We all heard our leaders say after the Woolwich murder:
“There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act” (David Cameron)
“It is completely wrong to blame this killing on Islam” (Boris Johnson)
“…the distortion of a great salvation religion” (Nick Clegg).
Before them Tony Blair said “Anyone who knows anything about Islam, knows it is a religion of peace”.
Were you surprised that they all had the theological knowledge to make such definitive claims? Did you wonder what their justifications were? They never told us.
Boris Johnson’s case is particularly interesting because he appears to have had something of a Damascene conversion. After the 7/7 bombings in 2005 he said:
“To any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia — fear of Islam — seems a natural reaction, and, indeed, exactly what that text is intended to provoke. Judged purely on its scripture – to say nothing of what is preached in the mosques – it is the most viciously sectarian of all religions in its heartlessness towards unbelievers….That means disposing of the first taboo, and accepting that the problem is Islam. Islam is the problem”
In 2008, while campaigning in the London mayoral election, he said he now believed, after having researched the Koran more in depth, that it is “a religion of peace”.
What did he find in the Koran that changed his mind? Sadly, he did not share that with us. Until he gives us chapter and verse, that is sura and ayah, we may suspect that his epiphany came not so much from reading the Koran as from realising the importance of the Muslim vote in London.
After the Woolwich murder Johnson wrote that:
“There is no sense in blaming Islam, a religion that gives consolation and enrichment to the lives of hundreds of millions of peaceful people…we need to make a hard and sharp distinction between that religion – and the virus of “Islamism”.
So there we have it – Islam is the otherwise healthy organism afflicted by an illness, Islamism, which has to be treated. I am grateful to Boris for making the establishment view so clear with his image.
This division is also at the heart of government policy. In December 2013 Her Majesty’s Government produced a report called Tackling extremism in the UK.
It says “As the greatest risk to our security comes from Al Qa’ida and like-minded groups, and terrorist ideologies draw on and make use of extremist ideas, we believe it is also necessary to define the ideology of Islamist extremism. This is a distinct ideology which should not be confused with traditional religious practice. It is an ideology which is based on a distorted interpretation of Islam, which betrays Islam’s peaceful principles, and draws on the teachings of the likes of Sayyid Qutb.”
(As an aside, if Sayyid Qutb is the evil genius behind all this, why is the organisation which reflects his ideology like no other, the Muslim Brotherhood, welcome in Britain? The MB has a record of engaging in terrorist violence or political infiltration according to circumstance, as do its offshoots for instance Hamas in Gaza (the former) and CAIR in the US and myriad organisations in Britain (the latter) and yet it operates openly from an office in Cricklewood. Conversely, if the MB is acceptable why is their great ideologue held up as the inspiration of our enemies?)
One intriguing development is referred to in the report:
“Appropriately recruited Muslim Prison Chaplains are already employed to challenge the extremist views of prisoners and to provide religious direction for Muslim prisoners. Using their experience, they are developing the ‘Ibaana’ [ie “clarify”] programme designed to target the small number of prisoners with the most entrenched extremist views. One-to-one sessions over several hours with a trained chaplain will be used to challenge the theological arguments used by these prisoners to justify their extremist views.”
There is of course the possibility that state backed theologians will just be dismissed by Muslim prisoners as “Uncle Toms” trying to create suitably docile Muslims.
But let us take a more positive view. If our leaders cannot provide the theological justifications for a peaceful Islam perhaps these appropriately recruited chaplains can. Whatever they are telling their charges, let them write it down so we can all see it and have our minds put at rest. I for one would be massively grateful for such justifications because whenever I go looking for them I find either comically blatant deception as in Tahir-ul-Qadri’s famous fatwah against terrorism or what could charitably be called wishul thinking as in Quilliam’s arguments.
No such document being planned? No, I thought not, but if HMG really think their Muslim chaplains can provide sound arguments to counter jihadi attacks against us then surely it has a duty to get them out into the world.
