We all know that the number of Muslims who explicitly put forward a systematically coherent moderate theology of Islam is very small. We also know that radical Islamists pretend to be moderates and fool people in the West. We also know that foolish or dishonest people in the West claim that Islam is innately moderate; that Sharia law as it will inevitably be interpreted at present is no big deal; and that the radicals are a minority, hijackers of Islam, or soon to be moderates. People must know the truth about these issues.
However, it is also true that the number of Muslims who are anti-Islamist in politics and relatively moderate in their politics and practice of Islam number in the tens and even hundreds of millions. Their motives range from liberalism through ethnic (Berber; Kurdish) or state nationalism, conservative views that do see Islamism as improper, those who find refuge in the West and want to acculturate to it, ruling groups and their supporters who don’t want Islamists to cut off their heads, etc. These people-almost all of whom have their own view as to what proper Islamic practice involves and relatively few of whom are secularists-are our actual or potential allies in the battle against Islamism, and we better understand that and find ways to work with them, even if we don’t agree on everything.
How can we find a way to blend those different factors and combine them into a standpoint and strategy?
At a moment when we should be analyzing existing political movements, ideas, actions, and the Western failure to meet this threat there is a wasteful, unending battle that subverts the effort to understand and explain what’s happening.
In one corner, we have those who claim – and these are by far the more powerful people today, controlling academia, media, and government policies in many places – that Islam is innately good, a religion of peace. Those who are revolutionaries and terrorists simply misunderstand their own religion. Naturally, the idea that non-Muslims, who are usually quite ignorant of Islam and its history, should define Islam is ludicrous.
There are many important points the religion-of-peace crowd misses but here are five of them:
-Islam, like any religion, is subject to interpretation, which is not always the same in different times and places or among various individuals or even – in Islam’s case – countries and ethnic groups. Thus, to say that the proper interpretation of Islam is as moderate and peaceful is absurd. Even to say that there are a lot of people who hold a liberal interpretation of Islam – as opposed to a conservative but anti-Islamist one – is absurd.
-If revolutionary Islamism is such a heresy why is it that it can often muster overwhelming support? Why are Islamic clerics, who know far more about Islam than the Western apologists, often supporting such a movement or at least its basic assumptions?
-There is much in Islam’s main texts, historical beliefs, and history that is not at all so peaceful. In fact, the revolutionaries, as a number of scholars have ably shown, base themselves on totally authentic portions of the Koran, the hadith, and the respected commentators of the past. To divorce Islam and revolutionary Islamist political ideology is absurd. The Islamists make clear they see themselves as fulfilling religious commandments and are acting as “proper” Muslims.
To ignore the reality of Islamism’s rootedness in Islam is to ensure that you are fooled by stealth Islamists, underestimate the power of the revolutionaries, and even – worst of all! – are ready to help your worst enemies.
-The idea that Islam has been “hijacked” by Islamists ignores the fact that Islamists have a strong claim to legitimacy. They are not heretics or hijackers but contenders for power. And they may well succeed – helped by the blindness and foolish policies of the apologists – in seizing control of Islam. In fact, that seems to be happening.
-To claim there is such a thing as “moderate Islamism” is so ridiculous that it boggles the mind. Yet this is what mainstream academics, journalists, and policymakers argue without any evidence but the most superficial, easily disproven propaganda of the Islamists themselves.
This school tends to be apologetic and even to lie and conceal. By doing so, these “Islam is good” people make it impossible to have a successful foreign policy or to understand revolutionary Islamism.
But in the other corner are those who claim that Islam is innately bad, meaning that its followers are inevitably prone to giving full support to revolutions seeking to seize state power and install radical Sharia-imposing regimes. In this concept, Iran, the Taliban, Hizballah, Hamas, al-Qaida, and the Muslim Brotherhood – as well as the far more subtle revolutionaries running Turkey today – have gotten Islam right and any Muslim who doesn’t support them misunderstands his own religion.
