Friday, July 20, 2007

Islamism is an answer to extremism

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

This Comment is Free piece by Faisal Bodi, with some editing by the CiF editors to the first three paragraphs, was posted up and then taken off within an hour.

By Faisal Bodi

Around 10 years ago an obscure American scholar in the United States began turning heads. Back then few people had heard of Daniel Pipes, let alone the tune he was blaring that Islamism rather than Islam itself was at the root of Muslim extremism and militancy.

Pipes’ thesis found a natural audience in Washington’s neocon establishment. With its generous funding and support he was able to build an institutional platform for his ideas. While fellow academics and American Muslims questioned his integrity, on this side of the Atlantic his ideas were embraced by journalists – Melanie Phillips and Michael Gove prominent among them - seeking an analytical framework to fit their prejudices.

Pipes and his acolytes are driven by the reflex to defend Israel, and by extension, US policy in the Middle East. Its members view Islamism, with its rejection of Zionist claims to Palestine, as an abiding threat to Israel. Their first loyalty is to Israel and their calls for an Islamic “Reformation” are a thin veil for their principal objective: to neutralise anyone challenging the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

More recently Pipes has found an echo in disaffected and defected Islamists like Ed Husain. Although their anti-Islamism exhibits a level of personal disgruntlement with the groups they once served, their motives are somewhat more sincere. They see Islamism as the bastard child of Islam, an incorrigible son whose presence inspires more harm than good and must be disowned. They argue that in providing the intellectual framework and climate in which extremist ideas can flourish, Islamism spawned a generation of extremists.

The trouble with both camps is that they misrepresent their subjects. Seumas Milne has already drawn attention to their bundling together of moderate Islamists such as the Turkish AKP and hard-liners inspired by al-Qaeda, a “guilt by association” stratagem designed to discredit moderates. Where they also err is in their assumption that Islamism per se is at the root of all extremism. It’s just too simplistic to conceive of Islamism as a bus that drops off passengers at various points on a scale of extremism. Just as a minority of Irish republicans supported the IRA, and few animal rights activists advocate violence, not every Islamist is a latent terrorist.

As a matter of fact Muslim political extremists were seeking sanctuary in theology long before the emergence of Islamism. Within 25 years of the Prophet Muhammad’s death a group of ruthless fanatics known as the Khawarij had appeared to plague a community already shattered by civil war.

The Khawarij believed that anybody who committed a major sin was an apostate whose blood thereby became lawful. By all accounts their savagery make today’s extremists look like whirling dervishes. Like al-Qaeda and their ilk, they also sought legitimacy in a tendentious interpretation of the Quran. The point is that particularistic readings of the Quran, not to mention most other religious scriptures, have justified and inspired political violence throughout history. But few people would suggest that we should throw out all the world’s sacred texts.

For all their alleged similarities there is another fundamental difference between extremist Islamists and moderates that everyone seems to be missing. All Islamists seek to restore Islam’s ethical imperatives to the warp and woof of daily life. But where moderates part ways with the extremists is in their view that the ends can never justify the means. Power must always remain subordinate to morality, not the other way round. Power is not the be all and end all because Islam can survive, and indeed flourish, without it. However, for the extremists power assumes a greater value because it is a legitimate tool by which they can haul everybody else into conformity to their vision of an ideal society.

The violence inflicted by extremist Islamists seeking to correct the world’s power imbalances and injustices brings into sharp relief the position taken by the great scholars of Islam on the issue of political violence. Few accepted the right to violently overthrow an oppressive regime for fear that the resultant chaos and instability might produce an outcome worse than the status quo (something which, incidentally, finds an echo in Christian just-war theory). Put simply, an unjust regime was to be accepted as the lesser of two evils.

Abu-Hamid al-Ghazali is perhaps one of the most well-known exponents of this view. Writing in the 12th century AD by which time the Caliphate had descended into rival sultanates he nevertheless effectively outlawed the use of force to restore it: “An evil-doing and barbarous sultan, so long as he is supported by military force, so that he can only with difficulty be deposed and that the attempt to depose him would create unendurable civil strife, must of necessity be left in possession and obedience must be rendered to him…”

Where there is a danger that force would irretrievably upset the order and stability necessary for normal life to continue, it should never be employed. How much more applicable is this to the mighty modern nation state with police forces, armies and intelligence apparatuses at their disposal?

That’s not to say that Muslims should abandon the political arena altogether. Rather the priority for Islamists now is to find effective ways of exploiting their mass appeal by using the few spaces available in mostly repressive states. Islamism has come a long way since the Leninist-inspired ideologies of Mawdudi and the early Muslim Brotherhood.

The failure of traditional Islamist movements to change political realities in their countries despite popular support has forced them into a major rethink. And it’s more than just a repackaging exercise. Where once the discourse was marked by strident anti-westernism, theocracy and shariah penal codes, today it is has shifted to democracy, pluralism, personal freedom, human rights, equality of all citizens and political participation.

It would be naïve to see in this reorientation the seedbed of liberal democracy being sown. But it would be equally misguided to expect Muslim countries to adopt Eurocentric models of representative government. Barring ruling parties in one-party states, the fortunes of secular parties have been in freefall during the last 25 years. At the same time Islamist groups have maintained, if not increased, their appeal. Their success is partly explained by their ability to anchor political changes in their native cultural and spiritual milieus.

The priority for western governments is to embrace and encourage progressive Islamist trends, at home as well as abroad. Ignoring, isolating, or opposing them, as the west has done with Hamas, will only boost the appeal of rejectionists who shun western culture altogether, and extremists for whom democracy and human rights are a cynical western ploy to continue dominating Muslim lands.

The former MI6 official Alaistair Cooke, who has extensive experience of working in the Middle East, told Time magazine recently that the western decision to isolate Hamas was “one of their greatest policy mistakes in the region, second only to their support for the invasion of Iraq.”

“We should hope – that may be all we can now do – that moderate Islamist movements manage to navigate these turbulent times, in spite of European attempts to prevent Islamism, which is clearly now the dominant regional current, from reshaping Middle Eastern societies,” Crooke says. “These attempts are opening space, not for the moderate pro-Western secularists whom Europeans seek to empower, but for those who believe that to build a new society you must first burn down the old one.”

If western governments really believe that their first duty is to ensure the security of their citizens, they should be striving to close the gap between what they preach and practice. Refusing to do this and pinning the blame entirely on Islamist ideology amounts to a major dereliction of duty. Ed Husain has written that when a fire takes hold in your house you don’t stop to ask who is coming to put it out. Right. But prevention is better than cure and the better option is to try and stop the fire from breaking out in the first place. Moderate Islamists are doing their bit. Are western governments doing theirs?

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