Anyone still in doubt that political Islam – also known as Islamism — is the scourge of the Middle East and the so called Muslim world ? In most of the bloodshed and mayhem happening there, the common denominator is the same ideology, sustained by a belief that the ultimate goal and best reward for a Muslim is to die for Allah.
Some might object to this diagnosis. They would argue that I have put the cart before the horse. The root cause of this nihilism and the ensuing turmoil, they say, is dictatorship.
The fact of the matter is that Islamism is not an alternative to, or even the enemy of, dictatorship. It is a form of dictatorship in the guise of god-ordained rules, which could be even worse than the secular variety. It’s a totalitarian ideology deeply hostile to democratic values. Contrary to what the Muslim Brothers and their Western apologists claim, Islamism is the other side of the same authoritarian coin.
Dictators and Islamists reinforce one another. Both are the cause and effect of an authoritarian culture and mindset , that detest individual liberty and the sceptical questioning mind. And both are out of touch with the profound changes that happened in the wider world and their impact on the predominantly young population of our region, who yearn for freedom and dignity – not to die for Allah. Both whip up the conspiratorial view of the world (“the Western infidels or the Crusaders are out to get us”, or “colonialism is alive in kicking”) to strengthen their grip on their subjects or followers. Both deplore dissent and try to stamp it out as apostasy or a betrayal of national security. In short, they share the same deep structure that demonises the other, and suppresses difference and dissent.
In the same way a patriarchal culture provides the perfect swamp for political despotism, traditional mainstream Islam is the natural incubator of militant or political Islam – at times, as I have argued elsewhere and as more and more voices are acknowledge that, they are in fact quite inseparable in some fundamental aspects.
As American efforts to build a broad coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria appear to have made some headway, the question who will defeat the ideology of ISIS and other similar groups gains in urgency. No doubt in any one’s mind that the F22s or the drones will kill the terrorists of ISIS as they did once in Afghanistan, and continue to do in Pakistan or Yemen or Somalia. But unless the doctrine that produces the likes of ISIS is challenged and undermined, it won’t be long before the region is shaken again by another terrorist take-over in Yemen, or Libya or other parts of the troubled region.
No one seems to have any idea how to stem the tide. Military force will put the menace at bay for a few years, but will not eradicate the Islamist ideology. Enlisting the support of state sanctioned clergy –whether in Egypt, or Saudi Arabia – has never worked. They are in fact part of the problem, not the solution.
On the contrary, such moves have in effect conceded defeat, because the intellectual skirmishes are conducted on the territory of the Islamists. This clergy live off the same literature and tradition that sustain Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brothers. Only a critical re-examination of tradition, concerted intellectual effort that dismantles the building blocks of Islamism can eventually herald the demise of a pernicious idea.
There are many ways in which religion can inform politics and provide a moral compass for society. But Islamism collapses the difference between the sacred and the profane, because that is the only way it can survive and dominate, by subsuming everything under the black or green banner of al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brothers.
The antidote will have to start by deconstructing the founding myths of Islamism as defined by the founder of the Muslim Brothers, Hasan Al Banna. Foremost among these are : Islam (or any other religion for that matter) has an answer to all human questions; Muslims can only prosper under the rule of Sharia, and that Muslims once lived in a utopia that can be resurrected if only they can be herded again under the leadership of the one-party state of the faithful.
Such an intellectual enterprise will inevitably run into conflict with the official institutions who subscribe to the same set of myths. The only difference between them and Islamists, is that they don’t pursue the “lost utopia” in a belligerent or subversive way.
Only a head-on intellectual confrontation with such ideas that have become deeply entrenched in Muslim majority societies is the only way to defeat an ideology that continues to cause so much bloodshed and mayhem.
I know this questioning has already been taking place in a few countries. But it has yet to happen on a scale wide and deep enough to make a difference. So far, it has been individual effort. For that to have any significant effect, it will have to turn into something much bigger, a movement that takes on the pernicious ideology of Islamism and expose its lies. The road to get there will be very long and steep.
Finally, this is not an argument against the unfolding military campaign against ISIS (or ISIL), but an argument for a non-military component in the the war on Islamism. Surely, the main intellectual battle will have to be fought in Muslim majority states. But what the West can do is to exert its influence to ensure the creation and protection of a genuine liberal space in these societies where critics and independent thinkers can speak up without being hounded and prosecuted.