Friday, December 5, 2008

Understanding Islamism

Following is a long excerpt from an authoritative article about Islamism. The author, Maajid Nawaz, was an Islamist, so he knows whereof he speaks. He is not an apostate Muslim, just a regular Muslim, explaining what it is all about.

My time in Egypt's notorious Mazra Tora prison gave me the opportunity to finally study Islam myself from its primary Arabic sources. I also had the opportunity to debate with some of Egypt's most well-known convicted terrorists, such as the surviving assassins of late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the founders of al-Gama'a al-Islamiyyah – formerly Egypt's largest terrorist group. I also had access to imprisoned liberals such as the runner-up in the Egyptian Presidential election Ayman Noor, and the then imprisoned Sociology Professor Saad el-Din Ibrahim. My adoption by Amnesty International as a 'prisoner of conscience', and in particular the tireless efforts of one Amnesty activist – John Cornwall – served to open my heart to non-Muslims again for the first time in 10 years. My mind, however, would still not follow without rigorous investigation. After four years of daily debate and organised studying with the whole spectrum of reformed political prisoners I gradually came to the realisation, subconsciously at first, that what I had thought was Islam, was in fact a modern political ideology masquerading as the ancient faith of Islam. Islamists had taken modern day political paradigms and superimposed them onto religion. I now refer to this ideology as Islamism, so as to distinguish it from Islam the faith.
Upon returning to the UK in March 2006 I continued in my activities with Hizb ut-Tahrir at the leadership level. At this stage I was in psychological  nial, after thirteen years of Islamist activism, that I could have been so wrong. The more my status grew on the Islamist circuit, the more I felt hypocritical for no longer believing that Islam was a divine political ideology. I had become one of the most recognised figures amongst Islamists generally and in Hizb ut-Tahrir ranks specifically, yet I could not face the fact that I no longer believed in the ideology. I eventually learnt that the group was preparing me for leadership of the UK branch, and this news brought me to my final tipping point. In May 2007, thirteen years after joining, I unilaterally announced my resignation from Hizb ut-Tahrir, and in September 2007 I appeared on national television to declare that I now recanted Islamism itself.
Understanding the ideology of Islamism

