Islamism's turning point

Violent extremism is the antithesis of the Arab Spring, but how we handle the current crisis will decide its future

Published September 16, 2012 11:59AM (EDT)

Egyptian protesters sit in front of a tent decorated by a poster of Egypt's President-elect Mohammed Morsi in Tahrir Square in Cairo in June.    (AP/Amr Nabil)
Egyptian protesters sit in front of a tent decorated by a poster of Egypt's President-elect Mohammed Morsi in Tahrir Square in Cairo in June. (AP/Amr Nabil)

Excerpted from "Islam and the Arab Awakening"

Many of the intellectuals and researchers who have studied the Muslim majority societies have spoken of “Islams” to underscore the diversity of religious observance. However, the label is problematic religiously, and also in terms of what is subsumed by the notion of “Islamic civilization” itself. As Arab and Muslim societies have entered a phase of renewal, it is important to understand how unity and diversity function within the Islamic reference.

By way of prelude, in the body of Islamic teachings and prescriptions, there are certain source texts upon which all Muslims agree, be they Sunni or Shiite, Eastern or Western. Islam’s two scriptural sources (the Qur’an and the Prophetic tradition — the Sunna) are recognized by all schools of thought and constitute the bedrock of Islamic belief. From these sources a number of principles and practices have been extracted and categorized, and they constitute the core of Islamic teachings, upon which all traditions and schools of jurisprudence agree: the six pillars of faith (arkân al-imân) that constitute the creed (al-aqîda) and the five pillars of Islam (arkân al-islâm) that detail the rituals (‘ibadât: prayer, fasting, etc.). Taken together, these elements, along with obligations and prohibitions (regarding food, drink, behavior, etc.), represent the core of Islam for all the world’s Muslims: it is thus entirely legitimate to speak of one Islam on the primary religious level.

How then to account for the diversity? It is manifested at a second level; in the way the two scriptural sources — the Qur’an and the Sunna — are read and interpreted. Though Muslim scholars are unanimous on the structure and the categorization of the basic principles (the four fields listed above: scriptural sources, the pillars of faith, the pillars of Islam, and the main obligations and prohibitions), they differ widely in their interpretation of the texts and in secondary principles. Apart from the two main traditions, Sunni and Shiite, more than 30 legal schools (including both Sunni and Shiite traditions) have existed over the course of Muslim history, arising from a multiplicity of legal interpretations (fundamentals aside). Diversity also flourishes in the process of interpretation itself: there are traditionalist, literalist, reformist, rationalist, Sufi, or political trends, none of which are mutually exclusive. A Muslim can be literalist and political, reformist and Sufi, for example. How far removed from the binary opposition of “good Muslims/bad Muslim” or “moderate Muslim/fundamentalist Muslim.” Reality is far more complex. If Islam is a unified whole with regard to its basic principles, countless interpretations exist as to secondary prescriptions and to the objectives attributed to the texts themselves.

Yet another level of diversity exists. Muslims have, over time, settled in different lands and encountered new cultures. Numerous elements from these cultures have been integrated into the Islamic reference, invoking the legal ruling that governs social and cultural affairs: “The primary principle (in these fields) is permission.” There is, then, a variety of cultures nurtured by Islamic principles, each of which powerfully influences the way these principles are lived and implemented  — while, of course, the fundamentals remain unchanged the world over. The dynamic operates in both directions. African, Middle Eastern, Asian, and today, American and European cultures constitute a second level of diversity at the heart of Islam itself. What is meant by the concept of “Islamic civilization” is precisely this: one single Islam, a diversity of interpretations, and a plurality of cultures. The same body of references and values nurtures the diversity of interpretation, or cultural and artistic expression. “Islamic civilization” can be seen as a single, fundamental religious reference expressed diversely through different historical periods, intellectual perspectives, and cultures.

Though awareness of Islamic diversity may not be widespread, it is relatively easy to acknowledge the diversity of Muslims — traditionalists or rationalists, reformists or Sufis — the better to understand that Islam, as a religion, cannot be reduced to the behavior of one or of a small group of its faithful. Everything changes however, when it comes to the study or consideration of political Islam, seen as a monolithic category that represents — a fortiori since September 2001 — radical Islam and violent extremism. The oversimplification is as dangerous as it is frequent; in its reductionism, it fails to assign concepts and dynamics their just place in history, depriving them of the contexts that lend them meaning and justification.

