As a faith, and a civilization built upon that faith, Islam over the centuries has displayed many faces, some peaceful and others not. Against the threat of violent Islam in our time, bland and disingenuous assertions of Islam’s essentially peaceful character are inadequate
Some hours after the arrest on 18 September of fifteen IS sympathizers alleged to be planning violence in Australia, the Attorney-General Senator George Brandis QC, in an interview with Raf Epstein on ABC Radio Melbourne, declared — correctly — that people of the kind arrested constitute only a “tiny minority” within a large and largely law-abiding community. He went on to reject the suggestion that violence, or support for it, is any way “intrinsic” to Islam. Then he went further. “The suggestion that mainstream Islam is anything other than a religion of peace is arrant nonsense,” he insisted.
How convincing is this claim? Can we, in the face of threatened Islamist violence, find reassurance in that assertion?
The truth is that, both as faith and a civilization built upon that faith, Islam over the centuries has displayed many faces, some peaceful and others not. Against the threat of violent Islam in our time, bland and disingenuous assertions of Islam’s essentially peaceful character are inadequate.
The dramatic emergence of the so-called Islamic State in northern Syria and western Iraq (ISIS) and, with it, the foundation, even restoration after a ninety-year hiatus, of a universal Islamic caliphate, brings modern-age militant Islam to a new level. Radical fundamentalist Islam is no longer seeking simply to infiltrate a state, or intimidate a state through terror, or to suborn and then capture and control an existing state. In the bleak borderlands of Syria and Iraq, violent Islamists are now creating a state of their own. And not just any state.
Their task, they claim, is not one of modern institutional innovation but of divinely ordained historical restoration: the restoration of Islam’s worldly sovereignty and universality. They see themselves as erecting the basic framework of a regime and overarching political structure that, they intend, will eventually encompass not only all the world’s Muslims but the entire world. Initially that will be a world of non-Muslims under Muslim governance, but ultimately a world entirely Muslim by faith and in identity and destiny.
This development poses a threat that requires an adequate and effective response.
One thing is clear — or ought to be clear, but in fact is not. No effective response can be grounded upon a misrecognition or misunderstanding of this dramatic threat and its deep, underlying sources.
One common, and all too easy, response is that offered by many Islamic leaders, both religious and political, international as well as local. One typical and widely influential such voice is that of the former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. “There is no place for violence in Islam. Islam is a religion of peace and some people have wrongly interpreted the religion,” he said in August, when commenting on reports and images of ISIS atrocities and executions.
Islam, “a religion of peace”? Is this a defensible claim? Is it an adequate basis upon which to oppose the ISIS militants and to dissuade disaffected young Muslims, in Australia and elsewhere, from rallying to its call and banner? If Islam is a “religion of peace”, then what kind of peace does it imagine, aspire to and offer—to its adherents, to non-Muslims and to the world at large?
All religious traditions imagine themselves as ultimately universal — mainstream Christianity as much as radical, and also mainstream, Islam. But there is a difference. The Christian imagination was founded upon the brutal political punishment and execution of a man (one of Divine and salvational character) at the hands of a powerful state. The Christian imagination, like the core Jewish imagination from which it grew, was initially “minoritarian”—formed upon a sense of its own “outsider” character and minority status—and, born of this religiously defining act of state violence, deeply “state-distrusting”. That only changed, in the Christian case, with the conversion of Constantine, when suddenly a state-distrusting faith not only acquired a state but became one: surprisingly and paradoxically, by acquiring control of the very Roman state and empire that—in the new faith’s focal experience and formative moment—had crucified its founder Jesus and, thereafter, persecuted so many of his followers.
The case of Islam is different. Its entire founding social imagination, in the Prophet Muhammad’s earlier oppositional experiences in Mecca and then as the leader of a cohesive, religiously defined human community in Madinah, is inherently and intensely political. And that faith not only imagined and formed itself in political terms on this Madinah foundation. Its early history, in the century after the death of its founder, was as a success story, in which it brought the non-Muslim world that it encountered under its management and reorganised its governance to accord with Islamic ideas and requirements. Islam’s early history was a story of political triumph and ascendancy wherever it reached and took hold.
Like human personalities, religions too bear the stamp of their formative moments and the imprint of their defining experiences. And that formative experience provided the historical foundations of the terms in which the standard Islamic religious and social imagination has continued to operate ever since.
The mainstream or majority religious imagination in Islam has always been intensely political. More than simply political, it has been politically “majoritarian”. It assumes a world where Muslims “have the upper hand” because they are the majority, one that is capable of having and imposing its way.
So the conventional Islamic imagination is also “governmentalist”: Islam is both din and daulah, a faith and faith-based way of life and also a political order. It imagines and assumes a world organised upon Islamic principles, one that operates upon the basis of, and maintains, the Islamic social template.
