Islam and Islamism
Some comments from a reader and a reply
by Cornelius Conwell


Following the article “Christians in a Secular Europe” (Issue 7, January 2005) AfP received the following comments via e-mail:
Dear Sirs,
Although on the whole I applaud Cornelius Conwell's excellent article "Christians in a Secular Europe" in issue no. 7, I feel I ought to point out the unhelpful inaccuracy in his statement: "This characterises, for example, many Islamist groups' rejection of democracy, sexual equality, the rhetoric about converting the whole world to Islam by violent jihad, etc."
JIHAD, properly understood, is not a term which can ever be used in the context of (violently) converting others to Islam. The word, which means "struggle" or "defence", is an obligation of all Muslims to preserve the integrity of their faith and their relationship with God against hostile forces which may try to oppress it. This manifests itself in a number of ways: speaking out positively for one's faith; resisting the temptations of the secular world and staying true to God's commands; it may also be interpreted to mean taking up arms against those who threaten or seek to destroy the way of life of a Muslim community.
This is the context in which Islamic fundamentalists use the word to describe what the Western media regularly mistranslates as "holy war". From the Muslim perspective, the act is not an offensive one, but a DEFENSIVE one. Thus, even the most extreme followers of Osama bin Laden justify their way of exercising jihad as an attempt to repel imperialist non-Muslims from the exploitation of the holy ground of Arabia and the enslavement of the people there to a corrupt and materialistic way of life with no foundation in the values of the Qu'ran.
The notion of jihad as a violent, offensive action may be one that is encouraged by certain militant Islamists, but it does not reflect the reality of jihad and it simply plays into the hands of the extremists when the Western media continue to propagate this myth.
I would be grateful if you could pass my feedback on to the author of what was otherwise an excellent and highly thought-provoking article.
Cornelius Conwell replies:
I am grateful for these comments e-mailed to us by a reader. They raise some interesting issues.
Let me say first of all I am in no sense an expert on the content or the complexities of the Muslim faith per se. However my brief remarks in the article in question concerned the activities of fundamentalist groups who claim to be motivated by commitment to Islam and not what one might call the theological-spiritual core of the Muslim faith.
The context was a discussion of the ways in which religious faith may be distorted to serve separate social or political objectives and alongside the example of Islamism I cited American Evangelical fundamentalism and the rather chauvinistic form of Buddhism which has arisen in Sri Lanka in dispute with the Tamil minority. My simple contention was that many, if not all, religions, have been, and are, prone to political misuse at one time or another, and that we should distinguish the religions themselves from their occasionally distorted representations.
Perhaps the reader and I are speaking at cross-purposes. Of course I agree with him (and against the arguments of many secularist propagandists) that religiously-motivated violence is a travesty of the true nature of Islam which acknowledges the fundamental solidarity of the human race and promotes an ethic of compassion and non-violence. No doubt the basic religious meaning of jihad is indeed as he defines it. Politically, however, the important fact is that his theologically correct definition is not shared by the minority of violent fundamentalists.
In similar ways adherents of Christianity have often departed from the heart of the gospel message, and for similar reasons: true Christianity prohibits the kind of pillage and murder, and the underlying refusal to recognise the human status of the victims, which has often received the blessing of church authorities.
Christ said: "Blessed are the peacemakers", and "whoever lives by the sword shall die by the sword" - but these statements were not interpreted as an obstacle, for example, to the colonial predations of the "Christian" European rulers who conquered South and Central America. And today, Evangelical Christian George W. Bush and his religious advisors entertain their own version of Christianity – a civic religion designed to permit and bless their economic and geo-political goals.
In the face of actual history it is no good simply arguing that the true message of Christ "can never be used" to justify violence. The fact is that in the era of Christian Europe the plunder of defenceless populations was legitimised as a form of evangelisation, while today nominally Christian political leaders, especially in America, use a quasi-religious rhetoric about the battle between good and evil to justify foreign policy decisions determined by fairly obvious this-worldly motives. The bizarre mixture of self-righteousness, ignorance and paranoid rage which is evident in many American Christian internet discussion groups testifies to the success of the “civic religion” model of Christianity in the United States.
I would add that I am not altogether convinced by the definition of jihad as a defensive (as opposed to offensive) reaction against "those who threaten or seek to destroy the way of life of a Muslim community". The issue here is wider than the definition of a single term.
Anti-imperialism, for instance - a "defensive" posture – has certainly been a formative influence in many Islamist movements in the Middle East and Africa. But another basic feature of political Islam, stretching back to the early years of the 20th century, is its refusal to acknowledge any separation between religion and politics.
Thus militant Islamist groups aim to implement a programme of "Islamization" - an "offensive" posture - which draws guidance for civil and criminal law, education, welfare, and indeed every aspect of social and political life, from the Koran. This is inevitably a totalitarian project. Its advocates reject not only western imperialism but also the whole concept of a secular, pluralist social order (which I was defending in my original article) and the ideas of civil rights and freedoms associated with the European liberal tradition. Nor is it irrelevant to mention the Islamist movements' historic hostility towards socialism and their resistance of any class analysis of society.
