Category - Islam

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ISIS and Religion, continued
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Against a clash of civilizations: The Common Word
3
Soft Power Needed, Too
4
Islamic militants and violence against women and girls
5
Speaker for the Dead
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David Brooks Resounds John Owen
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ISIS and Religion

ISIS and Religion, continued

On September 10 President Obama delivered a televised address on the “Islamic State,” a.k.a. ISIS, a.k.a. ISIL, and America’s determination to defeat and destroy it.  At the outset the President stated that “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.”

It may seem presumptuous for a U.S. President to pronounce on what is and is not true to a given religion – particularly since this President does not adhere to the religion in question.  Political leaders, however, use words not primarily to describe the world as it is, but to move and steer people.  A President must be a rhetorician or he is not much of a President.  So we must receive this as a savvy piece of rhetoric, designed both to persuade non-Muslims and Muslims alike that ISIS is violating the tenets of Islam.

But what is the truth?  Is ISIS Islamic?

Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is grounded in sacred texts, some passages of which call on the righteous to kill the unrighteous, others of which depict them doing so.  Over the millennia, in various times and places adherents to all three of these religions have used these texts to justify their own violence.  Yet, most Muslims, Christians, and Jews never kill innocent people, and the leading theologians and clergy of all three today certainly do not condone their doing so.

Modern history has been plagued by a number of ideologies that do condone the killing of innocents – although these took pains to portray the innocent as guilty.  Nazism is the first to come to mind.  Communism as practiced by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot also is on the list.  These were grand narratives that told people that their discontents were caused by some malignancy in the world, personified in a group of people, and that they needed to kill those people to rid the world of the malignancy.

We might think of these murderous ideologies as branches of trees.  The branches sprout and flourish when some of the faithful come to believe that God’s plan requires, in the here and now, direct violent action by them to purify the world.  Genocidal communism was a secular ideology, growing out of less lethal (although still oppressive) forms of communism.  Nazism is best thought of as a pagan ideology, appealing to a mixture of pre-Christian myths and a de-Judaized “German Christianity.”  Radical Islamism or violent jihadism, as practiced by ISIS, is an ideological branch of Islamism, itself an ideology that declares that the faithful must live under state-enforced Sharia.  In turn, Islamism is a branch growing out of the religion of Islam.

Looked at in this way, Islam does not reduce to ISIS, nor does ISIS somehow express or reveal the essence of Islam.  At the same time, it does grow out of Islam.  President Obama’s attempt to separate the violent ideology from the religion could actually be harmful, because it implies that the West can defeat ISIS just as well as Muslims can.  If it is nothing but a nihilistic movement, a collective psychopathy unrelated to Islam, then Arabs may as well stand aside and let America handle it.

The truth, then, is that although Obama and other Western leaders must keep their countries safe from terrorism, and join with Muslim leaders in defeating ISIS, in the end it is up to Muslims to destroy this virulent branch that is now attacking the trunk from which it grows.

 

Against a clash of civilizations: The Common Word

Some commenters reject the attempts to distinguish ISIL from Islam more broadly. Their underlying belief seems to be that Islam is at war with the Judeo-Christian West. And it is a fact that self-described Islamic political actors have been fighting the West. The “clash of civilizations” story is alive and well. Yet there is a danger in the story: if people act as if the story is true, they risk turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Westerners will target Muslims, Muslims will target Westerners, and the conflict will escalate into all domains where Islam and West potentially collide. Wider still is what would happen if the story of civilizations at war extended to all Muslims and Christians–together, they make up over half the world’s population.

Other stories exist, yet haven’t reached many Muslims and Westerners. A crucial one is the path-breaking initiative in Muslim Christian relations known as “A Common Word Between Us”. This authoritative statement has been signed by diverse Muslim authorities from around the globe. The initiative seeks to affirm the two greatest commandments- to love God above all, and to love for one’s neighbor what one love’s for oneself- as the basis for relations between Muslims and Christians. It invites Christians to work with Muslims on this basis, and says that to do otherwise would be to risk not only our worldly well-being, but our very souls. The Common Word initiative provides principles for a constitutional reset in Muslim-Christian relations. As I have recently argued, institutional design founded on these principles can promote cooperation between Muslims and Christians.

Unlike the Catholic context, where the teaching of Nostra Aetate could be spread among Catholics within a generation through the structure of bishops, the Muslim world is decentralized. Religious instruction is not dominated by an ordained clergy, but by a less hierarchical community. Traditionally, well-trained scholars and spiritual masters were pre-eminent Muslim religious instructors. Consensus was difficult to achieve. In our age, traditional authority has further eroded, making consensus even harder. It is all the more remarkable that the initiative has been endorsed by such a wide geographic and theological range of Muslim scholars, including figures with tremendous reputations in different communities. The teaching thus has the status of an authoritative claim about how Muslims are to relate to Christians.