If you want to explore the intellectual underpinnings of the government’s stance then Michael Gove’s excellent book Celcius 7/7 would be a good place to start. It is heartening to know there is someone in the government with such an understanding of the Islamist threat and who is (or was) willing to speak out about it. Nevertheless, it seems to me that his attempt to separate Islamism from Islam does not hold water. He asserts that:
“The distinction is the difference between Islam, the great historic faith which has brought spiritual nourishment to millions, and Islamism, the specifically twentieth-century ideology which twists the religious impulse into submission to a new totalitarianism.”
“Islamism is not Islam in arms; it is a political creed that perverts Islam…”
but look at some of his supporting statements (I hope not misrepresented by taking them out of their context):
“…Islamism is driven by a divine mission to ensure that the whole earth, in due course, learns to submit to Islamist rule.”
“For Hassan al-Banna and his followers in the Muslim Brotherhood the roots of decline lay in the abandonment of a pure and unpolluted Islam. Revival could only come through a return to a society ordered on the basis of the literal, and unalterable, truths of the Koran.”
“His [ie Abul ala Mawdudi’s] group, Jamaat-i-Islami [closely related to the MB], was dedicated to the fundamental Islamist proposition that Islam was not so much a religion for private devotion as the source of a complete political system capable of competing with rival totalitarianisms for the minds of men.”
“…Mawdudi’s belief that ultimate sovereignty rested with God alone. It was by his unalterable rules and in accordance with his perfect revelation that society was to be ordered. Down to the last detail.”
Where is the specifically twentieth-century ideology there? I see nothing that could not be described simply as a return to Mohammed’s original religio-political ideology. Surely we must agree that Mohammed’s Islam, as developed in Medina at least, was not just “a religion for private devotion” but absolutely a complete political system.
Then, along with the Muslim Brotherhood, there are the Salafis and the Khomeiniites and Al-Qaeda. Is that one ideology or four? Quite different from each other, they share only one thing – the intent to spread Islam using peaceful or violent means as necessary. It seems to me that these four groupings do not represent a new totalitarian ideology but are simply new varieties of an old one. That is why I would reverse Mr Gove’s statement:
“Islamism is not a political creed that perverts Islam, it is simply Islam in arms.”
I hesitate to challenge Mr Gove’s view but I do have some scholarship on my side. Here is the historian Mervyn Hiskett writing twenty years ago when the terms “Islamism” and “Islamic fundamentalism” were used interchangeably:
“But the truth is, Islamic “fundamentalism”, as the world has understood it…adds little, if anything, to what has always been inherent in Islam since the Koran was revealed. The collapse of [Western European] imperialism and the rise of the liberal ethic have simply removed the barriers that once so salubriously contained it.”
One problem is that the groups we call Islamist are not so obliging as to refer to themselves as such. They see themselves simply as Muslims carrying out instructions laid down in Mohammed’s teachings, and supported by all four of the Sunni schools of jurisprudence and the Shiite equivalent. Look at these expressed views of Muslim scholars among others.
Can you tell the Islamists from the mainstream? For instance, what about the modern Syrian scholar Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Bouti in his major work “Jurisprudence in Muhammad’s Biography”:
“The concept of Holy War (Jihad) in Islam does not take into consideration whether defensive or an offensive war. Its goal is the exaltation of the Word of Allah and the construction of Islamic society and the establishment of Allah’s Kingdom on Earth regardless of the means. The means would be offensive warfare. In this case, it is the apex, the noblest Holy War.”
In fact he would not be considered an Islamist, yet see how exactly he chimes with Osama bin Laden:
“It is the religion of Jihad in the way of Allah so that Allah’s Word and religion reign Supreme.”
