Islamic Perspectives

Islam, Islamism and Jihadism

I was invited to Berlin, Germany, by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung for a seminar on Islam, Islamism and Jihadism held during 20-22 October 2011. Some 75 scholars from the Arab world, Europe and United States were invited for the event. They were all experts working in this field. The focus was on the Arab Spring, i.e., the events which unfolded from 25 January 2011 onwards. Many Arab scholars, journalists and activists took part in the discussions.

The main concerns were twofold: what will be the impact of the Arab Spring on the mode of governance of Arab countries and whether Islamic extremism represented by Salafism and Muslim Brotherhood would takeover or moderate Islam would be the dominating influence. There were rich discussions in the spirit of dialogue and all points of view were expressed in a cordial atmosphere. In fact, this is what is needed to promote better understanding of each other.

The opening speakers were two -- from  the German research scholar Christine Schirmacher who spoke on Origin and History of Ideas of Political Islam and Islamism. As I have said before in my articles, European scholars’ ideas and thinking about Islam and Muslims are influenced mainly by two factors: one, their lack of experience of pluralist society and second historical events in which Islam and Christianity politically clashed with each other a millennium ago. Prof. Schirmacher displayed a similar bias in her presentation.

Another problem with research scholars like her is that they depend more on medieval texts in understanding Islam and Islamism and that too without taking the context into account and if the context is taken into account any religion in history will fare as badly or as well as Islam. Thus any text must be read in its socio-political context. Her paper totally lacked this context. Also, some events in contemporary Europe also influence such scholars who go by mere media reports without investigations of their own.

However, Abdelfattah and Andrea Zaki Stephenous fared much better as their papers were more analytical and had a progressive outlook. Both scholars were quite secular and progressive in their outlook. Abdelfattah works with a research foundation established by Al-Ahram newspaper which is highly influential in shaping political events in Egypt. He was quite critical of Salafism and its anti-Christian attitude and Islamic extremism.

Abdelfattah listed a number of attacks by Salafists on Copts and reported them in Al-Ahram. Both scholars were highly supportive of the Arab Spring and the role played by the Arab masses in ushering in a democratic polity. Though it would be too early to predict the role of Islamism or political Islam at this stage,  Abdelfattah felt political Islam or Islamic extremism may not be after all acceptable to the people of Egypt. He also felt that even young Salafis are changing and are inclining towards moderation.

He and other participants also felt that religious extremism was also being used cleverly and clandestinely by Mubarak and his ruling clique. Even today such attacks on minorities are being stage-managed by this clique. A way has to be found to eliminate such attacks. 

Rev. Stephanous, the Coptic priest, also spoke very well. He stood for secularism and a secular state as against a religious state. He maintained the state should have nothing to do with religion. It should be neutral towards all religions. It is much like the Ulama in India who also stand for secularism and a secular state. It proves two things, i.e., when religion becomes part of statecraft, the state loses its neutrality and that is the fact that whenever a religion becomes associated with governance or statecraft religion develops extremist tendencies.

The increasing attacks on minorities in Egypt also shows that the religious majority in every country tends to be arrogant as it thinks it has power in its hands and targets minorities. Father Stephanous also stressed this when he said in democracy there should be no religious majority and minority but political majority and minority. This is a very sensible proposition but it is easier said than done. In all democratic countries religious majority targets religious minorities, particularly that religious minority that is the largest in number. Coptic Christians are the largest minority in Egypt and Muslims the largest minority in Europe and hence they are under attack. In India, though the state is secular yet religious right brutally targets Muslims which happens to be the largest minority and also Christians who, though smaller in number, nevertheless, are next largest as far as ‘non-Hindu’ minorities are concerned.

Here in India the Sangh Parivar always taunts Muslims that they want secularism when in a minority and Islamic state when in a majority. While this is true, it has to be seen in a political perspective, not in a religious one. The way Christian minorities want a secular state it shows that the same tendencies prevail among other minorities also as minorities are always targeted by religious majorities.

As the political crisis becomes acute such attacks also become more intense and frequent. The same thing happened with Christians in Egypt and tiny Christian minority in Pakistan and with Muslims and Christians in India and Muslims in Europe today. The whole thing, however, is to be seen in a political perspective and not misunderstood as part of religious teachings which is what rightist forces do.

In the Friedrich Ebert Foundation seminar there were three excellent presentations which were based on field work and also with a correct perspective. It is important to note here that those western scholars who base their research only on medieval Islamic text by various theologians and scholars often reach misconceived conclusions taking those texts as the only source of Islamic teachings. In these texts also one finds liberal and tolerant narratives and very rigid and intolerant narratives as it happens with modern scholars too. These scholars deliberately choose such rigid and intolerant texts to bash Islam with and ignore other texts.

However, these three scholars I am talking about based their studies of Islam and Islamism on empirical observations and did not allow media reports and stereotypes to interfere with their conclusions. These studies related to those who were arrested or suspected of terrorism and salafi association.

One of them was Prof. Edwin Bakker who hailed from Netherland and teaches Counter-Terrorism Studies in Leiden University. His studies showed that the average age of suspected terrorists was 28 i.e. it is not true that the very young who have not seen much of life tend to be terrorists. Also it was found that most of them had criminal records. Thus it is not true that they are all purists ready to die for Islam and Islamic ideals and court martyrdom.

Also, most of them were from the lower socio-economic class and have a sense of deprivation. Also, it was interesting to note that either they were related or from the same neighbourhood. They knew each other well. In some cases they were close cousins. Thus it would be an oversimplification to maintain that they were infected with salafi ideology or that they were religious extremist.

Similarly another study by James Brandon who usually undertakes researches on such issues and writes extensively on Islamic extremism. His paper was based on a study of some 300 persons accused of terrorism and jihadism. He maintained that Islam was more of a cover and a legitimization rather than motivation for their acts. It is a very important distinction which many are not able to make.

To be motivated by Islam (or any ideology for that matter) is very different from using Islam to legitimize their acts. In the first case (i.e., being motivated by Islam), Islam becomes the cause and in the second case it becomes a mere cover. Mr. Brandon also found that in some cases these terrorists went merely for adventure and in some cases it was only to impress their girl friends, nothing more.

Also, only 100 out of the three hundred he was studying possessed any weapon and some of them were mere suspects, not even proved and convicted terrorists. Anyway, Mr. Brandon said how significant are these three hundred out of two million Muslims who are quite peaceful and have nothing to do with any salafi or jihadi activities. He also said that salafis are a tiny number, though quite visible and efficient group. They are very well organized and have a lot of money due to their Saudi Arabia connection.

Another very perceptive presentation came from Professor Sadik Jalal al-Azm. He is professor of philosophy from Syria and is a strong critic of religious fundamentalism. He said that Al-Azhar, the great seat of Islamic learning has proved to be quite sterile. In its hundreds of years of existence it has produced nothing new, much less stimulating. It has become the seat of Islamic conservatism.

Al-Azhar could have done a lot if it had dared and shown intellectual fertility. Unfortunately it played to the gallery and hardly ever resisted the temptation of being on the right side of the power equation. Al-Azm is a strong secularist and wants modern challenges with creative response. This will happen only when despotism comes to an end in the Islamic world. (Secular Perspective)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 November 2011 on page no. 29

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