The fact that Islamic religion has yet to go through a reformation process has made it an easy target for political manipulation — changing according to the political contexts, the leaders and the Geist of the time. With the rise of political Islam, religion started to be shaped by this ideology of domination, brought back to the public sphere, and used as a tool for legitimization. Slowly it turned into a hegemonic message that seeks to shape the political, social and legal orders according to its ideological canons. Instead of a message of love and tolerance, it became a message of Jihad, hatred of others, supremacy of Muslims, and a call for the establishment of a theocratic Islamic state.
This process did not happen over night. It took decades to mainstream this ideology of extremism by different actors.
Three types of actors have shaped these events: Political Islam movements, Societal Islamism, and Islamic and Arab/Islamic political states/elites.
First, Political Islam
Political Islam is an ideology — a modern ideology that seeks state’s political power as a means of changing and transforming existing societies. For them power is only a means to an end, its goal is a revolutionary change compelled by a vision of a puritanical society and state. A society that is governed by God’s law not man/woman’s made laws. And a state where identity and citizenship are based and defined by religious affiliation and observance. Human rights, citizenship rights, minorities and women’s rights are accordingly violated with impunity.
There are different versions of political Islam. Some movements seek to create this vision of society and state through outright violence — ISIS is one example of this type of movements. The most dangerous version, in my opinion, uses an incremental approach. Violence is still Salonfähig, but the strategy is to change gradually through a process of Islamizing society by means of the education system, the mosque, religious teachings and the media. It is no coincidence that every time Islamists enter a government, Arabic or Islamic, the first ministry they insist on having is the education ministry and the first measure they undertake is changing the curriculum to mold it according to their ideology.
This strategy is not confined to Arab and Islamic states. It is practiced in Western societies, where Muslim minorities are living. Just make a survey and check whom the Western governments consider ‘partners’ in designing the religious teachings of Islam for their minorities. You won’t like the answer!
Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami
Political Islam was originally spearheaded by two main political movements, from which other groups (violent and non violent) sprang: a) Muslim Brotherhood created in Egypt 1928 by Hassan Al Banna, a primary school teacher; and b) Jamaat-e-Islami created in British India in1941 by Abu Alaa Al Maududi, an Indian born Journalist who later moved to Pakistan.
The ideology of Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat e Islami divides the world into two competing camps — Islam and the West — which are engaged in an existential confrontation and war.
Both movements insist that Islam is a way of life! It governs every aspect of society including politics! And Muslims have to surrender their wills to its stipulations.
It was political Islam that first articulated this ‘concept’ ideologically. Yet it succeeded in mainstreaming it to the extent that people today repeat this statement like parrots.
According to the political ideology of Al Maududi, sovereignty (hakimiyya) does not belong to the people, but to god alone and power is only legitimate if governed according to the commands of god. Hence, the only legitimate state is an Islamic state with the sole aim of applying sharia. Needless to say that Khomeini’s writing on the Islamic Government emphasized the same principle for his theocratic state in Iran.
The world is divided into two camps, Islam is a way of life, an Islamic state applying Sharia.
“Jihad is a religious duty obligatory on every Muslim.” Jihad is thus the fourth component of the ideology of political Islam.
Hassan Al Banna was clear about the Jihad he meant, and it was not a peaceful one! He said:
God has imposed jihad as a religious duty on every Muslim, categorically and rigorously, from which there is neither evasion nor escape. He has rendered it a supreme object of desire, and has made the reward of martyrs and fighters in his way a splendid one, for he has conjoined with them in their reward only those who have acted as they did, and have molded themselves upon them in their performance of jihad.
Although I know some would argue that both movements belong to a ‘nonviolent’ Islamism and therefore they should be treated as ‘moderate’ — a view espoused and propagated by some ‘advisors’ working at the British government and American administration. The fact remains though that the objective of the two movements is not to follow the rules of the democratic game. If they participate in the political system, it is with the aim of changing it to their version of a theocratic state, even if this took decades.
Listen to what they say, read their literature and research their policy measures and this will become clear.