The views of al-Bouti, “the scholar’s scholar”, are particularly interesting, even ironic, since he reverses our current ideas about the distortion of Islam. Expanding on his theme of offensive jihad he writes:
“…This is the concept which professional experts of thought attempt to conceal from the eyes of Muslims by claiming that anything that is related to a holy war in Islamic law is only based on defensive warfare to repel an attack…It is no secret that the reason behind this deception is the great fear which dominates foreign countries (East and West alike) that the idea of Holy War for the cause of God would be revived in the hearts of Muslims, then certainly, the collapse of European culture will be accomplished.”
Perhaps our Muslim chaplains will hear him quoted in their conversations with the Islamist prisoners.
It is not that I deny that there is a distinction to be made between Islam and Islamism but I suggest that it is of very limited use. Islamism just refers to those strains of Islam whose adherents are willing to use violence to spread the influence of their religion. That sounds just like the Mohammed of Medina to me. I do not see any distortion of his teachings there at all. In fact I venture to suggest that if Mohammed came back today he would say “Well done boys, keep up the good work”. Presumably he meant it for all time (and this is how Islamic tradition has understood it down the ages) when he said:
“Not equal are those believers remaining [at home] – other than the disabled – and the mujahideen, [who strive and fight] in the cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives. Allah has preferred the mujahideen through their wealth and their lives over those who remain [behind], by degrees. And to both Allah has promised the best [reward]. But Allah has preferred the mujahideen over those who remain [behind] with a great reward” (sura 4:95).
So was Mohammed an Islamist or just a Muslim? The historian Daniel Pipes calls this the killer question of those who see Islam itself as the problem and answers it in a worryingly facile way. He says “Muhammad was a plain Muslim, not an Islamist, for the latter concept dates back only to the 1920s”.
Is this not just playing with words? If you put the question another way, “Who in the modern world most closely follow Mohammed’s Medina teachings and example?” surely the Islamists come out tops. Why shouldn’t they be murderous fanatics? That is exactly what Mohammed was. If they are Islamists then so was Mohammed. If Mohammed was just a Muslim then so are they.
Suppose there was an Islamic version of the rapture tomorrow and all those Muslims commonly referred to as Islamists were taken to paradise. Would that solve our problems? According to HMG it must. The ideology which is a distortion or a betrayal of Islam would have disappeared, leaving only peaceful Muslims to live harmoniously with non-believers according to their traditional religious practice. I suggest that before too long some Muslims would start to scratch their heads and say “Hey, look what it says here. Why aren’t we doing it?” Then new groups would spring up with sword in one hand and the Koran in the other, just as has always happened since the 7th century (apart from a relatively short spell of containment under European colonialism).
This is why I say that, while Islam and Islamism can be distinguished, the relationship between them is not that of an organism and an infection but more accurately that of a fire and the flames that it inevitably produces. If you doused the flames currently burning up so much of the world they would soon be replaced by others.
Is it not patronising and futile to imagine we can convince aspiring jihadis that they have misunderstood Mohammed’s demands? It appears obvious to most newcomers to Islam, as it does to so many learned scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim, that supremacism and jihad are utterly inherent in the Islam of Mohammed, not just of Sayyid Qutb. Instead of trying to convince jihadis that they have it all wrong should we not accord them the dignity of regarding them genuinely as our enemy?
Let us close with a quote, taken from a comments section of the Guardian, from an unknown Salafi with whom I would not try to argue:
“As for how I define myself, I am merely a Muslim. If I have to expand on that further then I am also a Sunni. If I need to expand on that even further then I am a Salafi too. I don’t give credence to labels that are thrown around by the infidels. I believe that as a Muslim one should understand the religion by the apparent (i.e. literal) meaning of the texts which would no doubt render me a ‘devout Fundamentalist’. Thus I also believe in the concept of jihad which would also render me a ‘Jihadist’. The usage of these titles is a major bugbear of mine because there is no such thing as a fundamentalist or moderate Islam. There is simply Islam and Muslims may choose to be sincere and accept it in its entirety or on the other hand pick and choose from it to please their desires and others.”