Despite an initial wave of publicity, the document is still not commonly known. To make the Common Word a widespread reality, creative emulation and reciprocation through networks and institutions are needed. This is not impossible. It demands transnational entrepreneurship, awareness-raising, and civic artisanship. Particularly valuable would be the demonstration that the initiative has provided meaningful avenues for the redress of grievances. This would help stem the turn to violent alternatives. Tangible results of cooperation can further change the clash story. And that possibility depends on what Muslims and Christians do now.

Soft Power Needed, Too

Not just the hard power of military force but also the soft power of building coalitions with moderate Muslims is needed to defeat Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq, Christian leaders argued at the In Defense of Christians summit that concluded today in Washington, D.C., according to Mark Stricherz over at Aleteia.

The summit was an effort to advocate for and show solidarity with Christian communities in the Middle East who have suffered dramatically in recent decades and are now remnants of what they once were.  Hosted by a group whose name is also In Defense of Christians, the summit assembled a remarkable cast of Christian leaders from across the region.

Hard power-ites might be skeptical — not of the summit or its cause but of the claim that anything but bombs will drive out the Islamic State.  It was no less a realist than General David Petraeus, though, who understood the importance of reconciliation with moderate Muslims in his leadership of the successful “surge” of 2007-2008 that allowed the U.S. to exit from Iraq without ignominy in 2011.  I’ve been reading about it in Surge, written by Peter Mansoor, Petraeus’ right-hand man during the operation.  Through the U.S. army’s reconciliation with Sunnis and through its encouraging the new national government to include Sunnis and Kurds in important positions, Sunnis were peeled away from their alliance with Al Qaeda, leaving Al Qaeda isolated and vulnerable.  None of this is to deny the thorough and brave counterterrorist operations that hunted down and rooted out Al Qaeda, but these alone could not have done the job, Mansoor argues.

Since the U.S. departure, it has been a lack of reconciliation among Iraqis that has allowed the Islamic State to rise as far as it has.  Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s failure to include Sunnis and Kurds in important parts of the national government allowed the Islamic State, despite its horrific tactics, to ally with Sunnis against the government – and has left the U.S. in the position of now having to send its (air) forces back in.

As I argued in an earlier post, reconciliation must go deeper than even Petraeus’ alliance-building.  In coming posts, I will offer concrete ideas of what this could involve.  One dimension, though, is alliances among religious leaders, whose spiritual and moral authority is a critical asset for building ties across factions.  We can be grateful for In Defense of Christians for bringing this to our attention.

 

Islamic militants and violence against women and girls

Today’s edition of the Washington Post tells the story of a 14 year-old Yazidi girl and her childhood friend, who were “given as gifts” to an ISIS commander and a cleric, respectively.  Their experience – including such vicious elements as attempted rape, abuse, beatings, and a terrifying but ultimately successful escape – recalls the practices of Islamic militants in Nigeria and elsewhere, where women and girls are kidnapped, enslaved, forced into marriages, and brutally assaulted.  It is important to note that men and boys are taken too, often killed or forced to fight for the militants.  Yet the pervasive pattern of violence against women and girls is especially disturbing, and it does not end in conflict zones.  As Nazir Afzal, Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England, notes, there are thousands of forced marriages and threats of forced marriage in the U.K. every year, and when the targeted women and girls resist, they can end up dead.  Defeating ISIS and combatting Islamic militancy is essential not just to protecting national security, but also to protecting the human dignity of women and girls everywhere.  So, too, must we work to stop the cultural practices that sanction and perpetuate such violence.

Speaker for the Dead

As séances go, says Timothy Larsen in the latest issue of Books & Culture, most tend to be awfully one sided: a question, a gust of wind, a tap on the desk, a flicker of the lights. Not much of a dialogue, he says, which sadly tends to be the way we deal with the dead even when we’re using the tools of history and not a Ouija board.

The pillaging of the past for clear and unambiguous stories that make sense of the present day is not a new problem, but it’s earned a special place in the conflagration in Iraq in the last month. Yesterday, the New York Times ran some easy reading on how “Longtime Rivals Look to Team Up to Confront ISIS,” a feel good round up about how pretty much everyone in the region is grudgingly putting aside old enmities to face ISIS/ISIL together. “I don’t think there’s been anything like this since the seventh century,” quoted one former American ambassador. It’s a delicious piece of journalistic overstatement, but it also fingers the pitiless, and instrumentalist, way the history of the region is often picked over in the moment to score today’s talking points.

