12 November 2012

Islam, foreign policy and useful idiocy

Ali ibn Abi Tahib, looking particularly badass

The election season is finally over, with a result which turned out to be not quite the clincher I expected; President Obama won handily, and with him came a government which is capable of entertaining multiple views, including the mix of social conservatism and economic populism which I favour (though this is not likely to be the reigning philosophy of the Obama Administration, at the very least the conservative Democratic voice will not go unheard). In his recent address he noted, with more than hints of the liberal internationalism that we should generally come to expect from his foreign policy, that in distant lands people were still risking their lives in order to argue about substantive policy issues (or at least pretend to do so in incredibly extravagant and intolerably lengthy shows of orchestrated posturing every bit as fake and emotionally manipulative as pro-wrestling, the way we do). This certainly is true, but the big question to be asked is who exactly these people are and what the substantive expressions of that argument will end up being. The nations most closely affected by the Arab Spring were doubtless at the forefront of his mind when he said this – it remains a reasonable question what course of action the newly-elected governments and coups which have taken place in the region will set their countries on. Of course, the role of religion vis-à-vis the state will be, there as much as here if not more so, a most prominent issue. Islam – in various forms – will be the religion in question.

I have not talked much about Islam on this blog, partly because there are those who are infinitely more qualified to do so than I am – Naj at Neoresistance, for one. But the more I read about Islam in its public expressions, the more complicated the picture of it appears to be – unlike those who read about Islam only to find things about it to hate and revile (people like Pamela Gellar, Geert Wilders, Bruce Bawer, Robert Spencer, Anders Behring Breivik and so forth), I recognise a multifaceted religion when I see it.

There is an Islam which produces magnificent and beautiful works of art; and an Islam which demolishes them. There is an Islam which promotes good scholarship, careful study and critical thinking; and an Islam which eschews all three. There is an Islam which speaks and appeals to women; and an Islam that silences them. There is an Islam which preaches justice to God’s poor and needy; and an Islam which plays power politics at their expense. Generally, there is a lot to admire in Islam: their hard-nosed stance against usury – something which much of Christianity, to its detriment, has lost; their emphasis on daily devotion and practice as a central component of faith; their requirement that faithful believers donate a small portion of their income (zakat) directly to the poor. The cultural achievements of near Eastern countries like Iraq and Iran are practically unparalleled anywhere in the world. But then I look at places like Syria and Libya, like East Turkestan and Albania and Yugoslavia, like Russia and Pakistan – and I think: is this the same religion?

Much ink has been spilt over the past eleven years on the topic of how to analyse the Islamic world and faith. Among the most useful analyses has been the discussion by Amitai Etzioni of the distinction between the ‘warriors’ and the ‘prayers’ – and the need to recognise that the illiberal moderates amongst the Muslim faithful are not the West’s enemies, even though they do not share the liberal values of the modern West. This is a very helpful distinction, and I think it does a good job of sketching the outline of an explanation for the appeal Islam is having in a postmodernist, post-secular world. Dr Etzioni is a sociologist, however, and is thus interested primarily in behaviours.

There is also a theological distinction to make, though, which is related. It strikes me that there have always been these two Islams: even the Shia-Sunni split was characterised by a conflict between those who sought a social-justice interpretation of the teachings of the Prophet, and those who sought a power-political interpretation. The followers of Ali (shi’at Ali) were insistent upon an Islam whose primary job was to care for the sick and the lost, and Ali himself gained a very large following amongst the Muslim lower classes. Ultimately, Ali was assassinated by his political rivals, and his son Husayn was killed and mutilated by his militarily-superior rivals when he revolted at Karbala… but that a righteous king would return in the form of the Mahdi to end all forms of oppression and usher in a reign of peace and equality. The Shiite tradition combined with the social-justice, righteous kingship and scholastic traditions of Zoroastrianism in Iran to create a highly-cultured and -scholastic, but at the same time egalitarian-trending theological tradition which has lasted in that nation to this day – and whose colourful history includes the Zanj Rebellion against the Abbasids, the Qarmatians and the Iranian democratic and nationalist movements.

In truth, of course, the distinction is nowhere near so cut-and-dried as all that. Within the Sunni tradition, too, there certainly are a solid majority which are justice-oriented, scholastic and peaceable. But it seems worthy of note that the very strains of revivalist, fundamentalist Sunni Islam (the Salafis most notably) which promote political violence as the preferred means of getting what they want, are the same ones which are most willing to cooperate with the geopolitical aims of the United States when it suits them – playing by the rules of power politics, rather than by the principles of their religion. This was the case in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. And in the erstwhile Yugoslavia in the 1990’s – not to mention in Russia and in China. Then in Iraq with the fundamentalist Sunni insurgents bought off in 2007 to save the face of Bush 43; then what would go on to become the genocidal NTC in Libya; now the ‘Free Syrian Army’, which is none of the above.

Of course, the question will be asked as it always is: ‘which is the true Islam’? Well, if Islam means ‘submission’, then it is a question of whether one submits to the will of the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus – you know, the one who sent all those prophets to tell off his chosen people for abusing the poor, and who sent his only begotten Son to minister to the indebted, the unclean, the sick and the socially-outcast – or whether one submits to the will of the modern-day equivalent of Babylon.

So far, that fundamentalist strain isn’t looking too hot, when it comes to following their Prophet’s dictates about whom to worship, and how, and why.

On the other hand, the forms of Islam which keep open seats at the table (often literally, in the cases of Lebanon, Syria and Iran) for their brothers and sisters in Abraham; those which still preach public ownership of common goods; those which still value the practice of charity and justice over political dominance; these forms do a better job of keeping the common spirit of the People of the Book. However, both the fundamentalist Sunnis who always show up to fight neoconservative wars, and the Islamophobes who repeatedly show up at the ballot box to vote for neoconservative candidates both in the United States and Europe, consistently demonstrate their useful idiocy to that same movement: a Trotskyist tendency which may have gleefully abandoned its former concern for the global working poor, but which has not abandoned its former tactics and tricks.


  1. Great post. An interesting example of a strain of Islamic thinking with an emphasis on social justice would be the Red Shi'ism of Iranian author Ali Shariati.

  2. "There is an Islam which produces magnificent and beautiful works of art; and an Islam which demolishes them."....etc

    You mistake the doings of a people with the precepts of a religion. For example, when Christian Priests abused children/boys--should we say that there is a "Christianity" that helps educate children in quality schools and there is a Christianity that abuses children?
    ---such an assumption would be just as idiotic as the one you made of Islam.....

  3. John, many thanks! I shall have to check out the work of Mr Shariati in more detail, it seems!

    kat, it is a figure of speech I am using. I would say that precisely such an observation from outside my religion would be warranted: there is a Christianity which abuses children, and there is a Christianity which edifies them. The question is, which Christianity is theologically true and true to human nature? You may have noticed that just a little further down I came to the conclusion that the more constructive, more just, more socially-concerned, more scholastic and non-violent forms of Islam are 'truer' to the ultimate ends of the religion.