To understand the politics of Islam you must look at its history

Islam has become one of the hottest topics in politics worldwide.  And yet the religion is little understood by non-Muslims. Instead ill-informed narratives gain currency, even amongst the better educated. It is a hard subject to get a grip on, but BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend, on Sunday broadcast an excellent item on combating Islamic State (IS). Each of the three introductory interviews was illuminating, but that with Washington Islamic history expert Haroon Mughal made things a lot clearer to me.

As with most areas of current politics, we need to get a historical perspective. Most educated people will know that Islam has two main denominations, Sunni and Shia, which arose from a split in the 7th Century over who was the prophet Mohammed’s successor as caliph. That, of course, remains an important fault-line, as followers of the two sects (and variations within) are intermingled in Iraq, Syria, Lebenon, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Yemen, to name the main hotspots. The split may be compared to the Christian split between Catholic and Orthodox, but geographically it is much messier. Apart from in Iran and, to a lesser extent, Iraq Shias are in the minority – but they are politically more coherent because there have reasonably clear hierarchies and, perhaps, they are used to a greater level of challenge.

The Sunni realm too used have clear hierarchies and orthodoxies, sponsored, in early-modern times, by the Ottoman Turks, who held sway across most of it; there was even a (nominal) caliph, until the Ottoman Empire fell in 1922. But this orthodoxy was subject to challenge, and a Reformation of sorts took place in the 18th Century, led in particular by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Like the Christian Protestant Reformation, it urged a back to basics creed, that rejected the corrupt ways that orthodox Sunni religion was practised. There are two key things to know about Wahhabism, which is now the orthodoxy in Saudi Arabia. It emphasises the separateness of true-believing Muslims; others are condemned to hellfire and not worthy of consideration. The second is that it takes inspiration from the customs of early Arab days, most notably in its strictures on sex, women and crime.

Mr Mughal’s critical insight was that, unlike for the Christian Reformation, there was no Counter Reformation – a reinvigoration and counterattack by the orthodox. At this time the Ottomans were on the wane, and the orthodox structures were too weak to mount such an effort. That leaves a vacuum at the heart of Sunni Islam. There is a huge amount of scholarship which can be used to counter Wahhabism, but efforts to do so are weak and disjointed. Imams tend not to be up for the sort of intellectual challenge required. Meanwhile the Wahhabists have a clear message and are expanding their appeal. The ground has been prepared through official Saudi sponsorship of mosques and schools, which has spread throughout the world, and undermined orthodox teachings. Now more sinister forces are promoting Wahhabi ideas to the disaffected, in ways that a re socially corrosive.

There are two important groups of Wahhabist derivatives, both of which have a clear political agenda, that some refer to as “Islamism” . There are the violent ones (I don’t want to call them “Jihadis”, since it is important to preserve non-violent aspects of jihad, just as there are non-violent uses of “crusade”, a very similar idea), promoted by terrorist movements like al-Qaeda and IS. They have a millenarian interpretation of the scriptures: that the end of the world is nearing. They extend the Wahhabist ideas of separateness to the practice of violence against non-believers, not least Muslims that do not share their binary world view.  There are enough sacred texts and historical episodes from Islam’s formative years to allow a coherent narrative – even if their practices go against a mass of Islamic scholarship. This narrative of violence has a clear appeal to the disaffected looking for some kind of heroic way out of their dead-end lives. The second group is known as Salafists; they share much of the millenarian credo of the terrorists – but they are non violent. They advocate the withdrawal of believers from any non-Islamic political structures. Salafists are much more numerous than the terrorists, with a lot of strength in Egypt and Tunisia, but their doctrines of withdrawal reduce their political weight. Some politicians have tried to play them off against the terrorists, since they are able to argue the case for non-violence from a Wahhabist perspective. But this serves to entrench the basic, and socially corrosive, ideas of Wahhabism.

The critical question is whether orthodox Sunnis can organise themselves into putting together a vigorous, international counterattack on Wahhabism, and to win back the battle of ideas. The hope is that a confident, cosmopolitan orthodoxy can be established that offers a middle way between a godless  materialism that denies Islamic heritage, and the backward looking ideas of Wahhabism. This seems to be what Mr Mughal was advocating.

But such a Counter Reformation faces formidable challenges. The first comes from political power. One group that would love to promote such a “respectable” version of Islam are the military backed regimes of Arab countries, like Egypt. And yet the incompetence and corruption of these regimes is one of the things that gives the Wahhabist creeds a lot of their appeal. Any Counter Reformation has to keep its distance from such willing official sponsors. Another challenge, of course, is the rejection of Saudi sponsorship; we may hope that low oil prices will reduce this malign influence.

But the biggest challenge surely is to develop ideas that are compatible with the modern, cosmopolitan world. This means rejecting the paternalism of the current order -allowing young people more freedom to consort with the opposite sex and choose their own marriage partners, and to offer women more freedom and power all round. To say nothing of more tolerant attitudes to gay sex. This is a huge jump for many, older Muslims. To them the paternalist ways are something worth fighting for, and their religion is bulwark against dissolute modern ways.