Here I am thinking of, for example, the introduction of sharia-based laws by the National Islamic Front in Sudan and the Muslim parties at state level in northern Nigeria. Real problems - ethnic and regional divisions, often the legacy of previous imperial rule, and the widespread poverty exacerbated by IMF austerity and privatisation programmes - will never be solved by the draconian punitive laws now being imposed for religious offences ranging from adultery to brewing alcohol. A far more progressive alternative would involve a political analysis of the workings of the global economy, identifying its beneficiaries and attempting to strengthen the bonds of global solidarity among its victims, transcending divisive notions of identity based on nationality, race or creed.
I would advance a similar argument with regard to the countries of the Middle East, where, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, historically set themselves the task of promoting the “Islamic state” in opposition to all secular movements: pan-Arabism, nationalism, democracy, and of course any attempts by left-wing parties to draw the native working-class into the internationalist socialist cause. The capacity of these militant groups to divide and divert the population at large made them the recipients of funding and support from Saudi Arabia, Syria and even, in some cases, the Israeli government itself, in its desire to weaken the Palestinian Authority and the P.L.O.
I agree that corporate media coverage of relations between the West and the countries of the Middle East is full of self-serving Western mythology and faulty contextualisation, but this should not blind us to the brutal, reactionary character of Islamist terrorism, which offers no progressive or constructive social vision to the millions of Muslim whose interests it claims to be defending.
The rhetoric of violent jihad is not primarily an invention of western politicians or the western news media, however convenient they now find the phenomenon of political Islam as a pretext for a new imperialism. On the contrary, the self-image of the groups mentioned above is hardly different from the picture drawn by anti-Islamic ideologues. Islamist fanatics and western propagandists both perpetuate the idea of a radical Islamic threat to the norms of liberal democratic society.
In his book Islam and the Myth of Confrontation, Professor Fred Halliday has written about a "convergence" or "mutual reinforcing" of stereotypes in this area. While I wouldn't agree with every statement Prof. Halliday makes in his book, if only because I think recent events have disproved some of his more sanguine conclusions, I believe he is basically correct to claim that "if there are myths about 'Islam', they are ones invented and propagated not just in the supposed hegemonic world of Europe and the USA but also within the supposedly dominated and oppressed arena of 'Islam' itself" (Halliday, p.110).
This applies particularly to individuals like Osama Bin Laden, mentioned in the reader’s comments as an opponent of "the exploitation of the holy ground of Arabia and the enslavement of the people there to a corrupt and materialistic way of life with no foundation in the values of the Qu'ran". Needless to say I think this is too generous an assessment of Bin Laden's intentions to say the least!
Bin Laden did not emerge from the ranks of the oppressed, but from the wealthiest and most privileged layer of Saudi royal society. Democratic, egalitarian ideas form no part of his professed political aims, which gravitate more towards the creation of a feudal Muslim theocracy. He revealed his personal callousness and inhumanity in the videotape released after the attack on the World Trade Centre, in which he gloated about the loss of life and joked about the ignorance of the men he himself had sent on a suicide mission.
Decades of colonial interference in the Middle East by the capitalist powers has of course been responsible for a far higher toll of suffering and death than anything the modern terrorist groups have accomplished. Neither should we forget the role of western governments in encouraging Islamic fundamentalism as a means of stifling emergent socialist currents. But in our revulsion from western imperialism let us not deceive ourselves as to the despairing, futile nature and the narrow, reactionary ends, of current Islamist movements.
I think Prof. Halliday expresses the general perspective which we must bear in mind when assessing the relationship between the Muslim faith and contemporary Islamist groups. He writes:
"The rise of Islamist movements and the invocation of Islam as a justification for political action do not represent some general, transhistorical phenomena; they reflect particular forces within specific societies in the contemporary world. In other words, they are a response to current problems, often of a social or political nature. Where Islamist movement arise, or where particular groups identify themselves primarily as 'Muslim', they are responding not to a timeless influence, but to the issues their societies and communities face today" (Halliday, p.118).
One final point: I was concerned in my original article to defend Cardinal Ratzinger from the charge of integrism, which we might define broadly as a rejection of religious pluralism and a conviction that every aspect of culture, politics and society should be somehow infused with Christian faith and morality, with other faiths and philosophies merely tolerated at best. There are conservative Catholics motivated by such a vision, and in their own way, many Protestant Evangelicals.
But integrist and triumphalist tendencies clearly exist within Islam also, and have intensified under the impact of the global political developments of the last thirty years. I mention only one example of a Muslim intellectual who appears to promote just such an Islamic integrism: Tariq Ramadan, the gifted, fluent, Geneva-based academic who believes that a reformist and "all-encompassing" Islam constitutes the highest stage of human religious development, the only coherent basis for universal human dignity and rights, and the only sound means of synthesising Christianity and humanism. Although perhaps more educated and sophisticated than the guerillas of the Islamic militant groups, Ramadan plainly envisages a wholly Islamicized society, and indeed has advised the Sudanese government in its attempts to create just such an entity.
Perhaps in my original article I did not distinguish clearly enough between Islam and Islamism thus giving rise to misinterpretation. But it is difficult to accept that my remarks constituted an “unhelpful inaccuracy”, in the reader’s phrase. Of course on the basic point that sincere practitioners of all religions should protest against the distortion of their core teachings, and especially against the use of religion to motivate violence and murder, we are hopefully in complete agreement!
(c.f. Fred Halliday, Islam and the Myth of Confrontation, I.B. Tauris and Co. Ltd., London 2003, especially Chapter 4, "Islam and the West; 'Threat of Islam' or 'Threat to Islam'".)