Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The Islamist mirage

A new book traces the evolution of Islamist groups, revealing the pretensions and bankruptcy of their ideology, writes Ammar Ali Hassan

Al-Ahram Weekly

For the most part, religious extremism and terrorism grow in closed and unjust social environments. “Unjust” here refers to poverty and ignorance, narrow affiliations distorted by blind fanaticism and bigotry, and disregard for all ideas, social groups or humanitarian tendencies that are not sanctioned by the extremist group and its dogma.

Extremism is also fed by latent feelings of inferiority and by a deep sense of humiliation, whether real or imagined, as well as by a large gap between the rulers and the ruled and manifestations of the failure or laxness of the state.

A new book entitled The Mirage, by Gamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi, political science professor and director-general of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), contains material that addresses the above-mentioned causes.

The Mirage traces the history of the emergence and evolution of these groups to the present day and attempts to assess their future. In the process, it covers their basic ideas and outlooks, their most prominent figures and their positions towards the political and social circumstances in the countries where they have emerged or to which they have spread.

The work thus provides a detailed map of Islamist organisations. A close reading of it drives home three basic points. First, the project behind these extremist organisations that produce symbolic, verbal and material terrorism is a monumental lie. They market themselves as “the solution,” “the promise,” or “the hope,” and they have succeeded in deceiving many.

However, the mirage they have constructed has been exposed to all for the sham it is. The idea it is built on is corrupt, its practices are crooked and it is out of touch with the contemporary world. Indeed, it goes against the movement of history.

Second, the way to end this illusion is to expose the fallacy of its ideas, actions and behaviour, to end the excuses for its existence or the causes for its birth, and to stop everything that feeds, strengthens and sustains it. Towards this end the state and civil society must martial all the material and moral resources at their disposal against the extremist religio-political groups.

Third, breaking the illusion also entails religious reform and enlightenment in tandem with social reform in order to liberate the human will. Such efforts will hamper the attempts of the extremist organisations to build grassroots support by exploiting the withdrawal of the state from providing sufficient public services.

What is important is to offer people a clear and identifiable social alternative so that they will not feel compelled to belong to or heed the dictates of extremist organisations in exchange for material or psychological benefits.

The enlightenment process must engage education, culture, the media and moderate religious discourse. It should seek to dispel the key concepts or catchwords used by extremists and terrorists, such as “divine rule,” “the age of ignorance,” “jihad,” the reestablishment of the “caliphate” exactly as it existed in ancient times, “allegiance” to the community of faithful and “rejection” of outsiders, “Islamic Sharia” and the need to impose it on the lives of Muslims in contemporary society and for a special Islamic “group” to establish Islam in its totality.

In order to be most effective, this process must tackle the avenues that the religio-political groups have pursued to acquire the strength that has enabled them to attain power or control society. They first took aim at tradition in matters of worship and its social, cultural and symbolic dimensions, with the aim of producing a new mode of thought and behaviour regarding worship and the outward forms of piety.

They then confronted traditional religious establishments and socio-religious organisations on the grounds that these were either remiss in their application of “correct” Islam or were mired in the forms of religious practice that prevailed in the “age of decadence.”

Lastly, they formed religious sociopolitical movements cast as Islamic renaissance movements to champion the major national causes that were already on the public agenda, and claimed possession of a new perspective or platform for remedying them, namely “Islam.”

The enlightenment drive must, then, work to build a project which restores religion to its fundamental functions of spiritual fulfilment, moral elevation and philanthropic benevolence, frees the intellect to think and create, confident that this is complementary rather than antithetical to the process of revelation, and liberates the human will, freeing it from the control of the emir, sheikh or master of any organisation, society or lodge, and from the worship of the pronouncements of ancient jurists and theologians.

However, the question that must be answered here is why the Islamist project should prove to be a mirage. As one reads Al-Suwaidi’s The Mirage, one understands better the reasons why the religio-political groups must inevitably fail to advance toward the realisation of their ends or the aims and aspirations of society.

BACKGROUND TO THE MIRAGE: To begin with, it is important to register two main observations with regard to the book.

First, it addresses an extremely important subject in a manner that is both enjoyable to read and academically sophisticated. It is comprehensive in terms of approach, theoretical framework, applied cases and, above all, in field research. One cannot help but be impressed by the extensive and scrupulous scholarly effort invested in the preparation and composition of the book.

Second, it contains a comprehensive and precise map of the most prominent extremist religious movements that fall under the category of Political Islam and that have emerged in the Arab and Islamic regions in recent decades. This follows the course set by the writer Hrair Dekmajian, but while the latter stops at the outset of the 1990s, Al-Suwaidi’s work is more inclusive and takes readers into the 21st century.

It relates at length the history, ideas and practices of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, Sururis, and other jihadist and takfiri movements and organisations. It also discusses the conflict between religion and politics, the myths of Political Islam, and public opinion trends on political groups operating in the name of religion. As one reads this work, one can fully appreciate why its author chose this particular title as it perfectly encapsulates the Islamist groups for the following reasons.

