The days of explaining away religious violence in Islam as the inevitable result of Western actions and attitudes towards Islam are over.
For two decades—ever since the two fatwas issued by Osama bin Laden against America in 1996 and 1998–there has been a populist movement within Islam, mainly (but not only) young, highly ideological, widespread beyond the Arab world, and fed by social media. September 11, 2001, was the first salvo and first success of this movement.
It was, as they say, a paradigmatic moment which radicals ignorantly believed did irreparable damage to the Western psyche. Radicalized Muslims now crave a second moment and will do nearly anything to make it happen. Like their predecessors who engineered the use of passenger jets as bombs, they believe in their own martyrdom and subscribe to a peculiar (but by no means insignificant) strain of Islamic thought that regards the taking of the lives of other Muslims and unbelievers as warranted by the higher aims of their faith.
The Islamic State cannot be defeated on the battlefield because there is no conventional battlefield. It cannot be exterminated, capitulated or controlled by “the West”. It will not listen to reason because it does not consider reason the arbiter of its actions. It is deadly and, to overuse the word that is now normally used to describe it, malignant.
Simply put, there is no cure for this kind of Islam but Islam itself because its purposes are not extrinsic to the body of belief and believers. They are part of that body. It is one of several possible genetic developments that will determine the final form of Islam.
All religions develop these “final forms,” equivalent to a kind of cultural dormancy. Some like the Roman mystery religions survived in this form for less than a thousand years; others, like gnosticism, for a much briefer period, due probably to their social practices and limited appeal. We are witnessing formal changes in Catholicism, Judaism and liberal Protestantism, which have been changing within a cultural cauldron for about five hundred years to achieve their present forms.
We are also witnessing some very interesting but distressing signs in Islam which unmistakably point to the possibility of regression and disintegration. I consider the possibility of Islamic disintegration (similar to what happened to dozens of religions over the millennia) a likely outcome unless something is done to right the course.
As Peter Berger and H. Richard Niebuhr–one a sociologist, the other a theologian–argued a half century ago, religions, even if they do not accommodate prevailing cultural patterns must adapt to them at least to the extent they provide constructive critique and counter-values. That, in effect, explains the successful adaptations of Catholicism and some protestant sects. Islam, on the other hand, has chosen a more belligerent and exclusive position which can only result in its eventual loss of influence and, eventually, its disintegration.
In fact there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the violence we are witnessing is part of that process, as thousands of educated and promising members leave Islam and the tides of modernity leave the faith to those least able to deal with change and reinterpretation.
Westerners should recognize that that there have been equivalent rejectionist movements in other book religions, but we have to go back a long time to locate them. The assassins and sicarii and Kanna’im of first century Judaism and the followers of bar Kochba in the second, represented murderous threats to Romans stationed in Palestine (there may be an echo in John 18.10).
Sectors of the Anabaptist movement rejected secular authority and tried to establish a theocracy in Münster in the 16th century. These distant historical cases –which are not perfect analogues anyway—were settled by force: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (and its cordoning off in 135 CE) and the slaughter of Anabaptists by German armies in 1536. In both cases, eradication depended on military force and a circumscribed enemy willing to stand and fight.
But we are not living in the first or sixteenth century. And the influence and appeal of the Islamic State is much broader than the threats posed by militant Jews and early protestant extremists.
For one thing, its appeal is in an expansive vision of Islam that, it is asserted, corresponds to Muhammad’s plan for the religion. Never mind that the Prophet never left the Arabian peninsula or had much information about the wider world that the Muslim religion would come to dominate, or could have imagined in his wildest dreams the discovery of a new world some 700 years after his death—or that men would one day set foot on a moon that his followers believed he was able to split in half.
In the West, we tend to call this “jihadism” (or more generally Islamism), but in the mind of its advocates–its members and it cheerleaders—it is much more than that.
And here there is no analogy to be sought in any other religion. Judaism was a restrictive and (famously, even to the Romans) unfriendly faith that wanted nothing from its neighbors but to be left alone, and a commission for using Jerusalem as a trading outpost.
