21 November 2015

Is Islam an Inherently Violent Religion? A Contrarian Perspective

This is a question that seems to preoccupy many people these days.

With ISIS gleefully sharing its horrific exploits in high definition clips, Muslim women shown to submissively follow their bearded husbands in grotesque burqas, Muslim minorities making the headlines as hyper sensitive murderous vigilantes, Islam is projected into the collective consciousness as an angry system of practices revolving around patriarchy and violence.

The issue does not have a binary structure, as in one side and the other side. For the sake of brevity, let's claim that there are three main perspectives.

One eclectic group brings together Pamela Geller, most GOP politicianstalk show host, all around liberal guy and proud Islamophobe Bill Maher and Muslim reformist Irshad Manji, the author of The Trouble with Islam. To them Islam is a terrible religion, which promotes barbaric acts of violence and relentless oppression of women.

I suspect the large majority of lay people in the West, whether on the left or the right, more or less agree with this view.

A second group, clearly worried about these generalizations, always start gingerly with the caveat that there are a billion and a half Muslims in the world and a great majority of them are peaceful law abiding citizens. They then put forward a series of non-religious causal factors like artificial colonial boundaries, oppressive rulers and a host of economic and social problems to explain away Al Qaeda, ISIS and all other idiot beheaders. The membership is as eclectic as the first group and ranges from polite Western politicians to concerned American liberals and Muslim intellectuals.

I would venture that this is a minority point of view in the West and something most people perceive as political correctness.

A third group consists of older Muslims who belong to a generation for whom religion was a vague anchoring belief in a benevolent deity and a sense of community with similarly minded people. And their religion did not have the strict social control, atavistic orthopraxy (a.k.a. Salafism) and savage enforcement.

Those Muslims, particularly the ones who live in the West, are simply bewildered as they do not recognize what passes as Islam these days, especially since both Muslims and non-Muslims maintain that what we see is the real thing.

A good friend of mine who belongs to this third category asked me to settle this issue for her.

Who better than a non-Muslim contrarian, right?

Here is my take.

Is There a "Trouble With Islam"?

"Trouble with Islam" was the title of a 2004 book by Irshad Manji and she was the first person to ask this question. Let me make her the spokesperson of the first group since I do not see any point arguing with the rest of them.

Manji believes that there is a strand in Islam which provides ample justification to all the excesses of ISIS and thugs of their ilk. She calls it the Medina Islam. The teachings and sayings of the Prophet and the Surahs he received while in Medina tend to be violent and bellicose, especially when you compare them with the previous peaceful Mecca period.

Her remedy to "fix" Islam is the separation of State and Church and Luther-style Reformation.

While I agree that the Koran includes many violent surahs, I am not sure I get their relevance.

And this, for two reasons.

The first one is obvious: in all religious texts, one can find passages to justify almost anything, including contradictory courses of action. I presented a comical example recently. Do you think Biblical literalists would kill someone for working on the Sabbath on the basis of Exodus 35:2?

Secondly and more importantly, I am certain that almost all of Jihadis are completely ignorant about the Koran. They have never read it, will never read it and if they did, they would only get what their imams told them to get.

Simple illustration: Since the Charlie Hebdo murders I have been asking Muslim friends to show me the blasphemy surah in the Koran, as they were all convinced that there was some dictum about it. Maybe not the execution of the blasphemer but something, right?

In fact, as I wrote before, it was revealed on two separate occasions to the Prophet that Muslims should simply walk away when confronted with offensive speech.That is it. They are forbidden to take matters into their own hands.

Yet, despite this crystal clear order from Allah, there is not a single Muslim country without blasphemy laws in their books. And I know no Muslim who does not believe in the legitimacy of some form of blasphemy punishment.

For the politically correct, anything-other-than-Islam argument, while I do not deny the relevance of historical and socio-economic variables, I believe we should not remove religion from the equation.

Because it is quite central to it.

But not for the reasons you think.

