Source: The Telegraph, UK
Is Isil Islamic or not? It’s an interesting, obviously sensitive question that I’m not super qualified to answer – and it’s important to display a little intellectual humility when examining something so complex. Bill Maher did not do that when he got into a row with Charlie Rose about the matter – in a clip that is now almost as popular on social media as a kitten falling off a TV set. He made three points that seem to form the crux of the “Islam is the problem” argument:
1. The Koran contains passages that urge intolerance towards non-believers and thus is reasonably used by Isil as justification for its militarism.
2. Islam as a cultural, global phenomenon is intolerant to a degree that, again, makes Isil look extreme but still part of the same family.
3. Ergo, Islam poses a unique threat among religions towards liberal democracy.
I can’t answer these questions from a theological perspective because I don’t read Arabic and my knowledge of the Koran is slight (although if we’re condemning something based upon selective passages then I could write an entire blogpost illustrating why Christianity or Judaism are equally anti-social). But, thinking about this as a historian, Maher’s analysis does share something in common with the fundamentalists he despises: he thinks that religion is static and not susceptible to political interpretation. As such, he buys into Isil’s own claim to be a legitimate expression of Islam. That’s naïve.
Islam is not a monoculture. Sunni and Shia look very different, both have generated schools of thought that take starkly contrasting approaches towards issues of gender, the relationship between church and state, and the role of Jihad. Both have evolved within cultural contexts that have helped to shape their outlook; their impact upon those societies has waxed and waned. Take a trip to urban centres in the Islamic world in the 1970s and you’d be struck by the degree of freedom enjoyed by women, secularisation and the relatively limited role played by Islam. I’ve just finished reading Rodric Braithwaite’s account of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Afghantsy, and he notes how the explosion of rural fundamentalism took urban dwellers by surprise – after all, women in the 1960s enjoyed access to primary school education, university attendance and the declining use of the hijab. Likewise, Michael Axworthy’s Revolutionary Iran points out that even after the Islamic revolution had taken place the country’s new leadership would not dare to take away women’s right to vote. Politicised Shia, argues Axworthy, did not run away from modernity but instead tried to find some synergy with the needs of Islam. Educational opportunities for women actually expanded.
The point is that political Islam is a recent invention – a reaction to the failure of post-war Arab nationalism and socialism – and not the definitive form of historical Islam. Indeed, it breaks down the wall of separation traditionally found in Muslim societies between church and state and reflects the rural conservatism and near-feudalism of a vanguard that felt dispossessed by globalisation, American intervention and liberalism. It is a particular historical experience of Islam in the same way that the Spanish Inquisition was for Catholicism or the Defenestrations of Prague were for Protestantism.
Isil’s extremism is not the norm across the Islamic world. Maher cited a Egyptian Pew poll in his interview that, he impled, showed global Muslims are militant and radical. I’m not familiar with that poll, but a 2013 Pew poll of the entire Islamic world found massive variation in attitudes. Plenty of support for democracy in South Asia but little in Pakistan; 89 per cent said women should not be compelled to wear the hijab in Tunisia compared to just 30 per cent in Afghanistan. All Muslim societies contain majorities who say that people should not be compelled to follow Islam and that suicide bombing is wrong. Only in two areas is there something closer to conservative unanimity. First, Muslims want access to Sharia courts – which is entirely reasonable given that a) it’s their cultural norm and b) in some countries those courts might be regarded as less corrupt and less prone to political manipulation than the state’s alternative. Second, Muslims retain conservative opinions on women and homosexuality. That’s sad, but it’s not just a Muslim thing. Russia and Africa are also deeply homophobic. That unpalatable views can be found in all societies is reflected in poll numbers that finds 16 per cent of the French feeling sympathy towards Isil (that’s 27 per cent among those aged 18-24). Only 5 to 10 per cent of France is Muslim, which suggests that sympathy for the devil is found among many non-Muslims, too.
Does all of this mean that we can safely say, as the President did, that Isil has “nothing to do with Islam”? That, too, would be naïve. Historically, Christianity has the capacity to and has produced movements just as horrific as Isil – but what matters is that this contemporary threat has emerged from an Islamic society and, therefore, is something that we obviously have to address as an Islamic problem. But British intelligence also indicates that many Jihadis have a surprisingly slightly understanding of their chosen fundamentalism, and it may well be that violence and chauvinism are the real motivators for something to which Islam merely provides the language of expression.
Put it this way, is North Korea Marxist? Technically, yes. It emerged from the communist expansion of the 1940s, it adhered to Stalinism long after everyone else abandoned it, and it still favours command economics over the market. But it is also a racist monarchy that has asserted the primacy of nationalism over the class struggle. And if we accept its own claim to be socialist, are we not a) legitimising it and b) in some way implying that all of socialism has a little blood on its hands? The latter proposition is patently absurd. Pyongyang no more speaks for the Labour Party than Isil reflects the opinions of your local mosque.