By Eran Lerman | 10/09/2009
It is impossible to define "Islam" as an enemy of Western civilization. In actuality, Islamism is the bitter enemy of a large and important portion of Muslim believers themselves, as well as Western culture. Eran Lerman believes that the West in general and Israeli society in particular must distinguish between the two
In the name of Islam hundreds of people were murdered and died cruel and unusual deaths right here in our streets; terror also took its toll in Taba, in Sharm el Sheikh, in Amman, and in Dahab. In the name of Islam mass murder was perpetrated in Nairobi, in Dar A-Saalam, in New York, in Washington, in Madrid, in London, and even on the Muslim world's own frontlines, from Bali to Baslan. When Hamas in the name of Islam succeeded in winning the parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority, it was no coincidence that its followers waved the green flag of Hamas at the top of the parliament building in Ramallah. Only after the public's reaction, which caused Hamas to back down, did they switch to the Palestinian national flag. In Egypt, huge numbers of members of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and its supporters went out into the streets crying "Death to Denmark" in order to defend Allah and his prophet - and the violence shows no sign of subsiding.
Ever since Samuel H. Huntington's book "Clash of Civilizations" was published in 1993 (transl., David Ben-Nahum, Shalem, 2003), it has been possible to trace in all of these events, and first and foremost the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, decisive proof for his theory. Nevertheless, the reality of our lives obligates us to carefully check "who is against whom and on which court", as the saying goes. Such an investigation, if done with proper analytical and historical tools, reveals contradictory evidence. The enemy is neither the religion nor the culture of Islam but "Islamism" (in Arabic it is called "Islamawa"), a political approach built upon religious foundations.
If we are precise in a description of what is happening around us, as Emanuel Sivan (in his "Conflict Within Islam", Am Oved, 2005) and others have, we become aware of the deep, destructive, and bloody crisis that is ripping apart the rich and ancient Muslim civilization.
The Decade Following World War I
The prominent American intellectual Paul Berman found to his surprise that even he, despite his previous involvement in the bitter struggle against President Nixon and the continuation of the war in Vietnam, supports the underlying approach of the Bush administration in its stance against totalitarian Islamism (even though Berman has since reached gloomy conclusions concerning how the battle has been fought). As a result, Berman started to research Islam and Islamism. In Berman's book "Terror and Liberalism" (W.W. Norton, 2003), he analyzes the writings of: Hassan Al-Bana, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood movement; revolutionary Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini; Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi, founder of the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami, and Egyptian Said Qutab, the spiritual father of the Muslim Brotherhood. Berman notes that all of these leaders highlight an historic junction point (which Osama bin-Laden has also mentioned in his taped speeches), the decade after World War I.
No, the key moment is not when Britain receives the mandate over the Land of Israel in order to turn it into a national homeland for the Jewish people, although this event played its part in the general crisis. The root of the totalitarian deviation in Islam lies at the convergence of two monumental events: the end of the institution of the Caliphate and the decline of Europe.
|It is not difficult to trace the inspiration of totalitarianism upon the writings of the fathers of Islamism; Maududi, for example, went so far as to speak of Marx, Lenin, and Muhammad as the greatest of all revolutionaries. Fascist and Nazi influence succeeded in penetrating the Arab world because of (among other reasons) Arab-language broadcasts and because of the combined circumstances presented by their joint enemies: the British Empire and the Zionist movement |
In 1927, Ataturk, the revolutionary leader of the "Young Turks", abolished the institution of the Caliphate. For 410 years, Ottoman Sultans had held the title of Caliph - that is, the stand-in for the prophet Muhammad as the political and religious leader of the Muslim nation (until then the rulers of the Mamluk kingdom, based in Cairo, had held this title). As a result, not only was the religious-political order thrown into disarray, since a secular republic took the place of Ottoman rule, but the historical focus of the conception of the state according to Sunni Islam was changed, legally, religiously, and politically (the parallel development of Muslim Shi'ites is worthy of a separate analysis). Into this vacuum burst new intellectual streams: national liberalism (which even then had started to show signs of a deep intellectual crisis), radical nationalism, and the Marxist Left (which would sweep up many young people in the coming generations). Alongside all of these, an attempt was made to define Islam anew as a modern revolution.
It may be that this trend, which has now begun to fight for the centers of power in the Muslim world, would not have developed as it did had it not come into being in the late '20's of the previous century. This was a time when the tragic results of the massive fatality rates on the western front in the years 1914-1918 were beginning to erode European liberal culture (whose essential vitality was damaged) and gradually undermine British and French hegemony.
