Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Islam is Not the Problem

If you were to watch the world news and listen to the pronouncements of our leaders, you would think we were at war with Islam.  Almost every night we see images of fanatical people brandishing flags with Arabic slogans and proclaiming Allahu Akbar (God is Great) alongside images of bombed out building, beheadings and abductions.  We hear stories of Christians and other religious minorities fleeing for their lives to avoid the choice of execution or forced conversion.  Is this an inevitable result of Islamic dominance in society, or is something else going on?

I have been convinced for long time that Islam is not the problem.  Not that Islamic extremism isn't a problem, but that this is an historical anomaly not an inevitable result of Islam. I want to try to explain briefly why I think this.

When these persecutions and religious cleansing efforts first became headline news and various commentators and friends started suggesting they were a logical result of the teachings of the Koran and Hadith, my first thought was that this didn't make any sense historically.  The Prophet Mohammed received his revelations in the early seventh century CE and Islam has been the dominant faith in the Middle East since the eighth century - 1,200 years and counting.  For much of this time the Arabic-dominated cultures of the Middle East and North Africa were the most powerful and advanced civilisation on earth, dominating and threatening their Christian neighbours.

Yet through the 20th century there were still substantial, thriving Christian populations in places like Egypt, Syria, Sudan and Iraq.  There were also other historic faiths such as the Yazidi, the Samaritans and communities of Jews who remained in the Middle East after the fall of the Roman Empire and rise of Islam.  There is also a diverse set of minority interpretations of Islam - Shi'ites, Druze, Alawites, Sufis and so on.  If Islam is inherently intolerant, how has such diversity survived for 1,200 years?

The answer is that the level of intolerance we are seeing in the some parts of Middle East now is a relatively new development, imposed by a radical minority.  The majority view in Islam, and the view that has prevailed through most of history, is that minority religions, particularly "religions of the Book" including Christianity and Judaism, are to be licensed and tolerated.  This toleration has not always been totally benign and there have been instances of persecution throughout history, but these are the exception, not the norm.  The norm is the type of regime we now see just to our north in Indonesia and Malaysia - a regime in which Islam is dominant and demands to be respected as such, but followers of minority religions are permitted to practice their own religion (often requiring payment of a extra tax known as the jizya) provided they respect the sensibilities of their Islamic rulers.

We can also see this dichotomy in Australia.  There are currently around half a million Muslims in Australia.  Recent news reports suggest that there are less than 300 Australian supporters of Islamic State including 120 fighting overseas.  In other words, about 0.06% of Australian Muslims actively support IS.  What of the other 99.94%?  Every indication is that the vast majority are as appalled by IS as anyone else - indeed many of them have fled similar regimes.  This horror is the norm in Islam.

If the current radical activism is historically relatively new, and is a small minority position in Islam, why is it gaining increasing power and influence now?  What has led to this change?

Earlier this year I attempted to develop a framework for understanding immediate surface phenomena and their underlying causes through a simple pyramid diagram.  The diagram below reworks this to provide a context for the current Islamic radicalism.  Click on it so see it full-size.


At the top level is the phenomenon we are focused on - the rise of radical political Islam with its extreme fundamentalist interpretation, its radical intolerance and its use of terror as a weapon of war.  We are right to be frightened of this, but what has brought it into being after all these centuries?

Sitting just beneath this surface is a history of international tensions.  These are quite complex but we can think of them as being of two types.  The first is the long-standing ethnic and religious tensions that have developed through the centuries within the Middle East and North Africa.  There are tensions between Peninsula Arabs, Northern Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Egyptians, and so forth.  There are also tensions between the branches of Islam - particularly between Sunni and Shia - and between different interpretations within the Sunni majority.

In the past century these tensions have been further exacerbated by increased American and European intervention in the region's affairs.  The fall of the Ottoman empire after World War 1 saw the region divided between the victorious powers who created states and protectorates within their spheres of influence, often cutting across ethnic and religious divides and exacerbating existing conflicts.  This led to the creation of unstable states which degenerated fairly quickly into various forms of dictatorship.  At the same time, US and European meddling has sowed the seeds of our current problems - Al Qaeda (of which Islamic State is a breakaway faction) and the Taliban were both covertly supported by the CIA in the 1980s as a way of undermining Russian rule in Afghanistan.

