When the Turkish republic abolished the Caliphate in 1924 and exiled the Imperial household, it would be in Nice that the deposed Ottoman Sultan would eventually take up residence. What Abdul Majid II would have made of Thursday night’s massacre can only be conjectured but I’d hazard a guess he would have been more than a little dismayed, despite France’s pivotal role in the dismemberment of his empire.
What lies behind such attacks is the burning question on the lips of millions across Europe and America. Untangling the Gordian knot of religion, political grievance, alienation, economic desperation and ideological indoctrination is a complex task, which partly explains why some prefer to simply cut it at the knot of Islamic theology. While denying that Islam as a faith is a component in the current crisis is disingenuous (or misinformed) it is essential to understand precisely the nature of its contribution before succumbing to the siren call of Islamic reformation.
That Islam is not liberalism is axiomatic. The former surrenders man to the servitude of a divine being knowable only through His revelation, the latter frees him from all constraints save those he voluntarily embraces in his personal pursuit of happiness. The two are as immiscible as oil and water. For sure there are “liberal interpretations” of Islamic scripture but then the demands of Islam’s soi disant reformers far exceed this: nothing less than a complete repudiation of Islam’s core theological tenets (e.g. the inerrancy of the Qur’an and the perfection of the Prophetic example). Whilst reforming Islam so that it resembles the agnostic Anglicanism of modern day Britain might seem an attractive proposition to Western minds, such a “reformation” unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your perspective) has as much likelihood of success as Andorra’s chances of lifting the World Cup in 2018. It simply is a non-starter, no matter the level of funding from neo-conservative foundations, and therefore not a viable solution to the contagion of terrorism we currently face.
Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s has always been an alien maxim to Muslim minds. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was, after all, a head of state, a law giver and a military leader in addition to his role as a spiritual guide. The prescriptions of the Shariah, the law that derives from the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions (the Hadith) address both the spiritual and temporal exigencies of the believer’s life. A codified version, the Mecelle, was utilised by the Ottoman state in its declining years but as a legal reference the Shariah had always been enforced across the Muslim world. In these respects Islam is sui generis in its relationship to politics. Secularism and the nation state, products of the European enlightenment, were a foreign imposition on the Muslim world, the result of colonialism and the dismemberment of the Ottoman Caliphate after its defeat in the First World War. In the decades that followed, the Middle East became a byword for authoritarianism and instability as its restive populations wrestled to reconcile a political reality many found at odds with their religious convictions.
Peaceful, democratic, attempts in recent decades to restore even a semblance of Islamic governance in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) have consistently met with violent suppression at the hands of the regions despots, with the tacit (sometimes overt) approval of Western governments. The problem, however, with utilising violent suppression is that there will come a point at which some will inevitably choose violence as a response, and if you happen to be aiding and abetting their oppressors you make yourself a target for their rage. The Islamic concept of Ummah – or global community – means that oppression meted out to Muslims anywhere in the world is suffered (in a spiritual sense at least) vicariously by all, including those living in the relative comfort of the West. It is the same sense of universal brotherhood that inspired the 7/7 bombers to avenge the deaths of their innocent Iraqi co-religionists and what probably, in part at least, inspired Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s murderous rampage in Nice.
The rise of virulent jihadism in the Muslim world is inextricably linked to the absence of a legitimate unifying Islamic polity which could claim the allegiance of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. In a twist of irony, it is the presence, therefore, not absence, of an Islamic state that is required to successfully eradicate the bane of terrorism. If we want an honest discussion of where the problem lies we must start with the thwarted aspirations of millions of Muslims; aspirations to live in dignity in accordance with their own systems and laws, free from external domination and interference. Equating the wishes of these multitudes with the retrograde barbarity of Islamic State is as bankrupt an argument as tarring all who wish to see a united Ireland as supporters of the Real IRA. Reducing Islam and Shariah to gross caricatures around the Hadd punishments might win plaudits from right-wing commentators and increase the flow of donations from American based foundations but it does little to ameliorate the situation we currently find ourselves in.
If, as so many glibly aver, Islam/Shariah itself is the problem and the root cause of terrorism, it must surely be asked why the world did not witness such attacks at the acme of Islamic power (or even during its period of terminal decline). One might be tempted to cite Ottoman expansionism, the conquest of Spain and so on but if we are to term these “terrorism” then the same would surely have to apply to colonialism and the post-colonial interventionism of the United States. Moreover, if, as polls consistently reveal, millions of Muslims believe in Shariah law and the re-establishment of a Caliphate (or at least some form of Islamic governance) why aren’t these same millions engaging in the sort of murderous behaviour witnessed in Nice and Paris over the last year?
If you’re wondering why I have made no mention of the ideology of Islamic State (and to a lesser degree Al Qaeda) it is because in the bigger picture it is irrelevant. It is a reactionary ideology born of frustration and desperation, alloyed with a deviant interpretation of Islamic scripture. The fact that virtually no Muslim (outside of their statistically insignificant membership), scholar or layman, subscribes to it is instructive as to just how otiose it is. Its defeat, however, won’t be achieved by the votaries of “Islamic reform” but rather by those who subscribe to the traditional Islamic interpretations the reformists are so eager to eviscerate.
In summary, Islam “is the problem” in as far as it doesn’t quadrate with secularism and liberalism, nor will it ever – a fact the West needs to come to terms with. To those clamouring at Muslims “to get their house in order” I can only respond that we would love to, in fact we have been attempting to for the better part of the last century, perhaps now it’s time we were allowed to do so.
May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon sayyidina, Muhammad.
[For a deeper insight into some of the topics I have raised above please refer here to my book review of ‘Islamic Exceptionalism’ by Brookings analyst, Shadi Hamid]