There are many important points they miss but here are five of them:
-For most of history, the systematic interpretation and praxis of Islam held by contemporary revolutionary Islamists did not exist. Thirty years ago, the radicals and their ideas were marginal, viewed as crackpot by most Muslims. The Islamists are well aware of this, and are themselves quite critical of Islam as it has been practiced since the seventh century or so.
Indeed, that “pristine” Islam they claim is the only proper Islam never existed. In his new book, Did Muhammad Exist?, Robert Spencer argued persuasively that this mythical “fundamentalist” Islam didn’t even exist in the era of its birth and expansion. What is indisputable is that within a few years of Muhammad’s death, both the caliphate and political rule over Muslims passed to the Umayyad dynasty which compiled much of what we know today as Islam and yet is considered to have been rather irreligious in practice by most Muslims. The Shia hate the Umayyads. Then came the not wildly pious Abbasid dynasty eventually followed by the equally worldly Turkish dynasties. Throughout 1200 years the “caliphate” was pretty much a matter of, to use Mao Zedong’s phrase, politics in command.
The period when Islam was supposedly conducted according to the ideal of the Islamists and the Islam-is-innately-radical crowd was for about a quarter-century after Muhammad’s death. And even during that brief era two of the three caliphs were assassinated and there was a bloody civil war that deposed the fourth one. Even according to Muslim calculation, then, the actual golden age of unity over what Islam meant and how it should be organized lasted two years after Muhammad’s death.
Consequently, the Islamists claim that for almost all of the 1200-plus years since Muhammad died virtually all Muslims – including the strict Saudi Wahhabis – misunderstood Islam! So how can it be claimed by Western non-Muslims that all of those qadis, scholars, preachers, and pious Muslims were doing it wrong and that the radical Islamists are the truly correct Muslims?
And that’s how most Muslims have thought until very recently. I call this actually existing religion that the Islamists condemn “conservative-traditionalist Islam.” It was definitely not liberal or tolerant but it was and is quite different from the contemporary Islamist groups. Of course, there were many Sharia-mandated laws and practices in common with the Islamists, but many other points were not observed in practice, while other Islamist interpretations were not accepted at all. Certainly there was not a completely religious regime that matched the goals of an Usama bin Ladin, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, or Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
In both World War One and World War Two the German governments held a view similar to that of our contemporary Islam-is-inevitably-radical crowd and it failed miserably. When the Turkish caliph declared jihad, properly and officially under Sharia law, he was ignored by almost all of the world’s Muslims.
-The revolutionaries also pick and highlight the portions of the Koran and hadith they want while putting emphasis on those respected commentators of the past who support their basic interpretation and downplay those who held different views. To make Islam identical with revolutionary Islamist political ideology, which in many ways a modern creation, is absurd. Just because the Islamists claim that they are the only “proper” Muslims doesn’t make that true.
-While the idea that Islam has been “hijacked” by Islamists ignores the fact that they have a strong claim to legitimacy, the claim that Islamists represent authentic Islam argues that the majority of the world’s Muslims are the hijackers. Neither side are heretics or hijackers but contenders for power. The Islamists seem to be succeeding – helped by the blindness and foolish policies of the apologists – in seizing control of Islam. That proves they are dangerous but it doesn’t prove that they’re right.
-If the Islamists so obviously represent the proper fulfillment of Islam then why are the biggest opponents of Islamism pious Muslims willing to fight and die to defeat the revolutionaries? Why have the Islamists had such an uphill battle and so often been defeated by other Muslims? If the opponents view Islam as compatible with other interpretations – by no means necessarily liberal but anti-Islamist ones – isn’t that equally valid?
