The Search for the Perfect Muslim (Part I - Fitting the Questions to Our Answers)

The source of my subjectivity about Muslims comes from having known a number of them personally and having spent a summer in a Muslim country in 1976.  Egypt in 1976, under the very heavy dictatorial hand of Anwar Sadat, was calm and pluralist.  Although there were occasionally attacks by Muslims on Christian Copts out in the villages among the uneducated, the country was otherwise quite safe.  (Oh, sorry.  In the last sentence I seemed to have accidently linked to episodes of Christian attacks on Muslims in calm and pluralist America.  Here is a proper summary on Muslim attacks on Copts in Egypt.  Please note the timeline.)

One memory that often comes to mind when I see American reactions to terrorist threats was what I saw in Cairo on 5 July 1976, the day after the Israeli raid to save hijacked Jewish hostages being held at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda.  If you will remember, the raid was brilliantly executed.  Almost all of the hostages were rescued and all the terrorists were killed. The Israeli attack force took light casualties with only one of their own lost.

The mood I saw among everyone I knew in Cairo was shock and a bit of fear.  It wasn't that people were opposed to the rescue.  It was that the Israelis had pulled off a rescue in Uganda and had flown there and back without the Egyptian, Saudi, or Sudanese air forces even noticing (much less the Ugandan air force).  If Israel could do that, they could do anything and there was quite a bit of speculation what they could or would do in Cairo next.

Of course, they did nothing in Cairo, but it was interesting to see how people's minds worked and it has been interesting to see how they have been working since.

My point here was that at least in 1976, they seemed to think like us.  Now, of course, the entire religion and all Islamic countries are suspect, and there has emerged a vast literature about who the Muslims are and whether or not there are any capable of being trusted in civilized society (in the long run).

To tackle this question, I would like to discuss two articles.  The first is a reasoned defense of what is usually the unreasonbly defended idea that there is a fundamental contradiction between Islam and the values of modern liberal society.  The second is a two part article that says that the contradiction between Islam and secularism and the whole Western idea about modern sectarian Islam is a myth.

 

 

In the article Liberal Islam is not the answer to Islamic State in the magazine Prospect, Zaheer Kazmi argues that:

From religious leaders to former extremists and western governments, a consensus has emerged since 9/11 that stresses the compatibility between Islam and the liberal values of civility, freedom and tolerance, as opposed to terrorist groups such as Islamic State (IS). Yet in many ways Islamist militancy and Islamic liberalism—though seemingly opposed—are two sides of the same reformist coin. They are both engaged in ideological projects for an Islamic revival in a time of western ascendancy.

His basic argument is in four parts and can be summed up in this way.  Modern Islamic liberalism is an idea that was forged in the 19th century in the context of and addressing questions related to the British Empire.  Their search began via references to "a mostly imagined account of Islamic history" of Islamic states that practiced tolerance (in Islamic Spain and in the Abbasid Caliphate).  These states were tolerant especially compared to Christian ones, but non-Muslims were nonetheless not equal citizens to Muslims. (That is, this tolerance was by no means secular tolerance as we know it in the West).  Muslim 19th century theorists, taking this "history" as a foundation, looked for similarities between Islamic values and Western liberal values.  But this project always looked at Islam through Western eyes and was not the creation of liberal values through Islam itself.  So the result was always a secularism and a democracy that diminished true Islamic values and created a contradiction that could not be mediated.  This was especially true, because the 19th century project (which still continues) was also a search for a definition of true Islam, which the author believes automatically reifies a definition of who is not a Muslim (even among people who consider themselves Muslim) and therefore reifies non-Muslims as outsiders

The author makes the following excellent point:

Theological distinctions... are important and legitimate undertakings in their own way, not least as they demonstrate the pluralism inherent in the religion. But nobody really expects the principles of a religious movement to be liberal, only that believers’ practices should be tolerant: otherwise there would be nothing distinctive about religion separate from a secular liberal order. 

In sum, both those pursuing a ''liberal Islam" and the fundamentalist Muslims lead to the same place; and Islam that by definition must remain separate from modern liberal values, because these will always conflict with any Islamic values.

In the two articles Washington's Sunni Myth and the CIvil Wars in Syria and Iraq, appearing on the website War on the Rocks, the author Cyrus Mahboubian (a pen name) makes the claim that the current Western idea of the nature of Islamic sectarianism and struggles over identity is simply false.  I believe that he would include the previous author's analysis in his claim, which is why I contrast the one to the other.  Mahboubian makes his arguments in the context of the civil war in Syria and I will attempt to address his basic points without a broader discussion of that war (that I will address in part two of this series).

His main argument seems to be that Sunni Muslims in general (and probably the Shiite Muslims as well) didn't have a particularly sectarian identity until the Iraq War in 2003.  The promoter of a sectarian identity is the Salafi (Wahhabi) movement funded by the Wahhabi state Saudi Arabia.  This promotion had made some headway in rural areas of Syria and Iraq (and in Afghanistan), but they neither became dominant nor even a threat in any intact secular state (including, before 2003, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, etc.).  Sectarian identity is therefore not something historically associated with modern Islam.  It is a specific political movement that has, in every case, arisen where state control has fallen and not been replaced by another state.   Interestingly, the Wahhabi Movement had its start in the late 18th and early 19th century.  But by the beginning of the 21st century it had only managed to capture Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf States.

Mahboubian claims that the historical thrust of the Islamic countries was towards secular states, and he tries to show that what remains of the Syrian state is evidence of this.  His reasoning is that even today, the bulk of the Syrian population is Sunni Muslim and the bulk of the Syrian army fighting ISIS is Sunni.  And it is not a war of moderate Muslims against fundamentalist Muslims.  It is a war against secularists against fundamentalists.  He believes that the idea of moderate versus fundamentalist Muslims is simply wrong and is playing into the hands of Salafists who want to invent a sectarian Sunni identity.

Of course, if the Sunni are sectarian, then the Shiites must be as well.  But Mahboubian points out that while the majority of the population of Eastern Iraq next to the Iranian border are Shiites, Shiite Iran has not managed to absorb Shiite Iraq.  The Iraqi Shiites are fighting for an Iraqi state.  And unlike the sectarian ISIS quasi-state, the Iraqi Shiites have not cleansed the minority Sunni from their midst.  In addition, Mahboubian claims that there are 40,000 Sunni in the Iraqi army fighting ISIS alongside Shiite soldiers.

While Kazmi's article is fairly well argued, it really depends on whether one accepts Islamic sectarianism as a constant movement within Islam or a recent development.  If it isn't a recent development, then how did the Islamic multi-ethnic secular states emerge to begin with?

(I am not arguing here for a return of someone like Saddam Hussein or for the US to start supporting Assad in Syria.  I am only pointing out that Islamic sectarian only seems to be something that arose in the last 20 years; not the last 1,400 years.  And that it might be, if one looks at actual Muslims and actual Muslim societies and their histories, that what we have been seeing in the last 20 years is an opportunistic (but well financed) sect taking advantage of political situation created, ironically, by the West.

 

 

unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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