Islam: a disturbing philosophy for some

The world, it seems, is irritated with Islam. This goes beyond George W Bush and his cabal’s madcap policies in the Middle East. It also goes beyond Israel and its persistent efforts to justify the unjustifiable. Russia, China, and India have their own reasons for waging a propaganda war on Islam. The antipathy is seen in sharp relief, however, within the Muslim world. Rulers here see Islam as the biggest threat. It is already in the driving seat in Iran, but to rulers elsewhere it is a warning of might be.

At the head of the list of complaints laid at the door of Islam is the contention that it has become too politicised. This unease it shared by many, especially secular, Muslims. And, it has to be said, there is much justification for this concern. Most political movements, particularly in the Middle East, are associated with Islam directly or indirectly. The very governments that, it least privately, yearn for some distance between Islam and politics promote this association. Listen to most of the Arab broadcasting stations and you would be depressed or elated, depending on your viewpoint, by the extent of religious content that is interspersed with, and seemingly part of, the inane state propaganda. Politicians are eager to establish their religious credentials at every turn. Saudi Arabia, where the royals came to power on the back of the aggressive teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92) but then tried to control Wahhabism, is an extreme form of this dichotomy.

The use of religion as a political vehicle is not restricted to Islam of course. Bush and Blair wear their religious affiliations on their sleeves for all to see. For good measure Bush declares himself to a born again Christian. No comment is required in relation to Israeli politicians and their focus on Judaism. However, Islam’s close association with politics tops the lot. Why? To many Muslim Arabs, and possibly to some non-Arab Muslims, the question seems irrelevant as the answer is self-evident. However, most are at a loss to frame their explanation in a coherent form. To broadminded western observers the subject is baffling. Others go for the easy response: Islam is aggressive, backward, and intrusive.

The linkage between Islam and politics, however, merits closer scrutiny than that given by both those who view it as a natural phenomenon and those who see it as annoying or even threatening feature. As a Christian Arab, I think I can offer a few observations without being accused of too much bias one way or the other.

A significant portion of the world’s population

When it comes to Islam, size is critically important; it is in your face and as such it cannot be ignored. There are just over 6 billion people on earth; 1.2 billion are Muslims and they are everywhere. Contrary to appearances, home to most Muslims is outside the Middle East! To add scale to the picture, there are about 2 billion Christians and only 14 million Jews. To some, Islam presents a challenge and a threat. A look at the popularity of certain recent books reveals the extent of hostility, in many cases paranoia, to this ‘foreign’ religion.

These attitudes are not of recent vintage. As Karen Armstrong wrote in Islam, the religion “was described by the scholar-monks of Europe as an inherently violent and intolerant faith. The myth has become one of the received ideas of the West.” There was good reason for the monks to paint Islam in this negative way: the Crusades (eleventh to thirteenth centuries) needed support and volunteers.

From the start Islam was in a state of contention against the Christians of the Byzantine empire in the west and the Zoroastrians of the Persian empire in the east. Later the rivalry went global; as seen in the occupation of Spain and rise of the Ottoman empire. The enmity is therefore ancient and the Orientalists played a similar role to that played by the early monks: ‘Moors’ (not Muslim Arabs) occupied Spain; Ibn Sina is Westernised to Avicenna; Ibn Rushd to Averroes; one of the oldest universities in the world, Al-Azhar (10th c.), is hardly mentioned, and so on. Islam’s role as a bridge that preserved and enhanced Greek and Roman cultures and then passed them on to post Enlightenment Europe had to be diluted if not obliterated.

The view that the Muslim world, certainly in the Middle East, could not be trusted and had to be kept under control is illustrated best by the ‘Capitulations’ of the sixteenth century and the trade conventions of the mid-nineteenth century imposed on the Ottomans by European powers. As Hourani commented in A History of the Arab Peoples, “The relationship of ruler and ruled [within the Ottoman empire] was placed under the official notice of Europe.” This has continued to this day, as seen in more extreme form in the dramatic events in Iraq.

However, the rivalry and political and military skirmishing obscure a deeper reason for the modern friction between Islam and the economically neo-liberal western powers: a fundamental difference of viewpoint on the nature of political, social, and economic life.