First, these groups are corrupt in their very origin. They are founded on the erroneous or fallacious idea of turning Islam as a religion into a meagre dogma. Such a notion clearly deviates the faith from its primary mission of spiritual fulfilment, moral elevation and philanthropic benevolence, which includes mercy, mutual support, self-sacrifice and charitable giving. The source of this spirit is the Holy Qur’an, the founding text of Islam, and it was embodied in the Prophet who inspired those around him to say, “He was a Qur’an that walked the earth.”

There is a saying that perfectly fits the religio-political groups: “The worm lies in the bud of the tree.” Therefore, regardless of the remedies or approaches they cite in their attempt to present themselves as a complete alternative and of the solutions they propose to the problems people face, they are certain to fail, completely, due to the erroneous basis on which they rest their frame of reference: the dogmatisation of religion.

Second, the proponents of ways of thought that espouse and breed violence are always destroyed after the bloodshed and destruction they cause. This is the judgement of history. In the history of the Muslim peoples, the Zinj and the Qaramita movements were the only two grassroots movements that, at least at the outset, sincerely sought to fight oppression and establish a just order.

Apart from them, all other movements proved to be flagrant attempts to use religion to justify violence against the ruling authorities and society at large. As a result, they were ultimately routed and defeated. Some of the groups, organisations and movements vanished entirely and are only mentioned now by historians or researchers.

Third, the religio-political groups are forever making promises that come to nothing. Their slogans and catchwords are never translated into meaningful or concrete actions on the ground. In our own times, the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, blazoned such slogans as “Islam is the solution,” “We bring good to all,” “We bring good to Egypt,” and the “Renaissance Project.” When they came to power, however, people soon discovered the vast gulf between the Brotherhood’s thought and behaviour, its rhetoric and practice, and its words and deeds.

Fourth, these groups set out to deliberately deceive people by exploiting their religious sensibilities. Their leaders in particular are fully aware that they are carrying out a long-term plan of deception. They discuss the details behind closed doors and then emerge in public with artfully contrived expressions and gestures and words that mask their true feelings and intentions. They use a con act to gull people into falling for their doctrinal claims.

Fifth, groups and organisations that use religion with the purpose of attaining political power prove abject failures in producing a system of rule that merits admiration and respect. Wherever they have come to power they have reduced the country to destruction and ruin, while unleashing tyranny and oppression against society using either the instruments of violence of the state or the militias and paramilitary entities they have formed. They also generate a climate of violence through blatantly hate-filled rhetoric and incitement.

Sixth, the religio-political groups gleam on the outside but conceal a dark interior. Their leaders and followers assume a divine aura as “the generation of the promised victory”, or the replicators of the “unique generation” at the birth of Islam. In the process of fabricating this order they rely heavily on citations from the Qur’an and the Prophetic Sayings while concocting simple recipes to solve even the most complex problems that people face in their day-to-day lives.

In reality, however, the groups pursue a consummately political agenda with religion serving merely as its outward shell or facade. Therefore, no sooner are their promises and claims put to the test than the facade cracks and the interior emerges for everyone to see in all its materialistic and profane ugliness, eliciting widespread condemnation and causing all who had been initially fooled by the bright exterior to regret those moments of trust they had vested in such groups.

Seventh, the project of the religio-political groups is founded on a blatant methodological flaw. They formulate a position or idea that promotes their interests and then comb through the Qur’an, the hadith, or the body of ancient jurisprudence and exegeses for verses, sayings or views that they can then paste together in order to support that idea. It is a highly opportunistic and flagrantly self-serving process of playing with religious texts.

A salient example is to be found in the “Charter of Islamic Action” by the Egyptian Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya group, especially when compared to the subsequent arguments by this group to support its ideological revisions. The charter espouses an extremely radical position that condemns the state and society as heretical and rejects their laws and policies absolutely.

It is heavily peppered with Qur’anic verses and Prophetic Sayings that have been twisted and threaded together to support that stance. The ideological revisions propound a totally antithetical position, and so other verses and sayings are also stitched together.

The groups also rely on historical narratives, the accuracy of which is difficult to prove, while they reject other narratives in the same unfounded manner. It is thus a futile endeavour to attempt to refute their arguments using the same tools, which defy the reasoning intellect. The latter complements the process of revelation and is thus the proper tool to apply.

Eighth, the project of the religio-political groups is hostile to the movement of history and seeks to move in the opposite direction. While the world in its political outlook and practices is moving towards patriotism, peace, openness, legitimacy and secularism, so as to empower the people as the source of sovereignty and authority, the religio-political groups want to drag the world back to the age of universalistic empires.

They are inclined towards violence in all its symbolic, verbal and physical forms. They prefer to work furtively, underground, having grown accustomed to secrecy and their own closed society, and they reject legitimacy as it is commonly understood since they condemn modern systems of law as heretical and insist that these be replaced by “God’s laws.”

It follows from this that they reject allegiance and obedience to the authority of the modern nation state. Their goal, even if some groups pretend otherwise for tactical purposes, is to turn back the clock to the theocratic state in the name of the “sovereignty of God.”

