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Islam, Islamists, and Violence, Part II

"One nation, one banner, one state!" The banner in black and white is that of Daesh (ISIS). This slogan reminds one of the Ba’thist slogan: "One Arab nation!"

Where Does The Violence Come From?

The question under examination here is not whether or not it is possible for diverse religious movements to claim that they derive from a religious totality that is in turn diverse, convincing all others that they were born from it as its only legitimate child. Rather, the question under exploration is: "Do social, political or religious movements really need a legitimising authority in order to practice violence, and would they not do this otherwise?"

The movements that have exercised dominance are extremely varied, widespread in all societies and ages, and it seems that all of them tried to justify their own violence, or were able to come up with some pretext to justify it. The teachings of Christ in the Bible contain no talk of war and killing, but nonetheless believing Christians have practiced violence in the name of Christ, to a degree that could impress Islamist Jihadis and provoke their envy. Countries in our age also ceaselessly make war while not shying away from talk of peace –countries such as Israel, seems to find no difficulty in coming up with ways of legitimising their wars and convincing wide sectors of 'enlightened' public opinion that their wars are legitimate.

But what legitimises violence is not what causes it. So what are the causalities of violence?

I would claim that violence originates in the discriminations - the arrangement of people into groups, some ranked above others and claiming rights above others, with the lives of some held dearer than the lives of others. Sources of violence are political, economic or cultural discrimination, with elites struggle to monopolise power, public resources, and arms in order to preserve their upper status, and the populace resist, with arms at times, to change this situation. Religions and doctrines can support these conditions or stand against them, and at different periods they support unfair conditions or oppose them. The issue is entirely historical. Muslims find legitimising support for their violence in their religion, but an absence of this support would not have kept them from practicing violence, whether in resistance or as aggressors.

So, if we disregard the claim of some that all violence is illegitimate, certain questions arise: is the practice of violence obligatory or optional? Is it motivated by resistance or colonialism? Is it just or aggressive? Is it practiced by the powerful or by the weak? In other words, questions must be directed towards the sources of discrimination, inequality, subjugation and marginalisation, towards politics and the roots of violent struggle, rather than toward the ideological legitimisation of violence.

In the violence against the regime in Syria, just insurrection against a discriminatory and violent state mixes with violent and discriminatory practices that resemble the practices of the regime. The incoherence of the methods of Islamist militants is manifest in their use of discriminatory logic to oppose discrimination.

The Islamists find no difficulty in producing what can legitimise their violence and wars through Islamic texts, but if they had not found this they would have invented suitable justifications, just as others do. In general, people don't seem to need holy texts in order to wage war or practice violence. The existence of these texts is convenient of course, but it is not due to their existence that these people are violent and warlike.

But What Is Islam?

Does this deduction strip away from all religious (and worldly) doctrines any personality and initiative, making them merely repositories of justifications? This is the import of this analysis so far. Yet I will shortly develop the claim that I alluded to before: namely, that there is something else that mediates between doctrine and the group –an active factor, namely historical imagination and memory.

The reality is that amongst what can be found in the repository are justifications of many conflicting things, including even "what justifies to Satan his disobedience", as Maxime Rodinson once said. In the days when Rodinson wrote Marxism and the Islamic World 1 and Islam and Capitalism 2, during the 1960s and 1970s, the question was not whether or not Islam justified violence and terrorism, but rather whether Islam was more compatible with capitalism or with communism. Those who supported one claim or its opposite both justified their claims through reference to the Islamic totality. Rather than one unified Islam, there seemed to be two or many Islams.

But what is Islam? In light of the foregoing analysis, I should answer that Islam is a totality that is reconstituted in its framing and interpretation in light of demands and needs of particular human social groups, under certain historical conditions. These needs mobilise Quranic texts, prophetic sayings, legal reasonings, or historical readings undertaken by Muslim thinkers or legal scholars – whatever can suit the then current preferences. It is as if we are using different eyes, each one giving off a ray that is different from the others, and each ray illuminating something different, each causing a different scene to appear before us. Is there any type of ray that will enable us to see the entire scene in its 'truth'? It seems to me that this does not exist, except as the personal proclamation of individual eyes.

It is similar in the case of any statement asserting that "Islam" accepts this, or refuses that. Islam does not accept or refuse; it is Muslims themselves who claim these things in particular circumstances, which one must come to know. Every time something is attributed to Islam, the person or party attributing is redefining and reconstructing Islam, according to what suits them.

In other words, Islam is the result of our own time-bound manufacturers, and not some plenary entity that comes down to us from the past. There is no fixed Islam that always resembles itself and differs from everything else. The manufacturers of Islam (Islamic legal scholars and thinkers, Islamist militants, Jihadis, and others) constantly construct Islam's identity, eliding contradictions and concealing them, producing a correspondence between Islam and themselves and their preferences, or creating Islam in their image and likeness.

Another point that can be concluded from this analysis is that the current formation of the Islamic totality makes it easy for various violent and political Islamic groupings to claim Islamic legitimacy. Religious maniac or ambitious politicians or penitent criminals –even agents of intelligence services– all bid to take advantage of the Islamic totality and put it to their own uses. What makes this possible is that the Islamic totality today is nearly stripped of all personality, devoid of strong principles or living values. This state becomes more entrenched as Islamists constantly reach into the Islamic repository and select from it what suits them, without having, as individuals and organisations, any distinguished merits.