Conventional Islam has always assumed that it can and must “live in the world” on its own terms; that it is entitled to do so; that, in order to realise itself and thrive, it must do so; and that it may insist upon and even, when possible, impose upon others the terms of its own thriving according to its own ultimately sacred, since divinely ordained, sociopolitical template.
Islam is—meaning that conventional Islam imagines and provides—a set of binding arrangements under which Muslims submit totally to Allah, to the transcendental overlordship of God, and where non-Muslims then submit, or accommodate themselves compliantly, to the worldly overlordship of Muslims, to Muslim rule.
When one sets aside its divine dimension, Islam is in mundane terms a religion not of peace but of domination and submission: the submission of all Muslims to Allah, and of other Muslims to those Muslims who claim to exercise the authority of Allah; and of non-Muslims to Muslims, under arrangements that are said to embody the sovereignty of Allah. That is the basis upon which Islam claims to offer social peace and, in the words of its political apologists, to be a “religion of peace”.
Of course, the champions of this vision would prefer to achieve peaceably—without resistance, by genuine or, if need be, dragooned consent—what in the end can only ever be established against serious, if not always overt, resistance. And the militants know it. Unlike the disingenuous and confused and even well-meaning apologists, they know what the achievement of that objective, a humanly “sacralised” objective of what they see as a divine imperative, entails.
Many self-declared moderates are happy to dream or hope otherwise. But they are reluctant to criticise, and openly oppose, those who take the more strenuous view of what actualising this religion of peace may involve. And, to that extent, they too are prepared to go along with the militants, their ideas and agenda. No matter how reluctantly or uncomfortably, they stand “on side” with the champions of militant Islam.
What then is the peace that this “religion of peace” offers?
Peace, yes, its proponents say to the adherents of other faiths, you can have peace and enjoy all the peace that we are prepared to offer—on our terms. But that is our peace, and those terms are our terms. In other words, there is nothing to be negotiated between us, as the majority, and you, who will live among us on our terms, in accordance with the dispensation that we provide. We can assure you that, provided you utter your consent, there is a place for you in our scheme of things—and we will tell you what that place is. And you may enjoy that peace of ours so long as you accept and agree to live within these terms, under those constraints and disabilities.
All that the members of the non-Muslim minority have to do is to say, freely or under whatever situational duress may prevail, that they accept these terms. It is enough that they say it. They don’t really have to mean it. Sincerity of affirmation is not required. It is sufficient that they say it since, once it has been said, sincerely or not, the members of the majority have them where the presuppositions of the Islamic social order require them to be placed. This was the status of the dhimmi, or “protected minorities” in classical Islamic society, under the classical dispensation and social paradigm of Islam.
If by a “religion of peace” one means a religion and an attendant worldly order of hegemonic quietude and obedience, then Islam is a religion of peace—a peace under which Muslims heed God (as they understand God, or are required by their religious authorities to understand these things) and non-Muslims obey worldly Muslim authority (as they are told and required to do).
When apologists, often well-meaning people, retreat into the stock affirmation that Islam is really “a religion of peace”, they are entering a zone of evasion and delusion. Once they offer this assertion or intended exculpation, there is a question to be answered. If Islam is a religion of peace, then where does this violence, this awful penchant for religiously justified violence, come from?
The answer invariably is that there are people who do not really understand Islam. And it is their fault. Whether out of malice or ignorance, these people offer in the name and with the supposed imprimatur of Islam a message of violence that is foreign to Islam, or what the apologists choose to regard as “properly understood Islam”, one that in their view has no roots within the religion or historical traditions of Islam.
As an explanation this is inadequate. More of that in a moment. But first, when proffered as strategy of “counter-radicalisation” among disaffected young Muslims, it is in its own terms doomed. While this approach may imagine it can handle the “ignorant” part by means of “education” and “correct Islamic messaging”, it has no answer for “malice”, for how to deal with and counter its destructive workings.
The question is not, as the apologists offering this approach always suggest, “Who is behind this misappropriation of Islam?” It is not a matter of finding a puppet-master or evil operator who, by misrepresenting the faith, is constantly manipulating good and decent people within the local Muslim community or worldwide ummah.
One must ask, and be brave enough to ask, a different question: What is it, within formal, doctrinal Islam and then, on that (perhaps selective but still identifiable) basis within the Islamic tradition and in Islamic history from which that powerful tradition is “sedimented”, that underpins and drives—and perhaps, as some see it, validates—this kind of gruesome, barbaric action: by Muslims, acting as committed Muslims, and in the name and in the “defence” or “promotion” of Islam?
The interpretation of Islam that is provided by the militants is not the only possible construction of the Islamic inheritance and agenda. And it may not be the preferred version of the moderates and the liberals and of Islam’s well-meaning apologists. But it is a version, and one that can be constructed on grounds that are indisputably internal to Islam, not some external intrusion or imposition implanted by the ignorant or the ill-intentioned.
