shock has considerably worn off, yet the West remains unsure of what is to be done to contain — if not defeat — radical Muslims, or Islamists, as they gain in influence and power.

The West, however, cannot remain in denial of, or aloof from, the threat that politicized Islam, or Islamism, poses to Western interests in the Muslim world, as well as to those Muslims who want economic development, democracy and peace for their societies.

Regardless of how the United States, either alone or leading the West, will remain involved with the Muslim world, Islamism demands attention and an adequate response ideologically and militarily, well into the twenty-first century, just as communism and the Soviet Union did in the twentieth century.

* * *

The unlimited and proliferating problems in our world are commonly considered technical in nature, and their solutions primarily technical as well: a modernization made of machines and computers.
But if 9/11 bears any significance beyond the idea of rage taking hold of a people and impelling them into monstrous acts of terror, then surely it tells us to beware of reducing our problems to merely technical matters. We do not inhabit a soulless world. Man, by nature, is as driven by a yearning of the soul, however misguided at times this might be, as he is by material needs and utilitarian calculations.

Irving Babbitt, a literary critic and a leading thinker of new humanism at Harvard during the early decades of the twentieth century, began his introduction to Democracy and Leadership:

“According to Mr. Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with the relations between capital and labor. In that case, one is tempted to reply, the future will be very superficial. When studied with any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.”[10]

Babbitt’s words are a reminder that ultimately man does “not live by bread alone,” that his rage is likely greatest when he senses the vision he cherishes about his world has gone awry, or is broken or abused. At such times he will not be consoled nor restrained from taking extreme measures to set right what he, even mistakenly, believes has turned wrong.

The Muslim world is broken and, ultimately the problem for Muslims in repairing their world is a religious problem. If their belief is at odds with the world they inhabit, then their belief has to be reformed, for the world cannot forcefully be made to conform to their belief.

The Muslim world is not monolithic; it is hugely diverse. There are competing views among Muslims on how they view Islam as their faith — as a matter of personal belief, or as a belief packaged in the form of an ideology. Broadly speaking, the struggle within Islam in our time, — in which 9/11, London’s 7/7, the Madrid train bombings, ISIS’s beheadings and other atrocities loom large — is between Muslims who embrace the values of the modern world in terms of freedom, individual rights, gender equality and democracy on the one side and Muslims opposing these values and insisting on the Sharia-based legal system on the other. This struggle, therefore, goes to the very heart of how Muslims understand Islam: either as a faith and tradition, or as a total system of belief and practice that is antithetical to the norms of the modern world. For Muslims who embrace modernity, Islam is a matter of personal belief, not a political system; Muslims opposed to modernity view Islam ideologically, as Islamism, and accordingly they embrace the views of Mawdudi and Hasan al-Banna, Sayyed Qutb and Khomeini, in which Islam is a totalitarian value-system.

The seeds of this struggle — or, more appropriately, the basis of conceiving of Islam ideologically, and in terms of politics and power — can be traced back to the earliest years of Islam and Muslim history. In recent years, however, beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, Muslims have been compelled to face the challenges of modernity, when, after European colonial rule, Muslim societies became independent. Beyond the few states of the Middle East possessing petro-wealth, Muslim states are almost without exception poor and underdeveloped, and relatively backward culturally, politically and technologically. Muslims, in general, have been denied freedom by those holding power, and have very little experience of liberty as individual freedom.

Hence we have an Islam conceived of by Islamists as a totalitarian value system, a political instrument of power and authority, “unchanging,” “authentic,” and “authoritative” — and any Muslim who even questions this version of “Islam” is referred to as a heretic or, worse, an apostate to be killed.

Muslims opposed to Islamism reject the Islamist view that Islam is unchanging, that the Qur’an is a closed book and not open to interpretation other than the Islamist version, crafted during the early centuries of Islam and turned authoritative by those in power.

Muslims opposing Islamism are in many, if not all, instances, anti-Sharia, and opposed to the political parties or movements associated with Mawdudi (the Jamaat-i-Islami in South Asia), with Hasan al-Banna and Sayyed Qutb (the Muslim Brotherhood in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa), with Khomeinism (the Shi’i version of Islamism in Iran and among Shi’i Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere), and with the Wahhabi-Salafi version of Islamism espoused and propagated by the Saudi and Gulf Arabs with their petrodollars.

This struggle between Islamism and Islam — between Islamist Muslims and anti-Islamist Muslims — is the core struggle among Muslims in the post-9/11 world. Given the vast diversity inside the Muslim world, it takes many different forms. It also embodies the much-postponed movement for the reform of Islam and the Muslim world, analogous in many ways to the long and complex conflicts waged within Christendom and spread over several centuries through the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and the accompanying conflicts that culminated in the modern world.

From a longer historical perspective, this struggle within Islam is unavoidable and necessary as Muslims – individually and collectively – strive to reconcile their faith with modernity. It might even be said that 9/11 exposed the simmering, at times violent, tensions within the Muslim world, and propelled the internal conflicts to burst open and spill over, reminding us once again that the struggle for reform is often inseparable from violence.

The intensity of the struggle between Islam and Islamism can be assessed by the degree of Muslim-against-Muslim violence. The eventual outcome of this struggle, I believe, will have salutary effects for Muslims and non-Muslims in our interdependent world. But a reformed Islam, which embraces the modern values of science, freedom and democracy, cannot succeed without the support of non-Muslims in a world where no culture or civilization stands in isolation from any other. Hence there is a need for an increased scrutiny within the West of Islam and Muslims. It was missing during the Cold War years, and is a necessary, positive, spur for the reform of Islam, and for it to be reconciled with modernity and democracy in Muslim countries.
Islam is the last of the great world religions that has remained resistant to modernist reform. How the Muslim world will eventually become reconciled with modernity might not yet be fully understood, yet an eventual reconciliation is more than likely.

Modernization might be resisted and delayed, as Islamists seem determined to impede it, but it is ultimately irresistible. Its benefits are greatly desired and sought after by swelling numbers of Muslims. In time, historians will note that the brutal conflicts which followed 9/11 were the last desperate failed attempts on the part of those Muslims bent upon restoring a civilization –mistakenly identified as the embodiment of their faith, Islam — that was comatose if not dead.

[1] B. Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” in The Atlantic Monthly (September 1990), pp. 47-60.
[2] For an English translation see Muhammad Iqbal, Shikwa & Jawab-i-Shikwa: Complaint and Answer: Iqbal’s Dialogue with Allah translated from Urdu by Khushwant Singh (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981; reprint 1983).
[3] M. Bennabi, Islam: In History and Society (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Berita Publishing, 1991), p. 10.
[4] Lewis, op. cit.
[5] In Indonesia and Malaysia in southeast Asia; in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt in the greater Middle East; in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco in North Africa; in Central Asian republics that were then under Soviet rule.
[6] Ibid.
[7] V.S. Naipaul, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (London: Andre Deutsch, 1981), p. 364.
[8] Hobsbawm labeled the twentieth century the “Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991” for the sub-title of his book Age of Extremes. Similarly, J. Lukacs began his book The End of the Twentieth Century (New York:Ticknor & Fields, 1993) by stating, “It was a short century. It lasted seventy-five years – from 1914 to 1989.”
[9] F. Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992), p.xx.
[10] I. Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics reprint, 1979), p. 23.

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