Muslim Brotherhood

From the Hudson’s Insitute’s Center on Islam, Democracy, and the Future of the Muslim World, a talk by Gilles Kepel, one of the world authorities on Islamism, regarding the Muslim Brotherhood (along with Hillel Fradkin). Link to page here. Then click the link for 9:15-11:15 talk, it’s a transcript in pdf form of the discussion.

The two discuss the MB as the first truly Islamist organization (wiki on MB here, flagged for possible neutrality issues). Founded by Hassan al Banna, a schoolteacher, in 1920s Egypt, they are massively different than the rise of al-Qaeda. al-Qaeda’s main theorist, Ayman al Zawahiri, was an Egyptian who formed Islamic Jihad (later merged with bin Laden’s AQ) as a result of thinking the MB had sold out. The Brotherhood split around the detente with Anwar Sadat after the horrors perpetrated on the MB by Gen. Nasser (including killing Sayid Qutb, the godfather of international jihad).

The MB is what Ali Eteraz helpfully calls the “Islamic right”.

Interestingly, Salafism, as Fradkin writes, began with the forerunners of the “Islamic left” (modernizing Islamic reformers): Muhammad Abduh and his disciples al-Afghani and Rashid Rida. As Eteraz has shown, this line was the dominant one until the US started supporting the Islamic Right (big time the MB, also the jihad in Afghanistan, Saudi oil money, Israel supporting Hamas against PLO) as a bulwark against Soviet communism.

But Salafism in this sense means the critiquing of the medieval clerical phase of Islam (ulema). A “Protestant” move of individuals and small groups returning to the text and idealizing the earliest phase of the religion, while simultaneously being anti-Western imperialism. Abduh, a hero of liberal Islam, was still very anti-Western colonial occupation. He wanted to reform Islam so that it could kick out the European colonizers. (more…)

Published in: on November 24, 2007 at 10:56 am  Leave a Comment  
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Ali Eteraz: Roots of Islamism I

Ali Eteraz has written a series of 7 Articles in Comment is Free (Guardian UK) on the future of Islamic politics and theology. The sum total of them all is very brilliant. (Though I would disagree with a few individual points/points of emphasis).

The first three deal with Islamic Reform, Islamic Reformation, and the rise of Islamism.

The key point is that from within the Muslim world, the Islamic Reformation has already commenced (for at least 200 years now). The Reformation, contrary to opinion in both the West and (some) within the Islamic world, is not an inherently stabilizing and modernizing force. The Christian Reformation brought about illiberal revolutionary & reactionary forces from both the left and right. John Calvin and crew set up a theocracy in Geneva. Luther aligned himself totally with the German princes, calling for the slaying of the Peasants Revolt (Protestant radical left).

The Reformation, above all, is the destruction of the traditional clerical elite–who is theologically and morally conservative but politically quietist (hence its total support for modern dictators and classical caliphs/rulers/kings). The Reformation is the coming of individualist interpretations.

Eteraz writes:

This leads to an important conclusion. Extremists, being dissenters to Islamic traditionalism, are not merely a reaction to external pressures like western foreign policy (which they are), but also a reaction to the traditionalist response (or lack of response) to internal problems as well. Ibn Taymiya would not have led attacks against the hypocrite kings had the traditionalists of that time spoken up against them. Bin Laden hates not just the West, but the Saudi royal family and the clerics who prop it up by not criticising it. Sayyid Qutb did not just villify people in the US, he castigated the village of his childhood as well. Extremism is not just an irrational conflagration; it is rational, though misguided, dissent.

The individualist interpretations (like the Christian Reformation) will lead to massively different interpretations–many of them right-wing and illiberal. Other call for a renewed ithjihad (like Irshad Manji). The problem with this call alone is that ithjihad–individual interpretation outside the control of traditional clericalism–can lead to Bin Laden as much as to feminist Islamic points of view. Bin Laden is not a cleric. He is a “Luther” like figure, here I stand and I can do no other, he says from a Pakistani cave. And like Luther’s use of the printing press, al-Qaeda has the internet and its video studio.

In integral terms, this is because ithjihad or the Islamic Reformation more generally when translated is an external only affair (flatland theology) and therefore has no real way to distinguish between different levels of theological and political depth.

So I think Eteraz is right that the call for a Reformation is not right, more that it is simply happening and will continue and there is nothing to be done except hope to influence that train in a better direction.