-Other religions have also evolved over time due to changing interpretations and adaptations to different times and conditions. If you were to argue in the Middle Ages – when the dominant interpretation of Christianity was often quite bloodthirsty – that the Spanish Inquisition or Crusaders were not inevitably the proper view of Christianity, do you think that would have been persuasive at the time? True, Christian texts are far more peace-loving than what is in the Koran, but so what? Try that one on Savonarola or those massacring Protestants in France or executing priests in England just four centuries ago. They would have explained to you that they obviously represented proper Christianity.
I am not arguing here that Islam will become moderate in accepted theological terms any time soon. These processes take centuries, as Christian history shows, and in the meantime there are wars, mass murders, and tremendous suffering. But, again, what is important is not some abstract interpretation of innate qualities, that the long-term proves are not so innate after all, but what actually exists at present in the real world.
There is no doubt that “moderate Islam,” in the sense of a coherent body of alternative views that are liberal, is very weak, in many places virtually non-existent, and politically of no importance in the Middle East. That’s the reality and it will be so for many decades.
The important battle should be to show the “Islam must be moderate” group are preaching a fantasy that has no connection to reality. The alternative is not “moderate Islam” in theological terms but those who see themselves as pious Muslims and yet are relatively moderate politically, more tolerant socially, and oppose revolutionary Islamism. They do not want to impose a Sharia dictatorship, seek to destroy U.S. and Western interests (or the West itself), and even if they hate Israel they are not prepared to risk their lives and devote extensive resources to trying to commit genocide against it.
There are millions of such people and they are the main victims of Islamist terrorism and repression. This factor is a strategic point of enormous importance. And even the Saudis – despite their giving lots of money to promote extremist Islam outside the Middle East and their repressive form of Islam at home – are strategic allies in this struggle because they don’t want revolutionary Islamism, in either its Iranian or Brotherhood versions, to seize state power and dominate the region.
The problem is not that the radicals represent “true” Islam or that moderation is inevitably weak because of a certain sura in the Koran. The problem is that the radicals are winning in large part because of terrible Western policies, including a lack of help for the political moderates. One can see mainstream clerics moving in the Islamists’ direction on many issues, such as suicide terrorism, the acceptance of what is in effect a new offensive jihad, and so on. This is not because they have changed their life-long views of proper Sharia but because they were either intimidated or opportunistically sought to join what they saw to be the winning side.
To ignore the extremist tendencies built into Islam is foolish but to make them all of Islam is also foolish, not merely because it is tactically unwise but because it is not true. To believe that if Westerners are going to change Islam by flattering and reinterpreting it would be a joke if it were not such a tragic, bloody error.
What we need is a coherent strategy and energetic education of those who think that there is no such thing as Islamism, that most Islamists are moderate, that Islam as a religion of peace will inevitably triumph, and that the current policy of ignoring real moderates and rewarding radicals makes sense.
The Islam-is-good school makes the West defenseless to understand and deal with the threat. The Islam-is-bad school discredits serious critiques of Islamism and honest analysis of Islam, thus letting their opponents win the debates and blind the West to the best strategy and potential allies.
If you want an image for what’s happening here is my view: two forces are fighting to control the steering wheel of a speeding car. Both have a claim to ownership; neither one is a hijacker. Since we are standing right in front of the car, we need to help the one that doesn’t want to run us down rather than loudly keep insisting that the would-be murderer is the proper owner.
This debate may be fun for those involved but it is a waste of time because it is an argument over abstractions that can never be settled.
What is needed is to see what is happening in the real world among actual political forces and people: to attack the lies that Islamism is not a threat and that it has no legitimate connection with Islam; to show the extremism and broad base of support for revolutionary Islamism; and to formulate a strategy for victory that includes identifying and supporting allies including many Muslims. This is a life-and-death political battle, not a theological debate.
PS: Here’ an interesting example of how an Islamist and a moderate Muslim debate these issues in Egypt. Of course, the fact that the West is generally indifferent to helping moderate Muslims and ignores their murderand persecution doesn’t help things, though of course they would still be a small minority generally.