If you ever read "Islam: a Short History by Karen Armstrong, a former British nun, you will see that Islam has a couple of unique features. One is orthopraxy, which means purity of practice is more important than purity of belief.

The other is the continuous subjugation of religion to political authority. You see, Islam has never existed as a separate institution, like a Church, something that could give legitimacy to political power: Caliphate was never a Papacy. Caliphs were emperors first who used religion to justify their rule.

This has a serious implication. As a religion without a Church, in a given period, the mainstream Islam, that is to say, the accepted interpretation of the Koran, the teachings and sayings of the Prophet and Islamic jurisprudence, is what the political authority of that period says it is.

Why is that, you might ask.

In her short book, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the subject, Karen Armstrong explains that Islam, in its origins, was a religion that searched for God in history and in a just and egalitarian society.

This is fairly unusual, she says, if you consider that Hinduism dismisses history as evanescent and unimportant and Christianity maintains Plato's duality of realms as the dichotomy of City of God and City of Man. Both equations put the emphasis on the higher realm and downplay the significance of the material world.

Islam, by contrast, orders Muslims to get involved in the creation of a just society as a way to find God's expression.
In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history. Their sacred scripture, the Quran, gave them a historical mission. Their chief duty was to create a just community in which all members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect. The experience of building such a society and living in it would give them intimations of the divine, because they would be living in accordance with God’s will.
Consequently, Islam is inherently political and politics cannot be separated from religion.
A Muslim had to redeem history, and that meant that state affairs were not a distraction from spirituality but the stuff of religion itself. The political well-being of the Muslim community was a matter of supreme importance. (...)
Politics was, therefore, what Christians would call a sacrament: it was the arena in which Muslims experienced God and which enabled the divine to function effectively in the world. 
One of the consequences of this integral vision that blends history, society, polity, human happiness and the pursuit of God's vision in this world is to make Manji's reform idea, i.e. separation of State and Church, a logical impossibility.

More importantly, this idea of a religion that places itself within history represents a huge problem for political authority. This is the question to ponder: If Islam aims to enlighten the social order, principles of justice and political rule, could the political system, or "state" in Western parlance, leave it alone?

The short answer is that it couldn't and it didn't. Hence the subjugation of religion.

From very early on, including the Rashidun Caliphs, Islamic rulers tried to control Islam as a way to control Muslims. Which explains its often turbulent and violent history. Tellingly, three of the four Rashidun Caliphs were assassinated.

Moreover, the main schism in Islam, Sunni vs Shia has its roots in a political supremacy struggle known as First Fitna, which is the killing of Uthman and then Ali as the third and the fourth Caliphs of the Rashidun era and the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate.

From the Umayyad Caliphs onward, the Caliphate became synonymous with dynasties, culminating in the Ottoman Empire. To illustrate the subjugation of religion, as Caliphs, the Ottoman Sultans would ask their Shayk al Islam or the head of Ulema, to issue fatwas on something that was not sanctioned by Islamic jurisprudence, like fratricide. If one of them refused, he was summarily killed and the next guy happily obliged.

Similarly, every time esoteric Islamic thinkers or Faylasuf, as they were known, came up with a new reading of the holy texts and found followers, they were promptly executed by the ruler of the epoch. Armstrong's little book is full of examples.

In other words, instead of Muslims working continually towards a better and more just society through esoteric readings of the holy texts and active political participation, the "state" adopted a top down approach to remove any pluralistic elements in Islam, attacked and destroyed the unwanted offshoots and imposed a unified identity to the believers.

To do this, they dissuaded Muslims from reading and discussing holy texts and encouraged them to listen to the Ulema. In case you are curious, Ulema is the plural of Alim, which is "person who possesses knowledge." The root word is "ilm" which is "knowledge" in the Platonic sense of the word (episteme), encompassing what we would now call scientific certitude.

Given the political subjugation of Islam, the Ulema, and not the Koran, are the source of knowledge for Muslims.

Which is another reason why I do not attach much importance to elements of Medina Islam in the Koran.

