Political Islam: Questions 8, 9 and 10


In the previous two blogs Colin Chapman addressed seven important questions that appeared in my previous two blogs and in this blog he has addressed the final 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?
At all the seminaries where I teach I have used Colin Chapman's books as required readings.
Chapman's 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 C. Chapman addressed questions 8, 9 and 10 in his presentation on Political Islam. 
During the last year I’ve had a long email correspondence with a Messianic Jewish leader in Israel who is convinced that Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS and Iran are all basically the same. In my responses I have tried to explain why I believe that this approach is in danger of breaking the fourth commandment, because it is in danger of bearing false witness against our neighbour.
To develop this point I want to commend a book edited by Asef Bayat whose title explains the basic point: Post-Islamism: the changing faces of political Islam[i]. He defines Islamism as follows: ‘I take Islamism to refer to those ideologies and movements that strive to establish come kind of an “Islamic order” – a religious state, Shari'a law, and moral codes in Muslim societies and communities. Association with the state is a key feature of Islamist politics … The primary concern of Islamism is to forge an ideological community; concerns such as establishing social justice and improving the lives of the poor are to follow only from this strategic objective.’[ii]
This is how he define post-Islamism: ‘It represents an endeavour to fuse religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and liberty. It is an attempt to turn the underlying principles of Islamism on their head by emphasizing rights instead of duties, plurality in place of a singular authoritative voice, historicity rather than fixed scriptures, and the future instead of the past. It wants to marry Islam with individual choice and freedom …, with democracy and modernity, to achieve what some have termed an “alternative modernity” … Whereas Islamism is defined by the fusion of religion and responsibility, post-Islamism emphasizes religiosity and rights. Yet, while it favours a civil and nonreligious state, it accords an active role for religion in the public sphere.’[iii] Notice especially this last sentence (my italics).
All the contributors to the book describe the unique ways in which Islamist and post-Islamist movements have developed side by side in ten different contexts: Iran, Turkey, Morocco, Indonesia, Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria. Bayat concludes:
‘The narratives … show that the forms, depth, and spread of post-Islamist experiences may vary. Yet they all point to some shift in vision. In each of these cases, post-Islamism denotes a critical discursive departure or pragmatic exit … from an Islamist ideological package characterized broadly by monopoly of religious truth, Exclusivism, and emphasis on obligations, towards acknowledging ambiguity, multiplicity, inclusion, and flexibility in principles and practice…
‘Clearly, then, post-Islamism represents a discursive and/or pragmatic break, a break from an Islamist paradigm. But the direction is not “post-Islamic”, as some erroneously call it; it is post-Islamist. In other words, I am not speaking about a shift away from Islamic faith toward secularism, even though post-Islamism does denote a process of secularization in the sense of favouring the separation of religious affairs from the affairs of the state. Rather, I am speaking about post-Islamization as a complex process of breaking from an Islamist ideological package by adhering to a different, more inclusive, kind of religious project in which Islam nevertheless continues to remain important both as faith and as a player in the public sphere.’[iv]
I would also commend another book with a significant title, edited by Khaled Hroub, Political Islam: context versus ideology[v]. In looking at many different situations in the Muslim world, Hroub writes: ‘The persistent question … remains whether, in dealing with the world around them Islamist movements are led by their context or their ideology.’ This is how he explains his understanding of the tension between context and ideology: 
‘Facing endless specific and pragmatic situations, a process of immediate and ongoing negotiations continues to take place between the contextual pressures and the underpinning ideology, producing particular responses. My argument … is that what appears to be similar movements often show different responses to the immediate, and sometimes similar, practical pressures around them. These responses are shaped mostly, if not completely, by the nature of these pressures, not by a supposedly common theology. The ideology of these movements remains significant, but mainly at a theoretical level, thinly concealing politics and responses that are formed by the contextual reality.’[vi]
I conclude therefore that there are huge differences between Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS and Iran. If there is a ‘battle for the soul of Islam’ that is being waged at the present time, it’s not only between moderates and Islamists; it’s also between Islamists and post-Islamists.
Instead of attempting to spell out a strategy for defeating ISIS, which according to Leon Panetta, former director of the CIA, is likely to involve a 30-year war[vii], I want to make some more general points about the way we respond to all kinds of political Islam.
1. We need to have a better understanding of history. A Syrian Presbyterian pastor said to me in January of this year, ‘Syria and the Middle East is suffering from the game of nations.’ We cannot begin to understand political Islam without some kind of historical perspective on fourteen hundred years of Islam’s history and of Christian-Muslims relations. I can’t think of a better survey of this history than Philip Jenkins magisterial book, The Lost History of Christianity: the thousand-year golden age of the church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia[viii].
