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What is Driving a Violent and Authoritarian Islam? – Professor Hussein Solomon

January 15, 2014

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What is Driving a Violent and Authoritarian Islam?

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 2 (2014), Number 1 (January 2014)

In Turkey, the promise of a modern and moderate Islam has been betrayed by the growing authoritarianism of Prime Minister Erdogan’s Islamists. In Syria, death and destitution has become the lot of ordinary citizens whilst Islamists have turned on both the Assad regime and the different factions within their own movement in an ever spiralling orgy of violence. In Egypt, the promise of moderate Islam in the form of President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood was proved a chimera with attacks on Coptic Christians, Shi’ites and secularists. Tunisia, one of the most secular Islamic countries, witnessed the assassination of prominent liberal and secular politicians. In Nigeria, a virulent Islamist ideology embedded within an ethnocentric Hausa-Fulani identity has witnessed the emergence of the terrorist Boko Haram movement and attacks on Christians and other ethnic groups. In Somalia and the Horn of Africa a similar Islamist ideology wedded to specific exclusionary clan identities has seen the emergence of Al Shabab and its politics of murder and authoritarianism.

Whilst much has been written on each of the cases mentioned above, in truth there has been little systematic reflection on the underlying commonalities and ideology reflected in each of these. Consider here the issue of citizenship. In Islam, there is no notion of a common citizenship – there being a clear separation between Muslims and non-Muslims. This was an issue which was resolved in the city-state of Athens between the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. which granted equal rights and obligations to all citizens (exceptions being slaves and women) within its territory of 1,000 square miles. It is this which differentiated the Greek polis from all previous states which were based on either blood or religious ties. To be frank, there can be no social harmony in a polity where a differentiation exists between citizens. Should we then be surprised of the growing intensity of the Shi’ite-Sunni sectarian conflict across the Arab world or the persecution of Coptic Christians under Morsi’s Egypt? This, of course, is further exacerbated in countries from Libya to Nigeria and to Somalia when tribal, ethnic or clan cleavages respectively reinforce the underlying religious differences. From this perspective, there was no possibility of the “Arab Spring” delivering democracy since North African and Middle Eastern states were pre-modern entities not states envisaged in the Weberian tradition of impersonal, non-partisan rule.

Closely related to this is the inherent culture of secular reason which has gradually challenged and displaced religious dogma which has become part of the creed of Western states. Socrates, after all, chose to speak truth to power and drink poison rather than worship the gods of ancient Athens. Machiavelli attempted to establish purely political criteria for institutions negating divine explanations. Copernicus challenged religious sensibilities with his revolutionary claim that the earth revolved around the sun. Western intellectual history was a history of secularisation with key thinkers like Auguste Comte, Henri de St. Simon, Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, all maintaining that the key to modernity was secularisation.

These intellectual developments soon found practical expression in England’s Toleration Acts of 1688. The Dutch Republic and other European countries were soon to follow the English example giving concrete evidence of the growing tide of religious toleration, the acceptance of a plurality of ideas and secularism – the separation of Church (or mosque) and state.

Developments in popular culture were also to reinforce these intellectual and political developments. Consider here John Lennon’s vision in his celebrated ‘Imagine’. This called for the negation of God, religious ethnic, tribal and national identity – incidentally a call which works well with the ever shrinking of the world through processes of globalization.

Whilst there have been attempts at such thinking in the Islamic world, most notably by the rationalist Mu’tazilites movement in the ninth century, these have largely failed to catch on. Indeed, the lot of secularists, modernists and the like in much of the Islamic world is one of marginalization and often persecution. Difference is not celebrated but perceived to be a threat to the ummah and must be stamped out. In this context, should we be surprised with the razing of churches in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram or the attacks on Sufi shrines in Mali and Somalia? How can a democratic state emerge in any Islamic country in this context? How can successful mediation take place between Al Shabab and the Mogadishu government in this context? On what basis can a middle ground be found?

I fear that as we ponder answers to these questions, the scourge of Islamist violence will continue to take its toll.

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