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By Hamid Elyassi


The Montréal Review, May 2015


Westerner and Arab practicing geometry.

(Cahiers de Science et Vie No114, anonymous painter, 15th century)


The bullet-ridden body of the young man shot dead after murdering innocent holidaymakers on a Tunisian beach could not but evoke mixed feelings of regret at a wasted youth and revulsion at the barbarity of another mass murder at the instigation of the Islamic State. It also raised questions about the origin of this political oddity, the secret of its hold on so many young minds and the way it may be countered on the ideological front.

The Tunisia tragedy came almost a year after the ISIL, having made spectacular military gains in war-torn Syria and sectarian-riven Iraq, proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic State under a spiritual and temporal ruler and called on Muslims of the world to pledge allegiance and offer assistance to this modern age Caliph in his quest for world domination. The whole episode, of course, might be dismissed as the case of yet another megalomaniac autocrat taking a turn for the worse were it not for the fact that since then, not a few fanatics have answered the call by forsaking their homes, some in affluent Western societies, for the austere conditions of the warlike Caliphate. Or like the Tunisia beach murderer, have chosen to spread its tentacles of terror and message of hate with surreal dedication and nauseating heroism. The Caliphate, meanwhile, has survived and held onto its territories despite political, diplomatic and military pressure by several states and an impressive international coalition. It has even managed to run a “state” on constant war footing with the help of a flimsy administrative structure backed by modern technical and psychological devices to robotize minds alongside medieval brutality to desensitize devotees, terrorize and subdue doubters and demoralize enemies. In the process, the IS has left a track record of massacre, beheading, rape, slave trade, flogging and ethnic cleansing under the pretext of pursuing a holy mission and spreading a sacred ideology.

The ideology is nothing but a religious version of the totalitarian notion of reproducing an idealized replica of history – the history of Islam - through mass indoctrination and regimentation under a “visionary” leader. Meanwhile, to meet its needs for brain and brawn, the IS has touted a curious hodgepodge of Holy War, martyrdom and eternal reward as a win-win wager to the adventurous willing to trade everything for some momentary exhilaration, the disgruntled fed up with the humdrum of everyday life, the credulous fanatic and the lunatic prepared to kill for the sake of an implausible goal and if killed, gain speedy admission to a place of everlasting pleasure.

Metamorphosis of an Idea

The IS has exploited the ideology to the full, but it is not its inventor. Glorifying Muslims’ past history originated as an innocuous, even noble idea when most Muslim nations were under the political rule of colonial powers and social and cultural dominance of antiquated religious institutions whose custodians rejected Western civilization and modern science and technology as devil’s handiworks intended to lead the pious astray and destroy their afterlife.

To save their people from perpetual backwardness, some Muslim intellectuals came up with the idea that there was no conflict between Islam and material progress and between piety and modernization. To convince the deeply religious masses of the need for change and end their cultural lethargy and political inertia, they pointed to the “Golden Age” of Islam when, they said, Muslims ruled a vast empire and led the world in arts and sciences. Muslims could equal, even supersede the West if they regained the same spirit and self-confidence.

The “revivalist” representation of Islamic history did play a constructive part in mobilizing popular support for some anti-colonial movements. It also unwittingly supplied the ideological tools for the populist exploitation of the religious pride of the masses in order to demonize democracy and modernization as the impediments to the ascendency of Islam. In time, the advocates of the approach, known today by the generic name of “Islamists” turned the original idea of reconciling Islam and modernity on its head and taught that Muslims, instead of coming out of the past into the present, should travel backward in time to an idealized past which, depending on the particular version of the ideology, was the “Golden Age” of the universal caliphate or the state of “unadulterated, original Islam” that had existed at the time of the Prophet and his immediate successors. In either case, it was emphasized that in those times, Muslims lived under restrictive customs and strict laws and were governed by those who knew how to enforce them.

Thanks to the endemic inefficiency and corruption in most Islamic, and indeed Third World countries, Islamists’ alternative politics, backed by populist slogans, gained a foothold in the margin of the political life of many post-independence Muslim states. In some, they were tolerated as items of political curiosity, in some they were suppressed for resorting to violence or challenging secular governments and in others were occasionally allowed to dabble in governmental affairs. But it was not until the 1979 revolution in Iran that the Islamists had an opportunity to see their ideas in practice.

For Islamists everywhere, this was an improbable dream come true. Here was a theocratic state committed to applying Islamist principles under the direct rule and exclusive supervision of clerics who had hitherto preferred the side line for fear of alienating modern classes. If the model succeeded in a rapidly modernizing country, it could elsewhere. Thus, the Muslim world witnessed a surge in the number and activity of Islamist groups and activists openly seeking power and its trappings.