A preference for manipulation at a distance and the fighting of proxy wars has given way to increasing levels of direct intervention, beginning with the first Iraq War in 1991.  On the third level down we see an explanation for why these conflicts have escalated in the past 25 years. We are starting to hit a number of hard ecological limits and these are biting in the Middle East in various ways.  The approach of peak oil has led to greater competition for increasingly scarce oil supplies.  In particular, the dwindling of the US's own supplies at home has left it more dependent than it has ever been on Middle Eastern oil and hence more desperate to secure its access.

At the same time the processes of climate change have worked alongside the ravages of sanctions and war to impoverish large parts of the populations of countries like Syria, Iraq and Egypt.  Displaced farmers and rural workers have moved to the cities, escaping drought and joining throngs of urban unemployed.  These populations become hotbeds of dissent, attracting the wrath of dictatorial rulers.  A good deal of their anger is directed inwards, but some is also directed outwards towards the West as the US and its allies are seen as responsible for many of the problems they experience.  The further resulting breakdown in these countries is not necessarily an accidental by-product of Western intervention - Noam Chomsky, for instance, has suggested that the creation of weak and divided governments in oil-rich states serves US interests by removing barriers to oil wealth.

At the deepest level, what are the illusions that sustain this mutually destructive behaviour?  I would suggest there are two.  One is our absolutisation of our cultures, nations and "ways of life".  The Middle East and the West are in a symbiotic relationship over oil, reinforcing the mutual delusion that our economies and technologies can continue as they are.  We all know they can't, we are already bumping up against their limits, but we keep trying to eke out the current patterns for as long as possible, despite the damage they do, because they are making our elites rich.

Our rejection of the necessary fundamental changes - changes in technology, in wealth distribution, in food production - leads us instead to foster illusions about ourselves.  For us Westerners, it is an illusion about the present - our image of ourselves as enlightened and democratic.  This leads to us attempting to enforce a kind of moral ascendancy on the countries of the Middle East, to try to bomb them into being kinder and less belligerent.

On the Middle Eastern side, extreme Islam promotes an illusion about the past - an illusion of a pure, righteous form of Islam untainted by any compromise with the West, symbolised by such ideas as the Caliphate of Islamic State.  There was never such a pure state, Islam always compromised with those around it like we all do, but our 21st century radicals attempt to escape the humiliation of the present by returning to an imagined heroic ideal.

Neither the causes nor the remedies for complex global issues are ever simple.  My description oversimplifies and glosses over many things, but if I'm right it provides a framework within which we can begin to understand not only the day to day realities, but the bedrock of questions which underlie them.  It is not simply a matter of defeating Islam, nor even of defeating radical Islam, because so much of the problem lies within ourselves.

6 comments:

Samuel Green said...

Thanks for your thoughts in this post. Here are a few reflections.

>If you were to watch the world news and listen to the pronouncements of our leaders, you would think we were at war with Islam.

I think it is more mixed than this. Most of our leaders and the media want to insist we are not at war with Islam. They regularly say Islam is a religion of peace and a great civilization that the West is indebted to. They say this even in the face of attacks where the perpetrators explicitly say they are doing it because of Islam. There are some in the media who say we are at war with Islam but I think they are a minority.

With all the types of things that are happening weekly it is hard not to feel that a war of some kind is not happening.

> friends started suggesting they were a logical result of the teachings of the Koran and Hadith, my first thought was that this didn't make any sense historically.