In understanding what the ideology of Islamism is, it would help to begin with the name. The suffix 'ism' has been added to Islam so as to draw attention to the political nature of the subject matter. Islam is a faith; Islamism is an ideology that uses Islam the faith as a justification. Some of you may be reluctant to call this ideology Islamism. There exists an understandable concern of not wanting to alienate Muslims. It is my contention however that only by using Islamism can one popularise the notion that the ideology is indeed distinct from the faith, and that Islam is innocent from the excesses of Islamism. The presence of Islam in the title should be no more troubling for Muslims than the presence of 'social' in Socialism is for sociologists. The presence of the word Islam in Islamism, like social in socialism, indicates the justificatory claim made by the ideologue rather than an admission of the validity of such a claim. I firmly believe that by claiming the word Islamism, and helping shape how it is used, one can direct the debate in the right way with the intention of distinguishing the ideology from the faith. Finally, for all their feign of offence, Islamists use this word in Arabic when differentiating themselves from other Arab political trends, such as Bathism.
When dealing with this question one must remain cognisant of the fact that the majority of Muslims are not Islamists. Generally, non-Islamist Muslims are from the conservative camp, such as traditionalist Sufis or Deobandis, or the literalist Wahhabis. [1] This camp holds to socially conservative views and is historically apolitical. Non-Islamist Muslims could also be of the progressive camp, such as many leading theologians and academics today. Many in this grouping, and some from the conservatives, may even be politically active. These form the nascent post-Islamist movement of morally-inspired and politically active Muslims, or Muslim Democrats. However, the majority of progressives are simply secular legal positivists, believing that religion and morals cannot be a basis for strictly defining legal and political decisions. Key to the political activism of the above Muslims is that their politics is not driven by ideology.
The natural question then arises: what is the difference between an Islamist and an ordinary Muslim who may be politically active? Here some identifiers will be highlighted, not as hard and fast rules, but as general guidance on the fundamental beliefs that the vast majority of Islamists will hold dear. It is important to note that just as there is no one single definition of Communism, it is likewise for Islamism. This, of course, does not mean that Communism does not exist just as it does not mean that there is no such thing as Islamism. If, as is claimed, Islamism is a modern ideology, it follows that there must be some basic ideational factors that help shape it, ideas that can be clearly traced as being modern. In this endeavour, I aim to identify an Islamist's ideology, law, people and state.
The first identifier of Islamism is the Islamist belief that Islam is not a religion, but a divine political ideology surpassing Communism and Capitalism. An implication of this is the Islamist assertion that Islam must have provided a detailed and divinely pre-ordained stance on matters such as political structure or the economy and these must lie, by definition, in contradistinction to structures already available in Capitalism and Communism. If these structures and systems are deemed absent, the Islamists will work to bring them about. Hence the Islamist desires to 'Islamise' all aspects of society and life. This also carries with it the Islamist assertion, subsequently also subscribed to by prominent non-Muslim commentators, that Islam is in perennial conflict with other ideologies, just like Communism in the cold war. In fact, the founder of Hizb ut-Tahrir used to be a Bathist or an Arab Socialist, which is where he found much of his political inspiration. Moreover, Islamists have long suffered due to their lack of theological legitimacy having been founded by political activists rather than theologians. The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, was a school-teacher. The founder of the Indian subcontinent offshoot of the Brotherhood, Jamat-e-Islam, was a journalist by the name of Abul 'Ala Mawdudi. Al-Qa'idah's Osama Bin Laden is an engineer and Ayman al-Zawahiri a medical doctor. The man who recruited me to Hizb ut-Tahrir all those years ago, the current head of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the UK, was also a medical doctor. Due to the Islamists' emphasis on modern political thought they tend to attract those who have a modern education, those who can grasp discussions on sovereignty, statehood and the economy yet whose disciplines are not these social science subjects themselves, thereby explaining their willingness to adopt political ideas that lack nuance. A qualified theologian would rarely claim that Islam is a political ideology, unless he has been reared exclusively by an Islamist party to become a theologian so as to reinterpret the theology in light of the ideology, such as the Brotherhood reared Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
The second identifier is the Islamist claim that the Muslim religious code, known as the Shari'ah, demands implementation on state level as codified law. In other words, the legal and illegal of state law must be synchronised with halal (permissible) and haram (impermissible) of the religious code. This again is a modern innovation unheard of in traditional Islamic sources. Muslim history is in fact bereft of examples of any type of Shari'ah being wholesale adopted as state law. Despite this, Islamists place so much emphasis on synchronising the Shari'ah with codified state law that they consider it a matter of apostasy if someone claims otherwise. Such a demand gives rise to Islamist claims of un-Islamic, hence illegitimate, laws that subsequently need to be Islamised. On the contrary, ordinary Muslims are perfectly happy for the Shari'ah to remain a personal code of conduct.
The third identifier is the Islamist notion of the ummah, or Muslim community, forming a political rather than simply a religious identity. This has parallels with the Communist idea of the international proletariat. The subsequent implication for Islamists is that loyalty and allegiances are owed to this global community above all else. Hence, an Islamist will not consider a non-Muslim as being from 'his people', nor will he accept any national identity. Ordinary Muslims, on the other hand, consider the ummah as a religious community; hence they are free to adopt as their political identity any number of things. In fact, the Prophet himself declared, as a civil leader, that Jewish, Christian and Muslim residents of his city-state were all 'one ummah', as 'citizens.'
The final identifier is the Islamist dream of having an ideological entity to represent the above three elements in the form of an expansionist Muslim bloc, the Caliphate. Its ideology will be Islamism, its law an adoption on Shari'ah and its people the global Muslim political bloc. Just as the international proletariat, the global political bloc for Communists, required an expansionist state to proactively 'liberate' workers from the tyranny of Capitalism, likewise the Caliphate must proactively intervene in the affairs of other states so as to 'liberate' Muslim residents from the yoke of kufr, or disbelief. Ordinary Muslims have no such expansionist dreams. Muslim theological authorities in each country have time and time again made the point that the days of religiously-inspired expansionism went out with the Middle Ages.
It is not strange that a modern-day supremacist ideology with aspirations of a super-state and a higher people emerged in the Middle East after World War I. The end of the age of empires led to the same phenomenon in Europe. Whereas European Fascist, Communist and Nazi parties emerged from the ashes of defeated European empires, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to Islamist parties emerging in the Middle East. The very same characteristics of expansionist super-states, a higher-people, and political party organisation are to be found in each of these supremacist phenomena. Such a development can be explained by the crisis of identity experienced by collective peoples in the aftermath of the old-world order empires collapsing.

From the Roots of Violent Islamist Extremism and Efforts to Counter it 

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