Political Islam: Questions 4, 5, 6 & 7


In the previous blog Colin Chapman addressed the first three important questions:
1. What do we mean by 'Political Islam' and how does it differ from other kinds of Islam?
2. Is Islam essentially more political than Christianity?
3. Why has political Islam become so significant in recent years?
In this blog he has addressed questions 4, 5, 6 and 7.
4. Where has ISIS (ISIL) come from?
5. Is it true to say 'ISIS has nothing to do with Islam' or to say 'ISIS is nearest to real Islam than moderate Islam?'
6. Some say that the root of the problem is Islamic scripture and dogma, while others say it's a matter of history and politics. Is it either/or or both/and?
7. Is political Islam always likely to tend towards violence?
In the next blog he will address the last three questions 8,9 and 10.
8. What are the other faces of political Islam today?
9. What are the most appropriate responses to political Islam?
10. What are the most appropriate Christian responses to political Islam?
A presentation by Colin Chapman took place at a meeting in London, England, on June 16, 2015.  Colin Chapman has worked in Egypt and Lebanon for 18 years in three different spells, and is now enjoying semi-retirement in Cambridge, England. In his last full-time post he was teaching Islamic Studies at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon, and he is at present a visiting professor in the master's program at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. His books include Cross and Crescent: Responding to the Challenges of Islam (IVP) and Whose Promised Land? (Lion Hudson UK, with a new edition to be published in October this year).
Here is how Colin Chapman addressed questions 4, 5, 6 and 7. 
Patrick Cockburn of The Independent has been the best British journalist at explaining the origins of ISIS[i]. And in March of this year Der Spiegel[ii] published some highly significant documents that had been captured from ISIS. Writers like these have shown that the 2003 war in Iraq and the civil war in Syria, which began in 2011, together created the vacuum in which ISIS came into existence. After bringing down Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘ath regime, the Americans disbanded the whole army, leaving 350,000 angry men without work or pay. Many of these soldiers together with officials from the government and the secret services who had been running Hussein’s police state joined forces with al-Qa'eda in Iraq and brought with them many skills (including skills in running a state, finance and digital media) that were then used in creating the new Islamic state. So there was a kind of unholy alliance between Islamists and Ba‘athists.
The other important factor is that the Sunnis in Iraq, who are about 20% of the population, were always resentful of the way they had been excluded from power by Hussein, and then marginalised after 2003 in the new government by the Shi‘ites who numbered around 60%. The fear and hatred of the Sunnis towards the Shi‘ites is so strong that many Iraqi Sunnis would rather be ruled by ISIS than by the Shi‘ites.
This then was the political context in which al-Qa'eda in Iraq developed into IS or ISIS. If Iraqi and other Arab Sunnis provided the main leadership and the tactical skills, it was the Wahhabi beliefs of al-Qa'eda that provided the ideological basis for ISIS, which included four important strands:
(a) a desire to copy the beliefs and practices of the salaf, the first generation of Muslims, sitting lightly to the teaching of the four main schools of Islamic law;
(b) a close alliance between Islam and the state so that the state must be Islamic and uphold Islamic law;
(c) a strong antipathy towards Shi‘ites as heretical Muslims (this would include the Alawite regime of the Assads, the Iraqi Shi‘ites and Iran) and towards non-Muslims  (which would include the West);
(d) a strong rejection of un-Islamic practices or beliefs.
The context and the ideology are therefore equally important for understanding the origins of ISIS. ‘ISIS is the child of war.’ Says Patrick Cockburn. ‘Its members seek to reshape the world around them by acts of violence. The movement’s toxic mix of extreme religious beliefs and military skill is the outcome of the war in Iraq since the US 2003 invasion and the war in Syria since 2011 … It was the US, Europe, and their regional allies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates that created the conditions for the rise of ISIS.’[iii]
We’re dealing here with two responses to ISIS that have been very common in recent months. It’s easy to understand why so many Muslims – especially in western contexts - dissociate themselves from ISIS. They are thoroughly embarrassed to think that non-Muslims around them might assume that because they are Muslims, they must have some sympathy with ISIS and all that it is doing. They therefore argue that many of the practices of ISIS are completely un-Islamic, even anti-Islamic, and cannot be justified by the legal traditions that have been developed over many centuries. A very thoughtful Muslim leader I know in Cambridge said to me a few weeks ago, ‘They’re just a bunch of Marxists.’ And a recent article in the Times by Ben Macintyre had the heading ‘ISIS owes more to the Kremlin than the Koran,’ and argued that ‘Stalin is the godfather of Islamic State.’[iv] Many politicians have been naively repeating the mantra ‘Islam is a religion of peace.’ And I still remember hearing an Anglican bishop, a few days after 9/11, saying on Radio 4 ‘This has nothing to do with Islam.’
