Western powers have been trying—and failing—to dictate what Islam should be for centuries. It's time for them to stopby Sameer Rahim / February 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
After the London Bridge attacks last June, Theresa May told the nation that a purely military response to Islamic State (IS) was insufficient. What was needed, she said, was a battle of ideas. The prime minister added that there was “far too much tolerance of extremism,” and that certain communities—for which read British Muslims—weren’t doing enough to tackle the problem. They needed to be “made to understand” that “British values” were “superior” to “anything offered by the preachers… of hate.”
In the wake of such an attack, few British people—of any faith—would argue with a preference for law-abiding mutual respect over the bloody chaos unleashed by fanatical attackers. But what precisely, beyond rejecting terrorism, did May hope to make Muslim communities “understand”? And how?
Her statement didn’t spell out the answer to either question, but it hardly mattered. The words and deeds of British governments over a decade or more show fairly clearly what she had in mind. Under New Labour, the Home Office cultivated links with recovering Islamists keen to promote their newfound love for British values. Back in 2011, David Cameron jetted to the Munich Security Conference, decried “passive tolerance” and avowed a “much more active, muscular liberalism.”
More recently, Amanda Spielman—the businesswoman the Conservatives controversially brought in as Ofsted chief inspector—also called for a more “muscular liberalism” in the classroom, in a speech whose target was plainly religious Muslims. One narrative runs through these interventions—that the antidote to violent Islamism is western modernity, defined as a particular (and, for Britain, rather recent) form of social liberalism, alongside a religion-free public sphere.
But how would that work? Does it mean that the 2.8m Muslims who call Britain home have to abandon their faith to properly assimilate? Or does it mean—just as problematically—the state nurturing an Islamic-inflected liberalism, enforced by a centrally-approved religious authority?
After the attacks in Barcelona last August, the Times columnist David Aaronovitch flexed some liberal muscle, and went for the second option. For any Muslim who doesn’t want to travel the whole way to atheism with him, Aaronovitch offered a “progressive form of Islam” that throws off the shackles of the past and becomes “British and therefore modern.”
Like other muscular liberals he wasn’t unduly detained by the question of why Muslims would listen to him. But he did acknowledge that the question of who would ordain such Islamic modernity is, to put it mildly, vexed.
Islam, at least its majority Sunni version, has no institution to thrash out theological cruxes and no universally acclaimed figurehead to articulate doctrine. Instead we have a set of diverse sects with aspiring leaders competing for followers. So voluminous are its sacred texts—the Koran and stories from the Prophet Mohammed’s life, or hadith, add up to many times the length of the Bible—that you can say (pretty much) anything and find justification for it.
Historically Islam has moulded itself to the culture in which it finds itself. Medieval Persian artists had no problem depicting the Prophet with his face uncovered, something absent in the Arab tradition. Today, Indian Islam is distinct from the austere Saudi Arabian kind. Visit the Nizamuddin shrine in Delhi and you will find men and women singing together—in stark contrast to Mecca. The remarkable flexibility of the faith—in a way the muscular liberals fail to grasp—is part of its strength.
Thoughtful British Muslims welcome efforts to open up religious discussion, to debate controversial issues ranging from women’s rights to sectarianism. They resist the dominance of hardline imams, and the terrorists who bomb Sufi shrines in Pakistan or burn medieval books in Mali. And if you know where to look, you will find emerging organic forms of western Islam.
Yet while I’m personally enthusiastic about such innovation—let a thousand flowers bloom, I say—it also seems obvious to me that crude attempts to impose a division between “good, modern, liberal” Muslims versus “bad, old, conservative” Muslims are dangerous and self-defeating. Such simplistic labelling politicises every impulse to reform before it can put down roots, and such politicisation—in this case a western-approved “safe” Islam—will always alienate more than it attracts.
When May and Aaronovitch claim liberal Islam is the only way the religion should be interpreted, they trample on the religion’s diversity. If imposed liberalism were to succeed in crushing religious variety, it would also damage pluralism—one of the values May has claimed as essentially British. The paradox can be seen in the work of the new counter-extremism head, Sara Khan, a British Muslim who has worked with the government’s Prevent programme.
Prevent obliges public sector workers—including teachers—to spot signs of radicalisation, policing what Khan calls rather sinisterly in her book The Battle for British Islam “the pre-criminal space.” Prevent effectively sets a template for correct thought, something that should worry open-minded liberals.
As well as being conceptually confused, Khan’s approach is doomed to failure on the security front. As any criminologist will tell you, there is no single path to violence: for some it’s ideology; for others identity issues or the thrill of dominance. Motivations are usually mixed. But for Khan, the root explanation is always cultural-religious.
