January 27, 2015
What Happened to Islam?

Azeem Ibrahim wrote an essay for the Chicago Tribune that, as published online for the Athens (Georgia) Banner-Herald, carried the headline Wahhabi perversion of Islam sows seeds of terrorism. An edited version of this essay was printed in the Albuquerque Journal Saturday. Ibrahim's essay begins

What happened to Islam?

All religions have their extremists. Self-described pastor Terry Jones caused an international furor when he threatened to burn the Quran. The Ku Klux Klan has been parading nominally Christian symbols like Bibles and crosses for centuries. But these movements are seen for what they are: cults that appropriate the symbolism and style of a religion for their own amoral ends. Yet when voices like Anwar al-Awlaki, or before him, Osama bin Laden, preach that Islam requires murder ó a straight reversal of the truth ó their message finds fertile ground.

How did Islam come to this point? Can we do anything about it?

I think there are at least two key pieces to the answer Azeem Ibrahim is looking for. These two address why different religions' "extremists" are seen differently and why Islam's extreme voices find such fertile ground.

Different religions' "extremists" are seen differently because they are different. Zen masters (Buddhist extremists), for example, "live austere lives devoted to meditation and teaching, just like Buddha did." They turn inward to try to practice Buddhism in its pure form. The lives of Hindu, Sikh, and Jain extremists (ascetics) are similar; some (the "sky clad") go so far in their rejection of material things that they eschew clothing. Catholic and Orthodox extremists (cloistered monks and nuns) likewise spend their lives in personal spiritual development.

Even the more dangerous religious extremists — Terry Jones and the Ku Klux Klan (the KKK) who he mentioned, and others like Jim Jones and David Koresh who he didn't mention — are distinct from Islamic extremists. Terry Jones was a danger only to select books, copies of the Quran. Jim Jones and David Koresh were dangerous only to their own followers. Only the KKK was dangerous to outsiders, and their interest was political rather than religious — which is why the KKK (founded after the US Civil War, not centuries ago) was known as the terrorist wing of the Democrats' Party. And, of course, the KKK never claimed its ideology called for the murder of non-believers or for world conquest.

The Islamic extremists are different from all these others. Only the Islamic extremists and cults preach that their religion requires murder and conquest. They are seen differently because they are different.

The other key piece addresses why Islam's extreme voices find such fertile ground. This piece has at least two important parts. One part consists of the large number of passages in Islam's scriptures (particularly the Quran and the Hadiths) calling for violence — against Jews especially, and against anyone who is not Muslim.

The other part, possibly related to the first, is the proportion of Muslims who accept and support the message of the extreme voices. Polls indicate 20% of Muslims worldwide support the extremists in their religiously-inspired terrorism; in other religions, it's a miniscule fraction of a percent. Note that each 1% of Muslims worldwide is something over 15 million Muslims supporting jihadist terrorism. That makes Islamic terrorism a very different kind of problem.

Ibrahim talks about his faith:

Most branches of Islam are quietist, pietistic, apolitical. These are the millions of Muslims for whom, like people of faith around the world, being religious means prayer, study and self-reflection.

The divergence within Islam began in the 18th century with the advent of Wahhabism, named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who believed Muslims had strayed from the authentic teachings of Islam. Muslims who did not agree with his teachings were excommunicated or killed in an effort to purge Islam from what al-Wahhab believed to be unsanctioned innovations.

Wahhabi military campaigns waged war against moderate Muslims, demolishing Islamic shrines and slaughtering entire villages of Muslims who did not subscribe to extremism. This same extreme ideology is behind the present-day destruction of shrines and mosques and the continuing violence against minority and mainstream Muslims all over the world such as the Shiites in Pakistan.

Ibrahim goes on to argue that "It is clear that Wahhabism isnít Islam — it is a cult movement that uses Islamic terminology and has hijacked the religion using petrodollars. In the process, its adherents are killing and maiming more Muslims than people of other faiths and are creating deep societal rifts and lasting enmities within their own communities."

A scene in pre-Taliban Afghanistan
This fits with what I noted in 2006, part of which may be summarized as follows: Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab produced an 18th century reinterpretation that said all post-8th century reinterpretations were invalid. His thought spawned the Salafist movement, including the Wahhabi and Deobandi sects. The Muslim Brotherhood built on al-Wahhab's work, successfully grafting onto it a totalitarian (extreme socialist) political ideology. Muslim Brotherhood writer Sayyid Qutb then provided the Brotherhood's jihadism with the more complete intellectual underpinnings that enabled it to spawn both al Qaeda and the Taliban. Thus, the recent (20th century) innovation is the grafting of a political ideology onto the older religious concept. So the modern jihadism — and the terrorism — that we see from the Salafis and Wahhabis (and their progeny) today is a 20th century graft onto an 18th century reinterpretation which, by al-Wahhab's own logic, is not an authentic Islam.

Or so we would all hope. Even so, as Ibrahim notes, "The global propagation of a doctrine that has been a parent to jihadism impedes counterterrorism efforts."

What about Azeem Ibrahim's second questions: "Can we do anything about it?" A possible answer to that question is the subject of A Modest Proposal, which I expect will be posted very soon.

UPDATE: This posting and its successor are available as a single two-part article here.

Category: Religion (Islam)

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