But when the ideologues of ISIS spell out in great detail where in their scriptures, tradition and history, they find the Islamic justification for what they are doing, it’s simply nonsense to go on claiming that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. It would be more accurate to say that ISIS has a lot to do with Islam, but is an extreme expression of one particular kind of Islamism. The rank and file of ISIS fighters from all over the world have joined the movement for a whole variety of motives – related to idealism and the search for identity, meaning and adventure– and probably have minimal understanding of Islam. But the leadership says so clearly that it is trying to imitate some of the practices of the first generation of Muslims during and immediately after the life of the Prophet. And in interpreting the Qur’an, they use the principle of abrogation, which enables them to say that later verses calling Muslims to wage war on unbelievers abrogate, or cancel out, earlier verses which call for patient endurance of opposition. A document by Abu Bakr Naji that comes out of ISIS called ‘The Management of Savagery’[v]explains in some detail how their strategies and tactics are modeled on some of the practices of the first Muslims. So instead of saying that the warriors of ISIS are not real or faithful Muslims, other Muslims need to explain why they believe ISIS is completely wrong in its interpretation and application of Islamic sources.
At the other extreme there are many Christians – and, dare I say, especially evangelical Christians – who believe that ISIS is much nearer to the spirit and practice of early Islam than moderate Muslims of today. They point to particular verses in the Qur’an (e.g. about beheading, crucifixion and slavery) and passages in Hadith literature, the biographies of Muhammad and legal texts to show the connections between the brutalities of ISIS and early Islamic texts.
I believe it’s absolutely right to draw attention to the precedents from the early years of Islam which are used to justify what ISIS is doing. But I suggest that there are two serious weaknesses in this general approach. Firstly, it hardly begins to engage with the arguments of mainstream Muslim scholars who believe they can demonstrate why ISIS is a clear departure from Islamic tradition. The main argument of scholars like Tim Winter of Cambridge is that Islamist interpretations generally ignore the consensus in the Islamic legal tradition which developed over many centuries and insist on going directly back to the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet. Winter believes that the legal traditions of the four main schools (the madhhabs) are like a telescope that enables us to see the stars clearly; and the Islamists, who ignore the tradition and make their own interpretations of the sources, are like people who refuse to use the telescope and insist on looking at the stars with the naked eye[vi].
Secondly, it seems to assume that we as non-Muslims are in a better position than Muslim themselves to determine what is ‘true Islam’ or ‘real Islam.’ We must surely allow Muslims to speak for themselves and define themselves and their faith and not imagine that we understand what Islam is better than they do.
I suggest therefore that both these approaches are thoroughly unhelpful and need to be challenged.
I want to introduce this point by quoting from two well-known Christian scholars of Islam. In the book Islam in Conflict: Past, Present and Future, Peter Riddell and Peter Cotterell write:
‘In our view it is not the non-Muslim world that stands at the cross-roads, but the Muslim world. Islam has, throughout its history, contained within itself a channel of violence, legitimized by certain passages of the Qur’an, though put in question by other passages … Ultimately it is only the Muslim world that can deal with the roots of the problem, which, in our view, do not lie in Western materialism or nineteenth-century colonialism or American imperialism, but in Islam’s own history, both distant and recent.’[vii]
There are two main reasons why I feel deeply uneasy about this approach. In the first place it seems to assume that everything that Muslim do can be explained by referring to texts. History and politics have little or no relevance; sociology, economics and psychology are not very important. John Azumah describes this approach as ‘textualism.’[viii]
The second weakness of this approach is that it effectively absolves us westerners of all responsibility for the mess that has been unfolding in the Middle East in the last hundred years. It’s as if they are saying: ‘We haven’t done anything wrong. What we in the West have been doing to the world of Islam for centuries is hardly relevant. The root of the problem is their scriptures and tradition. It’s their problem; and they are the ones who have to change.’
I accept that Muslims and Arabs are far too good at playing the blame game – blaming others for all their problems. But having lived for 18 years in the Middle East and tried to see the West as Arabs and Muslims see it, I believe that they have some good reasons to be angry. And when I think of Israel/Palestine in particular, how can we possible argue that the West is innocent and that the root of the problem is in Islamic scripture and dogma?
I am not for a moment suggesting that Islamic texts are not important. I am simply arguing that history and politics are just as important as texts and dogma in understanding political Islam in general and ISIS in particular. We need to know how to challenge Muslims over their interpretation of their texts. But we also need to understand the historical and political contexts in which political Islam has developed in recent years.
The answer to this question must be an emphatic NO! There are plenty of situations where Islamists do not resort to violence. But at the same time they face a real dilemma. They want their society to be more consistently Islamic; but how are they to achieve this goal? Are they to work for a gradual and peaceful Islamization of the country, or are they justified in using force to win power? And what happens when violence is done to them? These dilemmas can be illustrated  from the history of one particular Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.