In short, starting from the death of Mohammed, or perhaps more charitably from the end of the Rashidun period, political authority put the Ulema in charge of reformulating and dictating the Muslim identity. That identity conformed to the priorities of the ruler of that period and was enforced by the violent means at the disposal of the political authority. There are Ottoman Sultans/Caliphs who executed tens of thousands of people for consuming tobacco or alcohol, others who couldn't care less if they ingested opium.

This is why, despite Islam's emphasis on justice and equality, there has never been a democratic Muslim society. In fact, every time someone tried to set up a quasi-democratic system, the system threw up a strong man who either tried to suppress Islam as a control method or used it for his own purposes.

In modern times, look at Egypt, from Nasser to Mubarak, from non-Islam to full-on Islam. Or Turkey from Ataturk to Erdogan, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Indonesia, Somalia or Yemen. Not to mention Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Even Bangladesh which was supposed to be socialist and secular is inching towards an Islamist authoritarianism, with the battling begums encouraging Ansarullah Bangla Team murders to consolidate their power.

Of course, Islamic State is the clearest and most absolute example of political subjugation of Islam. And it is even more cynical than the previous empires.

That is the trouble with Islam.

Consequently, if you are genuinely looking for a solution (as opposed to reaping the benefits of Clash of Civilizations), instead of debating whether Islam is inherently violent or not, focus on the political authority behind the latest Muslim identity.

Saudi Arabia.

As I have been repeating endlessly, around 1979, the Saudis set out to hijack, reformulate and dictate a whole new Muslim identity. And this is why my Muslim friend is now looking at a system of practices revolving around patriarchy and violence.

The House of Saud and the Birth of New Islam

If you read my discussion of weak identities emerging from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, you might remember how the House of Saud was unhappy with Nasser's Pan-Arabism. Reducing the primacy of Islam would rob Saudi Arabia of its leadership role as the latest controller of the faith.

But the real wake-up call came from the Iranian Revolution in 1978 and the creation of Islamic Republic in 1979. This was the unmistakable rise of a political authority that had the means to implement its own version of Islam.

The 1979 Mecca siege by Wahhabi warriors gave the necessary impetus to the Saudi King and in the next four decades, the House of Saud spent 200 billion dollars, built tens of thousands of madrassas around the globe and dispatched hundreds of thousands radical imams to reinforce this new version of Islam.

Saudi Arabia also spent billions of dollars to finance terrorist networks and to support Jihadi armies to wage war in any country where "infidels" were seen suppressing Muslims. As I wrote before, the current King was the point man for the Jihadi fund raising efforts.

Saudi Salafists who emanate from the House of Wahhab positioned themselves as the true believers of Islam by claiming to emulate early Muslims. But instead of rediscovering the message of equality, social justice, respect for the poor and for all members of society, they enforced three precepts as the foundation of the new Islam.

Emphasizing orthopraxy, they mimicked the appearance and limited knowledge of these 7th century folks. This is how they could claim the removal of music, radio, television, movies and most modern inventions. Their drive was so successful that there are now idiot imams who argue that the earth is stationary and does not revolve around the sun or the earth is flat only because this is what the early Muslims believed.

Those three precepts, namely covering up women, banning alcohol and violent reaction to blasphemy were not in the Koran, as I documented. But emphasizing them was very useful as they constituted an easily verifiable method of social control, ensured the ostracization of younger Muslims in secular societies and allowed their recruitment as angry individuals ready to explode when faced with perceived blasphemy.

It was and still is the perfect social engineering tool to hijack, reformulate and dictate a new and global Muslim identity.

There is one more dynamic that ensured that this new identity became a self-reproducing social structure.

I tried to explain this before but I think I now have a better emissary.

Reflexions Sur La Question Musulmane

Jean-Paul Sartre, now largely forgotten, was a brilliant philosopher and one of my early heroes.

In his seminal work on Jews and Antisemitism "Reflexions sur la question juive" he maintained that what makes Jews Jewish is the gaze of the anti-Semite.

