by Paul Goodman
My starting-points in thinking and writing about Islam and politics are that -
- Islam isn't the same thing as Islamism - in other words, it isn't a political ideology (although, say, the Jamaat E Islami and the English Defence League would claim otherwise).
- Islam, rather, is a big, varied, complex phenomenon - in short, it's a religion, and should therefore be approached as such.
All in all, my general approach is extremely critical of the first and broadly supportive of the second: Islamism bad, Islam good. I've had cause recently to focus on the first. I want here to look more broadly at the second - which may be timely, given current circumstances - and set out five principles for considering Islam.
All religions are contested... At least, I've never heard of one that isn't. A worshipper at the Temple Beth Am will give a different take on Judaism from a follower of Rabbi Mordechai Dovid Unger. A priest of the Greek Orthodox Church won't offer the same view of Christianity as a member of the Salvation Army. If Judaism's a big religion (numerically), and Christianity very much bigger still, it's worth bearing in mind that Islam's almost as big as the latter. A Salafist jihadi will have little in common with a follower of the Aga Khan, a Senegalise Sufi will possess a different outlook from a Pakistani Deobandi.
So beware of generalisations (including mine). "Islam doesn't separate the sacred and secular." Up to a point, but Christian Byzantium merged Church and State, and most modern Muslims live contendedly enough under secular law. "Islam was spread by the sword." But so's Christianity been from time to time, and the early Islamic conquests were wars for booty, not means of conversion. "Islam persecutes minorities and oppresses women." For most of Islam's history, Christians were better off in the Islamic world than Muslims in western Europe, and women's property rights under Islam compared favourably with those in Britain.
...But Islam is especially so. Having warned against generalisations, I'll risk a few. Jewish extremism is relatively confined, affecting parts of Israel and what should be, as part of a durable settlement, an independent state of Palestine. Christian extremism (based largely in the United States) is also fairly restricted although, like Jewish extremism, it has a sporadic influence on American foreign policy. Islamist extremism, however, is an unrestrained global problem, menacing the safety of Glasgow airport as well as the stability of the Yemen, passengers on London's tube as well as the future of Pakistan.
Worldwide, there's little Jewish-on-Jewish or Christian-on-Christian violence. Strikingly, however, there seems to be growing Muslim-on-Muslim conflict: consider the recent Sunni-Shi'ite atrocities in Iraq, or the Deobandi-Barelvi strife in Pakistan. This confirms that Islamist terror is a symptom of an internal struggle within Islam, as well as an existential challenge to secular democracy. Wahabism, a minority tradition within Islam, and Islamism, an ideological response to economic and social failure, have bonded to propose an "Islamic state" (ironically, an idea formed under European influence) governed by "sharia law" (which is, strictly speaking, a misnomer).
Reading the Koran doesn't make one an expert. It's often assumed first that the source of this ideology is the Koran itself, and second that Islam has no tradition of contextualising its contents. The Koran indisputably has violent sections (as has, say, parts of the Bible), and if some readers are determined to interpret them as calls to indiscriminate terror, no power on earth will be able to dissuade them (just as no power on earth will be able to dissuade some readers of Exodus 17 that the chapter doesn't justify the murder of non-Jews, or some readers of Matthew 27:24-26 that the verses don't legitimise anti-semitism).
It's on this basis that contributors to mainstream western websites will solemnly quote verses from the Koran bandied about on Al Qaeda-supporting websites, and explain them in the same way as Osama Bin Laden. Consider, for example, an old favourite - the verse "slay them wheresoever you find them" (2:190), cited by Al Qaeda as a licence for massacre. But in its original context, it applied to pagans, not Christians or Jews. Furthermore, it applied in a particular place and time. Furthermore still, its application was constrained by "the limits": in other words, the rules of war. "...But transgress not the limits. Truly, God does not love the transgressors [of limits]" (2:191). In short, there's a whole science of contextualising the Koran - Asbab Ul-Nuzul, traditionally the province of Islamic scholars (not to mention other Islamic sciences, such as the study of hadith, fiqh, and so forth).
Islam doesn't need a Reformation... Like all religions, Islam must evolve and adapt if it's to survive. And, sure, there are barriers to progress. Muslim-majority countries are resistant to human rights norms in general and religious freedom in particular. There's no real academic freedom to probe, say, the origins of the Koran. The sharia inheritance provisions are an obstacle to development and opportunity. But the frequently-heard, unthinkingly-accepted contention that "Islam needs a Reformation" poses as many problems at it apparently solves. Trying to impose western Europe's past on much of the rest of the world's present would be impossible (because the past's gone) and undesirable (because Europe's religious wars were convulsive and bloody).
And trying to impose western Europe's present on much of the rest of the world would be dubious (though Ataturk tried in his time). The Iraq War and its consequences have sated voters' appetite - never strong in the first place - for attempts forcibly to export the rule of law, elections, free markets, religious freedom, women's rights, strong and independent civil institutions, and all those things that together make up "democracy". However, our system and beliefs are better and stronger than a totalitarian ideology dressed up in Islamic garb - just as they were better than fascism and communism - and should be promoted unceasingly through "soft power": trade, diplomacy, training, education, aid, the promotion of human rights norms.
...So much as a Counter-Reformation. In other words, economic and social development may take place alongside revived forms of the traditional, classical Islam. This would represent a counter-reformation, if you like (though the parallel's risky) in the face of the puritan Wahabi movement, and its Islamist political counterpart. It would be able to dismantle barriers to progress by drawing on concepts of the public interest long present in parts of Islamic law, and be reasonably disposed to democracy and pluralism. This certainly won't happen in any place where the Muslim Brotherhood and its equivalents seize power, barring religious minorities from advancement and women from participation in society.
I concede at once that no Muslim-majority country fits the bill. However, it's more likely that one will do so, in the medium term, than that one will convert itself into a western-style liberal democracy. Very tentatively, one might look at, say, Indonesia, Turkey (if it doesn't slide into Islamism), Morocco and Jordan as offering, in very different ways, some positive signs. The most encouraging indicator of all would be the collapse of Iran's theocracy - for although the country's outside the Sunni mainstream, the implosion of a political project which draws on Islam could take the wind out of Islamism's sails elsewhere, just as the rise of Khomeini put it into them at the end of the 1970s.
I apologise if some of my assertions - such as "all religions are contested" - are statements of the obvious. But, when it comes to Islam and Islamism, the obvious is often overlooked. A footnote: I'm not an expert on Islam, haven't lived in Islamic countries, can't read Arabic, and don't speak the languages. But then again, neither are most of those who pronounce on this subject with greater stridency and certainty.