Although Islam was founded on the noble principles of love, peace and brotherhood, the unfortunate fact is that it has had a bloody history. Three of its four Caliphs – Hazrat Umar, Hazrat Uthman and Hazrat Ali – were assassinated in a series of violent feuds after Prophet Mohammad’s death. Ziauddin Sardar, noted British-Pakistani Islamic scholar, has written that Islam’s history has been “inherently violent”.
Claims to the contrary are based on a cherry-picked reading of Islam’s chequered history – just as the extremists’ defence of their actions are based on a selective interpretation of Quran and Hadith, the two main sources of Islamic theology. It ignores the arc of intolerance and repression that dogged Islam as rival schools of thought competed for supremacy and patronage of the ruler of the day.
A tendency towards revisionism and to make the past look good by not allowing facts to come in the way of a good story, is not unique to Muslims (the idea of a Hindu “golden age” is as much an exercise in revisionism) and the temptation becomes the greater when a culture or community feels it is being “targeted”.
Today, Muslims face relentless pressure to answer for the actions of their rogue co-religionists and their instinctive reaction is to defend Islam, glossing over the historical warts and presenting a prettified picture of its chequered past. Admittedly, there have been moments when I too have been sufficiently riled to react in a defensive way. So, I can see where the apologists are coming from: “Islam is under attack, we must defend it.” But the problem arises when denial becomes the official narrative and is touted as the only truth in town.
And the problem is this: a vast majority of ordinary Muslims – like their Hindu, Christian and Sikh peers – are not exactly up to speed about their faith’s history, and therefore are unable to challenge either the moderates’ prettified version or the extremists’ cherry-picked interpretation. So, whichever narrative they choose to accept, they end up with a skewed understanding of Islam. The result is a dangerously polarised global Muslim ummah.
Commenting on the gulf between British and American understanding of English, George Bernard Shaw apocryphally joked that Britons and Americans are two peoples divided by a common language. The same can be said about the contrasting narratives around Islam: the global Muslim ummah are two peoples divided by a common faith. Except that Americans and Brits still try and manage to communicate, whereas the two polarised Muslim groups are not even trying to communicate.
But the crisis facing moderate Islam is no joking matter; and what is often ignored is that this crisis precedes al-Qaeda and IS. And the crisis will only deepen if there is no acknowledgement that Islam has had an extremism problem through much of its history. The “Islam-has-always-been-peaceful-and-consensual” narrative is problematic not only because it is historically not true, but because it generates complacency by suggesting that the current wave of extremism is simply an aberration which will pass, and in due course Islam will be restored to its old peaceful and consensual glory.
Basically the message is: No need to do anything, just sit back, and it will pass.
That is why most Muslims appear simply bored by all the fuss; their concern is limited to extremist violence and acts of Islamist terror because it has personal consequences for them: every new terror attack in the name of Islam means another anti-Muslim backlash, more Islamophobia, more Muslim bans, and more negative perception of Muslims and Islam.
Whenever a Muslim hears of a terror attack, the first reaction is: “Hope there is no Muslim behind it.” Their condemnation of violence committed by Muslims in the name of Islam is generally prompted by the fear of anti-Muslim reprisals as a result of such violence rather than a concern about the broader crisis of extremism in Islam. Take out the violence bit, and few Muslims are interested in addressing the central issue: the gradual erosion of moderate Islam and its regression into intolerance and parochialism.
The fact... that even liberal Muslims think they need to defend such obviously regressive “symbols of Muslim identity” as burqa and skullcaps doesn’t bode well for progressive Islam. Reclaiming black identity – Black is Beautiful – as a riposte to racism is one thing; reclaiming discarded symbols of patriarchy and oppression in response to Islamophobia, which itself is a reaction to Muslim extremism is quite another.
But, as British rights activist Sarah Khan writes:
“The battle within Islam, however, encompasses much more than just the challenge of terrorism. At its heart is a conflict of ideas and a question as to whether Muslims believe Islam is reconcilable with pluralism and human rights.”— “The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism”, Sarah Khan
As I write, the world is cheering the defeat of IS just as it cheered the “collapse” of al-Qaeda a few years ago. One, claims of a sweeping military victory are exaggerated as they were in the case of al-Qaeda as we saw subsequently. But even if the last IS/al-Qaeda/Boko Haram militant was killed, it would not magically usher in moderate Islam. Only violence will end; that too only until such time as the remnants of these groups are able to reorganise themselves and emerge under a new management.
In fact, nothing will change so long as millions of Muslims around the world continue to buy – as they do across the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe – into the extremists’ interpretation of Islam, even if they condemn their violent methods.
The Wahhabi/Salafi Islam practised in Saudi Arabia – the self-appointed custodian of global ummah – which is exported abroad, is just another version of extremist Islam minus its violent strain; as is Iran’s brand of Shia Islam. Between them, the two rival Muslim “super powers” follow the most regressive versions of Sunni and Shia Islam respectively, and have invested heavily in propagating them. And these versions are closer to the extremists’ version (minus the violence) than the tolerant and benign Islam of our ideals.
There is no point to keep denying that the extremists’ version is “not Islam” or a “travesty” of Islam. It is as disingenuous as the claims that the lynch mobs going around India attacking suspected beef-eaters are “not Hindus”.
They may not represent the mainstream Islam but... they are very much in a long line of Islam’s militant tendency. Their cherry-picking of obscure and ambiguous Islamic scriptures to justify their actions is no doubt opportunistic, but doesn’t wholly negate the basis of their claims. Islamic scriptures are a minefield of ambiguity and a god-send for anyone wanting to exploit them for their own ends.
While jihadis have been quick to do exactly that, the moderates’ response has been slow, half-hearted, confused and patronising, dismissing the Islamists as a bunch of thugs who have nothing to do with Islam and doomed to fail. Thanks to this sort of complacency (“let us just wait it out and everything will be fine”) there has been no reformist movement for almost a hundred years, while the fundamentalists have been expanding their influence.
Excerpted with permission from Who Killed Liberal Islam, Hasan Suroor, Rupa Publications.