Islam is a political economic philosophy

Islam is fundamentally different from Christianity or Judaism. This is not understood or, when understood, not explicitly acknowledged. Islam is closer to the ancient Eastern philosophies, such as Buddhism. Through devine guidance or otherwise, Muhammad set out to define political, economic, and social norms to regulate the life of all believers in this world. Armstrong wrote in Islam, “…state affairs were not a distraction from spirituality but the stuff of religion itself. The political well-being of the Muslim community was a matter of supreme importance…In fact the Qur’an has a negative view of theological speculations…The political and social welfare of the ummah [global Muslim community] would have sacramental value for Muslims.” This intent was made plainly clear in the Qur’an as well as in the pronouncements of Muhammad (hadeeth).

Islam set out to define a ‘correct’ way of living, on the political and social fronts. “The primary aim was to encourage Muslims themselves, and their leaders, to lead a just and humane life: the basic concept of Jihad” (Qutb, Milestones). The Qur’an and hadeeth did not overlook economics; at both personal and communal levels. This is an added source of local and global tension.

Islam is clear about the dos and don’ts of economic practices. It stands for the sharing of wealth and against investment in pornography, alcohol,… and charging of interest for profits (usury). Quite a challenge! In many respects it is socialist (but far from communist) in its view of wealth distribution and the need to look after the interests of the weak and poor.

Christians have had, and are beginning to have, similar views about usury (widening gaps, etc.); as seen in the JAK bank in Sweden ( for instance. However, the gulf between Islam’s economic philosophy (certainly in theory) and that of the leading industrial powers is virtually unbridgeable. Potentially, this is a more important factor that destabilises relations between the two camps than even oil and geopolitical aspirations.

Discord between Islam and the ‘social contract’

Traditionally, life in most countries is organised on the basis of a ‘social contract’ described by the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). He saw people as being rationally selfish; left to themselves they would seek to promote their own interests over all else. To avoid a life that is ” solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, Hobbes wrote, people must live by a social contract in which they hand power to a Sovereign, government, or elite to exercise overall control.

There is a problem for Islam in even this apparently sensible approach. Qutb wrote in Milestones that the much-repeated exhortation by Muslims that ‘there is no god but God’ “penetrates through the whole system of life…Islam is a practical religion…not a ‘theory’…the Muslim community…commits itself to obey none but Allah, denying all other authority, and that challenges the legality of any law not based on this belief [the Shari’a Law].” Admittedly, not all Muslims ascribe to this strict viewpoint, but enough do so to make life most difficult for their rulers. As witnessed throughout history, and up to the present, rulers regularly fall short of the ideal defined by Islam.

The economic dimension complicates this even further. Present rulers, again especially in the Middle East, are obliged to go along with the neo-liberal views of the USA (as the hegemonic power) and its allies, and agencies such as the IMF and World Bank that it indirectly controls. To some Muslims at least, the economic prescriptions these rulers present often cut across the teachings of Islam. Under these circumstances, a state of inevitable friction is created between rulers and subjects. Turmoil within Islamic communities, yet again especially in the Middle East, is not a sign that Islam is violent or aggressive. It is a consequence of fundamental philosophical differences between Islam and others.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran…

The above is said not to defend Islam; I am not up to such a Herculean task. However, there is an urgent need for a little understanding of what motivates Muslims to behave the way they do. They do not hate all other people. The Muslims I know are not any different from anyone else. They laugh and enjoy live, and they seek a secure and peaceful existence. People, or should I say megalomaniacs, who seek to change the whole ethos of a political economic philosophy that predate Adam Smith and Marx by many centuries are courting trouble for themselves just as much as for Muslim communities.

Is Afghanistan any better after decades of strife? No, it has sunk further down the development ladder. Is Iraq any better now after twelve years of punishing sanctions and three years of active war? No, it has disintegrated into chaos under the burden of Bush’s messianic mission to change its culture and to give its people ‘freedom and democracy’ delivered alongside hamburgers from McDonald’s. Will Iran be improved by an expected attack to effect a regime change there? Of course not.

Equally important, is the USA, Christendom, Israel, or the West safer within a policy based on force that seeks to transform Islam into a more acceptable religion? Yet again, of course not.

Time is not too late to rethink present attitudes and policies.