islamism as political not religious ideology


(Image via Flickr-er markkilner, Creative Commons)

Ghaffar Hussain, former member of British Islamist group Hizb ut Tahrir interviewed by Der Spiegel (h/t Salon).

Generally, what role does religious knowledge play in the process of radicalization? A lot of jihadist leaders, for example, talk a lot about faith without having much in the way of a theological education. Even Osama bin Laden and Aiman al-Zawahiri fall into that category.

Religion is not what motivates people. They don’t pick up the Quran and say: Ah, this is what I’ve got to do! They are motivated by politics. But when Islamists show their worldview they always provide some scriptural justification. As a rule, 90 percent of their speeches are political, but they will also say: And the Quran supports this, and the Prophet supports this, so as to make the argument look Islamic.

Some of us have been saying this for a long time, but it’s nice to have somebody formerly within that world give voice to this view.  This is not to say that religion is meangingless or not involved in anyway, but politics is often a, if not the driving force.

We in the West, schooled in the principle of secularization and the notion of private faith, have a very skewed understanding of how religion operates in most of the world (and throughout most of history).  Namely religion is never separate from politics–for Christ’s sake, Jesus talked about a Kingdom.

Relatedly, the reason I don’t like the Geert Wilders of the world is not just because they are weirdo bigoted dunces but also because they give credence to the bin Laden violent jihadist view of Islam.  Namely that the true religion somehow exists in this unhistorical ether simply to revived whenever it falls into disrepute.  If you ever (like I have) wasted precious minutes of your life you’ll never get back watching Wilder’s bizarre ass attempt at a film Fitna, it does nothing but argue that bin Laden is in fact right.  Right in how he (OBL) reads the Quran, understands the meaning of the religion and its history.  As a result is strengthens nutjobs and says clearly to any non-insane Muslim in Europe, you have to culturally (not just politically) become a European and abandon Islam.  You will never be accepted in this society otherwise.  i.e. Start whitening your skin now and maybe get ready for a little water splashed on your head in a church.

That ludicrous take on events, forgets Islamism’s own history:

Was this narrowness of interpretation decisive for you? Or was it also a matter of truth and historical accuracy?

Some of what I used to believe was definitely false. Islamism is a modern idea, and it was influenced by European movements like Marxism and Socialism. Islamists reinterpret Muslim history according to their ideology. And that leads to a complete misreading of, for example, the Ottoman Empire’s history.

(ED will love the reference to Ottoman History).

In that analogy then, groups seeking an Islamist state are mini-versions of the Soviet Union without the nukes or the ability to appeal across religious lines ideologically and frankly at this point without a real alternate economic program (remind me why they are such an existential threat again?).  The Bin Ladens are the Trotsykites, the global revolutionary ideologues, who end up something like the Baader Meinhof or The Brigatti, nihilist criminal networks who sadly can do serious damage but in no way threaten Western civilization.  Unless of course The West (or the US let’s say in particular) were to fall for the ruse and get caught in the trap al-Qaeda Worldwide Inc. ultimately represents: the potential to over-react to attacks by instituting an increasingly authoriatarian police state-lite world in order to destroy the evildoers but in so doing become not that dissimilar from them ourselves.  [Frankly I’m not that worried about this potential. Though it’s always possible.]

The totalizing tendency of Islamism is a modern phenomenon.  As the globalization/secularization process snakes its way across the planet, religion is emptied from life.  Religion only can regain footing by playing the game of modernity: namely totalizing and adopting the centrality of politics as a way of life.  It is the inverse articulation of the same contemporary social motion.

This parasitic hosting explains why the so-called fundamentalists (in Islam and in other religions) who claim to adhere so closely to the text of their various Scriptures are such uneducated morons, often religiously illiterate.  They are largely a-religious in actual driving practice.  I realize that’s the opposite of so much of what comes across in media-sphere discussion of religion but whatever else those fools (dangerous or otherwise) are, they are not very skilled at religion.  Nor particularly smart when it comes to it either.