The vision of its founder, Hassan al-Banna, from the beginning in 1928 was for a genuine Islamic revival which would transform the social and spiritual life of the nation and bring British rule to an end. At an early stage some of its members formed a secret military organisation, ‘the Special Apparatus’, which targeted British occupation troops and Egyptians who collaborated with the British. But when they engaged in violence, they were always condemned by the MB leadership. The activities of the Brotherhood led to opposition from the British and the Egyptian government, and Hassan al-Banna was assassinated in 1949.
Nasser had been a member of the Brotherhood since 1941, and the coup that he led in 1952 had the approval of the leadership. Before long, however, friction developed between Nasser and the Brotherhood, and after a year he dissolved the organisation.  Many of its leaders were imprisoned and tortured. After Nasser’s death in 1971, Sadat release MB members from prison, hoping to enlist their support for his government. His toleration of the movement enabled it to regain power and influence. By the mid 1970s they had split into three groups: the Muslim Brotherhood, which continued to believe in peaceful reform through the Islamization of the individual, the family and society before the establishment of the Islamic state, and two other groups, the Gamaa Islamiyya of Egypt and al-Jihad, which condoned the use of violence. Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and his signing of the Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1979 led to his assassination by members of these last two groups. Many were put in prison, while others fled the country; and it was some who went to Afghanistan who later created al-Qa'eda. Members of the MB were regularly put on trial. But others started working with political parties – but because the party itself was still officially banned, they stood as independents.
When Mubarak was brought down in January 2011, after holding back for a short period, the MB seized the opportunity to join in the revolution - and effectively high-jacked it. Then largely as a result of the goodwill they had built up through their networks and social work all over the country, they were able to get their MB candidate Muhammad Morsi elected as President. He lost no time in attempting to impose an Islamist agenda on the country, and this led to a popular revolt in June 2013, when around 33 million people took to the streets to depose him. While some would say that Sisi used this as an opportunity for the army to seize power, others would say that he was forced to step in and take control in order to save the country from chaos. The MB were furious that their democratically elected president had been ousted by a coup, and there were violent clashes with the police and the army and arson attacks on around 70 churches.
While the majority of members of the MB, therefore, have genuinely wanted to bring about the Islamization of society by peaceful and democratic means, the leadership hasn’t always been able to control members who wanted to engage in violence to achieve their political ends. Their activities have provoked strong opposition from successive governments, which have regularly used violence to suppress them. While the Brotherhood have at times engaged in violence, a great deal of violence has been done to them, and many outside observers have been extremely critical of the way Sisi has set out to destroy the movement and thus to ensure that it can never seize power again.
There has therefore been an ambiguity at the heart of the Brotherhood from the beginning, which is summed up by Alison Pargeter in this way:
‘Whilst the Ikhwan (MB) is keen to present itself as a peaceful organisation and has proven itself to be largely pacific, it does have a history of getting involved in violence when the opportunity has presented itself. Right from the outset the concept of violence was enshrined in its famous motto, which remains the maxim today: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.’ At its inception, the Ikhwan attached a far greater importance to the concept of jihad in both its violent and non-violent sense than was the tradition of the Islamic circles of the day. This differentiated it from other Islamic societies and organisations…
‘… the Brotherhood has a complex ideological relationship to the use of violence. Whilst its members broadly reject the idea of fighting against their own regimes, they do not entirely disown scholars such as Sayid Qutb who was one of the early proponents of violent struggle against un-Islamic Muslim governments in the contemporary context and whose ideas radicalised a generation and more. They might refute some of Qutb’s ideas but there is still a certain pride in him and they consider him as one of their most important martyrs. This gives the impression that here is still an ambiguity in their discourse on violence and that they do not come down on one side or the other.’[ix] 
Has this ambiguity been exposed by the events of the last three years? Since the political forces arrayed against it are so formidable and at times quite violent, is it ever likely to achieve its goals in Egypt without violence? So perhaps the answer to our question ‘Is Islamism always  likely to tend towards violence?’ needs to be ‘NO – BUT …’

[i] Patrick Cockburn, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, OR Books, 2014; The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, Verso, 2015[ii] Christopher Reuter, ‘Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State’, Der Spiegel, April, 2015[iii] Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of Islamic State, p 8-9[iv] Ben Macintyre, The Times, 24 April, 2015[v] Abu Bakr Naji, The Management of Savagery, 2004, internet; see Abdel Bari Atwan, Islamic State: the Digital Caliphate, Saqi, 2015, chapter 8, pp 153-164[vi] Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter), Understanding the Four Madhhabs: the Facts about Ijtihad and Taqlid, The Muslim Academic Trust1999[vii] Peter G. Riddell and Peter Cotterell, Islam in Conflict: Past, Present and Future, IVP, 2003, PP 7-8[viii] John Azumah, ‘The Challenge of Responding to Jihadi Islam’, Lapido Media, 29 August, 2014[ix] Alison Pargeter, The Muslim Brotherhood: From Opposition to Power, Saqi, 2010, pp 182-183

Dr. Nabeel Jabbour