Sunday, July 6, 2014

ISIS and the Islamic Reformation

In this post I want to change the subject a bit. I have been talking about the misuse of science in our political debates, and now I want to talk about what is happening in the Muslim world. The reason for the change of topic is a recent article published on the Front Page website by Raymond Ibrahim (June 30, 2014) entitled, "Islam's 'Protestant Reformation.'" Mr. Ibrahim makes the very important point that contrary to popular opinion, Islam does not need a "reformation" such as that which transformed the Christian church in the 16th century. Islam has, in fact, undergone just this process of reform, of returning to its original documents and taking them literally in theory and in practice. It is just this return to the Koran and the Hadiths that explains the difference between the two "reformations," one was a return to the truths of the Bible and the other to the warrior religion of Islam. It is just this return to its original beliefs and practices that has led to the current crisis we face today.

Mr. Ibrahim is right, of course. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were two competing forces at work in the Islamic world which at the time was dominated by the Ottoman Empire. One impulse was a desire to modernize Islamic societies and take advantage of the tremendous benefits of industrialization, modern education, and representative democratic governance. A significant number of Muslim academics and political leaders held to this point of view in the first half of the twentieth century. But there was also a very powerful reactionary movement that rejected what it considered the anti-Islamic forces of secularism and decadence. At first, the reactionary movement was small but it amassed a deeply loyal following. It produced the salafist movement, Wahhabi Islam (Saudi Arabia), and the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt). These all began as protest movements which opposed the rapprochement with the West expressed by the many governments in the Islamic world who were trying to advance their nations into the developed world.

History as we know it might have been different except for three very important events. First, in the very core of Islam, in the land of Mohammed and of Mecca and Medina, came the discovery of the largest petroleum reserve the world had ever known. Saudi Arabia had already separated itself from both the Ottoman Empire and Western colonial rule, and existed as a tribal monarchy defined in no small part by its embrace of wahhabism. As the protector of the holy sites and the destination for the Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca), which is an obligation for all Muslims, it needed to be the champion of Islamic purity and so the embrace of a return to the Koran and the beliefs and practices of the Prophet clearly fit Saudi Arabia's role in global Islam. But with its vast oil revenues, it possessed wealth and power that enabled it to influence the rest of the Islamic world, to build mosques, and fund wahhabist madrassas around the world.

Even this would not have been enough to produce the global resurgence of Islam that we see today, were it not for two more extremely significant events: the overthrow of the Shah in Iran. The Shah was one of the most prominent examples of an Islamic leader who desired to modernize and industrialize his nation. Like Ataturk in Turkey before him, he was trying to model his vision for Iran after the Western powers. No one should argue that he was an enlightened monarch, he attempted to use repression in imposing his will on the Iranian people, but neither should we lose sight of the fact that he wanted to move ancient Persia into the twentieth century.

The changes that the Shah wanted to make to Iranian society were bitterly opposed by a group of conservative clerics led by the Ayatollah Khomeini who was sent off into exile in France. In exile, he developed his manifesto for an Islamic revolution and an Islamic state. His sermons in exile were smuggled back into Iran, and he became the leader of a large revolutionary movement that ended in the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of an Islamic government ruled by the leading clerics of Iran with Khomeini as the "Grand Ayatollah."

This momentous event had a profound affect on the rest of the Muslim world. It, in effect, demonstrated that "it could be done," that is a nation leaning toward the West could be transformed by a popular uprising and restored to Islamic purity. I remember the rhetoric of the mostly young radicals of the 80s who had been captivated by the "revolution." They clearly saw the possibility of a "pure" Islamic society ruled by Sharia Law, and that became their dream. Even though the revolution had produced the terrible hostage crisis at the American embassy in Tehran, many in the West were, at least, supportive of the goal of the revolution: the overthrow of Western influence in the Islamic world. They saw this influence as a form of colonialism, and while they didn't necessarily support (or even understand) the underlying ideology/theology, they supported the ends. This is why you see so many Western academics (Orientalists, anti-colonialists, etc.) who either openly support or are silent about groups like Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or Hamas. They see them through revolutionary eyes, and for many of them, the end justifies the means, just as they tacitly supported the Viet Cong and the PLO in the sixties.

The other event that shaped today's movement was the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. It marked the restoration of the "mujahedeen," the holy warriors and became a modern example of Jihad, and a successful Jihad at that. It also contributed to the sense that the restoration of the glory of Islam was possible. It further enabled all of the skills necessary for global recruitment, training, equipping, and funding of Holy War. It was in Afghanistan that Bin Laden learned what was needed to create Al Qaeda and to attack the United States. These skills have produced all the vast terror networks that we confront across the world today.

If we add all these things together, we see that what has produced all of the "movements" that we see today, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, and now ISIS, are a product of a deeply reactionary desire to return to the purity of Islam as it was originally practiced, and with the vast amount of wealth and influence that has arisen at the very core of the Islamic world, they have the resources to do it. This turn of events is the Islamic version of the Reformation. Muslims, however, do not call it that, to them this is nothing less than an Islamic revival and many of them see it as a great re-awakening of Islam. This is why so many of the people on the so-called "Arab street" considered Osama Ben Laden a hero. His vision of Islam on the rise has captured the imagination of many in the Muslim world, and while many don't support the means, most agree with the ends.

This raises two related questions: where do "moderate" Muslims fit into this equation and if this is "reformed" Islam, how can we hope to see an end to the radicalism and violence that predominates in the Muslim world? In other words, if a reformation hasn't been able to bring the Islamic world into the larger family of nations, what will?

The Islamic revival of the past forty years has overwhelmed all or most of the moderate voices within the Muslim world. Only in the West do you see Muslims or former Muslims willing and able to criticize  the current drive toward Islamic purity. There have been some statements opposing some aspects of Islamic terrorism by journalists and clerics in the Muslim world, but they are relatively mild and ineffective. In the instances where politicians have taken steps toward social and educational reform, they have often paid with their lives (as in Pakistan in the past few years). Even for those living in the West, it is dangerous to criticize Islam. The first, and most famous, example was Salman Rushdie whose heretical writings put a literal price on his head. Recently we have seen the forced exile of Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her cooperation on the film critical of Islam that resulted in the assassination of Theodore Van Gough in Holland. After Van Gough's death, she was forced to flee to the United States in order to escape the same fate. If these critics of Islam don't feel safe in Western nations, imagine how difficult it must be to criticize Islam in Africa or the Middle East. But, and this is what I want to discuss in my next post (next week), how, apart from this type of criticism from within, will Islam be able to change, develop pluralistic and tolerant societies, or just even co-exist with the modern world?

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