Shadi Hamid, Muslim and scholar of Political Islam at Brookings, writes a good piece on the discussion surrounding Islam, democracy, and groups like ISIS. In a day where even asking the question about whether Islam is compatible at its core with democracy and whether ISIS can be quickly dismissed simply as a departure from Islam, his article is poignant.
I’m not a scholar of Political Islam, but in my own area (Christianity and Political Theory), I know it to be intellectually dishonest for me to say that liberal democracy arose in the West despite orthodox Christianity and in no way because of it. From what I know of political Islam and what we observe in history, it is not implausible to say that if liberal democracy will arise in the Middle East despite orthodox Islam and not because of it. That is an intellectually honest statement on my part, but it invites charges of bigotry. I will have to live with that.
The reason why the charge of bigotry is sure to follow a statement like that is because of the postmodern liberal fallacy that all religions are the same. They are all equally compatible with liberal democracy or they are all irrelevant to it. Religions are infinitely malleable and can be molded into whatever shape we want. In other words, religions are like cars. They are basically the same, take you the same places (in this life or the next), and only differ really in furnishings and brand names. But when we buy into this fallacy, we analyze religion and politics using only half our brains.
No, it can be the case, and it isn’t bigotry saying so, that some religions are more or less compatible with liberal democracy than others. It can be the case, and it isn’t bigotry saying so, that some religions require little adjustment for the teachings of their core central figures, sacred texts, to accommodate liberal democracy than others. It can be the case, and it isn’t bigotry to say so, that some religions will need to recover its orthodoxy in order to embrace liberal democracy (I think this is what the Reformation did in church history) while others will need to depart from that orthodoxy and invent something radically new in order to do so.
Every time the Islamic State commits yet another attack or atrocity, Muslims, particularly Western Muslims, shudder. Attacks like the ones in Paris mean another round of demands that Muslims condemn the acts, as if we should presume guilt, or perhaps some indirect taint.
The impulse to separate Islam from the sins and crimes of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is understandable, and it often includes statements such as ISIS has “nothing to do with Islam” or that ISIS is merely “using Islam” as a pretext. The sentiment is usually well-intentioned. We live in an age of growing anti-Muslim bigotry, where mainstream politicians now feel license to say things that might have once been unimaginable.
To protect Islam – and, by extension, Muslims – from any association with extremists and extremism is a worthy cause.
But saying something for the right reasons doesn’t necessarily make it right. An overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose ISIS and its ideology. But that’s not quite the same as saying that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, when it very clearly has something to do with it.
If you actually look at ISIS’s approach to governance, it would be difficult – impossible, really – to conclude that it is just making things up as it goes along and then giving it an Islamic luster only after the fact.
It is tempting, for example, to look at the role of former Saddam-era Baathist party officers in the organization’s senior ranks and leap to the conclusion that religion can’t matter all that much. Yet many younger Baathists came up through Saddam Hussein’s late-period Islamization initiative, and, in any case, just because someone starts as a Baathist – or any other kind of secular nationalist – doesn’t mean they can’t, at some later point, “get” religion.
There is a role for Islamic apologetics – if defending Islam rather than analyzing it is your objective. I am a Muslim myself, and it’s impossible for me to believe that a just God could ever sanction the behavior of groups like ISIS.
But if the goal is to understand ISIS, then I, and other analysts who happen to be Muslim, would be better served by cordoning off our personal assumptions and preferences. What Islam should be and what Islam is actually understood to be by Muslims (including extremist Muslims) are very different things.
For scholars of Islamist movements and Islam’s role in politics, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, there should be one overarching objective: to understand and to explain, rather than to make judgments about which interpretations of Islam are correct, or who is or isn’t a “true” Muslim.
In addition to being a Muslim, I am an American, as well as a small-l liberal. I have written about how, even if we personally believe liberalism is the best available ideological framework for ordering society, that should not be allowed to distort our understanding of mainstream Islamist movements such as, say, the Muslim Brotherhood and its analogues across the region.
It makes little sense to compare Islamists to some liberal ideal, when they are a product of very different contexts than our own.
The “is ISIS Islamic?” debate can seem circular and exhausting. But it’s an important one nonetheless. Islamic apologetics lead us down a path of diminishing the role of religion in politics. If the past few years of Middle Eastern turmoil have made anything clear, it’s that, for Islamists of various stripes – mainstream or extremist – religion matters.