The Trouble With Islam, Ctd

Below are a bunch of remaining emails from the huge wave we received last week on the subject of Islam:

As a frequent reader, I take issue with your recent post: “And the lack of such a [civil] space is a key tenet of the religion itself.” That is completely incorrect. I’m sure many Muslims feel that way, but you cannot categorically claim that’s a tenet of the religion. Go read Tariq Ramadan‘s extensive discourse on the topic, or Hamza Yusuf in America. Come visit my mosque in downtown Manhattan at NYU. I’m hard pressed to find Muslims that fit your stereotype that Islam is so dogmatic. Islam is based on Fiqh, or Reasoning and Logic.

Above is a video of British imans speaking out against violent sectarianism. Another reader, born and raised in Pakistan, points to more resources:

Here is a Friday sermon by Yasir Qadhi on ISIS and what they mean for Islam (it’s 36 minutes long, but maybe you’ll listen to it).  And here is a small article from the Al Madinah Institute that takes Muslim scholars in Muslim countries to task for their silence in the face of oppression.

I get that Western-style liberal democratic cultures don’t exist in many parts of the Islamic world. However, a world of 1.5B people spread across a hundred countries cannot be binary – either like us or not.  In each country, liberalism exists along a spectrum; it is a work in progress, and it is also a product of history, politics, economics, extra-Islamic social mores, and not just Islam itself. And this is true even in liberal democratic societies.  Israel has all the markers associated with a liberal society and yet some really deranged illiberal attitudes are embraced by a large segment of that society. Is Judaism to blame for that?

Correlation is often never causation, and you make that mistake here, Andrew.  Just because ISIS and Al-Qaeda are Muslims doesn’t mean they have anything to do with Islam.

Another also invokes “correlation isn’t causation”:

There are too many examples of extremist Islam in today’s world to ignore the issue. However, people who take this issue seriously should consider what alternative hypotheses might explain the correlation, and what evidence might contradict the hypothesis that present Islam causes violence. Two major points here:

1. Majority-Muslim countries and other countries with Islamic governments are concentrated in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Is it possible that awful politics and dysfunctional economies in these regions explains the chaos and poverty that can often lead to violent religious movements?

2. Outside these regions, Islam does not look so bad after all. Indonesia is home to 200 million Muslims, or just over 12% of the global Muslim population. India and Pakistan are tied for 2nd place with 177-178 million Muslims each (Pew 2010 via Wikipedia). Which one has the overwhelming majority of the Islamist violence?

Don’t look at India, which has a oddly robust democratic tradition (warts and all) and a growing economy. I will admit that India’s Muslims are probably kept in check by the Hindu majority to the extent that Indian Muslims need a check, but I still don’t see how 2 out of the 3 largest Muslim populations can be ignored in your assessment of global Islam. Neither are India’s Muslims undermining the safety or security of their government or fellow citizens. Indeed, most of them could serve as models for Muslims in Europe and Britain.

I am cherry-picking of course, but so are you when you speak about the current state of Islam. You lend too much credence to ISIS/ISIL and its prominence in the news cycle when you make broad conclusions about Islam.

Of course, cherry-picking aside, there is a strange correlation between Islam and extremist governance. Is there a connection between the 98% Muslim population in the Aceh region of Indonesia (which is only 87% Muslim overall), its violent rebellion against Jakarta, and its current implementation of sharia law? Why are American Muslims more integrated in the national culture when compared with British and European Muslims? These and other questions would be great topics for your blog.

I realize that you were egged on to make some statement of your views, and that this blog format is not conducive to an analysis of Islam‘s total state at the global level. I also don’t feel that you should censor your blog to be sure and avoid offending people or their sensibilities. Nonetheless, you and a lot of other commentators are relying heavily on an observed correlation between Islam and extremism, without considering how many destabilizing factors have affected impoverished regions that perchance are home to Muslim-majority populations.

Sure, other non-Muslim majority regions like Central America might be poorly governed and undercapitalized, but no external power fucks with Honduras or Guatemala as has been done with Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, which have each in turn been the most prominent jihad exporters over the last 25 years. Some of the meddlers include other Muslim countries like our ally and jihad exporter Saudi Arabia and also our arch-enemy Iran, but other top meddlers include Russia and the United States. Oops!

Setting social policy aside (as many countries have retrograde social policies unrelated to Islam), only a small handful of Muslim countries actually pose a risk to global peace and security. We would do better to focus more on that short list of terrorism exporters first before expanding the scope of discussion up to an entire religion with 1.6 billion believers. It could make them feel better, but it’s also a much more efficient way to identify the root causes of terrorism.

Another turns to the Koran:

The ongoing discussion brought to mind an article that Nicholas Kristof wrote for the NYT back in 2004 titled Martyrs, Virgins and Grapes. He talks about the origins of terms in the Koran and explains how they may be re-interpreted.

