Politics, not theology, at the root of Islamist ideology


New national security adviser H.R. McMaster is setting a strikingly different tone to discussions on countering violent extremism by saying the term “radical Islamic terrorism” isn’t helpful for US goals, CNN reports:

At an all-hands meeting of the National Security Council on Thursday, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said jihadist terrorists aren’t true to their professed religion and that the use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” doesn’t help the US in working with allies to defeat terrorist groups, an official present at the session confirmed to CNN. The phrase is unhelpful because terrorist organizations like ISIS represent a perversion of Islam, and are thus un-Islamic, McMaster said, according to a source who attended the meeting.

“McMaster, like Obama, is someone who was in positions of leadership and thought the United States should not play into the jihadist propaganda that this is a religious war,” said William McCants, directs the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World and is the author of The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.

McMaster spent much of his career fighting and winning wars in the Middle East, which required him to know the local cultures and treat Muslims like humans rather than scripturally programmed robots, McCants writes for POLITICO.

“He absolutely does not view Islam as the enemy,” said Pete Mansoor, who served with McMaster in Iraq. “He understands that the world is not one dimensional, that the Muslim world is not one dimensional,” said John Nagl, who also served with McMaster. In other words, the complicated causes of terrorism require complicated solutions.

In a speech at the Carnegie Council in 2014, McMaster said that the United States must partner with people in Muslim-majority countries to defeat groups like the Islamic State, describing them as “the people who are suffering the most” from terrorism, analysts Zaid Jilani and Murtaza Hussain write for The Intercept. McMaster added that to win such conflicts, U.S. forces must understand the history and social dynamics of the countries it is fighting in, as well as have “empathy for the people among whom these wars are fought.”

His views are at odds with the argument that the “global jihadi movement [is based on] a modern totalitarian ideology rooted in the doctrines and martial history of Islam.”

Groups like ISIL, “use this irreligious ideology….this perverted interpretation of religion to justify violence,” McMaster told the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Politics, not theology, is at the root of Islamism, said Francois Burgat, presenting his latest book, Comprendre l’islam politique (Understanding Political Islam):

According to Burgat, political Islam as an ideological concept has to be rationally explained, rather than looked at through the lenses of secularist, Western values and the mainstream media….Moreover, the debate about Political Islam in Europe, and to a lesser extent in the Muslim world, has been very polarised, he noted, adding that “we should look” for the root of the problem and not its manifestations. 

If their past campaigns are anything to go by, the primary objective of anti-Muslim ideologues may be “to exploit the high profile spaces afforded by democratic processes and institutions for propaganda purposes, thus nudging mainstream perspectives toward their own worldview,” argues Cherian George, the author of Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and its Threat to Democracy (MIT Press, 2016). “The actual implementation or enforcement of whatever policy they’ve been agitating for may be a secondary concern,” she writes for Open Democracy.

That Islam’s liberal moment came juddering to a halt in 1914 is a little-known tragedy, argues Christophe de Bellaigue, author of The Islamic Enlightenment:

In the first decade of the 20th century, Iranian and Turkish democrats had launched revolutions establishing parliamentary systems that limited the powers of the ruler — a similar movement in favour of popular sovereignty in Egypt had been thwarted by the British occupation two decades earlier. But war laid waste to the region and the British and French chopped up much of the former Ottoman Empire into mandate-sized chunks. Egypt stayed under British supervision, while in Iran and Turkey the powers were only kept at bay by new regimes that westernised furiously along Roman lines (Mussolini was the model), not Jeffersonian ones.

Throughout the 19th century and beyond, Muslim thinkers, emphasizing Islam as a civilization as well as a religion, sought to upgrade their culture and recapture its old élan, The FT’s David Gardner adds:

A central idea….is that modern ideas and values now considered universal existed in embryonic form in early Islam. This was the genius of Islam. That Janus-like looking backward as well as forward easily detoured into defensive ideologies of resistance, including Islamist extremism, under pressure from the European powers that thrust into Muslim lands in the 19th and 20th centuries….

De Bellaigue writes of the 19th-century Egyptian intellectual Rifaa al-Tahtawi that “five years in France convinced him of the need for European sciences and technologies to be introduced into the Islamic world, but he chose not to enquire about the link between a free intellect and a free spirit, or whether the inquisitiveness he admired in the French people might be in some way connected to their quest for political liberty”.

The emergence of Islamist political parties after the Arab Spring became a noticeable trend in the Arab world, the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy reports. Many wondered what the implications for women’s causes would be when arbitrated within the framework of Islamist principles, it adds, examining the positions of two highly visible Islamist parties — Al-Nahda in Tunisia and the Justice and Development Party in Morocco — on the criminalization of domestic violence:

A 2009 survey conducted by the Moroccan High Commission for Planning found that among women aged 18-65, 62.8 percent reported experiencing domestic violence. In response to both these numbers and more than three decades of advocacy led by women’s groups, two ministries — the Ministry of Solidarity, Women, Family and Social Development and the Ministry of Justice and Liberties — created a draft law and placed it before the general secretariat in September 2013. Due to criticism from women’s groups of the inadequacy of the scope of definition and protections provided under the proposed law, Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane placed the law under a direct commission to be revised, and it was presented before the general secretariat yet again in July 2016, according to Hanane Zelouani Idrissi [right], a Washington, D.C.-based civil society expert and researcher on women’s issues in the MENA region.

Can Islam make its peace with liberal democracy, as Christianity and other religions did after their own illiberal ages? The CATO institute asks. Or is there something different about Islam, making it inherently incompatible with a secular government and a free society? Mustafa Akyol, a longtime defender of “Islamic liberalism,” is optimistic. Shadi Hamid is more pessimistic, arguing that Islam is “exceptional,” in the sense of being essentially resistant to liberalism. RTWT

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