Compare that then to MP Wilders (my italics):

Let no one fool you about Islam being a religion. Sure, it has a god, and a here-after, and 72 virgins. But in its essence Islam is a political ideology. It is a system that lays down detailed rules for society and the life of every person. Islam wants to dictate every aspect of life. Islam means ’submission’. Islam is not compatible with freedom and democracy, because what it strives for is sharia. If you want to compare Islam to anything, compare it to communism or national-socialism, these are all totalitarian ideologies.

Islam-ism is a political ideology.  And I already did compare it to communism thank you very much.  Islamism is not however Islam.  Brother Wilders looks like he needs an assistant for theological affairs (Call now….League operators are standing by–my rates are reasonable).  Islamism is less than a hundred years old.  For the first thirteen hundred years or so of Islam, it was not an all encompassing social and political program.  There was no Islamism.  Not for the Sufis, not for the main emirates and rules throughout the Muslim world, not for street level imams and clerics, nor for the mass of regular average Muslims throughout history.  The emirs and caliphs kept if not a formal a sort of de facto distance of religion from state affairs for all of that period.  As just one possible piece of proof among many that Islamism is purely modern and not traditionally Islamic, the group Hussain belonged to is in Arabic Hizb, which is a modern neologism trying to translate “party” in the Western parliamentary sense.  It’s a Western imported word translated into Arabic.

Now of course Islam (understood in a certain manner) has something to do with how this all shows up.  Just as the debates in the US Christian fundamentalist community are undoubtedly shaped by certain trajectories of (Protestant) Christianity: e.g. creationism, same sex marriage, etc.  There’s a strong tendency in Christianity on doctrine, on belief–which later came to be understood as mental adherence to a set of principles.  And that’s how you get such a huge emphasis on right believing in fundamentalist Christianity.  [Fundamentalist Jews are not hung up on creationism. They are hung up on controlling the actual, literal land of Israel].

In other words your various fundamentalisms undoubtedly take up certain threads (latent or otherwise) within their respective religions, but they only do so in relation to a very specific set of historical, political, economic circumstances–a point accepted neither by the fundies themselves nor by their detractors.  This connection matters a great deal because it means they are (following Horkheimer/Adorno) a counter-modern reactionary movement.  If the labeling of certain vectors of Islam in Europe as Nazi or Fascist has any meaning it is that Europe continues its secularization process which is leaving a gaping hole in the souls of many who are taking up political ideologies masquerading and trying to substitute as religions.  These political religions are counter-modern (or inverse modern) movements.  As long as the space is dominated by secularization as its own (falsely) guided religion then the counter-modern reactionary movement seems inevitable.**

Now again how it’s specifically showing up in this case is very different, however structurally parallel the movements may or may not be. Islam has a history of warfare given the early community’s experience of having to defend itself/defeat enemies through organized war.  Contrary to the Team America (Western) Theory of Islamic History–“Muhammad, Muhammad, Jihad, Jihad”–arguably the primary form is personal, family, tribal/clan ethics known as sharia. But the jihad part is there.  Even so, it wasn’t primarily as a method of mass conversion as the stereotype of conversion via sword would suggest.  And further it was not that radically different from the imperial conquesting mythology of say The Roman Empire (either before or after its adoption of Christianity).

You put that history of a religious validation of certain kinds of war with the Cold War history of supporting dictators throughout the Arab world and you get what you get in terms of Islamism.  But those circumstances that drove its formation are also those that undermine its very existence.  Theologically speaking now, humans needs true religion/spiritual connection and political ideologization, while an at first attractive solution is a only scratching the itch.  It goes away for a second but will come back in just an instant.  And when it does on a huge large scale, Islamism will be spent. Islamism is a force who is frankly on the wane, since it has already failed politically (as an alternative to globalization)–though it will likely have continued success in terms of gaining political power in certain places.

But Judaism has validations of certain kinds of warfare within its Sacred text as well and its fundamentalism didn’t turn out to emphasize that but rather control of land.  Undoubtedly the political history of the state of Israel has something to do with that yes?  And if the politics are so heavily influential in the formation of the ideology in the first place, how then does the politics suddenly disappear?

