8 January 2015

On the essence of Islam

After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Tony Blair as British Prime Minister moved quickly and effectively to establish that the Al-Qaeda suicide attackers were not being driven by Islam but a perversion of it, that Islam was a religion of peace, and that Britain, the United States and other countries were not fighting against Islam but against terrorism.

Blair’s reaction seemed admirable then and still does to a large extent today. At a difficult time he reacted swiftly, showed real leadership and established himself as a genuine statesman on the world stage. The words he chose seemed right and felt right. They surely helped stop a lot of nascent anti-Muslim feeling in its tracks, both in Britain and abroad, and contributed to a remarkable atmosphere of tolerance in Britain towards Islam and Muslims following 9/11 and other Islamist attacks in Britain and elsewhere.

Since leaving office, Blair has continued to preach the same line, that the ideology of ISIS or Islamic State for example is based on a "complete perversion" of the proper faith of Islam. Current Western leaders including David Cameron and Barack Obama remain wedded to that approach, declaring that the ideologies of movements like Al-Qaeda and ISIS ‘pervert Islam', ‘betray Islam’ or are "not a true form of Islam’.

As time has gone by, and Islamist terror has spreaded through countries from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Syria, Iraq, and around North and West Africa – in addition to the continuing threat in Europe and America – this approach seems less and less convincing. It seems that we may have been rather naive, projecting our hopes and desires on to the situation rather than seeing Islamic extremism for what it was, and is.

After all, what is the point about talking about ‘true Islam’ when supposedly ‘false’ or ‘perverted’ Islam is so successful and so widespread, attracting enough human, financial and organisational resources from Muslims around the world to roundly defeat government forces in so many places (governments that in several cases have received significant support from Western states). That is not to mention the mounting catalogue of horrific attacks in Europe, including those on Fusilier Lee Rigby in London and the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. This phenomenon of Islamic extremism and terrorism is not going away; indeed it seems to be getting stronger.

But also, does Tony Blair, David Cameron or Barack Obama have any business telling Muslims what their ‘true’ religion is? Surely this is something for Muslims to discuss, not for non-Muslims with such obvious political motivations?

As well as looking rather insincere in their supposed expertise, what our leaders are saying by claiming to know the essence of Islam is that there is one true way with Islam, and they know what it is. This is also what the zealots on the other side are claiming, but the zealots also personally follow the path they advocate, for what is after all their religion, whether you or me or anyone sees it as somehow ‘true’ or ‘false’. Who would you believe if you were looking for guidance on the real Islam: the version presented by non-Muslim leaders like Blair, Cameron and Obama, or that of practising, committed Muslims who claim to be representing and defending Islam and Muslims and are practising what they preach? It is not difficult to see how devout Muslims suspicious of the motives of ‘the West’ and brought up on a diet of anti-Western propaganda, might lean towards the latter.

On reflection, and with the passage of time, this narrative of Western leaders seems to have been rather arrogant and presumptuous. It appears more suited as a short-term political argument – to mollify non-Muslim opinion in the West and prevent strife between domestic Muslim and non-Muslim communities (the idea of ‘community cohesion’) while not provoking powerful, resource-rich Muslim allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar which have been funding the spread of conservative Wahhabi Islam and sometimes supporting extremist Islamist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere.

As an actual truth, the idea that Islam is an inherently peaceful religion falls apart on an even cursory examination.

Like Christianity, Islam has long and overt associations with violence, conquest and absolutism, from well before Osama Bin Laden or Islamic State appeared on the scene. Just thirty years after the Prophet Mohammed’s death the doctrine of takfeer (condemnation or excommunication) was introduced by a purist group called the Kharijites, decreeing that those who did not follow God’s word precisely were ‘kuffar’, infidels deserving of death.  In AH 60 (661 AD), Islam’s fourth caliph Ali (who was himself renowned for the sword he wielded) was killed during Ramadan by a Kharijite using a poisoned sword, with his assassin proclaiming, ‘There is no authority except God, oh Ali, not you!’ Robert Lacey, who has written so well on modern Saudi Arabia, writes that Ali “became one of the earliest victims of Islamic terrorism” and in dying became the first martyr of the Shia, “starting them down their emotion-laden path of sorrow and faith” and thereby inaugurating the bloody Sunni-Shia split that remains today.

The idea that Islam is inherently peaceful is but one example of how discussions around Islam, Islamist violence and Muslims often see truth sacrificed to political expediency and wishful thinking – especially on the liberal-left but also among others who are wedded to globalisation and the modern world. We haven’t wanted Islam or Muslims to be a problem because it would be decidedly inconvenient if they were. Islam being a problem could damage our internationalist, tolerant and open-minded world-views, and also cause ructions in the developing world power system which depends on oil and gas (and, increasingly, wider investment) from conservative Islamic dictatorships in the Middle East.

So we stuck our heads in the sand and either tried to ignore or deny what was happening or, in the case of many old left types, joined the jihadis in blaming everything – including Islamist violence – on the West.

For more on not-dissimilar themes, see Identity Politics and the left, History and International and Philosophy, thought and literature pages.