The elements that were to shape contemporary political Islam appeared in the late nineteenth century. Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (1838–1897) and Muhammad ’Abduh (1849–1905), two reformist thinkers operating respectively in Turkey and Egypt, from the 1870s onward, strove to conceptualize alternatives at the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and of (primarily British) colonialism. The Islamic reference appeared to them to be the key factor that would enable them to break free from foreign domination. The solution would be a return to the Qur’an. Using the rich, open Islamic tradition of independent legal reasoning (ijtihâd), national languages (Turkish, Arabic, or others) would be revitalized; the people would be educated according to their own spiritual and intellectual references, combined with scientific knowledge and philosophy; and the division of Muslim nations would be rejected in the struggle against cultural and political colonialism.

The reformers’ vision, at once pan-Islamic and fiercely anti-colonial, was to have a powerful impact on twentieth-century Islamic thought. Principal among the thinkers who followed were the Syrian Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1855–1902), the Lebanese-Egyptian Muhammad Rashid Reda (1865–1935), the Turk Said Nursi (1878–1960), the Algerian Abd al-Hamid Ben Badis (1889–1940), the Tunisian Muhammad Tahar Ibn Ashur (1879–1973), the Indo-Pakistani Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), and later, the Moroccan Muhammad Allal El-Fassi (1910–1974). Their path was to adopt a strictly religious approach (by proposing to follow reformist paths), to educate both the general population and the elites (by doing so methodically), or, on the political level, to struggle against British, French, Italian, or other forms of colonialism. In the eyes of these thinkers, Muslims had to rediscover the living force of their religious teachings, to develop a critical outlook and to free themselves from the alienation produced by colonialism. In this sense, Islam as a religion was called upon to play a key role in the liberation and the political, cultural, and economic future of the Muslim majority countries. It would also act as a unifying factor against the divisions imposed by the colonial powers.

With his creation of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna (1906– 1949) gave sharper definition to what would come to be known as “political Islam” on “Islamism.” Profoundly influenced by the first generation of reformist thinkers, he threw himself into the re-Islamization of his country — Egypt — first at the local level, and then in resistance to colonialism, participating in anti-British demonstrations at age thirteen, in 1919. In 1928, four years after the abolition of the spiritual caliphate exercised by the Ottoman Empire, he created the Muslim Brotherhood, assigning to it quite specific objectives: a return to Islam, programs of mass education, social and economic reform, implementing Islamic legislation, and, in the long run, setting up an “Islamic state,” something that could happen only after the departure of the British. His thought transcended national boundaries: the Muslim Brotherhood (which saw itself as a Sufi order as much as a solidarity-based social and educational organization, without defining itself as a political party) quickly acquired affiliated branches in the Sudan, then Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, where members of the Brotherhood had been dispatched to oppose and to resist Zionist designs. The intellectual and ideological ingredients that were to define contemporary political Islam were all in place before the Muslim Brotherhood was founded, but it successfully united them around its organizational structure and program. By the late 1940s it had as many as 1.5 million members, supporters, and sympathizers.

From its inception, the philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood was nonviolent and legalist. Hassan al-Banna was determined to work within the framework of the law and rejected those suspected of committing acts of violence in the organization’s name, particularly in the assassination of a judge, or of Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Noqrashi Pasha in January 1949. About the killers he wrote: “They are not Muslims, they are not Brothers.” He set up a “special organization” with the twofold objective of responding to state repression, seen as masterminded by the British colonialists who pulled the strings behind King Faruk (Hassan al-Banna threatened the British that he would call upon the people to rise up if they did not leave Egypt), and taking part in the resistance alongside the Palestinians (the game played by the British, who had concluded secret agreements with Zionist terrorist groups, was more than ambiguous).

Such is the context, that of social struggle and resistance to colonialism, in which the birth of political Islam and of the Muslim Brotherhood must be placed. In both its principles and its actions, the organization would remain nonviolent until the early 1960s. Slogans that invoked the Qur’an as a constitution, jihad as resistance, or martyrdom as the supreme ambition of action must be understood in the context of the anti-colonial struggle. Similar slogans, with similar messianic tones, can be found throughout the global South in Christian, Muslim, Marxist, or, more broadly, atheist resistance movements.