According to Sartre, it is the anti-Semite that turns the Jew into "the other" and prevents their assimilation. Without that gaze and the ghetto of otherness, Jews would have been assimilated a long time ago, he said.

But, crucially, the anti-Semite removes the Jew from the here and now where he exists and creates a dubious historical narrative and a shoddy identity to substantiate the claim that he is something else.

You could agree or disagree with his analysis in the Jewish context, but for my purposes here, the dynamic he describes provides a powerful explanatory tool in understanding how Muslims in Western societies are rapidly becoming "the other."

The Salafist vision of Islam brought with it a powerful dynamic of segregation. Those Muslims who did not accept this new Islam, like my friend who asked me to write about this, found themselves on the defensive.

People in their neighborhood gave them furtive accusatory glances after each ISIS episode. In conversations, their friends made categorical remarks about women's status in Islam, Koran's inherent Antisemitism and anti-Christianity and the undisputed causality between Islam and ISIS.

You know, the ubiquitous "you people" discourse.

These Muslims now feel that the two options given to them are to either acknowledge their affiliation to that new angry and violent identity, in which case, they are no better than ISIS; or to repudiate their identity, so that they could be accepted as untermensch in their community.

Since, in many instances, especially in Europe, their kids are already radicalized and provide a visual reminder to their neighbors how utterly "other" they are, these people have been withdrawing from their community and becoming increasingly upset about what they see as Muslimophobia.

Some contemplate to go back to their country of origin without realizing how much these places have changed. Others resign to a bitter and lonely existence in what was their chosen country.

The latest murderous rampage in Paris will accelerate this process.

And this was exactly what ISIS wanted.
After all, that group’s goal, as they write in their magazine and online, is “the extinction of the gray zone” in our world.  In other words, they seek the sharpening of distinctions everywhere, which means the opening of abysses where complexity and interaction once existed.  Their dream is to live in a black-and-white world of utter religious and political clarity (and calamity), while engaging in what American pundits like to term a “clash of civilizations.” 
It is working.

Incidentally, I am not equating the millenia of Jewish suffering and persecution with the current ostracization of Muslims. You can find my views on that here, here and especially here. I am simply pointing to the fact that the dynamics in creating an isolated "other" identity are quite similar in both cases.

And, more importantly, I am hinting that unless we understand this situation and do something about it, the analogy might become more tragically comprehensive.
Yahoo News had asked him if he might require Muslims to register in a database and give them a special form of identification and Trump did not rule it out, saying,

    “We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”

The MSNBC reporter asked him why Muslims databases would be different than having Jews register in Nazi Germany. He replied, “You tell me.”
What To Do?

Tom Engelhardt believes that the National Security State has an incestuous relationship with the Islamic State. As in one relies on the other to expand its influence and power.

If that is true, there is not much anyone can do. This will end badly.

Even if there is way to stop all of this insanity isn't it too late? Even if one could convince this most cynical of armies, the Pakistani military to stop supporting Taliban and to close down madrassas and terrorist training facilities; or annihilate the House of Saud and the House of Wahhab; or expel all radical imams from Western Europe, there is still a lost generation of tens of millions of young and radical Muslims on the loose.

In that sense, I cannot advance policy solutions. Either they cannot be implemented because other parties benefit from the current situation or it is too late to stop the process.

Consequently, I will suggest the following.

If I were a Muslim, I would start by trying to get Muslims to learn their own religion. As I showed on the three Saudi precepts, the repeated notions are not necessarily accurate.

Let me show you an even better example.

Here is a detailed comparison of women in Islam with women in Judeo-Christian tradition. It is done on the basis of religious texts not rubbish pronouncements of the Ulema.

If you read it, I am sure you will be very surprised. Because it goes against everything you thought Islamic texts were saying.

Secondly, instead of debating whether one should separate State from Church in a Church-less religion, I would suggest Muslims should break the hold of the pernicious Saudi Ulema and liberate their religion from political subjugation.

But after centuries of repression and ignorance, I am not sure they are up to it.

And frankly, the Saudi-financed ignorance machine might be too powerful.

War it is, then.

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