Al Banna is of the opinion that the aim is “to guide mankind by means of the light of Islam and to raise the banner of Islam in all parts of the world.”
And Al Maududi vision of an Islamic state is clear: an ‘Islamic state with the Quran as the constitution; legislation would be limited to the interpretation of Sharia; and its president would be devout Muslim surrounded by an all-Muslim council. Non-Muslims would return to dhimmi status’. Muslims who do not conform to the Maududi worldview are cast away all together.
It was because of his ideology and the work of Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan that the Ahmadiyya community was stripped from its ‘Muslim Status’. The law was consequently changed making it a crime to use the word ‘Muslims’ to describe Ahmadiyya or ‘Mosque’ to describe their prayer house. There are Pakistani Ahmadiyya persons serving 5 to 6 years in prison today because they did just that: called themselves Muslims!
Perhaps you will understand my exacerbation when I realized that the writings of Maududi has been distributed in British schools as ‘standard readings on Islam’! I hate to use this analogy, but imagine assigning the writings of Mussolini or Hitler as ‘standard reading on Italy/Germany’ and the picture will be clear.
Second, Societal Islamism
Societal Islamism is an expression I used in my book The Arab State and Women’s Rights: The Trap of Authoritarian Government (London: Routledge, 2011,) and it is an expression that I am using now in my book Islamic Law in the West: The Essentialists. It refers to these puritanical religious movements, which concern themselves with changing social behaviors that conform to their rigid worldviews, call for an Islamic mode of life, refrain from politics, and often are loyal to the regimes in their respective Islamic states. Concepts of Jihad as a duty, the creation of an Islamic state, the insistence that others who consider themselves Muslims and practice the main tenets of the religion are in fact non-Muslims (Takfir) — a concept espoused by political Islam as well — are part of their worldview. In addition, the West is an enemy that should be fought, if not by violence, then by separating oneself of its influence and propagating this interpretation of Islam worldwide.
These movements include the Saudi Wahhabi/Salafi movement (and Ahl Al hadith in its South Asian Version), South Asian Deobandi and Barelvi movements and Tablighi Jama’at.
What these movements do is propagate a message of separation and intolerance. They call on their supporters to separate themselves from those surrounding them (Muslims and non Muslims alike) by their behavior, to hate them in their heart, and to strictly adhere to their puritanical teachings to the letter.
When their rigid intolerant interpretation of Islam intertwines with the ideology of Political Islam, the outcome is toxic. We see its embodiment in the deeds of ISIS today.
If you are asking yourselves why so many British citizens of Islamic heritage are drawn to the ideology of ISIS; I suggest that you look closer at the British context: half of the mosques in Britain are controlled by the Deobandi and Tablighi Jama’at. In addition, as Innes Bowen observes in her book Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam (2014), between 2009 and 2013 the number of Salafi mosques in the UK increased by 50 percent. This made the movement the fastest growing of the UK’s major Islamic trends. In fact, half of all new mosques opening each year are Salafi controlled.
All these mosques are allowed to have their Madrasas to teach children Islam. Moreover, the Deobandi movement has established 25 dar al-ulums (seminaries) in the UK responsible of training the Imams for their mosques. These Imams, as a Quillum report accurately argued, are ‘British made’ but fail to support the humanist values of equality, tolerance, liberty and religious pluralism.
Did I tell you that Taliban members have been taught Islam in Deobandi seminaries built in Afghanistan?
Now you know.
And it is this line of Islamic teaching that is being propagated in Britain as ‘mainstream’!
If the British government is serious about tackling the ISIS threat, I suggest that it dismantles its non-violent extremist infrastructure in UK first. Start with the ‘religious teaching’ provided by these institutions and mosques, look at its content, and make sure you are not propagating an ISIS ideology in the name of religious freedom.
Third, Arab/Islamic political states/elites — and their Western counterparts!
Arab and Islamic states and leaders have exploited political Islam and societal Islamism. And in their Machiavellian politics of survival, they helped mainstream an ideology of extremism. This trend is not confined to them. Western leaders and states have also exploited these two phenomena as well.