During the era historians call “Christendom”—the Middle Ages and early Renaissance—Christianity pursued an aggressive agenda of maintaining its interests but fell apart in the Reformation into squabbling religious and then economic and political fiefdoms that gave rise, finally, to nation states and the triumph of secular authority (the magistrate) over church power (the clerisy). The Christian religion was dis-empowered politically (sooner some places than others) from the seventeenth century onward, such that references to (eleventh century) Crusades in Islamic rhetoric are references to events most Christians know nothing about and draw no conclusions from. Wars that Muslims still regard as inconclusive or preliminary are totally missing from the memory bank of the modern educated Westerner: there is simply no meme there.
But jihadist Islam is not directly about Christianity as Christianity. It is about values which it mistakenly and often sloppily attributes to Christianity, the decadent West, imperial America, modern culture, and everything it thinks stands in contradiction to the Prophet’s teaching. Like bin Laden’s fatwas, it can use allusions to the Crusades to indicate it thinks there is “unfinished business” between Islam and the “Christian west”. But it has failed to notice that the west is no longer Christian; that there are Muslims living happily and peacefully in Britain, Germany, America and France, and that their war against modern ideas, innovations and convenience is not a war against sin and Satan but a war against living, thriving, changing culture.
The fact that the Islamic State is based on ignorance, fantasy and fallacy, however, does not lessen its danger. We have lots of examples of movements based on false premises that have succeeded in doing enormous damage to whole populations. In fact, it is difficult to point to a single genocidal movement in the history of the human race that was not based on the idea that the perpetrators were merely cleaning things up and making things right for the elect—the true believers; the racially superior; the pure ones.
What makes some purification groups more dangerous than others is that some are isolationist and some are not. Nazism was largely secular and pan-European. It was joined to the East by Japanese allies who had a similar ideal of Asian racial superiority which it wanted to superimpose on China and the Pacific islands. Both were expansionist and violent.
Many religious groups, ranging from Hellenistic (post second century CE) Judaism to modern Hutterites and cults like the Jonestown Adventists have been isolationist, though not all (witness modern political Israel) have been pacifist. Pacifism itself is often a strategy rather than an altruistic position towards war: some religious groups simply did not have the numbers or the power to wage a fight against a majority religious culture regardless how certain they were of their religious purity and correctness. Dozens of minority quasi-Islamic sects survived in this way, ranging from Iraqi Mandaens to Levantine Druze. Indeed, in the Islamic world, this is why Jewish and Christian minorities enjoyed certain rights according to the law of Dhimma in return for jizyah, the payment of a higher tax. The Islamic State has cast this ancient practice aside in favour of forced conversions and the murder of “dissenting” Muslims, preferring the raw interpretations of select jihadist verses to the settled practices of later Islamic states. However this position stands in stark contrast to the Islamic mainstream prohibition of imposing Islam in general or any particular form of Islam by compulsion or force.
ISIS, as a movement, is driven by a craven belief in the superiority of Islam to other religions combined with a xenophobic belief in the sub-humanity of the adherents of other religions. That belief, if it were isolated, might be harmless enough. But as an expansionist belief, tied to the idea of the Ummah or worldwide Islamic community, it is lethal. We can point to very few social movements with the possible exception of Stalinist-style Soviet Communism that have pursued their ends with such systematic violence. Like most totalitarian movements it has delusions of grandeur based on the exclusive authority of a single, infallible source which is itself above interpretation. Unlike Iranian Shi’ism, which is heavily invested in the authority of supreme religious teachers, It has no special need for religious opinion or experts except the ones its leaders choose to hear—all of them on the payroll of the “caliph” himself.
It is highly romanticized, in thinking of itself as the restoration of a pure and undivided Islamic oikoumene that did not exist even in the lifetime of the Prophet, nor of his successors. It depends on the illiteracy of its members and the prudential capitulation of less radical but sympathetic Sunni hangers-on, in Syria and now in Iraq. It cherry picks and reduces the verses of the Qur’an to a select few that serve as its official philosophy. And finally, like religious armies throughout time, it justifies even the most gruesome forms of violence by saying that the vengeance of armies and the hand of the executioner is guided by the will and wrath of Allah.