Many of us are also extremely ignorant about recent history. How many of us, for example, are aware that in Iran in 1953 the CIA and M16 together engineered a coup which brought down the first democratically elected government under Mosadeq and led to the return of the Shah and then eventually to the return of Khomeini and the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran? A book about these events by an American journalist, Stephen Kinzer, has the title All the Shah’s Men, and the sub-title An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror[ix]. In January this year at the time of the Charlie Hebdou attack, Robert Fisk had an article in The Independent entitled ‘The post-colonial wound that still bleeds in France’, in which he pointed out that in the 6-year Algerian war for independence ‘perhaps a million and a half Arab Muslims and many thousands of French men and women died.’[x]
I would love to see more young Christians studying history, politics and international relations!
2. We shouldn’t be in the least surprised that Muslims are looking to their own Islamic roots to find new political solutions. In some countries in the Middle East when western imperial powers withdrew, we left behind puppet rulers. These were then replaced by dictators who created one-party police states. A wide variety of different ideologies have been adopted: socialism, communism, nationalism, pan-Islamism, pan-Arabism, Ba‘athism, and Arab nationalism. Is it surprising, therefore, that when these ideologies (mostly imported from the West) have failed, and when they look at the Golden Ages of Islam in the past, Muslims in the region begin to wonder if they might find new inspiration and direction within their own history and traditions? Is it surprising that they want the religion of Islam to have a significant place in their public life? And isn’t it arrogant for us westerners to assume that Westminster-style democracy is the only system that will work in the Middle East?
3. We need to accept our share of responsibility for all that has happened. Let me spell out some of the major mistakes that I believe the West has made:
- After 9/11, instead of trying to understand the anger of Muslims, we put all our energies into the so-called ‘war on terror.’
- After 9/11 the US and its allies went to war with the wrong countries. Richard Holbrook, the US Special Representative in Afghanistan and Pakistan said at the time: ‘We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country.’[xi] And Patrick Cockburn writes: ‘The “war on terror” has failed because it did not target the jihadi movement as a whole and, above all, was not aimed at Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two countries that fostered jihadism as a creed and a movement. The US did not do so because these countries were important American allies whom it did not want to offend. Saudi Arabia is an enormous market for American arms, and the Saudis have cultivated, and on occasions purchased, influential members of the American political establishment. Pakistan is a nuclear power with a population of 180 million and a military with close links to the Pentagon.’[xii]
- The UN sanctions imposed after the First Gulf War in 1991 may have led to the deaths of around 1.7 million Iraqis.
- The Iraq War of 2003 was based on false claims about WMD and did not have the support of the UN.
- After the Iraq war in 2003, the US had little or no plan for the reconstruction of the country.
- And having contributed so much to the creation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the beginning of the 20th century, the West has allowed it to go on for so many decades without a peaceful and just resolution.
4. Muslim-majority countries need to accept their share of responsibility for all that has happened. I have disagreed with the emphasis that Peter Riddell and Peter Cotterell place on scripture and dogma. But I agree totally with them that the Muslim world stands at a cross-roads – provided we also accept that the western world also stands at a cross-roads. So having stressed our share of responsibility, I want also to stress the responsibility of Muslim countries.
- Saudi Arabia has been using its billions of oil wealth for many decades to export Wahhabism all over the world, and many Saudis have been supporting ISIS directly or indirectly. It must now be very anxious that this extreme form of Islamism has almost become mainline Sunni Islam in the Middle East and has therefore contributed to the rise of ISIS. And one of ISIS’ next targets is likely to be Saudi Arabia.
- Pakistan has been playing a double game – supporting the Taliban on the one hand and at the same time joining with the US in its war or terror.
- The majority of Egyptians at the present time seem to be supporting Sisi, seeing him as the only strong man who can guarantee security and rescue the economy, and many are prepared to accept the return of the powerful police state and the restrictions on freedoms. Instead of trying to engage with Islamists in dialogue, Sisi’s government has set out to suppress them completely. Egypt under Sisi, therefore, seems to be sending the message to the world that the only alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood is dictatorship. [I have told Colin Chapman that I disagree with him on this point. I believe that Egyptians want security, law and order, and they do not want to see their country becoming a failed state].
- Turkey has done little to stop jihadis and supplies crossing its 560-mile border with Syria, and has indirectly helped ISIS because it is even more strongly opposed to Assad’s regime and the Kurds.
- Sunnis need to address the virulence of the Wahhabi hatred of Shi‘ites.
- Tunisia is the only country in the region where Islamists and secularists have been able to work together to produce a workable constitution.
