Saturday, August 21, 2004

Islamist Religion

Mark has re-framed my question about toleration of Islamist religion in an interesting way, by separating Islamism not just from Islam proper, but from religion altogether.

I know there are many out there who will disagree, possibly including Doug, but to me it's clear that Islamism is not a religious phenomenon. It is a political phenomenon, and the religious rhetoric that accompanies it is, like jumhuriyya and the rest, simply the natural expression of it in the political vocabulary of the Islamic culture.

I follow his thread of thought, but I arrive at the opposite conclusion. In Islam -- pure, uncompromised Islam -- all is religion. Judaism instructs its followers to dispossess certain peoples and avoid shellfish. Christianity to preach the Gospel unto every creature but render unto Caesar. In Islam, every act of life, from dressing to wife-beating, is an act of worship (or, if done wrongly, a fault in worship). And that includes political decisions. And Islamism strives for that purity.

Does the Islamist agenda have a pure political component? Absolutely. But the Protestant Revolt in 16th century Europe was a political and cultural phenomenon as well, yet I don't think many people would deny that it was, fundamentally, a religious movement. The same with the Crusades, six centuries earlier. I think the same of Islamism.

Mark ably describes the way the historical realities of the Islamic world usually have been at odds with the pure vision of a people ruled by the laws of God. But the Islamists say this, too. Their goal is to end that.

The source of [Islamic] law, of course, is God, but again that doesn't make it "religious law" in the Western sense of being ruled by a clergy; it's just a different way of conceiving political structures.

And here I disagree. The dstinction to be drawn is not a scholastic quibble. It is fundamental to the collision of the West and Islam, and it defines their difference. Both the Islamic world and the secular West live by the rule of law, but in the one case the law is evolved from secular, rational traditions and in the other it is laid down by the hand of God and is one with the worship of God.

[Samuel Huntington, surveying the world, finds that only the West and Hindu civilization separate religion and politics. "In Islam, God is Caesar; in China and Japan, Caesar is God; in Orthodoxy, God is Caesar's junior partner."]

" 'Umdat al-Salik wa 'Uddat al-Nasik" ("Reliance of the Traveller and Tools of the Worshipper"), is a classic manual of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) based on the Shafi'i school of thought. As the English translator of my edition of "Reliance of the Traveller" writes:

"I had been a commercial fisherman in the North Pacific for seven seasons, and I remembered a book the captain used to keep in the wheelhouse near the charts, a book of bearings, with the precise compass directions between one point of land and another in Alaskan waters. This was the sort of work I hoped to produce in shari'a, a book that I could open up and find accurate, substantive ethical knowledge to apply in my life."

I don't think any Western mind would conceive of Coke or Blackstone in that language.

Ali Abd al-Raziq (1925) argued that there was no Islamic authority for the caliphate and that Islam has no political component. It was a radical argument yet forcefully made and in the finest Islamic scholarly style. It had some influence among secularizing Muslims in the middle of the last century, before the Islamist Revival swept it off the board.

Yet even if al-Raziq is accepted, the societal rules of the Qu'ran and Sunna -- with regard to women, say, or to religious minorities -- remain binding on individual Muslims.

The Muslims' grievances against the West may be political, but their culture is based on religion. It unites Berbers and Malays with Arabs and Persians. Their unity is the religious code of law and the confession of faith. It is a civilization based on a religion, and, though Huntington omits the specifically religious aspect of Islam in this passage, I agree with him about the current clash:

"The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world."

Thoughtful Muslim reformers in the past century have tried to navigate a path between secularism and Shari'a. If the choice offered to the Islamic people must be between Shari'a and Western secularism, however, Shari'a will always win, as it is the Islamic alternative, bound up in that people's sense of religious duty and resentment of the West. And the Islamists know this, and in their Anti-Western and anti-modern extremism, they prevent a third way. By keeping the Shari'a immutable, by making it heresy to attempt to alter a word of it, the fundamentalists keep control of the political flow.

Yet, again, their goal is not merely to hold political power. That is their means to the end they seek. It is not to make laws. It is to enforce laws laid down in the mid-Seventh Century C.E., by the word of God.