There has, in fact, been something like this since the seventh century. The now accepted truism that Shia and Sunni Muslim traditions are nearly eternal and intractable enemies neglects not only the basic political-theological history of a region, often defined by its mutual vulnerability to external threats (say, the Mongol demolition of central Asia), but also long histories of exchange and dialogue between groups that might alarm us. S. Frederick Starr in his important new book, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane makes a long point that not only did scholars and theologians across ‘long time rival traditions’ engage in regular debate and dialogue, but that dialogue was itself the fruit of a great deal of scientific, philosophical, theological, and medicinal innovation. Further, he speaks at length of the central Asian legacy of these achievements, not only their Islamic origin, harkening both to Zoroastrian and Buddhist roots of what only retrospectively gets called the Islamic renaissance of culture and science. We hear stories about paper making in Khwarazm, of that jewel of trade and culture Samarkand, the astronomical sophistication of Balk, and the urban academies of Merv.

But to read (some) political commentary on war in the region today would convince you that rival political-theological traditions of Islam have been making total war on each other since the first Fitna (656-661). This is true in the same way as the wars of religion in Europe (1618-1648) were an uncomplicated contest between Protestants and Catholics, an easy history which all but the most committed dogmatics have long since abandoned. In fact, the history of central Asia is replete with historical facts on both sides of the argument – of fitnas and dynastic war, but also of interreligious, scientific, and cultural renaissance.

It serves present-day sensibilities, and sensationalism, to give a picture of a region/religion that is hopelessly and eternally divided, driven to aligning tactically on the back of the atrocities of ISIS/ISIL. Tactical alignment, as Nasr says, may be a present reality, but it is neither a first, nor last time, something like that has happened in a region, one time Center of the World, one time home of the world’s greatest, most enduring empires. Dan Philpott writes about the global resurgence of religion that the more interesting question is not ‘why religion is back’ but ‘why we [in the West] ever thought it went away.’ Larsen might say a version of that question is the more interesting for central Asia too. The more interesting question is not ‘why regional interests have aligned for the first time since the seventh century’ but ‘why we ever thought they hadn’t before.’

David Brooks Resounds John Owen

David Brooks’s column in the New York Times this past Thursday resounds John Owen’s post of August 30th arguing that ISIS cannot be understood apart from its religious ideas.  Brooks’ conclusion:

 

If ISIS is to be stopped, there will probably have to be some sort of political and military coalition. But, ultimately, the Islamists are a spiritual movement that will have to be surmounted by a superior version of Islam.

The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation. These are faiths that love the material world, especially the body. They’re faiths that understand that the high and the low yearn for each other, and that every human body has some piece of the eternal, even if you’re fighting against him.

 

 

ISIS and Religion

jowen

ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is a thing we have not seen before.  Not only is it carrying out a reign of terror in Iraq and Syria:  it also governs territory, has plenty of funding, and is displaying impressive military and logistical prowess.  ISIS members  have directly threatened Europe and North America.  The threat is real, possibly dire, and Westerners are going to have to adjust, again, to many months of high alerts and possibly some attacks.

Expect, too, shifts in our discourse about jihadist terrorism and religion more generally.  It is arguable that the catastrophic attacks of September 11, 2001, made Westerners more receptive to arguments against religion.  It may not be coincidental that 9/11 was followed by the marked rise of so-called New Atheism – led by aggressive religious skeptics such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett – and of the percentage of Americans who identify as non-religious.

The decrease in incidence of terrorism in the West, and the American-led wars and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, drew our attention away from jihadism and its meaning and causes.  Now we must pay attention again, and we can expect, once again, the predominance of three opposite views, all too simple.

First is the view that the fundamental problem is not religion at all, but material deprivation; poverty, many maintain, is the root cause of terrorism.  Empirical social science has thoroughly debunked that claim, but many have not gotten the word.  Second is the view that the fundamental problem is Islam.  Yes, Islam has much violence in its history and the Quran has passages that can incite violence.  But the same is true of other religions. Third is the view of the New Atheists and others that religion itself – which entails metaphysical beliefs not susceptible to empirical demonstration – is the problem.  But of course religious people are often peacemakers and work for justice or freedom, sometimes in times and places when non-religious people fear to tread.

Better to see radical jihadism as produced by a conglomeration of forces, one of which is not Islam or religion per se but a religious ideology, Islamism.  That ideology builds upon Islam but is particular to our historical moment.  Islamism arises out of traditional Islam’s ongoing encounter with modernity as carried by Western imperialism and Muslim secularizers of the 20th century.  As an ideology, Islamism is defined in opposition to various kinds of secularism.  As an ideology, Islamism is, in some ways, much like ideologies that roiled the Western world in decades and centuries past.  I will have more to say about this in the coming weeks and in my forthcoming book Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.