I am not sure what you mean? Regarding the Qur’an and Hadith it certainly teaches that Islam is to conquer and subjugate the non-Muslim world:

Fight those who believe not in God and the Last Day and do not forbid what God and His Messenger (Muhammad) have forbidden - such men as practise not the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book (Christians and Jews) - until they pay the tribute (jizyah) out of hand and have been humbled. The Jews say, 'Ezra is the Son of God'; the Christians say, 'The Messiah is the Son of God.' That is the utterance of their mouths, conforming with the unbelievers before them. God assail them! How they are perverted! ... It is He who has sent His Messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth, that He may uplift it above every religion (Qur’an 9:29-33, Arberry, 48:28-29, 61:9)

And historically this is exactly what Muhammad and his companions did. Muhammad did not send out missionaries but jihadists. These jihadist conquered and enormous area from Spain to West China and everything in between. The conquered were given three choices: convert, pay the terms of surrender (jizyah) or die.

The problem we have in the West is that we do not learn this history.

The Jihad, the Islamic so-called Holy War, has been a fact of life in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Near and Middle East for more than 1,300 years, but this is the first history of the Muslim wars in Europe ever to be published. ... The Jihad has been the most unrecorded and disregarded major event of history. It has, in fact, been largely ignored. ... The Jihad has been largely bypassed by Western historians, and this book is an attempt to right the situation. (Paul Fregosi, Jihad in the West, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998, p.19)

Samuel Green said...

> Yet at the start of the 21st century there are still substantial, thriving Christian populations in places like Egypt, Syria, Sudan and Iraq. There are also other historic faiths such as the Yazidi, the Samaritans and communities of Jews who remained in the Middle East after the fall of the Roman Empire and rise of Islam. There is also a diverse set of minority interpretations of Islam - Shi'ites, Druze, Alawites, Sufis and so on. If Islam is inherently intolerant, how has such diversity survived for 1,200 years?

Sorry this is just wrong. The Christian populations in these areas are not thriving. It is just the reverse. They have been under sustained pressure for 1400 years. Please speak to representatives from these communities and ask them what the last 1400 years has been like for them. Islam does tolerate them but this does not mean they are treated well.


> The norm is the type of regime we now see just to our north in Indonesia and Malaysia - a regime in which Islam is dominant and demands to be respected as such, but followers of minority religions are permitted to practice their own religion provided they respect the sensibilities of their Islamic rulers.

Indonesia and Malaysia are the exception not the norm. Indonesia has publicly stated that it rejects the idea of political Islam, however, Islam is a political religion, so Indonesia is not an orthodox model.

> There are currently around half a million Muslims in Australia. Recent news reports suggest that there are less than 300 Australian supporters of Islamic State including 120 fighting overseas. In other words, about 0.06% of Australian Muslims support IS.

Yes there are 120 fighting overseas but it is impossible to know how many support them.

Samuel Green said...

> At the top level is the phenomenon we are focused on - the rise of radical political Islam with its extreme fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, its radical intolerance and its use of terror as a weapon of war.


Yes, we are focussed on that, but the question is, if this is what the Qur’an says to do then what do we do? Our secular politicians have no idea.


> The approach of peak oil has led to greater competition for increasingly scarce oil supplies. In particular, the dwindling of the US's own supplies at home has left it more dependent than it has ever been on Middle Eastern oil and hence more desperate to secure its access. (No is an exporter)

Actually, I thought the US was an exporter of oil. It has opened up huge areas in the north to mining. I do not think this is about oil but simple Western incompetence and the foolish belief that the rest of the world is really secular and we can solve their problems.

> This leads to us attempting to enforce a kind of moral ascendancy on the countries of the Middle East, to try to bomb them into being kinder and less belligerent.

I agree.


> On the Middle Eastern side, extreme Islam promotes an illusion about the past - an illusion of a pure, righteous form of Islam untainted by any compromise with the West, symbolised by such ideas as the Caliphate of Islamic State. There was never such a pure state, Islam always compromised with those around it like we all do, but our 21st century radicals attempt to escape the humiliation of the present by returning to an imagined heroic past.

I agree but it is not only a glorious past they are promoting but the vision of the future that the Qur'an itself promotes. This is Muhammad’s great commission.

I recommend Mark Durie’s “The Third Choice”
And my training course.
http://engagingwithislam.org/training/

Jon Eastgate said...

Thanks for your comments Samuel. I'm travelling at the moment so sorry to be slow to reply.

You've clearly studied these things a lot more than I have so I'm reluctant to question you. However, a couple of points.