The Koran is beautifully written, but often obscure. One reason is that the Arabic language was born as a written language with the Koran, and there’s growing evidence that many of the words were Syriac or Aramaic. For example, the Koran says martyrs going to heaven will get “hur,” and the word was taken by early commentators to mean “virgins,” hence those 72 consorts. But in Aramaic, hur meant “white” and was commonly used to mean “white grapes.” Some martyrs arriving in paradise may regard a bunch of grapes as a letdown.

Another points to some interesting scholarship:

While I have seen a number of readers cite the influence of colonialism on the development of Islamic radicalism, most seem to be focusing more on colonialism’s sociopolitical aspect rather than its effect on the faith itself.  While at McGill University I had the pleasure of studying under Wael Hallaq (now of Columbia’s much vaunted Middle East Institute), who put forth the argument that the “sharia” law that Islamist movements are supposedly based upon is to some degree a Western creation.

Hallaq’s case rests upon the institution of ijtihad, or “independent reasoning”, a central part of historical Islamic jurisprudence.  Traditionally, ijtihad was used to interpret laws based on the Quran and the hadiths to fit within the society the laws governed (this last point is key).  Essentially, legal doctrine was not strongly codified but instead malleable as society grew and matured through the ages, to be interpreted and adjusted with changing times.  Point being, a far cry from the imagining of sharia law that has it rising out of the desert and marching on unaltered for 1,400 years.

While there is debate as to whether the “doors of ijtihad” were closed prior to European intervention, Hallaq argues that they remained cracked open, at the very least, and that it was only Westerners, with their insistence on codifying laws, that froze existing laws in place.  Who did these Westerners ask for guidance when codifying those existing laws?  Elites who were already in power, who had every reason to solidify existing power structures.  Essentially, the argument goes that without so much Western interference in the Middle East, there would be significantly more room to maneuver within Islamic law, but due to codification by Western powers we’re now stuck with these laws as written ones, concrete ones rather than something that might be more malleable.

This is obviously quite controversial both inside and outside Islam, and perhaps an overly rosy view of ijtihad. but it is interesting food for thought in determining what exactly Islam is, and in reassessing our own views and biases towards the faith.  For what it’s worth, Hallaq has no dog in this fight, being an atheist born into a Christian family, which perhaps puts him in a unique position to analyze the issue both from within, given his Arabic linguistic and cultural background, and without, given his faith.

One more knowledgeable reader:

Joshua Mitchell’s idea that the people of the Middle East are unable to cope with the freedoms offered by modern democracy, and therefore seek refuge in a re-enchanted world which they attempt to establish through religious fundamentalism is historically wrong on almost every count.

For one, Islamic fundamentalism is not in any meaningful way a turn back to an enchanted world. The world of Islamism is thoroughly disenchanted: there is a strict and rational (although by no means scientific) cosmology, and rigid external control and social order – there is no place for mystery in this world.

Second, the kind of social order Islamism is imagining, the type of totalitarianism ISIS is seeking, is thoroughly modern. The sectarianism on which it is built is not the continuation of primordial divides in Islamic history, but the mirroring of modern identity politics onto the sphere of religious communities where the national divides which came to be the framework of Western democracy did not exist. We should keep in mind that nationalism is the countermovement of democracy, that the universal equality proposed by global democracy de facto is reigned in by the division into “imagined communities”, providing the ideological coherence that the democratic enterprise needs. In Europe those came into being as nations, and we should not overlook the quasi-religious character nationalism can take. In the Arab Middle East the sense of national difference is minimal, so it was much easier to harness sectarian difference to create the same “imagined communities”. In fact, the notion of the religious frequently prevents us from seeing that the divides we are dealing with are thoroughly political, and that they mean very little at the level of theology.

Finally, I cringe when I read the term “ready for democracy”. I have met plenty of people from Middle Eastern countries who seek nothing more than the opportunity to live in a truly democratic society. Have we forgotten that the Arab Spring, that the Syrian uprising began as a revolt against dictatorship, demanding freedom and democracy? Have we forgotten the liberal spirit of Turkey’s Gezi Park protests? Who and what is missing in the Middle East?

Part of the answer is the paradox formulated by German constitutional judge Wolfgang Böckenförde in the 1970s: “The liberal secular state depends on conditions which it cannot guarantee by itself.” More specifically, the establishment and the defense of democratic order depends on a buy-in by its constituents that the state cannot create or enforce. Therefore, the fostering of a democracy is easy to prevent, and its continuation always precarious.

Finally, let us keep in mind that there are also plenty of people in the West, who are not “ready for democracy”, but would not hesitate a second to dismantle it if they saw an advantage in it. The various little steps the GOP is taking to undermine and manipulate democratic processes, in my view, point to exactly this lack of commitment to democracy in the sense of Tocqueville.