Some of those groups have since died out because of political pressure or insufficient support, some have mellowed into the political process and a few have achieved power or a share in it. What is remarkable is that with the passage of time, Islamism has undergone continuous metamorphosis with an increasing tendency to radicalization and violence. If at one time, the clerical rulers of Iran were rebuked for disregarding human rights, their behaviour soon seemed moderate in comparison with excesses of the Taliban and atrocities of al-Qaeda whose records, in turn, hardly rival the gruesome practices of al-Shabab, the Boko Haram and the Islamic State. It is, indeed, a sobering thought to envision what this hideous progression of horror may have in store for humanity.

Wrong on facts, wrong on faith

Despite differences in ideological and tactical details, the all Islamists share the precept that Muslim nations are weak and their religion in retreat because they have followed the example of advanced Western countries in order to compete with them. That is wrong, they contend. The solution is to repudiate the cultural, social, political and economic paradigms of the present age, in particular liberal democratic notions of people’s sovereignty and the separation of church and state and instead, re-establish the social and political norm and values that existed deep in history. And to do so, it is necessary for learned Islamist leaders to assume political power and implement harsh laws and punishments which, they claim, are ordained by the Koran and Sunnah or “Tradition”- namely the reported words and deeds of the Prophet and his immediate successors.

The underlying motive is clear. Restrictive rules and severe punishments, of the kind advocated by the IS and other Islamists, give the ruler the “divine” means of suppressing freedom of thought and expression and preventing dissent. Yet, ascribing these rules to divine source is questioned by Muslim intellectuals and an increasing number of religious scholars. According to them, most of the austere laws and customs advocated and practiced by Islamists have no basis in the Holy Book and for many of those that have, there is a wide difference of opinion among canonists as regards their connotation, relevance and conditions of applicability.

Attributing laws and customs to the other source of Islamic legislation, namely the Tradition, is even more specious. After the death of the Prophet, there was an explosion in the number of reports of his sayings and practices to the extent that it became necessary to establish a branch of Islamic studies specifically to check the authenticity of these reports and the reliability of their authors. Nonetheless, even today leading religious authorities both within and between sects differ widely over the validity, true meaning and relevance of even crucial points of Tradition, including those used to justify politicization of the religion.

The reason is clear. Over the centuries, laws have been made and norms of social and private life instituted to meet the needs of successive generations of Muslims and probably serve the interests of their rulers. But at a time when concepts of popular representation and democratic sovereignty were centuries away, the only way to legitimize laws, norms and customs was to attribute them to a divine source, leaving behind a corpus of man-made “divinely ordained” rules and practices.

But the weakness of Islamists’ argument does not just lie in historical fallibility of their claims. Even if we accept that the Islamist recounting of the behaviour and customs of the Prophet’s contemporaries were authentic, this would hardly make them obligatory on Muslims of all ages without incontrovertible Koranic or Prophetic evidence to prove it. True, Muslims believe that the prophet left “The Book and his Tradition” to guide the posterity, but as a prophet expecting his religion to outlive his contemporaries, he would hardly impose the conditions of his age on future generations of Muslims. Where an ordinary individual realizes that his descendants cannot live as he does, can a Muslim accept that his Prophet was unable to see as much? For the followers of Islam and any other religion and creed in our age, tradition cannot mean living in the past. It refers to moral principles and universal standards of good and evil left by prophets and religious leaders to guide the posterity.

The Islamist notion of historical reversion is intended to close minds to new ideas and suppress human desire for progress. The Islamists’ ideal world comes about and endures only by bringing back the Dark Ages, the age of physical and intellectual enslavement of mankind, of worshippers of a god who, as Bernard Shaw put it, “was conceived as a magnate keeping men and angels as Lord Rothschild keeps buffaloes and emus at Tring.” This god had put the Earth at the centre of a small universe and released man on it, an overlord who amused himself by controlling every aspect of the life of his wretched creature and took pleasure in having him beheaded, burnt at the stake, stoned, mutilated and flogged for the slightest subordination and digression from the rules that temporal and spiritual princes promulgated and executed in god’s name.

That is not the God of the modern age, the overseer of a universe so vast, so magnificent that the minute part of it thus far known to man fills his heart with awe and wonder and the desire to explore. This God abhors ignorance. His religion does not subdue and enslave, it liberates and liberalizes.

 Ideological war of attrition

This modern perception of religion is opposed to the Islamists’ representation of faith and its role in human life. To the Islamist, religion should kill man’s instinct for betterment and condemn him to mental and material stagnation in a distorted replication of some bygone age. The Islamists who call for return to early years of Islam, present their ideal community as one under restrictive laws and violent punishments with individuals who did nothing but kill the infidels and perform religious obligations in constant fear of retribution for the slightest oversight. There is no valid evidence to prove that the Prophet’s contemporaries lived in such conditions instead of enjoying life to the full within the norms and customs of their time. But more importantly, no matter how people lived in those centuries ago, it is surely sacrilege for a Muslim to hold that his Prophet wanted the same conditions to prevail forever but failing in this presumed mission, left it to the Islamists of our age to take his people back in time.

The alternative notion of restoring the Golden Age of universal Caliphate is no less absurd. It is true that a few centuries into the history of Islam, Muslims proselytizers had managed to create a super-state which dominated the world in arts and sciences and political and military prowess. But that super-state was the home of culturally and ethnically diverse peoples who enjoyed a degree of freedom of thought and expression not to be witnessed again until the advent of the age of enlightenment. Contemporary records speak of candid exchanges of philosophical, moral and religious views some of which would enrage even moderate Islamists of today. The Golden Age was lost not because the authorities failed to suppress minds and punish bodies, it declined when political and religious interests joined forces to plunge the Muslim community into the darkness of religious dogmatism and intellectual intolerance. And centuries of stagnation.  

The Islamist ideology of IS may not stand up to rational scrutiny and historical evidence, but it is a masterpiece of crude, populist propaganda. It promises pre-eminence in this world and indescribable pleasure in the other to entice the unsophisticated, easily persuaded mind. And therein lies its success as well as the challenge that the world faces in countering it. Because the civilized world may defeat the IS in the battlefield, but without loosening its ideological hold, there is no certainty that it will not re-emerge in a new, even more sinister form.

Among the followers of the IS are those who are there because elsewhere, they cannot find better prospects of material power and plenty, precarious and meagre though they may seem to us. These will be easily scattered in face of military defeat and material deprivation. But many have joined out of faith.  These are mainly young people whose innocent minds and unrealistic dreams are manipulated with cold-blooded subtlety. To win them back is impossible without waging a war of attrition on the ideological and political fronts. 

Over the past year, efforts have been made, especially in countries with sizeable Muslim communities, to acquaint young Muslims with the realities of their religion and its history. This is useful, but perhaps not sufficient. It takes more than reiterating articles of faith to overcome the zeal, the excitement that IS ideology inspires in a young, devout heart.

A holistic, totalitarian ideology that demands total intellectual submission and physical commitment is received only by those who are prepared to host and serve a single cause to the exclusion of all else. Following the IS is a calling so restrictive, so demanding that it can only appeal to those for whom religion has become an obsession. To immunize young Muslims against IS propaganda, it is necessary to address this problem, to remind the young that although religion can have a positive function in the social and private life of the believer, it is not meant to take complete possession of body and soul and kill off all other needs and feelings. They must also learn that Islam is the best religion for the Muslim believer, but other religions and creeds are the same for their adherents as shown by centuries of religious and sectarian polemics and conflict. And of course, the neglected Koranic injunction that “There is no compulsion in the religion.”

Moreover, many of those joining or supporting the IS have been brainwashed into believing that the social, political and economic norms and values of our age come from and belong to the West and have nothing to do with Muslims and their heritage. This is untrue and intended to alienate and create animosity. Regardless of its appearance, the dominant culture of our age is constructed of materials contributed by many cultures and civilizations, including Muslims in the course of time. It the common inheritance of mankind.

Apart from the ideological war on the IS, it is necessary to remove the fertile ground where similar, perhaps even more pernicious groups can take roots in the future. Over recent decades, the Middle East has been the birth place of extremist ideologies because extremism takes roots where freedom of thought and expression is absent and injustice, or perceived injustice is not addressed. Today, the Middle East hosts the largest bloc of undemocratic, oppressive regimes. And as the treatment of the Arab Spring showed, they have no qualms about rising and uniting against democratic aspirations of their people. The IS has set in motion a devastating trend that may continue in this or that form as long as it finds a fertile breeding ground.

Power that corrupts

The declared objective of Islamists has been to bring unity and power to Muslims and elevate their religion to a model for the world to follow. Ironically, they have only succeeded in creating political strife and sectarian division in the Islamic world, tarnishing the image of Islam and making Muslims the object of suspicion and misgiving. Of course, it is easy to identify Islam with Islamists and associate it with violence and reaction, but that would be blaming Christianity, the religion of love and tolerance, for the cruelty of the princes of the medieval Church and Buddhism, with its message of peace, for instances of ethnic violence. 

It is in the nature of religion to impart a sense of privilege and superiority. In the realm of spiritual enrichment, these bestow love and compassion. But manipulated for worldly gain and political power, they breed prejudice, bigotry and brutality. If the IS and its ideology have taught us one lesson, it is that power corrupts those who wield it as well as their ideas and ideologies.


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