In the unscrupulous context where Arab/Islamic leaders lack legitimacy, the Islamist/Islamic card has become the tool to compensate for their deficit. Saudi Arabia, it is well-known, was built on a 1747 alliance between the founder of the Wahhabi/Salafi movement and the forefather of the Saudi dynasty. The first needed political power to implement his ‘reading’ of Islam by force. The latter was in need of legitimacy that compensates for his lack of proper ‘tribal lineage’ necessary in his region, Najd, for leadership. Only when he embraced the Wahhabi movement was he able to extend his authority outside his small town of Al Dir’iyya. His grand grandson Ibn Saud made use of this very alliance a century and half later to create a kingdom that exceeds the boundary of the Najd region.
Starting from the late ’60s, Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries used the Wahhabi teachings as an important tool to fight the ideology of leftist Pan Arabism that threatened their monarchies. Using their newfound oil money, they spread it first in the Arab region and then worldwide. The United States joined in later. Karima Bennoune author of Your Fatwa does not apply here (2014), highlighted how in the ’80s the U.S. spearheaded an effort that trained jihadists from Morocco to Indonesia in its Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Put simple, religion was a tool in the Cold War rivalry, but it was not any religion that the US propagated; it was one of the most reactionary fringe readings of Islam that it helped spread.
Pakistani political elites did the same and exploited political Islam in its Maududi version and later societal Islam in its Deobandi version as a means of cheap legitimizing method that guarantees their survival. The outcome was a mainstreaming of their ideology and interpretation on the expense of other strands and readings of south Asian Islam.
If you think that India is immune to this politics, I suggest you look at the main Islamic ally of the ruling elite: the Deobandi movement!
Semi secular Arab states used the Islamist/Islamic card as well. In Egypt, President Sadat was the first to exploit the Islamist card in the ’70s to face his leftist opponents — releasing Muslim Brothers leaders from the prison, giving them a free platform to spread their politicized message in the education, religious and media sectors. Former President Mubarak followed suit but allied himself instead with the Salafi movement to weaken the Muslim Brothers — a strategy emulated by current President Sissi.
Western democracies are participants in this Machiavellian game. In Britain the rise of identity politics have led to an endorsement of groups affiliated with political Islam and Societal Islamism. This policy came in handy to counter the leftist oppositional trends within the South Asian communities prevalent in the seventies and eighties of last century. It was also useful to galvanize and win the ‘Asian vote’.
Until the London 2005 terrorist attacks, it was representatives of political Islam that the British government considered the speakers of Muslim community. These were not ‘elected’ Muslim leaders, rather hand picked by the government.
A similar condition persists in the United States. Organized supporters of political Islam are the loudest in the political field and claim to be the ‘speakers of Islam and Muslims’.
I apologize if I have overwhelmed you with this amount of information. But it was necessary because of the complexity of the situation. I argued that there are two aspects that should be addressed if we are to fight Islamic extremism.
One aspect pertains to a long-term project — the theological reformation of the Islamic religion. This project is the responsibility of Muslims themselves. It cannot be imposed from the outside. But it is necessary to tame religion, bring it back to the private sphere, and separate it from politics. Secularism is the first step (among others) that guarantees that the state treats its citizens with neutrality, without distinction because of religion, sect, gender or belief.
This is a difficult and painful project and it will take a long time. Yet I dare say that to launch it demands articulating this one sentence: Quran was composed and written by humans.
The lack of this reformation made the Islamic religion susceptible to exploitation, which brings us to the second aspect that should be addressed: non-violent extremism. Three actors driven by different reasons helped mainstreaming non-violent extremism: political Islam movements, societal Islamism and political leaders. To counter violent extremism, we need to dismantle the educational, religious and media infrastructure that mainstream non-violent extremism in Islamic and Western societies. In other words, we need to dry the ideological and religious swamps of political Islam and societal Islamism. Yet doing that will require state leaders, who are both legitimate and featured by intellectual honesty and courage. Not an easy combination!