This monstrous development is what we are facing following the blunders of George W. Bush after 9-11 in Iraq and the ensuing Arab winter. –Entirely missing the point that Bashir Assad, Hosni Mubarak and Saddam Hussein—however flawed, however wicked—were all that stood between ordinary Muslims and greater evils, now pouring in to fill the empty tanks.
The United States naively but assertively sided with every revolutionary ‘pro- democracy’ movement, as though the choices were as simple as between Colonial militias and British soldiers in 1776, then stepped back and wrung its hands when the “democracies” that emerged in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya–were not modern constitutional democracies at all. It is no wonder that the insipid form, the odious form, the platitudinous form of American democracy is risible to God-obsessed religious warriors who have a much narrower definition of what government is all about.
The United States and its reluctant allies are now faced with performing their humiliating penance in front of a newly invigorated Iran, which could have provided wisdom, and Syria, which knew what was going on when the United States continued to call for the ouster of Bashir and while the vulcan members of Congress, the Lindsay-McCain tag team loudest of all, called for “arming the militants.” We now have at least a “suggestion” of what that policy would have meant if Mr Obama had followed through with the advice he got.
There is only one way to challenge the Islamic State and that is to challenge Islam. I have written here that the greatest single problem with modern Islam is its illiteracy: the fact that millions of smart Muslims are prepared to listen to ignorant and sometimes violent men, sometimes even to fight for them. To me, this is the inexplicable aspect of Islam—a dark hole in its spirit. Catholicism and, historically, Judaism have produced learned teachers and clergy (the word originally met someone who could read) who guided the much less learned laity. But in Islam, mathematicians, lawyers, poets and university postgraduate students are expected to heed the warnings and superstitions of illiterate imams who have never studied any book but the Qur’an and know no intellectual tradition except their own.
Islam needs its own reformation. It needs the sort of enlightenment that some of its earlier thinkers—men like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd—provided, before the caliphs swamped its intellectual tradition with dross and piety. Unfortunately, the current situation does not seem ripe to produce such a process. To the extent there are no significant university or research centers in the Islamic world, Islam itself is the reason.
Most of all, it needs what it does not have: an authority structure that can speak clearly and loudly when groups like ISIS threaten to demean and undermine the faith. Islam needs imams and teachers who can say without fear or injury that ISIS is corrupt: that there is no place in the religion for it–not in any of the schools of interpretation, not in its traditions, not in the hadith, and not in the holy book itself. It is the surest sign of the chaos that Islamic theology has become that men with no principled view of the faith can intimidate scholars by calling their interpretations heresy and when university lecturers in Islamic studies have to confront students corrupted by the last militant blog warning them about the heresies of their teachers.
I speak from experience: I have known such students. I have taught such students. I have watched them cower under the “authority” of Islamic chaplains of Quranic studies and Fiqh. I have been warned not to say anything to upset the “guys with beards” and having paid no attention to the warning I have managed to survive two death threats–one a close call in the final stages of planning my abduction.
Instead of permitting the leaders of ISIS to label everyone else a heretic, where are the authoritative voices of Muslim leaders that declare for everyone to hear that the era of the caliphs is over. That Islam is a faith, an expression of a belief in God and his sovereignty, and in the prophet who ended the brutality of the tribes and who called Allah compassionate and merciful: “Whoever kills a person [unjustly]…it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind.”(Qur’an, 5:32). It is not necessary to mouth the trope “Islam means peace” when almost no one looking on is convinced by the statement. It would be enough for Islam to stand for learning: for discovery, and literature and scientific progress and justice as it is defined in modern contexts, not in medieval jurisprudence.
Until these voices are heard, or until they can be developed, ISIS is winning and Islam capitulates in its winning.