Or back to our American fundamentalist Christian friends.  This phenomenon is also hugely political since those so-called Christianists have glued themselves so inextricably to the United States and its foreign policy.  In other words, they don’t express the Islamist flare for 3rd World anti-imperial leftism because they are beneficiaries of said imperalism (or if you don’t like that term, American global power).  Note: this is not some blaming the West argument.  I think the West is not out to destroy Islam, which is why I think OBL is as insane as the Baader Meinhof thinking the Nazis were coming back to power.  But again the very problem with a Wilders tirade is that it gives credence to the view that the Nazis (to combine my analogies) are in fact coming back to power to destroy Islam.

That’s not to say I have no criticisms of US foreign policy towards the Islamic world–quite the contrary.  Just that it is not out to destroy Islam.  The US is I would say the DNA for globalization and globalization is threatening the traditional Islamic world which has given rise to a (counter)modernist Islamist movement.  Failure to understand this point is seriously hampering US foreign policy.  Bush’s democracy promtion crashed on these shores.  And Obama’s sometimes too easy equivalence between al-Qaeda and The Taliban and his refusal to speak to Hamas/Hezbollah could also I worry become a major liability.

**The corollary of which is that Europe needs to go post-secular but a fuller treatment of that for another day.

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One thought on “islamism as political not religious ideology

  1. I’m not sure what your main point is here. If you’re trying to answer the question you put up in the beginning of your post, “What role does religious knowledge play in the process of radicalization?” you’re coming up very short here. Of course Islam plays a determining role here. It’s undeniable. You can call Islamists ignorant all you want to but that doesn’t change that fact. If you think that Islamists have a mistaken view of Islam, then you should go and convince them. It’s notable that not even the greatest religious authorities in Islam have done so, or even really tried to do so. You want to distinguish Islam from Islamism. This is important. It’s mainly important for Muslims to do so, though, not you or me. And they have come up very short here—to the point of anathematizing fellow Muslims who do so.

    Along with this it’s important to distinguish jihad from jihadism. The problem is the same as the above.

    The main problem is that in theory Islam is one but in reality it is as plural as any other religion. This theory is not invented by Islamists—it’s part of Islam itself. It’s part of Islam itself to believe that Islam is superior and must dominate the earth. This is why Muslims do not condemn Islamists—in many ways they are only practicing what others preach. The contrast with Christian and Jewish fundamentalisms is apparent: Christians, even fundamentalist Christians, had no problem condemning the abortion clinic bombers and so forth back in the ’80s; Jews have no problem condemning Jewish terrorists in Israel—they’re even repudiated by their own families and denied a Jewish burial. Muslims cannot do this. Why?

    You mention Horkheimer. He was a German Jew who took refuge from the Nazis in the States and then returned to Germany after the war. He was the founder of the Frankfurt School of sociology. He wrote, “in terms of time and space Europe remains and island of freedom surrounded by an ocean of despotic rule.” He demanded that the West defend its freedom against all varieties of totalitarianism. It’s undeniable that Islam and Islamism is a challenge to the freedom valued by the West. Here, there can be no tolerance in the name of multi-culturalism. Muslims must share the commitment to an open society if the open society is to survive. As crazy as you think he is, Wilders at least knows this much and won’t tolerate intolerance. This is only the minimum one would expect and it’s a wonder that it’s such an outlying attitude here and in Europe.

    Before you criticize Wilders, you should know that Europe faces much more serious challenges from Islam than we do. Europe has its own identity and Muslims have no right to Islamize it. Wilders is simply saying that Islam must be Europeanized if Europe is to survive. It’s impossible to refute this.

    You seem to want to believe that the mass conversion of the Mediterranean world, Asia, and Africa to Islam is not related to jihad. Just how was the “early community” defending itself by conquering such massive amounts of territory, including great swaths of Europe? The only way for this “defense” to be true is if you accept Islamic belief that peace equals Islamic law. If not, then Islam is the greatest violent imperialist power in history. It is radically different from the Roman conquests in that the Romans were famously tolerant of other religions. Once the Roman Empire became Christian, of course, it became history’s first totalitarian dictatorship (under Theodicius). It is different from Christianity most of all because Christianity has evolved and Islam has not. But even so, the Christianization of Europe did not happen only by violent conquest. It happened by peaceful means as well. This just is not the case in Islam.

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