This is a shame because her organisation Inspire does worthwhile campaigns in Muslim communities, especially for women. But the imprimatur of Prevent taints it, and her demands for blanket uniformity—“Muslims must define what Islam stands for in the contemporary era,” she says—makes her the mirror-image of the narrow Islamists she deplores.
It is not the rigidity of Islam, as Khan implies, but its flexibility that renders it vulnerable to terrorist ideology. In the early days of the Afghan mujahideen’s fight against the Soviet invaders, religious scruples about suicide made it almost impossible to find anyone willing to blow themselves up. After 40 years of war, the Taliban has developed a theological justification for killing yourself and any innocents who get in the way. Context changes everything. And for two centuries, as liberal commentators keen to impose their standards on the religion fail to realise, it is the west which has created much of that context.
Fourteen years after the bloody crushing of the 1857 Indian Rebellion, a colonial civil servant called WW Hunter—the Aaronovitch of his day—wrote an influential book called The Indian Musalmans: Are they Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? Hunter concluded that with the right education Muslims could be convinced to be peaceable. Not by anything so crude as converting them to Christianity; instead the British would convert—or should we say reform—Islam itself.
“In the very process of enabling them to learn their religious duties,” wrote Hunter, “we should render that religion perhaps less sincere, but certainly less fanatical.” He rounded off his book with fatwas or edicts from handpicked Indian clerics declaring it was forbidden to rebel. Why would they want to? Colonialism meant progress: “The luxuriant religions of Asia shrivel into dry sticks when brought into contact with the icy realities of western science.”
By this time, western meddling with Islam was well established. It was back in 1798 that Napoleon had attacked Egypt, after—he later claimed—he had seen the Prophet appear to him in a dream. This most muscular of leaders justified his invasion by claiming he wanted to free the peasants from the Mamluk rulers; in reality, he was more concerned with pressing back against Britain. At the Battle of the Pyramids, the Egyptian army was smashed by the technologically superior French. Napoleon’s troops later turned their cannons on Al-Azhar, a great intellectual centre of medieval Islam, ransacking the library and trampling copies of the Koran.
Although the French stayed only three years, they had a profound impact on the development of Egypt. They set up a national institute for mathematics, political economy and the arts; they built mills and improved irrigation; they turned mosques into cafés, or made them fly the Tricolore. Eventually French scholars produced the magisterial 23-volume Description of Egypt.
Looking back at this long history of western disruption and influence, Christopher de Bellaigue notes sagely that, “There is something wonderfully earnest and yet wholly irrelevant about westerners demanding modernity from people whose lives are drenched in it.” In his impressive book, The Islamic Enlightenment, de Bellaigue points out how many Islamic reform movements there have been since the early 19th century.
Picking broadly the same figures as Albert Hourani in his classic Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age (1962), De Bellaigue offers potted biographies of the charismatic thinkers and rulers who desperately wanted their societies to catch up with the western nations that had dominated them.
It is this domination, he believes, that has tainted liberalism’s appeal in the Middle East: “The violence and ignorance that we often see today being glorified by a minority of Muslims should in fact be seen as blowback from the Islamic Enlightenment.” That blowback was against western-style secularism imposed across the Muslim world during the 20th century—from Turkey to Iran to the Ba’athist Arab states.
Muslim reformers such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (1801-1873)—born the year the French left Egypt—were awed by the Napoleonic legacy. Tahtawi travelled to France and wrote a memoir in which he praised its cleanliness, education, intellectual curiosity (“they always want to get to the root of the matter”) and lack of pederasty—a common problem in the east. But though Tahtawi was enthused by Europe’s “pluralism, freedom and rights,” writes de Bellaigue—even translating the “Marseillaise” into Arabic—they also gave him an inferiority complex. So he undertook to trace these same ideas back to the Koran and the Prophet’s sayings, sketching the template for later liberal Islamic thinkers.
Islam doesn’t stand still—and its changes take many, competing forms. In that same year of 1798, while Napoleon was wading into Egypt, another very different reform movement was undergoing a resurgence: Saudi-Wahhabis rebelled against Ottoman rule in Arabia. The alliance was founded in 1744 by the sheikh Muhammad ibn Saud and theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who were a bit like Reformation Puritans.
Not only did they want to overthrow their Ottoman masters, they also wanted to purge Islam of cultural accretions they regarded as inauthentic. By 1802 they had sacked Karbala, the holy Shia city; they also targeted Sunni sites, pulling down images and shrines as they conquered Mecca. Medieval Islam brimmed with spirits and saints, Sufism and esoteric philosophy. For the Saudi-Wahhabis, all this was to be pruned in favour of a streamlined, singular Islam.
