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.


  1. Fair point – but what of it? In concrete terms, does Islam's 'history of violence' justify extremism nowadays? Do we just shrug it off saying "oh, well, Muslims will be Muslims"? Or is the solution for people to simply stop being Muslim because it is too violent a religion?

    I do agree with you that Westerners have no say in what is 'true' or 'perverted' Islam. To what extent is any one version pure and uncorrupted, anyway? And furthermore what does it matter? Should we be guilty of the same idiocy in stating that this or that one sect is 'pure' and therefore the only valid one? (As a Reform Jew, I know this all too well; even some of my own seem to somehow consider Orthodox Judaism as 'true' and us as adherents of some sort of Judaism-lite. Well, I am an atheist, but anyway.)

    But... ought there not to be an alternative? If there are Muslim voices out there trying to keep coexistence with Christians and Jews peaceful (to varying extents), shouldn't these be prioritised somehow? (I'm not sure how myself, just saying...)

    1. This piece is just addressing the received opinion about what Islam is, which is clearly more about wishful thinking than anything else, in my view. I think that's a more than valid point to make and I don't really understand the criticism that an article should be something else other than what it is.

      However, I am currently doing some work on our wider problem with Islam, including suggesting what could or should be done both from within the religion and in the wider society and by government. But that's for another time.

    2. I didn't really criticise the article itself (the goal of which was clear). I was asking about your thoughts beyond it: the overall premise should be pretty simple to agree with (or at least understand), but it's the consequences of accepting this premise what I'm most interested in – i.e. there are different ways to 'use' it, and I was just curious about how you use it.

      It seems you are already working on something else to address what I was asking, so there you go.

    3. Fair enough. Yes, you were right to raise those questions. My thoughts are basically that the issue for ordinary people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is relational. It is about how Islam manifests for us in our lives. Islam is to us how it appears to us.

      And for those of us who pay attention and seek to be truthful and fair, there is awfully little to go on to suggest that Islam is a peaceful religion in the here and now. The evidence before our eyes suggests the opposite. We see committed, zealous Muslims defending their faith and their Prophet by shooting, bombing and beheading. This is the reality.

      What is more, the aims and ambitions of Muslim representative organisations and prominent activists are not much different from those of the terrorists. They want to impose Islamic blasphemy laws on British/European/Western society, suppress criticism of Islam and Muslims and, in a broader fashion, maximise the political and social power of Islam and Muslims. We can see a full spectrum of activity taking place to achieve these aims, from pressing and infiltrating institutions to protests, warnings, intimidation, death threats and violent action.

      This is the uncomfortable reality, but I think it's correct not to infer that this is 'the essence' or 'the real' Islam. It is the Islam that we are experiencing.

    4. In my opinion the solution is simple and straightforward. We support and protect Muslim reformers, Muslim secularists and ex Muslims whilst dealing with extremists harshly through the legal system and via covert/special forces action (sparingly) when necessary. I would also add a highly selective and reduced immigration policy.

      The problem is great swathes of the establishment from the media and universities -to the wider chattering middle classes- oppose any such course of action. They see Islam and Muslims as a great, noble and oppressed culture and peoples, in need of unconditional acceptance and support. And they see Western foreign policy and white racism as not only the cause but the true threat to civilization.

      This means honesty regarding Islam, support for Muslim dissidents and any and all legal/military solutions are opposed at every turn. And any controls on immigration are attacked with the zeal of the Inquisition.

      As a lefty myself it pains me to say bit this is making the left a kind of 5th column in it's own right.

    5. Luke - agree with you there 100%.

    6. We feel guilty about the past atrocities the USA has committed, and thus powerless to assert basic principles. But this doesn't make sense. Realistically, nobody is part of a nation -- not even the nation's leaders.

      We are real individual people. Nations, establishments, communities -- whatever you call them -- are the illusions we help shape. When we say that terrorism is always evil, we are not speaking on behalf of our culture; we're affirming a natural human instinct.

      As long as we are communicating, through speeches, blogs, protests, or even donations, we need not -- must not -- hold back for guilt. It is only those who take up arms and go and fight the terrorists that bear the curse of never knowing if they're doing the right thing.

      When we say the terrorists are un-Islamic, that's a misnomer. I contend that what we actually mean is they're un-religious. The question "is a religion peaceful?" doesn't even mean anything. What we need to ask is "Is Islam still a religion?"

      We have a right and a duty, not as Americans, not as Westerners, but as human beings, to expect certain standards of basic decency in what counts as religious activity.

      We also need the courage to be thoroughly anti-Whorfian in our message. Whether we're Christian, Jewish, Atheist, or whatever, is merely a way of expressing, not of knowing. The knowledge that terrorism is evil is inherent in everyone's brain. If they claim that Allah ordered them to kill, it doesn't matter that they said "Allah". If it were a Christian saying "Jesus", or a Jew saying "God", or an Atheist saying "Prudence", it would be the same delusion. We have a right and a duty to tell them "$*@ the Koran! Allah forbids terrorism!" Not in the name of Islam, but in the name of relativistic invariance.

  2. "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!’"

    Just for context, Ali was most likely assassinated for tribal reasons just as the previous Caliph Uthman had been. The idea that he was assassinated for religious sectarian reasons by "Kharijites" was most likely created retroactively by later Sunni authors who were dealing with "Kharijites" in their time. This type of tracing contemporary heresies to much earlier time periods was very common among Muslim and Christian heresiographers. "Kharijites" isn't even really a sect, it's just a term used by Sunnis in history for different groups of muslim (often non-Arab) rebels against existing state authority.

  3. How you getting on with the mentioned wider research Ben? So much out there it's endless. I have found Maajid Nawaz indespensible for giving credibility to my own uncouth and angry reactions over the last few months; I mean his criticism of his own faith's terrible actions is powerful and effective, but as you know, he is despised for it by a majority of UK Muslims.

    The U.K. Could lead the way if Quilliam replaced the MCB somehow, in Muslim subscriptions , but this is a 'dream on' statement. Regardless, it is in the very nature of true faith to spread its word, it's 'living light', and like many, I simply cannot resist being as critical as possible of Islam as being devious and not to be trusted one inch. Thus I have found the work of Aayan Hirsi Ali to be even more essential to understanding why things are so volatile with the religion of peace; because the disturbing sense of society being manipulated by the PC mores of 'Islamophobia' and 'racist!' has left many feeling they have had enough when it's already far too much, what we have had to put up with.

    1. thanks for the comments Russell (I've deleted the PJ Harvey link for simplicity's sake and your comment on it too). On wider research, I've actually been concentrating my attention mostly on the liberal-left and have left that stuff hanging for the moment, but I'll be coming back to it. I agree it'd be nice if Maajid's way of seeing the world would prevail in the world of Islam in Britain, but it's clearly not going to happen - and the resistance to him and it tells us a lot of uncomfortable, inconvenient truths.


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