Friday, July 15, 2005

The Ahistoric Roots of Radical Islam and a Call for Muslim Accountability

Ziauddin Sardar writes in the New Statesman about the need for the majority of Muslims to rid their religion of those who espouse terrorism in the name of Islam.
It is true that the vast majority of Muslims abhor violence and terrorism, and that the Koran and various schools of Islamic law forbid the killing of innocent civilians. It is true, as the vast majority of Muslims believe, that the main message of Islam is peace. Nevertheless, it is false to assume that the Koran or Islamic law cannot be used to justify barbaric acts. The terrorists are a product of a specific mindset that has deep roots in Islamic history. They are nourished by an Islamic tradition that is intrinsically inhuman and violent in its rhetoric, thought and practice. They are provided solace and spiritual comfort by scholars, who use the Koran and Islamic law to justify their actions and fan the hatred.
To root this ideology, you first must understand from where it comes and he outlines three central characteristics of the "tradition that nourishes the mentality of the extremists." First is it's ahistoricity:
It abhors history and drains it of all humanity and human content. Islam, as a religion interpreted in the lives and thoughts of people called Muslims, is not something that unfolded in history with all its human strengths and weaknesses, but is a utopia that exists outside time. Hence it has no notion of progress, moral development or human evolution.
He bolsters his point with an example the seemingly programmatic destruction of religious and historic buildings in Mecca by Saudia Arabian Wahabbists. Why would any religious sect seek to destroy it's history?
Because other Muslims will relate to the history of the Prophet, and they will then see him as a man living in a particular time and space that placed particular demands on him and forced him to act in particular ways. The Wahhabis want to universalise and eternalise every act of the Prophet. For them, the context is not only irrelevant but dangerous. It has to be expunged.

What this means is that the time of the Prophet has to be constantly recreated, both in thought and action. It is perfect time, frozen and eternalised. Because it is perfect, it cannot be im-proved: it is the epitome of morality, incapable of growth.
The second characteristic is that the ideology is monolithic. There is no room for change, argument or reform. "It does not recognise, understand or appreciate a contrary view. Those who express an alternative opinion are seen as apostates, collaborators or worse."
So no complaint or opposition is allowed. A perfect tradition can only produce perfect fatwas. And those who are seen as betraying Islam can themselves become subjects of other perfect fatwas. As a tradition outside history, it does not recognise the diversity of Islam. The humanist or rationalist tradition of Islam, or the great mystical tradition, thus appear as a dangerous deviations. In Bangladesh the Wahhabis and Deobandis are terrorising and burning the mosques of the Ahmadiyya sect, which does not see the Prophet Muhammad as the last Prophet, and insist that Ahmadis should be declared "non-Muslims". In Pakistan the Sunnis are killing Shias because they do not see them as legitimate Muslims. Ditto in Iraq. In Algeria the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) openly declared that the entire "Algerian nation" was deviant and should be killed. As for Saudi Arabia, you cannot even take a commentary or translation of the Koran into the country that does not follow the prescribed line.
The third characteristic is the self-righteousness of those who prescribe to the ideology. Terrorist acts are justified by selectively quoting from the Koran. Sardar refutes the arguments of those who say that this is a rather modern development and supports his contention with a brief summary of the history of the Kharjites
... a puritan sect which believed that history had come to an end after the revelation made to the Last Prophet. From now on, there could not be any debate or compromise on any question: "The decision is God's alone." They were prone to extremist proclamations, denouncing Ali as well as Othman, the third caliph, and pronouncing everyone who did not agree with their point of view as infidel and outside the law.
Sardar calls modern terrorists "neo-Kharjites" and explains further that
Like their predecessors, the neo-Kharjites have no doubt that their identity is shaped by the best religion with the finest arrangements and precepts for all aspects of human existence; and there can be no deviation from the path. Those who do not agree are at best lesser Muslims and at worst legitimate targets for violence. In their rhetoric all is sacred, nothing secular and retribution is the paramount duty. "Since they have left humanity and history out of the equation," says Dr Najah Kadhim, director of Islam21, a global network of Muslim intellectuals, "they have no conscience. No notion of guilt or remorse. Since the idea that they are perfect is part of their psychological make-up, they can do anything with impunity." Injustice and violence are inbuilt in their thought and tradition, which, under certain circumstances, is transformed into undiluted fascism. We saw this most clearly in the case of the Taliban.
In the end, Sardar urges his fellow Muslims to accept that the terrorists "are products of Islamic history." Muslims must realize that they face an internal threat much more dangerous than any perceived external threat. In fact, Sardar believes "it is a struggle for the very soul of Islam." Additionally, Sardar believes that for Muslims
The war on terror, in fact, cannot be a war at all. It has to be a reasoned engagement with the politics of tradition. If Islam has been construed as the problem, then Islam is also the essential ingredient in the solution. . .

If Muslims do not take on the challenge, they cede the initiative to those who have misconceived the problem and accepted a military strategy that is no solution. And that will make us all prey to more violence.
I applaud Sardar's call to his co-religionists, but in the meantime, it would be irresponsible for the leaders of those nations who are bearing the brunt of terrorism to sit back and wait for the average Muslims to heed his call. This is not an either or situation. Rather, Muslims and non-Muslims should work together against our common enemy by utilizing the means we have at our disposal. So-called "moderate" Muslims are in the best position to take their religion back from within. In the meantime, the West has every right to defend itself against terrorism. If we could do it without war, we would.

Perhaps Sardar's plan of action will be heeded and, perhaps, as terrorism declines the military reaction to it will also decline. That is something reasonable people all desire. Unfortunately, not enough moderate Muslims have been willing to do much more than condemn the attacks. They have been reluctant to cooperate with the various national governments, perhaps fearing retribution. Maybe, as a recent poll may indicate (though the results appear mixed to me), their attitudes are changing. By actively identifying and cooperating with the authorities, Western Muslims could more rapidly effect the change called for by Sardar. Muslims and non-Muslims want the same thing, albeit for different reasons: an end to terror in the name of Islam.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A Muslim analysis of Sardar's article (and other political magazine responses to the London bomb attacks):

Political Magazine Misery