It would be easy to cast these two movements—the west-facing modernity of Tahtawi and hardline Wahhabi conservatism—as the good guys and the bad guys of Islamic reform, whose descendants are battling it out today. In reality, they were two sides of the same coin. Both were formed in response to imperialism and appealed to a supposed Islamic authenticity. Both disliked the free-wheeling world of pre-modern Islam. And both regarded religion instrumentally, as a vehicle for political and social change. Both Islamic liberalism and political Islamism were—and still are—products of a shared modernity.
One can see the overlap in the Arab thinker Rashid Rida (1865-1935). He advocated latitude in religious interpretation, encouraging Muslims to interpret the Koran with their own reasoning. He accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution and said the story of Adam and Eve, which appears in the Koran, was allegorical not literal. Yet he supported the Wahhabis and was fiercely sectarian, declaring that Shiism was “full of fairy tales.” Like Napoleon, Rida was convinced he could dispel old superstitions.
Being modern meant ditching the mystical Islam of the middle ages and pursuing a disciplined, masculine faith tough enough to take on the British. For that to happen, western ideas needed to be raided. “Jihad is a binding duty on Muslims,” he wrote, “but it is a duty which cannot be performed unless they are strong, and in the modern world they cannot be strong unless they acquire the sciences and techniques of the west.” Today, Rida inspires both Muslim liberals and jihadis.
That may sound puzzling, but in fact it makes sense. As Faisal Devji argues in the excellent essay collection Islam After Liberalism, in the 20th century, modernity in Muslim countries rarely went hand-in-hand with liberal democracy—think of the secular brutality of Saddam’s Iraq. Political slogans about dragging Islam into the contemporary world betray ignorance not only of Islam’s long exposure to liberal ideas, but also to the recent political history of the Middle East.
The case of Turkey is one which should give the muscular liberals pause—demonstrating how crackdowns on religion often lead to a dangerous backlash. The 19th century saw a host of reforms under the Ottomans—from telegraph networks, to a professional civil service and the emancipation of religious minorities. These measures culminated in the abolition of the sultanate in 1922. But transforming patchwork Ottoman identities into a singular Turkishness was a violent process. There was no place for Christian Armenians, who were massacred in huge numbers between 1915 and 1917; nor the Kurds, who are still fighting for their own nation.
Kemal Atatürk, the country’s secular founder, is often credited with pushing religion into the private sphere and supporting women’s rights. Yet he was also a strongman who closed Sufi lodges and banned the Ottoman script, cutting his people off from their roots. The contemporary Islamist resurgence in Turkey attempts to reconnect with that lost past. Once secularists decided that religion was a problem to be stamped out, Islamists could counter-claim that Islam was the solution. When the AKP came to power in 2002, with a platform that included some very modern neo-liberal economics, it turned the Kemalist state on its enemies.
IS are the inheritors of modernity, too. Its founders were originally pro-Saddam secularists who took control of the resistance networks in northern Iraq that the dictator had prepared in the event of his downfall; during the US occupation these networks were hyper-charged with religious zeal.
Yet the mass public killings and ideological punishments of IS are more reminiscent of the French Revolution than anything in Islamic history. Even its desperation to recruit westerners—and the prominent roles they give them in beheading videos—show a perverse intimacy with the very people they claim to most hate.
IS literature seems super-Islamic, but the approach is quite unlike classical commentaries. Instead the articles read like they were written by western-educated engineers doing a bad impression of a humanities essay—which is what they often are. (See the 2016 book Engineers of Jihad by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog.) As De Bellaigue writes: “To its intense irritation, Islamism itself was shot through with Enlightenment values.”
Take slavery. It had long been central to Islamic societies. It isn’t forbidden in the Koran, and the Prophet (like Thomas Jefferson) owned slaves. Yet the texts are ambiguous enough to allow new interpretations. The Koran exhorts equality, and so freeing a slave is highly merited. When the Tunisian leader Ahmed Bey closed the slave markets in the 1840s, he could in conscience declare human bondage was “contrary to religion.” Yet there is little evidence he was religiously motivated; he was more likely adjusting to a changing agricultural economy, and a desire to present himself as a “civilised” monarch to the French.
A few years later, the Ottomans also started to abolish slavery. “It is a shameful and barbarous practice for rational beings to buy and sell their fellow creatures,” said Sultan Abdulmecit. “Are not these poor creatures our equals before God?” Note the order: rationalism first, then religion.While it is true that 19th-century Islamic liberalism did go hand-in-hand with some real improvements, it is important not to confuse cause and effect.
Most of the time, theological change caught up with societal change, not the other way round. It was certainly not the ubiquity of some “correct” Islam that nudged things forward; rather, it was the flexibility of the faith that allowed it to adjust.