Political Islam was not monolithic. The initial signs of dissension appeared after the first crackdowns and after the imprisonment and torture that younger militants saw as proof that the legalist strategy had failed. After the coup d’etat staged by the Free Officers Movement in Egypt (1952), Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970) began his ascension to power. Drawing support from the mass base of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which he was a member, he ousted General Mohamed Naguib on November 14, 1954, consolidated his power, and began to suppress former allies who had now become his opponents. Several Muslim Brotherhood leaders were executed; thousands were jailed. In Egypt’s prisons bitter debates raged, divisions deepened: How could the disaster be explained? What religious stance should be adopted toward the new rulers? The British colonialists had been non-Muslim usurpers, but what of Nasser? Could he still be considered a Muslim after having other Muslims (not all members of the Muslim Brotherhood) executed and tortured?

The younger — and more radicalized — had come to feel that the true Muslims were those who had been imprisoned, repressed, or executed, and that Nasser was a tyrant, no more a Muslim than his supporters: a view the first generation of Muslim Brothers, rallying around new guide Hassan al-Hudaybi (the successor to al-Banna), himself imprisoned, did not share. They asserted that Nasser, along with all the oppressive elements and their Islam and the Arab Awakening allies, active or passive, direct or indirect, were and remained Muslims (muslimûn) while they, who were suffering imprisonment for the social and political goals, defined themselves as Islamists (islamiyyun). The distinction is a critical one: the first generation of Muslim Brothers refused to claim affiliation to Islam for themselves alone, at the risk of casting “outside of Islam” those who did not agree with them. Whatever their political positions and moral lapses, individuals must not be excommunicated (takfir): such a judgment lay with God alone, never with men. Contemporary use of the concept of “Islamism” by its protagonists themselves can be said to have originated in the debates that took place in Nasser’s prisons. For them, it was a matter of distinguishing themselves — the “Islamists,” as defined by their social, cultural, and political agenda — from “ordinary” Muslims who remained Muslims even in spite of their relatively low political awareness and relative laxity in the practice of their faith. Clearly this was no mere semantic argument as it involved critical theological and legal criteria that decided who was a Muslim and who was not.

Within the Muslim Brotherhood itself, where several trends of thought co-existed, the decisive split was not long in coming. The organization’s Guide, Hassan al-Hudaybi, laid out the Brotherhood’s historical position in a book explicitly titled: “[We are] preachers, not judges.” It was meant as a reply to the younger generation, which had only recently joined the movement (just before the Free Officers Revolution, during the repression and after the death of Hassan al-Banna) and could no longer accept imprisonment and torture. They were drawn to the thought of Sayyid Qutb, who had joined the Brotherhood in 1951 and whose positions were harsher and more radical. According to him, there could be only two alternatives: societies founded on Islam, and those of jahiliyya (the pre-Islamic period of ignorance). A “true believer” could not choose the latter without risking the loss of his status as a Muslim. The Brotherhood had thus come to comprise trends ranging from fidelity to the organization’s original, legalistic tradition to the radicalization that followed Nasser’s repression in the early 1950s. Some, disheartened, left the organization and/or founded new Islamist groups: al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Groups), Tanzim at-Takfir (Order of Anathema), Takfir wa-Hijra (Anathema and Exile), Tanzim al-Jihad al-Islam (Order of Islamic Jihad), and others. They may have agreed on objectives, but their understanding of Islam and their methods of action displayed fundamental differences.

The brief overview of the early decades of political Islam is richly instructive. Islamism began as a legalist, nonviolent movement based on a strategy of reform from the bottom up (educating the masses), the ultimate aim of which was to transform the “top” (reform society and change the structure of the state). Failure and repression brought about changes. Goals and methods were rethought. Analysis points to two key conclusions: first, the organizations themselves changed from within in response to historical shifts; second, the diversity of outlooks was such that it would be wrong to posit Islamism as a monolithic whole. The same internal divisions and diversity of views are likewise present in all Muslim majority countries: in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, and others.

