the islamic paradox

bergens tidende, 27 january 2011

In Iraq a group of suicide bombers storm a Chaldean church, detonate their grenade and slaughter 68 Christians. In Egypt, on New Year’s Day, a carbomb outside a Coptic church in Alexandria kills 21 people. In Indonesia, a 1000-strong mob burn down two Christian churches. A week later, on Coptic Christmas Eve, six worshippers are gunned down in a drive-by shooting outside a Church in the south of the country. In Indonesia, a 1000-strong mob burn down two Christian churches because, according to one local commentator, Islamic authorities had determined that there were ‘too many faithful and too many prayers’ in them. In Pakistan, a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, is sentenced to death for insulting Islam. When the governor of Punjab criticizes the nation’s blasphemy laws, and promises to pardon her, he is gunned down by Salmaan Taseer, one of his own bodyguards, who becomes a hero to many Pakistanis.

For some, this is nothing less than a global ‘war against Christians’ and one that appears to vindicate the idea that there exists a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and the West. The wave of anti-Christian bigotry seems to such critic to says something profound about Islam and its nature. Whereas Christianity has, over the past three centuries, accommodated itself to a secular world and to the idea of religious pluralism, Islam it seems is unable to. Islam is an all-encompassing ideology, uniting faith and state, that makes tolerance impossible and leading inevitably to bigotry and violence. ‘Islam is not just a religion’, the Canadian writer Mark Steyn suggests. It is ‘a bloodthirsty faith in which whatever’s your bag violence-wise can almost certainly be justified.’

In fact, both the explanation for the war against Christians and the history of the relationship between Islam and secularism is far more complex than such claim allow. For a start, recent events in Tunisia and Egypt give the lie to the idea that people in Muslim countries have a different mindset to those in the West, or that democracy or secularism are ‘Western’ concepts alien to the Muslim world. Indeed, the power of religion in many Muslim countries has been the result, not of an intrinsic religious mindset, but of political decisions taken by secular politicians, including those in the West.

Far from Islam being a faith intrinsically opposed to secularism, the separation of religious and political life began in the Muslim world well before similar trends emerged in Christian Europe. The Caliphate, the system of government in the Muslim empire, has to the modern mind came to represent the symbol of religious control over the secular. The Caliph, after all, was known as the ‘Commander of the Believers’, and the Caliphate regarded as a continuation of the political system first established in Medina by Muhammad.

But from early on in Muslim history, the institutions of religion and those of state power developed within distinct spheres, each with independent values, leaders and organizations. The Caliph had religious power but little political control which was held by generals and local administrators. This was not secularism as we have come to know it in the post-Enlightenment West. But neither was the Caliphate a kind of theocracy that many now imagine, nor was Islam historically wedded to the idea of the fusion of faith and state.

The Caliphate eventually broke up in 1924. The Muslim ummah dissolved into distinct national communities. Egypt and Syria, Turkey and Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia – every nation now had its own specific priorities and pursued its own goals. Hand in hand with the rise of secular nationalism came the emergence of modern radical Islamism, with the creation, in particular, of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan. The Islamists dreamt of the restoration of the Caliphate - but of a Caliphate that had never existed.

In the era of secular nationalism, the Islamists were a marginal force. Until, that is, the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Suddenly, it seemed, the secularists were on the retreat and the mullahs on the march to political power, not just in Iran but throughout much of the Muslim world.

And yet the real story of the last 30 years is not of the triumph of Islamism – Islamists have rarely won a mass following and there has been no second Iranian revolution - but rather of the cynicism of secularists politicians who have created a space for Islamists groups in an attempt to further their own agendas.

Take Egypt. Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in an army in 1952, established a secular republic and transformed himself into the symbol of the godless modernism that was then sweeping through Muslim lands. He savagely repressed the Muslim Brotherhood, executing its leader Sayyid Qtub in August 1966. A year later, Arab armies were routed by Israel in the Six Day War. Nasser was humiliated and faced bitter opposition, not from Islamists, but radical secularists, who took to the streets in violent protest.

Fearing the radicals more than the Islamists, Anwar Sadat, who became president after Nasser’s death in 1970, came to a rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood. He released their members from prison and encouraged them to organise against the left. The Islamists certainly held secular militants in check. But Sadat was unable to do the same with radical Islamists who now flourished in the spaces from which nationalists and radicals had been forced out. In the end Sadat paid the ultimate price. In October 1981 he was assassinated by members of Islamic Jihad – a group that he himself had encouraged - during a military parade in Cairo.

This has been a common story over the past thirty years. Secular governments unleash the dogs of militant religion to keep in check left-wing radicals, believing that the dogs could be tethered again after they have done their job – only to be savaged themselves by the beasts they have let loose. ‘By making concession after concession in the moral and cultural domains’, the French sociologist Gilles Kepel has observed, governments in Muslim countries ‘gradually created a reactionary climate of “re-Islamization”. They sacrificed lay intellectuals, writers, and other “Westernized elites” to the tender mercies of bigoted clerics, in the hope that the latter, in return, would endorse their own stranglehold on the organs of state.’

This is one of the reasons that in recent years opposition protests in Egypt have been led mainly by Islamists. Until this week, that is. What makes the current protests so different is that ordinary secular voices, repressed for so long by both religious and secular authorities, have finally broken out.

The consequence of the cynical promotion of religious bigotry by secular politicians has been the erosion of secularism and the politicization of religion. The brutality of secular regimes, and the support such brutality has received from Western governments, has created a deep resentment of secular rule as well as inflaming anti-Western sentiment. The crushing of the radical secularists has left Islam as the only viable opposition. At the same time, the exploitation of religion by secular politicians has given Islam a new role in society. For many, Islam has come to define not simply a relationship with God but the framework within which they define their secular identities, too. Non-Muslims (and, indeed, the ‘wrong’ kind of Muslim) are seen not just as professing a different faith but undermining one’s very identity. Societies have become much more tribal, and Islamists have come to define the boundaries of the tribes, unleashing sectarian violence, of which Christians have been major victims. And all this has happened not because of the inherent savagery of Islam, or because Islamists have mass support, but because secular politicians have attempted to manipulate religion for their own purposes, and in doing so undermined secularism itself.