Some clerics grumbled while others fell in line. Since there was no central Islamic authority to declare slavery forbidden, each country went at its own pace—the laggard being Saudi Arabia, which waited until 1962. The orthodox consensus today is that the Prophet had wanted to abolish slavery but was stymied by Arab customs. Only now, the argument runs, are we able to fulfil God’s original intentions. Rashid Rida explained the shift as being in “the public interest.”
This idea of the public interest, or maslaha, has been a key component of modern Islamic theology. It is a way of sanctioning huge change without acknowledging anything essential has changed at all. You can see the same phenomenon in Christianity as it reconciles itself to social progress; or indeed in the interpretation of the US constitution which, for many years, was read as compatible with slavery.
Islamic abolition required everyone to tactfully ignore Koranic verses that mention slaves. That’s why it caused such a moral crisis when IS gleefully smashed the consensus in 2014. To justify its treatment of Yazidis, an IS magazine claimed that slavery “is a firmly established aspect of the sharia that if one were to deny or mock he would be apostasising from Islam.” This is an anachronistic and nakedly self-serving interpretation posing as an ultra-traditional one. It doesn’t make IS non-Muslims—liberal Muslims also push scripture to its limits—but it does make them callous and unsophisticated ones.
What is vital to note, though, is that IS fighters rape women for the same reason Bashar al-Assad’s secular army does the same (on a vaster scale): to exert dominance and spread fear. The only difference is the justification. So they will never be convinced by fatwas telling them what they are doing is un-Islamic—no matter how much that makes Muslims feel better, or softens anti-Muslim feeling in the west.
So what can be done about the problems besetting “the Muslim world”? We could start by questioning that sweeping term. As Cemil Aydin points out in The Idea of the Muslim World, “Muslim societies are more divided than ever, riven by civil wars and protracted conflicts across borders”; and they are divergent economically, culturally and politically. Looking at them solely through the lens of a shared religion—practised in very different ways, sometimes hardly practised at all—is an error.
There is too much Islam in Muslim studies. Instead, look to bread-and-butter issues: economic problems; blundering interventions; dictatorships; inequality; climate change. All of these contributed to the rise of IS—religion was merely the activating agent. Ameliorate these problems, give people an accountable government and the chance of a job, and violent religious movements that pretend to hold the answers could lose their allure.
Instead of attempting to impose a narrowing uniformity in the name of modernity, some of the freshest Muslim thinkers are looking to the pre-modern past to imagine a different future. Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam?, published shortly before the author’s death in 2015, is an erudite love letter to borderline practices—poetry and philosophy, miniature painting and wine-drinking—that flourished before Enlightenment reformers tidied up the faith.
The book argues that, far from being backwards obscurantists, medieval Muslims were able to accommodate sophisticated paradoxes better than we moderns. Uniformity was much less easy to enforce without the tools available to the modern state. There is, perhaps, a lesson in that. Turning untamed, vast, diverse Islam into attenuated concoctions such as Islamism or western-certified Islamic liberalism is akin to pouring an ocean into a teacup.
Given the variety in its history, there is no reason why an organic westernised Islam cannot exist alongside all the other kinds—and, contrary to the image of their implacable conservatism, many British Muslims are leading the way. Last summer a Leeds-based imam announced he wanted to set up a national council to issue “progressive” rulings on forced marriage and honour crimes.
The UK’s Inclusive Mosque initiative—inspired by the African-American scholar Amina Wadud—has experimented with female-led collective prayers. During Ramadan, I was invited to break my fast at the Big Gay Iftar held in London—unthinkable a few years ago.
Interesting new publications include Ziauddin Sardar’s journal Critical Muslim, the sparky collection of humour, essays and photographs in Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic, edited by Lynn Gaspard, and the recently launched ‘zine, The Khidr Collective, founded by a group of young artistic Muslims.
In a recent review of Simon Schama’s ongoing Jewish history, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams challenged the idea of eradicating multiple traditions “in the name of absolute public uniformity,” and suggested instead that living together must involve “the harder work of managing the reality that people have diverse religious and cultural identities.”
For British Muslims—and I suspect for some British Christians like former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron—managing that reality is a daily task: compromising here, staying firm there; abandoning rules that don’t make sense, keeping others that work. Islam’s many strands will either flourish or pass into history as the social circumstances—and the needs of its adherents—determine they should. The clunky interventions of muscular liberals are unlikely to help since British Muslims are already—like everyone else—in a dynamic adjustment with modernity.
Making such adjustments can be an exhausting process, especially under the keen eyes of boundary-policing Islamists or government watchdogs. But it is also exhilarating to see new cultural hybrids being thrown up. The English convert Tim Winter, also known as Abdul Hakim Murad, runs a Muslim choir in Cambridge. One of his songs is an Arabic hymn in praise of the Prophet set to the tune of an old English folk tune. The words and music match with a breathtaking beauty, and transform seeming opposites into a united whole. For me, that sounds like home.