One of the most controversial issues today is the relationship of the political doctrine of Islamism (including revolutionary activity and terrorism) and the religion of Islam.
Given the desire of too many people to distort this discussion with slogans, insults, and name-calling, it is a very dangerous one. Yet the importance of the issue requires it be analyzed.
Let’s begin by defining three positions. The dominant, establishment view in the West is that Islam is a religion of peace and has nothing to do with violence, hatred of non-Muslims, mistreatment of women, terrorism, or ambition for political power. Anything bad is said to be a distortion of Islam’s “real” message. As a result, the image offered is one of extremists–who are in effect heretics–trying to “hijack” Islam.
A second view is that Islam is an innately extremist hate-filled religion and that this cannot change because such materials are built into the sacred texts.
This is what those in the first group like to call “Islamophobic.” That is, by the way, a badly chosen term since it implies these people are afraid of Islam, a fear that may be attributed to xenophobic bigotry but in reality comes largely from the violent activities and extremist statements made by (some, many) Muslims. The choice of the phrase reveals its weakness and even dishonesty. A more accurate word for unreasoning haters would be “anti-Islamic.”
One weakness of this second position is to freeze Islam into a single stance, whereas it is easy to show that historically there have been many different ways Islam has functioned regarding the state and society. The “religion of peace” advocates believe they can merely find one era when Islam has been tolerant, and this not only proves the “Islamophobes” wrong but somehow–illogically–shows that Islam is always tolerant and moderate.
But there is a third standpoint, which the “religion of peace” advocates often like to slander by putting it into the “Islamophobic” category for daring to say anything critical at all. This is to say that Islam, like all religions, must be interpreted by its adherents, and they never all agree on how to do so. Even if the texts remain the same–as in Christianity and Judaism–the way they are implemented does not always have to stay frozen.
All the things radical Islamists claim can be found in the basic Islamic texts. They are not mere lying, isolated, heretics, but a legitimate competing group within Islam.
This third group, let’s call it the realistic school, argues that it is an urgent task to deal honestly with this reality, reject pretending that everything is just fine, and to urge or demand that non-radical Muslims wage the war of interpretation against the radicals.
Yet they are also in political conflict with what had been, up until recently, mainstream Islam in terms of practice, which I call conservative, traditional Islam. In every country, most of the ulama overwhelmingly support the existing regime–and are well-paid for doing so, too. But an Islamist triumph is against their own self-interest as well since the revolutionaries view them as traitors.
Similarly, most rank-and-file Muslims also do not support the Islamists who want to transform their own country, though a large number will cheer them on to kill non-Muslims. That is why, of course, it is so tempting for Islamists to focus their attacks on Israelis and Westerners. Otherwise, their victims will be conservative traditionalist Muslims who represent the majority populations in their own countries.
That is why, according to this third standpoint, the best way of describing the relationship is that of rivals fighting over control of the steering wheel rather than a hijacking by a group of Islamists who are mere criminal interlopers. Daniel Pipes has described this situation in his own words as radical Islam being the problem and moderate Islam being the solution.
While respecting his formulation, I’d use my own phrasing: There are three contestants: The powerful Islamist political movement; the strong but perhaps weakening conservative traditional Islam (which is being influenced by Islamism, too); and the very weak reformist Islam. Islamism is the worst of those alternatives. I would say: Radical Islam in the form of Islamism is the problem; moderate Islam is the best solution; but even conservative traditional Islam is preferable to Islamism and is far more likely to win–like it or not–than some grand project for reforming Islam that would take decades if not centuries.
This is by no means to idealize mainstream conservative traditional Islam, which is in many respects retrograde and sabotages economic and social progress. Yet it would have been far more permissive–in reality if not in theory–of change. Obviously, of course, conservative traditional Islam in Saudi Arabia is far more extreme than in a country like Egypt or Tunisia. And the spread of the Saudi version, undermining more tolerant Islam as far afield as Indonesia, is also part of the modern Islamist problem. As one Saudi put it, what big Usama says is in large part what little Usama learned in (Saudi) school.
Two more brief remarks about why the problem is far more one of political Islamism than it is of the religion of Islam as such.
Let us assume that the immigration of Muslims to the West was happening 50 or even years ago. This was in a period before Islamism took hold. And so whatever problems did take place–many of them cultural, too–there would be no huge problem as there is today with a powerful Islamist interpretation often dominating the field and controlling organizations and often mosques and schools. There would be no terrorism issue. While many Muslims would want to keep apart and reject Western ways, they would do so quietly and peacefully. While women who became Westernized and anyone wanting to convert to another religion would face some harassment, they would not face a high likelihood of being murdered. The younger generations would become more, not less, comfortable and accommodating with Western society.
(Of course, back then, Western societies would also have unapologetically advocated assimilation or acculturation, which would also have reduced the problem.)
Finally, my view is that all the material for extremism is present in Islam but it requires a specific interpretation to focus on all the most radical parts of the texts rather than ignore them. In short, there is certainly a parallel to Medieval Christianity, for example. But the problem for the apologists is that Islamism represents an interpretation of Islam in 2010 that was last seen in Christianity (with a few exceptions) 500 years ago. Thus, the religions may be parallel in principle but not in actual practice.
For example, the great debate from the mid-1500s onward in Europe, though it took about 300 years to resolve, was between those who said that the king’s power derived from the people and was limited, and those who said that the king’s power came from God and was unlimited. In the Arabic-speaking world (along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran) the debate that began in the late twentieth century was between those who said that the dictator’s power came from God (or from the Nation with a capital “N,” which amounts to the same thing) and was unlimited against those who said that Islamic law should have supreme power to which all people must yield.
That’s a heck of a lot of historical gap. The debate over real democracy hasn’t even begun yet.
To say that all religions contain extremist ideas and thus are the same might be true in response to the “Islamophobic” argument that nothing ever changes. But it has nothing useful to say for an era in which millions of Muslims hold views equivalent to those of Christians at the time of the Crusades while Christians have become overwhelmingly of the “turn the other cheek” variety when it comes to relations between their own religion and others or society in general.
Are Muslims the main victims of radical Islamism or, if you wish, radical Islam? The answer is absolutely yes. Yet if that’s true then what we are dealing with here is a civil war within Islam in which Muslims have chosen different sides, neither a hijacking nor the “inevitable interpretation” of Islam. After all, if the Islamists were impersonators, they would have no support, and if they were unquestionably the correct form of Muslim, they would have all Muslims’ support.
Pretending that those who rule Iran and the Gaza Strip, who are the most powerful force in Lebanon, who are the main opposition movement in every Arabic-speaking country, and who are engaged in revolutionary movements from Morocco to Indonesia aren’t “real” Muslims is not going to help anybody.
The key here is political, not theological. Not all Muslims are good; not all Muslims are bad; not all Muslims are “moderate”; not all Muslims are “radical.” The same tools of historical study and political analysis should be used on the issue of Islam and Islamism as on all other questions.
The bottom line is that even the most controversial issues should be approached in the most balanced, rational, and calm way possible.
For more on this issue, see here.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (Routledge), The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).