It is nine years since 9/11. Writers dwelling upon the rage of Islamists, and how to deal with it, have shed about as much ink in these years as their subjects have shed blood. Neither appears to be done.
“Radical Islam is the greatest threat facing the world today,” Tony Blair bellowed this month in a BBC interview, part of his promotion campaign for A Journey, a memoir about his days at 10 Downing Street. Much of the book is an attempt to justify the former British prime minister’s actions as a junior partner in the US-led war on terror, waged against alleged Islamist groups and regimes in the aftermath of 9/11.
His critics point out that the war only fed the rage of Islamists and led to a global spread—its most recent example being a triple-bombing in Lahore, Pakistan, a day before Blair’s interview, in which at least 25 Shias were killed and 170 injured.
But their blood is just a drop in the ocean that Islamists began spilling much before 9/11 and the war on terror—just as Blair’s hollering, expected to earn £4.6 million (around Rs 33 crore), is a humble cog in what Saudi-British scholar Madawi al Rashid has called an “industry” of studies on radical Islam and its impact, spawned by 9/11.
Much of this industry continues to be manned by “outsiders”, people who have little understanding of Islam and no patience for history. An example is Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West by Christopher Caldwell. The American neoconservative finds Islam a religion of war-mongers and fears that immigration of Muslims who “retain the habits and cultures of southern villages, clans, marketplaces, and mosques” will convert Europe into “Eurabia” and distort Western civilization.
Caldwell is right in pointing out that immigration was encouraged by the elite to work menial and underpaid jobs, and they failed to grasp its long-term effects on Europe. He is wrong in imagining European and Islamic societies as timeless absolutes rather than diverse and evolving phenomena.
Europe was on the verge of becoming “Eurabia” as early as the eighth century, when Muslims captured Spain and made inroads into France—it was only internal schisms that kept them from pushing deeper. Centuries later, it was Muslim translation of ancient Eastern thought that helped usher in the Renaissance and turned Europe into the proud civilization it is today. Similarly, it was Europeans who brought the concept of constitutionalism to the Muslim world, while Christian Arabs were the first to raise the banner of Arab nationalism.
Also on the list of ill-informed “outsider” attempts is Robert R. Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. Reilly argues that under the influence of Persian philosopher Abu Hamid al Ghazali, Muslims gave up critical thinking in favour of a literal reading of the Quran. This caused the decline of the Islamic civilization at the turn of the 12th century and has culminated in the spread of Islamism today.
That is a rather ambitious leap through time, and Reilly’s attempt falls flat on its face. Seminal works by two French scholars, Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel, in the days following 9/11 offer a detailed analysis of the historical causes of Islamism.
In Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, Roy demonstrates how Islam changed from being a people’s religion—deeply rooted in local cultures around the world—to a politician’s religion over the past century. He focuses on the US-initiated and Saudi-funded spread of extremist Wahabi Islam as an antidote to communism in the 1970s and 1980s. This created jihadi-manufacturing factories on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. It is these factories that run the global Islamist enterprise today.
Kepel’s Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam traces the other variant of Islamism—Shia militancy —and the role the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran played in its spread.
For many writers, religious orthodoxy and Islamist terrorism are two sides of the same coin. This notion is challenged by British-Indian scientist Kenan Malik, who says Islamist violence is a socio-political rather than a theological phenomenon. While acknowledging Roy’s historicist narrative, Malik’s book, From Fatwa to Jihad, explains why bloodletting in the name of Islam has been particularly severe in the past two decades: It’s the impact of globalization, exacerbated by the faulty policies followed in the West as well as Muslim countries. “Far from being an expression of ancient theological beliefs,” Malik writes, “(Islamist terrorism) is really a reaction to new political and social changes: the loss of a sense of belonging in a fragmented society, the blurring of traditional moral lines, the growing erosion of the distinction between our private lives and our public lives.”
Some call this escapism—an inability to accept that there may be problems with Islam itself, that even if the religion isn’t inherently bellicose, it is susceptible to radical and obscurantist interpretations and is thus in need of reform.
The Future of Islam by John L. Esposito is teeming with empirical data that should lay to rest claims that Muslims are at perpetual war with infidels. Extensive surveys cited in the book show that common Muslims’ expectations are no different from those of others: economic development, democracy, human rights and an end to war.
The book suggests that Islamist thought is undergoing a reformation similar to the one witnessed by Christianity centuries ago. Esposito gives an overview of the works of modernizers such as Tariq Ramadan, Amr Khaled, Shaykh Ali Goma’a, Mustafa Ceric, Tim Winter and Heba Raouf.
Ramadan, among these, is the loudest reformist voice in Islam today. As the grandson of Hasan al Banna—who launched the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the first and largest Islamist movements, in Ismailia, Egypt, in 1928—he is the ultimate insider. Ramadan has argued that Muslims worldwide should marry their faith to local cultures and develop local identities—an idea similar to the “socio-cultural religion” that Roy says Islam has historically been.
His latest book, Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation, is one of the most radical attempts at de-radicalizing Islam. Ramadan says that “adaptive reform”, through which Islam will sit more comfortably with modern society and developments in science and technology, is not enough. Muslims need a “transformational reform”, which challenges the very sources of Islamic laws and norms that prevail today. This will rid the religion of centuries of ossification that has bred radicalism and violence, and bring it in tune with its original rational and spiritual values. Scholars of modern science and social science should be given equal space with religious scholars in this process.
Two decades ago, when Salman Rushdie questioned notions such as religious revelation in The Satanic Verses, he faced a threat to his life. Today, Ramadan’s growing readership reflects how much the Muslim milieu has matured. Yet the debate is still about the degree to which reforms are required—rather than what these reforms should be and how they should be popularized. That shows how much further Islam has to go before it meets its own Renaissance.