Is their anything to learn from what has happened to Christianity? In Europe established churches are fighting a losing battle with materialism. They cannot find a viable middle way between an empty modernism and being perpetually behind the Zeitgeist. They remain the standard bearers for socially conservative values – which is perhaps why they have a strange obsession with sexual morals. This has parallels with modern Islam.

Still, in America it is a different story. Somehow American churches are able to find compatibility between traditional beliefs and the modern world. We may associate them with conservative strictures on abortion and gay sex, but they have moved on in the question of love and marriage, and the empowerment of women. American churches are fragmented and highly competitive. They have no choice but to adapt to the modern world, or else they will lose out to neighbouring churches, constantly juggling a mix of social conservatism and modern values. To my knowledge Muslim imams and mosques haven’t taken on such a competitive approach – but I don’ think there is any institutional barrier to it. This bottom-up way offers more hope, surely, than some kind of top-down institutional one based on learned scholars and high level conferences.

But, assailed by an ultimately futureless and destructive Wahhabism on one side, and the temptations of godless materialism on the other, orthodox Sunni Islam must change itself somehow.

6 thoughts on “To understand the politics of Islam you must look at its history”

  1. Thank you for this, insightful as ever.

    Would it be possible for us in the West to respond constructively to certain criticisms? For instance is the freedom we give advertisers to use sexually evocative imagery in their profession helpful to us as a society? I believe we should be able to seriously ask such a question and act on what we decide. To do that would maybe help to prove (to ourselves as well as others) that we have moral fibre.

    The recent history of smoking regulation shows that we are not entirely at the mercy of money, but I believe we should be able to go further than that. We westerners should not simply assume our ways offer the best future for the world, but should be open and responsive to all valid criticism.

    1. Certainly there are opportunities for more outward looking Muslims to make common cause with others on social issues. And the point about cosmopolitanism is that it has a lot to offer. I found that Islamic thinking on money-lending and investment is worth considering. In fact there is a rich culture of ideas within Islamic tradition – at its height the Islamic caliphate was a highly successful civilisation culturally and commercially. We shouldn’t hold out that Western society has all the answers and I’m sure we have much to learn from different traditions.

  2. Matthew, a useful article. Thanks especially for the point about the lack of a counter reformation. The reformation clerics had it easy in comparison. There were Roman Catholics and reforming Catholics, who then became entrenched as protestants, and who then splintered.
    The Muslims have already splintered, metastasised. What they all have in common, their cancer, is their contempt and, at times, hatred of Western values – except capitalism. The latter, in fact, gives common cause to the majority of USA churches.
    What to do? Retreat from the Middle East, economically and politically. There is no profit for us in the relationship if you look at how much we spend on protecting ourselves and interfering, and how little we spend on oil; especially now that the USA is meeting its own requirements. I would begin with Saudi Arabia and leave the UAE for last.
    Just one point, unconnected with Islam: (Christian churches) “have a strange obsession with sexual morals.” Do they really? Strange? Obsession? Please explain.

    1. I probably have a more positive view of the Islamic faith than do you, and I don’t think that a lot of them hate Western values, though such a hatred is widespread amongst clerics. However I think that hatred is shared by not a few Westerners! However, for rather different reasons perhaps I think we should disengage from the Middle East.

      Fair challenge on my side swipe at churches. I speak from my disillusion with the Church of England in particular. There the issues that tear them apart are attitudes to gays, and to the ordination of women; the Catholics add a few extra sex-related issues to the list, including contraception, priestly celibacy and divorce. My reading of the gospels was that there are much more important issues than these. War, poverty and corruption for example. But I’m not being entirely fair.

  3. Matthew, Yes, I think I was wrong when I said Muslims hate Western values. Some clerics is more specific and correct; but they are influential and seem largely unchallenged. That is where I am positive about Christianity today, i.e. lots of challenges from the laity.
    I am an old fashioned Vatican 2 RC. But, even if I were not I would be terribly uneasy with gay marriage, which is an institution that one has to be eligible to join – x and y chromosomes. It is not about equality.
    And I am very optimistic about Catholic Social Teaching on Catholics themselves. It constitutes the biggest challenge to neo liberal capitalism and will have tremendous leverage under this pope, if he survives Africa.

    1. Yes I would not extend my criticism to the current Pope. He is much more in tune with what I understand to be the Christian message, in as much as a lapsed CofE person’s opinion can be of value. He seems to want to move the debate on the essence of the faith rather than stoke up spats over what men and women should be allowed to do.
      And agree with you about a lot Muslim clerics – there arguments don’t seem to have been refined through a proper process of debate and challenge – when I hear them on the radio there is something half-baked about what they say. But that process of debate and challenge used to be a part of Islam.

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