1. Our politicians and our media outlets give off mixed signals. Lip service is paid to "moderate Islam" but when was the last time you saw a positive media story about an Islamic person or organisation?

2. I accept that Middle Eastern Christians and followers of other minority faiths are second class citizens in their own countries and there are restrictions on them in all sorts of ways. However, after 1400 years they are still there. The beheadings and mass evictions we are seeing from IS-controlled areas is a substantial change from long-standing practice.

3. We are indeed reaching or have already passed peak oil and US supplies are indeed dwindling. They have two strategies to cope with this - attempt to exploit less economic and more environmentally hazardous sources at home like shale oil and tar sands, and shore up their control of Middle Eastern supplies. Both are very hazardous and fail to address climate change.

4. On the interpretation of the Quran, it is always slightly perplexing to hear Christians quote chapter and verse from the Quran to support extreme Islamic views and then read Islamic scholars denying that this is how it should be interpreted. The thing is, I could easily demonstrate from the Bible that God does not only permit genocide he positively requires it. You would protest (rightly) that this is a gross misunderstanding of Christianity. This is because you and I are immersed in a culture of interpretation which assigns the genocidal passages of the OT to a particular place in history while generalizing Jesus' statements about universal love and forgiveness. Islam has similar traditions which Christian interpreters often fail to take into account.

I hope its clear that my purpose here is not to deny the reality of Islamic extremism or downplay the real suffering caused by IS. rather, I am attempting to provide a context in which to understand it.


Samuel Green said...

> 1. Our politicians and our media outlets give off mixed signals. Lip service is paid to "moderate Islam" but when was the last time you saw a positive media story about an Islamic person or organisation?

I would say regularly. Q&A on the ABC nearly always has Islamic representatives who promote the concept of Islam being a religion of peace. My local paper, the Mercury basically only publishes positive stories about Islam.

> 2. I accept that Middle Eastern Christians and followers of other minority faiths are second class citizens in their own countries and there are restrictions on them in all sorts of ways. However, after 1400 years they are still there. The beheadings and mass evictions we are seeing from IS-controlled areas is a substantial change from long-standing practice.

Yes, a small remnant is still there but that is because in the past their ancestors paid the jizyah to the Islamic governments and were allowed to live. Again, ask the Copts, Assyrians, Chaldeans, etc. about their experience of living under Islam for 1400 year.

The European colonialism period banned the jizyah but the Islamic State have reintroduced it on the Christians. You seem to assume that IS is killing everyone. They are not. Christians still live in these territories and pay the jizyah today. Our media demonizes IS by saying they only kill people, this is not true. If you pay the jizyah you can live there like Christians have in the past in Islamic lands.


> 4. On the interpretation of the Quran, it is always slightly perplexing to hear Christians quote chapter and verse from the Quran to support extreme Islamic views and then read Islamic scholars denying that this is how it should be interpreted.

The vast majority of Islamic scholars, both past and present, say precisely what I am saying. Show me where I am wrong rather than dismiss me out-of-hand. It seems insane that I would even have to say this in the modern world but here are a few reasons why Christians should be allowed to read the Qur’an:

1. Muslims invite us to read the Qur’an.
2. The Qur’an invites us to read it.
3. The Qur’an is a world book.
4. Islam is not a private religion. The Qur'an instructs Muslims about what to do to other religions. Therefore those religions have a right to know what the Qur’an says should be done to them.
5. There is a massive problem when you say only a certain group can tell you what a book means.

Jon Eastgate said...

I definitely agree that Christians and others should read the Qu'ran. It's an inspiring and sometimes disturbing book. However, it is a mistake to assume that all or even most Muslims are fundamentalists, and therefore that a literal interpretation is "the" Islamic position.

I've been thinking how once again in this discussion we have allowed ourselves to focus on Islam, which is my original point. Islam and the contested interpretations thereof are at the surface of what is happening in the Middle East (and its ripples around the world) but there are historical, political, economic and environmental transformations which are new and are hence much more powerful as explanations of the current disruption than Islam which is a constant, long-term factor in the region.