Though political Islam displays common features, Islamist movements are themselves extremely diverse, and must be studied in their diversity. Broadly speaking, seven contentious questions have frequently caused tension and splits among different Islamist tendencies: (1) the definition of who is a Muslim and of that person’s rights; (2) the use of violence: the majority of the world’s Islamist organizations are legalist and nonviolent, while some have legitimized the use of violence to overthrow a tyrant; (3) the definition of shari'a: Is it a closed legal or an open corpus of principles potentially compatible with foreign references, such as democracy, which some Islamists accept while others do not; (4) the issue of whether an Islamist political party should be created or retain the status of a religious and social organization (a question that has preoccupied, if not undermined, virtually every Islamist trend); (5) the role of women in the organization as well as in Muslim majority societies (some trends remain very conservative, others are more open); (6) relations with people of other beliefs (or no belief) within society: their presence, their role, their involvement; (7) relations with the West: Are there other options than opposition?

Debate has often been intense; disagreements sharp. Islamist groups have frequently been at odds. Among them the same fault lines that exist in Christian political organizations can be observed: trends that range from something similar to Liberation theology (to the left of the traditional political spectrum), Christian democracy (of the left or the right, depending on the country), and conservative and/or fundamentalist movements (clearly on the right). To reduce political Christianity or political Judaism to a single ideology or a single political stance would be a glaring analytical error. The same applies to Islamism, which must be defined, contextualized, and analyzed on a case-by-case basis, by organization and by country.

There is not an Islamist current that has not undergone changes, even radical ones, over time. In this respect, Islamist organizations are like all political ideologies and their supporters: they resemble one another in that their Islam and the Arab Awakening understanding of issues, political priorities, bargaining power, and, of course, opportunities tends to shift according to circumstances. Even the most radical groups, whose objective was once national liberation, have revised their strategies. In fact, one of the characteristics common to all such movements was that they might — like the Muslim Brotherhood — have branches in different countries, but their methods, priorities, and objectives were for all intents and purposes set at the national level. Seen from this perspective, al-Qaeda (whose ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri first criticized then opposed the Muslim Brotherhood because, he claimed, it had “betrayed the cause of Islam”) made a qualitative leap in its approach, beginning in the late 1990s. The assassination of Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981, by Lieutenant Khaled al-Islambuli (leading a group of men who were all members of Tanzim al-Jihad al-Islami) brought Hosni Mubarak to power. He immediately declared a state of emergency that was to last for thirty years, until his resignation in February 2011. Throughout his rule, his policies were to prove harsher than his predecessor’s. Ayman al-Zawahiri would repeatedly explain why it was necessary to favor global jihad: the point was not to unseat a despot, whether in Egypt, Tunisia, or elsewhere (at the risk of installing a successor who is far worse), but to strike those who manipulated the autocrats as if they were playthings, that is, the United States and Europe. The al-Qaeda position is a marginal one at best; it has come in for denunciation by virtually all other Islamist groups and movements. But it was successful in attracting individuals who have acted through clandestine cells in Muslim majority societies, in religious communities in the West, and even within structured Islamist organizations in many countries.

The Arab awakening has shown how far removed such movements are from young people’s concerns and aspirations. In fact, the Islamism of violent extremism is the antithesis of the nonviolent movements that swept the Arab world. Those who rose up did so in the name of justice and freedom, against dictatorship and corruption, in a resolutely nonviolent manner and without taking an anti-Western position. Many young people belonging to other Islamist trends took part in the mass protests, sometimes against the wishes of the hierarchy, which either held them back or rejected the terms of participation. In the Islamist parties and organizations themselves, tension between generations and differing interpretations of the popular uprisings brought to light real divisions previously concealed by the unity necessitated by resistance to dictatorship. The reference to Islam and the role of the Islamists have touched off debate in every Arab country where uprisings have shaken old structures to the core. Some commentators, like Olivier Roy, even speak of Islam, Islamism, “post-Islamist revolutions;” 16 others see them as a “third age” of Islamism, as exemplified by the rise of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Party; others have suspended judgment, fearing that the Islamists have remained the same and may seize control of the revolutions to their own advantage. No one can predict the future. But it is clear that every Islamist current in the Arab world is going through a crucial period in its history. The way each movement handles the crisis will largely determine its future.

Reprinted from "ISLAM AND THE ARAB AWAKENING" by Tariq Ramadan with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc.  Copyright © 2012 by Tariq Ramadan.

By Tariq Ramadan

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