Eteraz on this point (article #4):

It means that Islamic rationalism – the act of a Muslim using his (or her) individual reason to access the Quran and Islamic tradition – has triumphed so emphatically that both Muslim liberals (Wadud) and illiberals (Qutb), rely upon it. It means that the whole time people have been talking in terms of civilisations, we should have been talking in terms of individuals, because reason is an individual act. In fact, some of the most unsavoury characters of 20th century Islam have essentially confirmed that there won’t be any turning back from Islam’s individualist revolution.

In the next post I’ll deal with his parsing of Islamist (modern) right-wingism versus jihadism and his call for an Islamist left.

Published in: on November 1, 2007 at 9:06 am  Comments (1)  
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Farewell Israel?

So suggests a new documentary out (saw advertised on Dennis Prager’s site). This is the trailer. Some sweet music.

Here’s the website. Click here for Q&A with Director/Producer/Writer, Joel Gilbert (BA from London School of Oriental and African Studies). In the vein I would say of Bernard Lewis.

Why should we say farewell to Israel–Gilbert answers:

Israel’s lack of understanding of Islam, its values and goals, have lead it to a policy of surrender of territory, based on the belief that it will achieve “Peace” in Western terms. In reality, “Western Peace” between Israel and Islam is unattainable. Peace can only be achieved in Islamic terms – “Peace with Justice” – which requires the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state. Muslims have 1,400 years of experience and holy scriptures to refer to that deal with Jews. Because Judaism predates Islam, Jews have no such foundation in dealing with Muslims, hence the Israeli misunderstanding, and the Islamic advantage.

Now this line is actually quite sharp:

There is no such thing as “Radical Islam.” Islamism is not a war against the West, it is an internal struggle for the revival of Islamic society – a “revolt” against their failed secular governments. The attacks of 9/11 are completely misunderstood by the West. In fact, 9/11 was only a provocation by a small group of Islamists, hoping to use the West’s response to inspire the masses in Islam’s internal struggle. The 9/11 attacks were successful only because George Bush played into the hands of the Al-Qaeda by adopting Al-Qaeda’s agenda for government reform across the Middle East – helping to pave the way for Islamist parties to come to power.

That first sentence is precisely on target. Islamism is a modern (though it will appeal to ancient roots) phenomenon that has arisen in light of the failure of Arab socialism/secular nationalism. The West has been drug into this fight. The fight is not per se with the West–only it could be argued to the degree the West backs Arab dictators, refuses to recognize Iran/Hezbollah, and supports Israel. And of course the US now occupying Iraq.

I’m not sure what I think about George Bush playing into the hands of al-Qaeda by seeking reform in the Middle East. Does that mean Gilbert thinks the West should continue to support Arab dictatorial regimes–aren’t they the ones backing (though not pushing it too strongly) an overthrow of Israel?

It would be more accurate, given Gilbert’s correct analysis, to say that George Bush played into bin Laden’s scheme by invading an Islamic country in the heart of the Middle East. That would lead to the rage against the West, the uprising he wanted–though not to al-Qaeda Central by any stretch.

Gilbert also doesn’t acknowledge then that within this push for revival come other permutations of Islam and politics (e.g Turkey’s ruling party). There is a Reformation going on in the Islamic world–the Salafi revivalist (Sunni) and Mahdist Shia apocalypticism (Sadr and Ahmadeinjad) are only two varieties. Two varieties which US policy is doing everything it possibly can to strengthen (unintentionally).

All of a sudden everything revolves around Iran. Shady to my mind. Why does he just sneak al-Qaeda in at the end of the trailer and then back to Iran? They are different.

To the question what does he think Iran’s agenda in the Middle East is:

Iran is acquiring strategic weapons in order to shift the balance of power with Israel, which it believes will precipitate Israel’s destruction and Islam’s revival. Even without attacking Israel, the mere capability of Iranian missiles to lay waste to Tel-Aviv would create a “strategic umbrella,” preventing Israel from using its superior strategic assets in a conventional war. With Israeli missiles neutralized, Muslim countries could overwhelm Israel with their superior numbers, conventional armor and short range missiles.

Huh? Never heard this one before. No analysis from Gilbert at least in the Q&A of why Iran, as we now know, offered to cut off aid to Hamas and Hezbollah, recognize Israel in exchange for normalization of relations with the United States after 9/11? Part of their diplomatic cover to jihad? I think not.

Nor a possible Israeli-Sunni alliance against the Iranians. Why it would have been helpful to peel Syria off from Iran when that chance was available.

