It is a strange quirk of the human condition that we almost universally romanticise the past.
T H White captured the sentiment in his lovely book The Once and Future King. The myth of King Arthur and Camelot reflect our desire for an idealised past. As in many such myths (including the Christian one) we are encouraged to believe that the wise, benevolent king will come again to rule us. (I hope Wally Lewis doesn’t read this essay!) But many belief systems have a tradition of a “golden age” that its proponents yearn to return.
We look back on our own childhoods (of course there are some exceptions) with fond nostalgia. Our recollections are less than objective. We selectively remember the best and expunge the worst. (Notwithstanding that a minority exaggerate the worst and expunge the best!) There is no difficulty with all of this usually. Our well-being is enhanced by indulging in the selective memories we choose of our past.
At a collective level however, this quirk poses some difficulties. I believe this is a factor in the collision between Islam and the West in modern times.
The golden age of Islam occurred around 750AD. At this period the Muslims had successfully conquered the Middle East, North Africa and a large part of Spain. However it was not just the territory that they controlled but the relative sophistication of the Islamic society that set it apart. Islam had preserved the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans that had been lost to the Europeans in the Dark Ages. It had fostered scholarship and trade. Under its protective umbrella science and mathematics prospered.
Some Muslims have a dream of jame towhidi, the society of believers. This is a dream of recreating things as they had been in the earliest days of Islam, when the Prophet ruled, and the spiritual and the secular were one, and everything that was done by the as yet small community could be said to be serving the faith.
Islam is now the fastest growing religion. Islam predominates in such Middle Eastern countries as Iran, Iraq and Pakistan and Egypt. But most of the world’s Islamic population live in Asia. Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country. Countries dominated by Muslim populations include Turkey, Nigeria, Algeria, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. There are also rapidly growing Muslim minorities in many European communities.
But a quick perusal of the heartland of Islam reveals Muslims now tend to occupy underdeveloped countries with low standards of living in sharp contrast with their glorious early history. This seems to have fostered a climate of resentment against those who are materially better off. As a result a movement has been created that agitates for a return to the past in the mistaken belief that this will somehow change things for the better. This movement is generally known as “Islamism”.
I read a story recently of a young man who fought for Iran in the war with Iraq (1980-1988). When speaking of the Islamists he fought alongside he said:
“They are people who think they have lost something. They think the rich people have stolen it from them. So they can be aggressive.”
Whilst Islamism means somewhat different things to different people, it refers most widely to an ideology that is aggressively Anti-Western and promotes mediaeval Islamic practices. This movement has spawned such fundamentalist militant groups as the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and of course al-Qaeda. Its most recent offshoot is the Islamic State currently challenging Syria and Iraq.
Islam is a religion based on what was purportedly revealed to Muhammad and later recorded in the Quran and the Hadith. Islamism, on the other hand is a political movement aimed at creating an Islamic state or even (as we are currently seeing) a transnational Caliphate.
However, whilst Islamists believe they are returning their beliefs to norms established in their golden age, some scholars of religion maintain that their beliefs come from more recent sources. Stephen Prothero, chair of the department of religion at Boston University, points out that Islamic fundamentalism is actually a modern invention, (as in fact is also Christian fundamentalism), deeply influenced by the Western ideologies it seeks to oppose.
The greatest intellectual influence on [Islamism] is likely the Egyptian theologian Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) who urged his followers to fight a holy war against secularism, democracy and the West. Islamism’s heroes are so-called martyrs, who, in violation of a clear Quranic prescription against suicide, blow themselves up for, among other things, promise of instant transport to Paradise. The villains are Israel and the “Great Satan”, the United States, but Islamists also denounce as evildoers (and apostates) fellow Muslims who interpret Islam in a more mainstream manner.
The joys of being subject to Islamism are evidenced by recent reports from Mosul in Iraq recently over-run by forces of the Islamic State. Newspaper reports indicate that Christians in the city face “death by the sword” if they do not convert to Islam or pay jizya, a special tax levied on non-Muslims. Just last week there were reports in the press that the Islamist militants that had over-run the town had decreed that all females between the ages of 11 and 46 must be subject to genital mutilation.
In its main stronghold in Syria, the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State is reported as having crucified Christians for disobeying orders, of cutting off the hands of accused thieves in public and killing all those who are considered more serious offenders.
In such communities Sharia prevails. As a consequence women are suppressed, not having the same rights as men under the law, forbidden education, not allowed out of their abodes unless accompanied by a family member and compelled to wear traditional clothing that virtually covers their entire bodies.
In the West we are inclined to be tolerant of people with different religious views. And it is entirely appropriate that we should allow Muslims the freedom to worship Allah in their traditional way. But it seems to me that we should be very circumspect in allowing Islamists, who seek to compel others to believe in Islam and enshrine in law their mediaeval beliefs, to do as they will. In doing so, we threaten democracy and the benefits of modern Western societies.
Until relatively recent times the prime struggle for Islam was with Christianity. The relationship between Islam and Christianity has had a variable history. The struggle to dominate Jerusalem, for example, occupied the ambitions of both religions with terrible consequences. The Muslims conquered Jerusalem in in 637. The Christians took it back in 1099. But they were forced to relinquish it again to the Muslims when the legendary Muslim hero, Saladin, again prevailed in1187.
There have been times and places when and where both religions have coexisted amicably. But in the last hundred years or so, Islam as represented by Islamism, has become very intolerant of competing faiths. Christians are no longer the only enemy of Islamism. The movement seeks to quash any religion, be it Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism etc. that doesn’t centre on Allah and his supposed prophet, Muhammad. Indeed the growing conflict emanating from Islamism seems to have been greatly exacerbated by the desire of Islamists not only to convert others to Islam but to also, as we saw above, have the state enforce extreme and fundamentalist Islamic beliefs.
An exception is Indonesia. As one of the founders of the Islamic movement in Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, explained:
We realised how detrimental the direct link had proved between Islam and politics – as in Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia – because people everywhere then saw Islam as a religion using violence, which in our thoughts is not so. In our thoughts Islam is a moral force which works through ethics and morality.
People should practice Islam out of conscience, not out of fear. [Islamists] create a fear among non-Muslims to show their identity. This is the first step to tyranny.
As a result, even though Indonesia’s population comprises more Muslims than any other country in the world, pluralism is tolerated there to a degree not evidenced in many other Muslim countries.
The dilemma posed by Islam was nicely described by Nobel Prize winning author, V.S.Naipaul.
The cruelty of Islamic Fundamentalism is that it allows only to one people – the Arabs, the original people of the Prophet – a past, and sacred places, pilgrimages and earth reverences. These sacred Arab places have to be the sacred places of all the converted peoples. Converted peoples have to strip themselves of their past; of converted peoples nothing is required but the purest faith (if such a thing can be arrived at). Islam implies total submission. It is the most uncompromising kind of imperialism.
It is important in a modern democracy that people be allowed to worship (or not worship) as they see fit. If Wahid’s philosophy prevailed Muslims would be welcome to take their place alongside other religious believers. The tenets of Islamism, however, will not allow such freedom. It is fitting that we should allow Islam to be worshipped in our society but when embellished as Islamism and it adopts the uncompromising kind of imperialism that Naipul describes it should be resisted at all costs.