5. We may need to be far more critical of the foreign policies of our governments. In two years’ time we shall be celebrating the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, and I hope there will be some very public heart-searching over our involvement in the Middle East at that time and since then. I don’t find many people in this country who still support the way Tony Blair took our country into the Iraq war in 2003. But I find many American evangelicals are remarkably un-critical about American foreign policy in general and the Iraq war in particular. One notable exception is Jim Wallis of Sojourners, who has given the most comprehensive response to these issues that I’ve seen in recent months. He makes these points:
1. There are no ‘holy wars’
2. We must admit that our primarily military response to terrorism since 9/11 has not worked; it has made things worse.
3. Only new political and economic solutions in the Middle East will finally transform the current state of affairs.
4. Fundamentalism, in all our faith traditions, is a politicized use of religion based on fear and power, and it is best defeated from the inside, not the outside.
5. Understanding and addressing the roots of terror to build a strategy to defeat it does not dismiss terror’s evil barbaric behaviour. Whatever ISIS’s beliefs may be, and whatever grievances they might have against the Iraqi and Syrian governments, the West, and others, evil is never justified[xiii].
Alongside what we’ve said about general responses, should there be anything distinctive about Christian responses?
1. We ought to have some sympathy with what Islamists are trying to do. Lesslie Newbigin in the years before his death was alerting Christians to the way Christianity in the West has become a privatized religion. In one of his last books in 1998, Faith and Power: Christianity and Islam in ‘Secular’ Britain[xiv], co-authored with Jenny Taylor and Lamin Sanneh, he pointed out that both Christians and secular-minded people in Britain were finding it difficult to face the challenge of Muslims who really believe in the sovereignty of God and want him to be honoured in the public sphere. Perhaps Christians are in a unique position to be bridge-builders: if we think we understand the secular mind-set, we ought at the same time to be able to understand what many Muslims are trying to do, and help to interpret each side to the other.
2. We need to recognise the weaknesses of some expressions of evangelical Christianity. If some kinds of pietism have made us think only of ourselves and personal salvation, of course we’re going to be shocked when we find Muslims speaking about their vision for a godly society. I wonder how many of us remember how significant it was when, at the first Lausanne Congress in 1974, John Stott and others were willing to listen to people like Rene Padilla and Sam Escobar from Latin America and wrote into the Lausanne Covenant specific points calling on Christians to engage with political and social issues[xv].
3. We ought to be able to share with Muslims what we think we have learned from 20 centuries of Christian history. We agonise, of course, over Constantine’s decision to make Christianity the glue to hold the Roman Empire together, and some believe that it was one of the greatest disasters in Christianity history. We all feel a sense of shame over the Crusades, although some Middle Eastern Christians tell us that we shouldn’t feel so guilty because the Crusades were simply the delayed reaction of Christendom to the first Islamic conquests. In our own country it shouldn’t be hard to point to ways in which Christians at different stages – e.g. in the Evangelical Revival – have helped to build up civil society by fighting for social justice and establishing standards of honesty and trust in business. From our understanding of our history, therefore, we ought at least be able to say that, in our understanding, human nature seems to need more than the imposition of law; that imposing religion by force often leads to nominalism or hypocrisy; and that things often go wrong when there is too close an alliance between religion and the state, between truth and power.
4. We need to engage with Muslims in personal testimony. Let’s not be afraid to talk about the example of Jesus. Some weeks ago we heard about the two Muslims in the US who were shot by police when they opened fire on people attending a rally to campaign for freedom of speech. It emerged that a pastor had talked to these two men on several occasions in they place where they both worked[xvi]. We’ve also heard the story of an IS fighter who has actually killed several Christians and who had a vision of a man in white who said to him ‘You are killing my people.’ Just before he killed a Christian, the man said to him, ‘I know you will kill me, but I give you my Bible.’ After he killed the Christian he started to read the Bible and had more dreams of Jesus. [xvii] If Saul, who was ‘breathing our murderous threats’ against the Christians in Damascus (Acts 9:1), can be converted, so can a brutal IS fighter.