CONFLICTS AND OBSESSIONS: Moreover, ninth, the project of the religio-political groups has flung open the door as never before to a conflict of identities, especially as it reduces identity to “religion” and makes religious fanaticism a chief source of violence against others.

In so doing, it is following the course of other fanatical groups in history that have turned religion into a force for violence that has meted out massive death and destruction against all who differed with them in religion, creed or sect. Conflicts over identity have been the most common cause of mass murder in human history. Most often, these conflicts have revolved around religious identity.

Tenth, the religio-political groups are obsessed with total conformity. They seek to mould their members or followers into exact replicas of one another, as though shaped by the same tools. This is the custom of all fascist groups that believe it is in their power to eliminate individual differences or traits among their members, indifferent to the fact that diversity is the rule of life.

Apart from the fact that such a notion or practice kills all creativity and initiative, it gradually leads to the militarisation of the group while instilling among its members the illusion that they are superior to all other people.

In the case of the Islamo-fascist groups, they couch their elitism in terms of their ostensible “superiority in faith”, in a reference to the Qur’anic address to the faithful at the outset of Islam. “You are the higher ones,” this said. Thus, they see themselves as the only true Muslims among all the other Muslims around them and hence at the top of the social pyramid. This is an illusion that is certain, sooner or later, to bring the group into a collision course with others in society sooner or later.

While the conformist vision espoused by these groups is a social hell in disguise, its proponents see it as an “ideal” or “utopia.” But even supposing that this “utopia” could be produced, it in any case conflicts with Islam which combines idealism and realism in its methods: just as the faith meets human spiritual needs, it also addresses humanity’s material needs, thereby striking a form of equilibrium.

The proponents of the religio-political groups do not want to grasp the fact that history shows that the experiences of building states and societies that propound a utopian moral vision and the realisation of an ideal virtuous individual and that force all members of society to conform to a uniform mode of thought and behaviour are doomed to failure. This is an insight that is a source of lessons and wisdom to any salvationist ideology that espouses the same approach under such banners as moral security, or campaigns for the dissemination of virtue or committees for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice.

Eleventh, there is a fundamental lack of objectivity, realism and validity in the issues that make up the body of perceptions or fundamental opinions that govern the activities of the religio-political groups, or that form the backbone of their drive to attain power at all costs, or at least that they market in the form of terms and slogans used during recruitment and mobilization drives.

These groups propound certain concepts that they maintain stem from true Islam. They further claim that the ideas and perceptions that have been imported into Muslim societies from the West and the biases of the intellectual elites that emerged and prevailed during the colonialist and post-independent eras have prevented all other “ordinary” Muslims from knowing these ideas and concepts.

Prime among the latter are such terms and concepts as “divine sovereignty,” “the caliphate,” “the application of Sharia law,” “allegiance” to the group and “rejection” of outsiders, “jihad,” “the house of peace versus the house of war,” “punishment of apostasy,” “Islam is a religion and a state,” “the function of the ruler is to protect the faith,” “Islamic revival” and “the unique or divine generation.”

These and other such terms are reiterated by the Islamist groups whose ideologues expound on them and link them to excerpts from the Qur’an, or Sayings attributed to the Prophet, or to the pronouncements of ancient jurists, preachers and theologians.

Through constant repetition, the ideas gradually become fused into people’s brains and form their perception of the “correct” faith. Some of these people further regard those who question these concepts or try to deconstruct them and contextualise them in the framework of political conflicts as heretics.

There are at least two facts that these groups refuse to acknowledge: (a) Political theory in Islam is man-made: it was not established by religious texts but rather was shaped by the history of the Muslim peoples or the history that was made in the countries inhabited by Muslim peoples in diverse places and over many centuries; (b) This theory does not meet the criteria of political and social modernisation which is necessitated by the realities of contemporary life.

Finally, other Islamist conceptions, which have ranged from the syncretic to the synthetic, have not succeeded in producing an ideology, theory or comprehensive approach for reading Islam from other contemporary perspectives or for drawing Islam toward such perspectives.

I am referring here to the “Islamist left,” as epitomised in The Socialism of Islam by Mustafa Al-Sabaei, or the writings of Hassan Hanafi, and other such works that were the fruit of the more than two-decade-long Arab nationalist-Islamic dialogue. I also refer to “liberal Islam” as represented by Khaled Mahmoud Khaled, Said Al-Ashmawy, Gama Al-Banna, Farag Fouda and Abdel-Gawad Yassin, as well as some works by Abdel-Wahab Al-Messiri, Mohamed Abed Al-Gabri, Abdulillah Balqaziz, and other Arab liberals who have written about the relationship between Islam and politics.

I include here the experiment of the so-called “independent Islamists” such as Ridwan Al-Sayyid, Tareq Al-Bishri, and Mohamed Salim Al-Awa, regardless of the differences between them in the scope and depth of their views and their relative proximity to or distance from the project of the religio-political groups.

The writer is a novelist and socio-political researcher.

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