I think Gilbert is right, a war is coming. A war that will weaken Israel I worry. But not one that was inevitable given the so-called Islamic mindframe.

It is fair to say that Islam, on the whole, has not come to grips with the modern world. The modern world represented colonialism and humiliation. It represents currently occupation of Iraq, dictatorship in Pakistan. And what message does the US send to Turkey (a NATO ALLY) by not helping root out actual terrorists (as named by the State Department), the PKK? Not to mention Europe giving them the cold shoulder on EU membership to date. What message is sent by way to the Islamic world that a path is opened for them to actually join the modern world?

If there is no Islamic way to modernity (and not imposed or even aided by the West, just let some space open up and give people choice within bounds), then Islam becomes identified more and more with resistance, historical grievance, and ethnocentrism.

This set of policies is a strong part of what is undermining Israel. That and a multi-culturalist anti-Israeli turn in certain quarters. And Israel continuing to illegally occupy (and brutally so) Palestine?

On all sides, ignorant actors.

The fight was always against Salafi Sunni revivalism of a trans-national nature. Now it is a no end in sight occupation, near total bankrupting of the Gaza (the Israelis are now shutting off electricity to Hamas-controlled Gaza), forgotten Afghanistan, and a coming fight with the Shia.

Perfect breeding ground for the Revivalism Gilbert rightly fears gaining strength. My difference with Gilbert is that this end result did not have to happen and is not simply the outcome of “Islam’s” 1400 history and mindset. It could have been very different in the wake of 9/11. Very different.

Now I see darkness spreading.

Published in: on October 26, 2007 at 3:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Malise Ruthven: How to Understand Islam

A review of a number of recent works on Islam in the NY Review of Books here. Ruthven is covering a bunch of highly complex works, that could be stand alone reviews, so the job is tricky. I think the analysis is uneven in spots–although with the amount covered it couldn’t be otherwise. Still very enlightening.

The review (the first one) of Arguing the Just War in Islam by John Kelsey is to my mind the best.

Key passage:

The word sharia, usually translated as “law,” refers to the “path” or “way” governing the modes of behavior by which Muslims are enjoined to seek salvation. The way may be known to God, but for human beings it is not predetermined. A famous hadith (tradition) of Muhammad states that differences of opinion between the learned is a blessing. Sharia reasoning is therefore “an open practice.” In Islam’s classical era, up until the tenth century, scholars exercised ijtihad—independent reasoning—in order to reach an understanding of the divine law. Ijtihad shares the same Arabic root as the more familiar jihad, meaning “effort” or “struggle,” the word that is sometimes translated as “holy war.” Ijtihad is in effect the intellectual struggle to discover what the law ought to be. As Kelsay remarks, the legal scholars trained in its sources and methodologies will seek to achieve a balance between the rulings of their predecessors and independent judgments reflecting the idea that “changing circumstances require fresh wisdom.” The Sharia is not so much a body of law but a field of discourse or platform for legal reasoning. Recently, it has become an arena for intellectual combat.

It is therefore open to question whether the hijackers and the terrorists automatically put themselves beyond the bounds of Islam by killing innocents, as statements by Bush, Blair, and dozens of Muslim leaders and scholars suggest. With no churches or formally constituted religious authorities to police the boundaries of Islam, the only universally accepted orthodoxy is the Sharia itself. But the Sharia is more of an ideal than a formally constituted body of law. While interpreting the law was once the province of the trained clerical class of ulama, any consensus governing its correct interpretation has broken down under pressure of regional conflicts and the influence of religious autodidacts whose vision of Islam was formed outside the received scholarly tradition.

None of the three most influential theorists behind Sunni militancy, Abu’l Ala Maududi (1903–1979), Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949), and Sayyid Qutb, (1906–1966), received a traditional religious training. Yet both they and the authors of the landmark texts examined by Kelsay in his admirably lucid book (including the Charter of Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel, and bin Laden’s 1998 Declaration) claim the mantle of the Sharia, as did the terrorists responsible for the atrocities in New York, Madrid, and London.

In other words during the Islamic Reformation which we are living through, the power of clerics is being eroded even destroyed. The destruction of the monolithic (or mono-socially and intellectually controlled) voice of the ulema (clerical class) is the single most important item on the table for Islam. This “creative destruction” is enabled by the global informational technological platform, communications networks, and travel industry. (more…)

Published in: on October 23, 2007 at 10:37 am  Leave a Comment  
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