There is a push to reform Islam, by arguably Western standards. But if Islamic reform is achieved, it will still not spell the end of extremism. Extremist actors will continue to exist through political and social ambitions underlying such organisations and threats.
The issue is not the “religion” of Islam, but the politics of “Islam”. The recent Paris attacks and the subsequent French air strikes reaffirm what must be an obvious truth – both “religion” and “democracy” can inspire and justify not only the best but also the worst of human behaviour.
Calls for a “modern” Islam ignore the wider motivations and tensions playing a significant – yet overlooked – part in Islamic extremism. Reforming Islam in its entirety would potentially further vilify the religion and dismiss the wider context of “terror” organisations.
Recent comments by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, the authors of a new book on Islam, highlight this debate’s concerning nature. Any such argument’s shortcoming is the misrepresentation of Islam’s historical past.
Now more than ever, religion is being confused with politics – and calling for religious reforms in isolation from the wider political context is a dangerous path to take.
Islamic history is complex
Islamic history needs to be understood in context, not cherry-picked to suit certain political sentiments or agendas.
Muhammad’s revelation was based on socioeconomic factors and not religious reform. His religious concern was the “reversion” of people to the “true” faith of the One God as believed by Abraham and his descendants. The military part of his career defined his efforts to secure the livelihood of believers (al-mu’minin). Gradually, his aim was to establish social, political and economic stability.
There is a marked difference between Muhammad as the religious model and Muhammad as the founder of the Muslim state in Yathrib – later called medinat al-nabi, the “City of the Prophet”. Idealising Muhammad as the embodiment of Islam does not equate to an edict for all Muslims to become warlords and create a Muslim state.
Historical cases of extremist uprisings – including the rise of Islamic State – are steeped in political affairs, more aptly “Middle East politics”. The global Muslim attitude cannot be reduced to seventh-century politics. Nor can it even be reduced to the theology of the period, as Harris seems to do.
It might be a tired cliché, but in the scheme of things, one might as well say it, the Muslim world was far advanced compared to the West through the premodern and early-modern era. Placing these two worlds on the same timeline of “modernity” would be inaccurate.
Harris’ suggestion that Islam could never have had a “proper collision with modernity, secularism and science”, like Christianity, is misleading. Instead Islam had collided with the rising European socioeconomic powerhouse and colonial masters. The statement seems logical, but it is ahistorical and conceptually distorted when Islam had been the subject of a centuries-old economic war with the West.
Alternatives to a ‘modern’ Islam
Cautioning against reform does not neglect the need to change and grow. Organic growth and development is a subtle and slow process. A push for reform is not.
Islamic reform is a highly disruptive course of action. The Reformation, as a comparison, is nothing short of realising such fact. In the Middle East’s relatively short history as a modern geographical construction, Muslim-majority countries have endured enough disruption and turmoil. But there are alternatives that are actually productive.
There is no sure-fire prevention against radicalisation, nor a silver bullet for Islamism. Islam is a 1400-year-old religion with 1.57 billion adherents globally. Its tradition has evolved over time in complex ways; it has both contributed to civilisations it has come into contact with, and been shaped by them.
A call for Islamic reform simply overlooks some, or all, of this historical intricacy. It is yet another surgically invasive approach (identify, isolate and obliterate) that only adds to existing frictions, fuelling the flame of hostilities.
A solutions, systems-thinking approach to the issue is not in Islam’s reform or modernisation. Such an approach only seems to suggest an inherent fault with Islam or, worse yet, being Muslim.
The solution is rather in recognising existing strengths. Muslim civilisation has a rich and diverse intellectual culture. These elements might help to strengthen an Islamic narrative that is representative of an evolved 21st-century religion.
Looking beyond Islamism
The majority of Muslims differentiate between “religion” and “politics”. A greater fostering of this profound understanding is arguably key to defusing extremist narratives and radicalisation processes.
Nawaz’s “Voldemort affect” is actually quite clever. Yet the unnamed “evil” is not political Islam, nor radicalisation or jihadists. The real issue is the inability to ask the right questions. As a result, we fail to understand how such attitudes historically emerge and advance.
Assessments of Islam overlook that the essential religious practice does not necessarily translate into violence and extremism. This link is coincidental. Instead, it emerges through forced contexts of wars and is facilitated through the politicisation of religion and radicalisation of individuals.
This same philosophy, when tempered, can just as easily translate into the reflective criticism of the human condition. Perhaps it is time to stop viewing Islam through the narrow keyhole of Islamism.