5. Redouble our efforts in doing good. I’m sure we’re all familiar with 1 Peter 3:15: ‘Be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.’ But 1 Peter 2:15 is also intensely relevant: ‘It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.’ I love this story told by J. Dudley Woodberry:
‘A Christian organisation imported thousands of sandals for children in a very primitive Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar. However, they decided not just to hand out sandals, but first to wash the feel and dress the wounds of the children. Months later, a local grade school teacher asked her class, “Who are the best Muslims?” A girl raised her hand and said, ‘the Kafirs.” When the shocked teacher asked why, the girl responded, “The mujahidin killed my father, but the Kafirs washed my feet.”’[xviii]
6. Demonstrate how Christians can contribute to nation-building and the creation of a just society. When a group of us in the CRIB network (Christian Responses to Islam in Britain) were working a few years ago on the document ‘Gracious Christian Responses to Islam in Britain’, Tim Green pointed out that if Muslims, and especially Islamists, had a vision for the kind of society they wanted to see in Britain, we Christians ought to have something to say on the subject. He therefore suggested the following point under the heading ‘A Vision for Society’:
‘While we no longer live in Christendom and do not seek to build a Christian state, we have a vision for a society in which the values of the kingdom of God are upheld and honoured. We believe that such a society will safeguard expression of faith in the public sphere without its imposition, the exercise of free speech without unreasonable giving or taking of offence, and the uniform rule of public law without this being unnecessarily intrusive on private conscience. In seeking the common good of the whole society, we work together with Muslims within these broad parameters, seeking justice and peaceful co-existence.’[xix]
On the international scene, we could say that Israel-Palestine is near the top of the list of grievances of the Muslims world. I dare to suggest that a peaceful and just resolution of the conflict might go a long way towards reducing the anger of Muslims towards the West, and that Christians have a very significant contribution to make. 
7. While it is true to say that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’, history also teaches us that sometimes churches are wiped out and die. Jenkins’ book gives a really alarming survey of the decline in the numbers of Christians in the Middle East over the centuries. As he shows, some of the reasons for this decline are most definitely related to Islam, while others have little or nothing to do with Islam. Jenkins is quite pessimistic about the survival of Christianity in parts of the Middle East, since in April 2012 he wrote an article with the title ‘The Death Warrant of Eastern Christianity.’[xx]
8. We need to be open to the new things that God is doing through the present turmoil. Perhaps one day we may see how God has been at work – both in judgement and in redemption – through all the persecution, the movement of peoples and relief work among refugees. A great deal depends on how Christians respond to what’s happening. Muslims in Egypt, for example, cannot fail to have noticed the way Christians responded to the burning of their churches in August 2013, and Muslim refugees in Lebanon and Jordan have been deeply moved by the way Christians have ministered to their needs. As David Garrison’s research shows, some Muslims have turned to Christ because of the kind of Islam they have witnessed. And even in situations where visible Christianity has ceased to exist, there are probably secret believers who may be the first fruits of something radically new in the world of Islam. Does Isaiah 43:19 have a message for us all at this point in time? ‘See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?’ (Is 43:19)
In conclusion, I trust I hardly need to say that I have no sympathy whatsoever for ISIS and hope that its ideology and its brutality will continue to be condemned in the strongest possible terms by people of all faiths and of none. I’m aware, however, that
some of you will accuse me of ‘going soft on Islam’. If you do, I hope I have at least convinced you that we need something more nuanced than the approach which says ‘ISIS is political Islam and political Islam is ISIS.’ I hope also that I have asked at least some of the right questions about the rise of political Islam, and I look forward to hearing the answers that you would want to give.

[i] Asef Bayat, Post-Islamism: the Changing Faces of Political Islam, Oxford University Press, 2013[ii] Bayat, pp 4-5[iii] Bayat, pp 8-9[iv] Bayat, pp 25-26[v] Khaled Hroub, ed., Political Islam: Context Versus Ideology, Saqi, 2010[vi] Hroub, pp 9-10[vii] Quoted in Abdel Bari Atwan, Islamic State: the Digital Caliphate, Saqi, 2015, p 231[viii] Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: the Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, HarperOne, 2008; Lion Hudson, 2008[ix] Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: an American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, John Wiley, 2003 & 2012[x] Robert Fisk, ‘The post-colonial wound that still bleeds in France’, The Independent, 10 January, 2015[xi] Quoted in Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of Islamic State, p 5[xii] Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of Islamic State, p 58[xiii] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-wallis/5-things-to-know-about-is_b_6768668.html[xiv] Lesslie Newbigin, Lamin Sanneh and Jenny Taylor, Faith and Power: Christianity and Islam in ‘Secular’ Britain, SPCK, 1998[xv] The Lausanne Covenant, see especially 5. Christian Social Responsibility[xvi] Assist News Service, 7 May, 2015[xvii] Assist News Service, 7 June, 2015[xviii] J. Dudley Woodberry, ‘Fruitfulness from the Perspective of the Fruit and the Farmer’, in David Greenlee, ed., Longing for Community: Church, Ummah, or Somewhere in Between?, William Carey, 2013, p 144[xix] Steve Bell and Colin Chapman, eds., Between Naivety and Hostility: Uncovering the Best Christian Responses to Islam in Britain, Authentic, 2011, pp 284-285[xx] Philip Jenkins, ‘The Death Warrant of Eastern Christianity’, April, 2012

Dr. Nabeel Jabbour