The militant and fundamentalist versions of Islam are forms or variants that can be “sourced” and derived directly—dare one even say “authentically”?—from Koranic writ, from early formative Islam as recorded in the traditions and practices (hadith and sunnah) of the Prophet in his own lifetime and worldly career, and within historical Islam as it developed on that foundation. The militant version is a reading or construction of direct intellectual lineage and identifiable descent within historical Islam. It has its foundations—genuine, not spurious or fictive or prejudicially confected foundations—in what, from the outset in the Prophet’s own time and career, Islam is and has been in its worldly history and evolution.
Though sourced within mainstream historical Islam, not some dubious or marginal heretical tradition, it may be an extreme reading and, like all such readings of sacred traditions, it may be highly selective in its derivation and character. But, even so, it is a derivation from—and rests upon the reactivation and reanimation of something that, as much as anything else, is part of—that historic tradition.
No amount of selective doctrinaire invoking of an ideologue’s preferred version of “idealised Islam” can undo or alter or erase what, in its worldly career, “actually existing Islam” was and did, what it condoned and how, in consequence, the Islamic faith, in the course of its historical evolution, was shaped by the civilisational vehicle in which it rode through world history. Militant Islam—the Islam which now finds expression in the Islamic State movement and its caliphate—has those doctrinal roots and is built upon that process of historical elaboration, upon those identifiable historical foundations.
It must be recognised for what it is. There is no other way to understand, and still less to counter, the challenge that it represents and poses.
Grappling with this threat is now a key part of all our futures. So all of us—Muslims and non-Muslims alike—are entitled and need to ask a tough question: What is it within Islam as a faith and sacred tradition and then as a historical civilisation upon which the violent militants draw to build their malign outlook, their grim agenda and gruesome political practices? And, if we can identify there the sources of what they do and if those models are accordingly not external to Islam, how can Islam and its defenders possibly and decently disown that informing political inspiration, turn their eyes away or prevaricate about its powerful and empowering provenance?
Until people, including Muslims and notably those who hold positions of public trust and responsibility within the local Muslim community and global ummah, find the courage and basic honesty to begin facing up to this question, the serious analysis will not have begun.
Like its past, the future of Islam too may be either peaceful or violent. The challenge is to ensure that it will be peaceful. And it is Muslims — the broad majority of the Islamic faith community, and nobody else — who alone can and must make that peaceful future. That can only be achieved if mainstream Muslims of good faith, going beyond easy assertions that “Islam is a religion of peace”, publicly recognize and directly repudiate those parts of the Islamic tradition that are anything but peaceful.
How is the “unpeaceful” side of Islam to be rejected? Sacred texts cannot be changed. It is a question of how modern people choose to live with, and understand, their sacred texts. And of how they choose to live with doctrinaire scripturalist authoritarianism. Of their readiness to stand up against narrow scripturalist literalism, the monopoly upon truth that the traditional custodians of that literalism claim, and against the political zealotry that is grounded upon the assertion of that narrow, literalist monopoly.
How can this be done? The process begins not with loud accusatory cries of “Islamophobia!” but with the quiet and honest admission that, yes, there are things in the Islamic tradition that are, or should be, a source of concern to all Muslims of good faith—and if to them then also, and perhaps even more, to their non-Muslim fellow citizens.
It is that narrow, literalist authoritarianism and those worrying features of the Islamic faith tradition that modern Australian Muslims need to distance themselves from and explicitly repudiate. And they will not do so, since they will feel no need or obligation to do so, if our political leaders (such as the Attorney-General in his recently proffered and fashionable bromide) endorse and encourage them in that same intellectually lazy and politically evasive — and historically altogether simplistic — affirmation that “Islam is a religion of peace”.
It simply will not do to ask, disingenuously, “Who, us?! How could it possibly be us? Who is responsible for this deceiving misappropriation and defamation, for this scandal against Islam?” To ask who is “behind all this” and manipulating this situation is not simply inadequate. It is deceptive and dishonest. More, it amounts to wilful self-deception and delusion.
All who wish to “share the world” with others, decently and productively, including with people who have been formed within the faith and civilisation of Islam, have a right to expect that Muslims “of good faith” as fellow citizens will address this question, not dishonourably shirk or “finesse” it. Instead of trying to sweep aside the atrocities committed by Muslim terrorists and militants by not owning up to them, seriously concerned Muslims must instead recognise what it is about Islam that can motivate and condone, or be used to prompt devout adherents towards, such cruelty.
But there are grounds for hope. A young Malay columnist, Zurairi A.R., “The Many Faces of Islam”, writing last month in the Malay Mail Online saw this need and remarked,
“Ultimately, it remains to be seen if the Muslim community can subject itself to such self-scrutiny and self-reflection. Obtaining the answer is perhaps the only way Muslims can avoid more of their devotees following the path stained with blood.”
His is one voice. We need to hear many more.
Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales. He has been studying political Islam, in South-East Asia and globally, since the early 1960s.