These two countries were, at the time, ostensibly at the apex of their imperial power, and had divided between them all of the Middle East (whether as permanent settlements or property or as Mandate land). Nevertheless, young Muslim intellectuals with a discerning eye did not need Oswald Spengler's book "The Decline of the West" to detect a weakening of the internal vitality of the liberal powers. At the same time, right before their eyes, new forces of great energy and appealing inspiration were becoming more prominent: Mussolini's Italy, Stalin's Soviet Union, and Hitler's Germany. It is not difficult to trace the inspiration of totalitarianism upon the writings of the fathers of Islamism; Maududi, for example, went so far as to speak of Marx, Lenin, and Muhammad as the greatest of all revolutionaries. Fascist and Nazi influence succeeded in penetrating the Arab world because of (among other reasons) Arab-language broadcasts and because of the combined circumstances presented by their joint enemies: the British Empire and the Zionist movement. Even a cursory reading of the Hamas covenant, which was composed in 1988 (and not in 1938!) displays language (especially in section 22) reminiscent of Nazi propaganda: Zionist Jews are presented as the creators of crafty schemes that underlie all of the pathological phenomena of modernity, from the French revolution, through the various European liberalisms, to the Bolshevik revolution. Zionist Jews are said to secretly control American policy of recent generations. Additionally, by referring to the "disputes" that led to World War II, the covenant echoes Hitler's pronouncements: "If world Jewry through its scheming will again throw the whole world into war..."
Islamism is distinguished from "red" or "brown" totalitarianism in that its focus is not class, nationality, or race, but the Muslim nation - a community of believers in a single religious and political incarnation. In many other respects, Islamism relies upon basic principles of modern revolution. Islamism is composed of portions taken from the Muslim tradition and woven into a cunning intellectual fabric, whose source lies in the various European revolutionary models.
The political party, the secret "cadres" that use terror to advance their goals, the political and social vision, the recruitment mechanisms - all were copied with great efficacy from the West and the Eastern bloc. A few years ago a liberal Egyptian newspaper went so far as to call this phenomenon "otalitarianism in religious guise".
Disgust for the Sufi denomination, and even its persecution, is common to all totalitarian revolutionaries, whatever their stripe. The pattern of traditional religion, which the majority of the Muslim public followed for hundreds of years - mystical Sufism - indeed proved victorious in the intellectual battles of the Middle Ages, but today lies in increasing distress. The negation of Sufism, even unto extreme violence, is also the position of the Wahabi stream of Islam, which has been identified with the Saudi regime and with the ruling family in that county ever since the end of the 18th century. Herein lies one of the explanations for the strong mutual attraction between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi kingdom. An additional common enemy, from the 1950's onward, was secular-socialist nationalism along the lines of which Nasser or the Ba'ath party espoused.
If so, it is impossible to define "Islam" as an enemy of Western civilization. In actuality, Islamism is the bitter enemy of a large and important portion of Muslim believers, from Sufi sects to religious liberalism. The challenge is to find a common basis for action between us and this wide camp. Whoever was privileged to hear Abed el Rahman, past president of Indonesia and the leader of the largest Muslim movement in the world ("Nachat Al Ulma'a", or "revival of the religious sages", which boasts around 35 million members), at the annual conference of the American Jewish Committee in Washington in 2004, was given the chance to learn that there is another way. Denominations and sects with similar positions exist among the Muslim community in Israel, and their influence is still significant in Turkey and in Islamic countries in Central Asia who have relations with the State of Israel.
In order to find a common language with those who do not accept the authority of the Islamist worldview we have to recognize and understand the other viewpoints that exist in the Muslim world.
We may find allies among the Muslim conservative religious establishment, part of which at least fears the rise of revolutionary radicalism in religious clothing, and is even ready, in answer to this challenge, to search for channels of dialogue with Judaism (the meeting between rabbis and imams in Seville, Spain in March 2006 is one example), as well as with Christianity.
The "enlightened" camp may also join with those who stand against Islamism. The "Tanuyiri" which was very strong at the beginning of the 20th century (at whose head stood luminaries like Mahmud Abda in Egypt and Sir Said Ahmad Han in British India) was greatly weakened by the collapse of the liberal model, but it has recently demonstrated impressive signs of recovery.
The Shi'ite world also contains voices that do not identify with the radical distortions of the school of Khomeini. We must distinguish between the different voices and listen to them.
The unprecedented idea of total authority, religious and political, held by a religious adjudicator, known also as "Kahbar" ("leader" in Persian) dominates the Iranian regime under the leadership of Khameini and Ahmad Najad, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Just like the title of his colleague in the leadership of the Achwan ("Al Marshid Al Am") this "Kahbar" title was also taken from the Nazi model ("fuhrer" means "leader" in German). But among the Shi'ite there are also other voices - also authoritative from a religious legal perspective - who reject the principle of "obedience to the religious adjudicator" and the revolutionary model that the current Iranian leadership presumes to represent. At the head of this group is the Ayatollah Atma ("the great") Al Sistani in Iraq, who was able to bring the Shi'ite majority into the government (under the protection of the American intervention), and who was able to stop the violence despite the provocation of Sunni terrorist forces.
In order to find the ways to the hearts of these groups, it is important to guard against the tendency to sweep all of Islam into one hostile corner. This would not only be an analytical mistake, surrender to the simplistic fantasies that Huntington's thesis poses, and worse than that, the tendency to try to raise a "Jewish-Christian front against Islam", means that it would be impossible to look for allies from within the Muslim community itself. This would mean victory for the Islamists and would damage the chances of exposing them as a destructive modernist perversion. Israel has the opportunity, perhaps more than any other player in the world arena - due to our large Muslim minority - to identify who is for us and who is against us. Even more than just our opportunity, it is our obligation.
Colonel (Res.) Eran Lerman is the director of the Israel and Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee