With over 1.6 billion followers, one third of them living as minorities, Islam is a major force in the world today. An active factor in international relations, its influence is far from local or confined to countries and communities classified as “Muslim.” With the presence of Muslims in Western capitals and the rapid diffusion of mass-communication media, Islam has become a globalized subject, albeit one largely viewed through the prism of security and intelligence. Amidst the rise of al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist groups, it has become increasingly perceived in Europe and the U.S. as a generator of crises and a threat to global stability and security.
In spite of the deluge of images and narratives of Islam that has flooded the public space since September 11th, knowledge and understanding of the subject has remained limited. Few know the enormous diversity of the Muslim world and its societies, on the levels of schools of thought, religious interpretations, or sectarian pluralism. Fewer still realize that there exists no uniform Islam but divergent tendencies fostered and promoted by the general political climates where different Muslim communities happen to find themselves.
It is such conditions that define the form of Islam that gains prevalence in a given historical context. Like any other major religion, Islam has been in its past, and continues to be in the present, subject to multiple strategies of interpretation. In general terms, we can speak of three prominent trends competing over the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world today.
The first is theocratic, at the service of absolutist rulers for whom Islam is a means of acquiring a de facto authority wrested by the force of the sword and hereditary succession, above any checks and restraints, and free of any accountability. This Islam is armed with its network of institutions, funds, and functionaries. The essence of religion as an authentic spiritual experience is irrelevant here. What matters are the rituals and outward forms of religiosity as the source of power legitimation. Religion is a mere obedient and obliging servant of the ruler, his interests and whims. In the Arabian Peninsula, a Wahhabism wedded to rule by the sword represents the clearest embodiment of this form of Islam.
Its proponents are as eager to exhibit the ritualist and formalistic aspects of Islam in a crudely interventionist way, such as the imposition of prayer, the segregation of men and women and enforcement of the niqab, as they are to keep it remote from politics and the realms of power and authority. As soon as these taboos are touched, the religious establishment, with its guardians of the sacred army comprising official scholars, clergymen and preachers, springs into action, denouncing the culprits as deviant and unorthodox, thereby furnishing the religious cover for their silencing, oppression and elimination.
The second strategy is as morally absolutist, dogmatic, legalistic and exclusionary as the first but espouses a different type of politics. It is an anarchist form of Wahhabism. It feeds on the climates of crisis, wars and conflicts raging in Muslim lands and seeks a source of justification for the perpetration of violence and terror in the theology of Islam.
This minority current had been isolated in Khandahar and the distant mountains of Tora Bora. But the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and widening circle of political, sectarian and ethnic conflicts has strengthened it and enabled it to resonate with growing sectors of angry, anxious and disillusioned Muslim youth. The Arab awakening, which gave people in the region hope of the possibility of peaceful political change, had dealt a powerful blow to this tendency.
But as its great aspirations were crushed under the boots of generals in Egypt, burnt in the furnace of civil wars in Libya and drowned in the bloodshed of Syria, this violent anarchist current gained fresh momentum and rose to the forefront once more. For all its noise and the enormous exposure it receives, however, it still fails to command religious legitimacy or acceptance in the eyes of most Muslims, who still dismiss it as religiously deviant and politically counterproductive, damaging to the image of Islam and the stability of Muslim societies.
The presence of such extremist groups and the extent of their influence depend to a large extent on the general political climates prevailing in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, these conditions, particularly those reigning in the Arab hemisphere, show no sign of rehabilitation or stabilization.
These two trends are at loggerheads with democratic modernist Islam, whose roots lie in the 19th-century Islamic reform movement founded by Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Mohamed Abdu, which revolves around the notion of compatibility between, on the one hand, Islamic spiritual and religious values and, on the other, what it describes as the “requisites” of modern times. These include the imposition of checks and balances on power, the adoption of democratic mechanisms and procedures, and the emancipation of Islam from what proponents of this reformist school describe as the “prison of stagnation and imitation.”
With the advent of modernization, urbanization and mass education, this current has amassed considerable influence in Muslim societies (and later among Muslim minorities). Today, it is under pressure from multiple quarters. One of these is the theocratic camp, which considers the very presence of an Islam that calls for restrictions on the authority of rulers and respect for the will of the people, expressed through electoral democracy, a direct threat to its existence. This explains the unrelenting war waged by certain Gulf states on the wave of democratic change in the Arab region for the last three years.
Alongside pressures from Arab theocracies, democratic Islam is challenged by Salafi jihadists who dismiss it as “diluted,” “soft” and “naive,” pinning its hopes on peaceful protests and ballot boxes, which, unlike armed warfare, lead nowhere.
And beyond the Muslim landscape, this brand of Islam is viewed with mistrust by many in American decision-making circles and across the Atlantic. In the name of realism and pragmatism, these prefer to deal with rulers who, though authoritarian and ruthless with their masses, are pliant and willing to leave their markets wide open for Euro-American goods and squander billions in their nations’ resources on weapons no one else would buy. These are, therefore, infinitely preferable to elected leaders bound by the will of their people and committed to their interests.
Those who call for the reformation and democratization of Islam seem to miss an essential fact: that a democratic reformist Islam has existed since the 19th century. It has its own literal body, pioneers, and thinkers, within both Shia and Sunni Islam. The question is: Does the situation of present-day Muslim society, marked by crisis, tensions, foreign interventions and political despotism, foster this reformist democratic Islam, or does it promote its violent and theocratic rivals?
Rather than sifting through Muslims’ religious texts, theological tracts and medieval polemical disputes, those agonizing over the “problem” of Islam would do well to ponder the concrete reality of real, living Muslims and seek to fix it rather than striving to fix Islam.
This article was first published by the Huffington Post.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.