A Three-Dimensional Derangement

It seems that this state of loss of personality and absence of a principle of reality is exacerbated by a general state of derangement widespread across three levels of public life among Muslim populations. First, a cognitive derangement: in what world are we? In what conditions? How has all this happened? Then, an emotional derangement: What do we want? Who is a friend and who is an enemy? Who is with us and who is against us? The third is an existential derangement: who are we? How do we change? What are we becoming? For the Islamists, the answer to all of these questions is one word: Islam. The source of this extreme economy of thinking is simply absolute intellectual and spiritual poverty. Its upshot is a higher pressure on Islam and its manipulation, an increase in its loss of shape, and the weakening of its character. And of course, more derangement.

The state of general derangement is nourished by the decline of conditions for Muslims who assert that God is with them, and entrenched by the opportunism of Islamists, whose undeniable physical bravery coincides with an absolute lack of intellectual and moral courage. Local bitter enemies of Islam participate in this derangement, struggling with every bit of strength they can muster to deprecate and slander the religion of Muslims, claiming Islamic doctrine to be the exclusive source of our problems, or at least the fundamental one. This is not only inaccurate, but also contributes to a 'war effort' on behalf of the local "modernist" colonisers.

In summary, the Islamists are not the product of an Islam that is at all times consistent within itself, but rather this Islam is the product and creation of these Islamists. They use it for their aims, and turn it into a tool to serve their aspirations for domination over people and control of resources.

From Texts To Memory and Imagination

Memory and imagination are the agents that bring religion into presence, above and beyond mere texts. To discuss the imagination takes us from the area of the text to that of culture, from 'scholars' and the administrators of texts (interpreters, legal scholars, and orators) to the full gathering of believers. Texts can exert no influence without the connection to an imagination and a memory that will transform them into a 'greater story' or grand scenario: victorious armies, the glory of Islam, the conquering of countries, the Islamic Nation stretching from China to al-Andalus (in Spain), etc. It could have been possible for everything in the Islamic texts relating to killing to have been relegated to marginal significance, if it were not that the readings of history, the speeches of the sheikhs, and the scoldings of orators before the mass of Muslims constantly explain those texts through reference to history and extracting history from those texts, creating a relation of necessary symmetry between them. This process establishes among the masses of believers a basic receptivity to the military Islamists' position through a constant process of ingraining undertaken by the administrators of the texts.

I am speaking here of the active role played by admonishers, sheikhs, and orators in order to show that imagination and memory are not somehow present automatically, but rather come about as the result of a constant process of reproduction, a contemporary one, and do not emerge from an ancient past that continues on impervious to change. It seems that this production serves a demand for "dignity and glory", one that is no doubt deeply-rooted among the mass of Muslims, a demand which contemporary modernity does so little to quench through creativity and productivity. If the highest value in most of our countries is first mere power, followed by money and connections, then one should not be surprised by the deformed notions of dignity and glory among Islamists who have received their portion of debasement, torture, and discrimination. This, again, returns us to worldwide social, political, and psychological conditions, in which the 'production of Islam' in the contemporary world occurs.

The memory, imagination, and symbolic repertoire current in the culture of contemporary Muslims is rife with conquests, empire, and the exercise of arbitrary sultanic powers –this repertoire justifies Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi immeasurably more than Jawdat Said (a Syrian Islamic thinker, born in 1931), al-Qaeda more than the Muslim Brotherhood. Jawdat Said finds verses in the Quran to justify his non-violent interpretation of Islam, but he does not find an imagination or memory that supports this interpretation, against the Islam of all the violent parties. The syncretic formation of the Muslim Brotherhood finds itself torn between the dominant interpretation and imagination of Islam that is more suited to al-Qaeda, which they themselves upheld and nourished, and the principle of reality that they cannot ignore with the same boldness as al-Qaeda.

In conclusion, the current Islamist organisations are not only the result of a two-way exchange between texts and human beings in particular historical conditions, but also result from the powers of memory and imagination that are shaped under the sway of the current forms of reasoning and social "roles" (especially the "roles" of the mujahid and the legal scholar). Indeed, these organisations are constituted by memory and imagination before they are constituted by texts and learnings. In this sense, too, as imperial memory and imagination, Islam is not innocent of ISIS, al-Qaeda, or the likes.

Transforming The Debate

Why is this subject important? What is the benefit of this reflection on the relation between Islam and the violence of violent Islamist groups? Time is always short, and there are many issues in our present circumstances that a person, particularly a secular-minded one, can be concerned with, rather than the matter of the relation between Islam and violence.

First, there is a motivation related to knowledge. One should not, even in the circumstances of revolution and terrifying struggle that we see today, allow simplistic and facile thought to take precedence over knowledge claims that are more in accordance with actual facts, and express these facts more clearly.

Once we have clarified whence ISIS did not come, it will be required to state whence it did come. The starting point for this issue, in my opinion, is the transformation from the concept of abstract violence to the concept of war, or the struggle between human groups over power and resources.

Secondly, there is a political motivation. To explain these violent extremist groups in Syria through reference to Islam exclusively, or fundamentally, is to cover over the major responsibilities for their ascendance to the Assad state as a political, economic, and social arrangement based on compulsion and discrimination. The ones who exert domination in Syria are the power elite and the ruling few, not some obscure thing called Islam.

This is not only true today, but would remain true also if the Islamists were in power or if they arrived to power. It is important to resist focusing the discussion around Islam, as the Islamists themselves would prefer, and as their adversaries also prefer, whether sectarians or those who adopt a secular "culturalist" approach. It suits the Islamists to portray the struggle against them as one with Islam itself, and not with their politics or their practices.

Furthermore, to refer the violence of the Islamists back to Islam is to bind together the moderate Islamists with the extremists, and this approach is itself too extreme. Good politics require inventing moderate Islamists even if they do not exist, and to increase their power where they do exist. To consider all Islamists as alike is the characteristic and necessary move for those who derive all Islamists from Islam.

There is also a third, existential, motivation for this reflection on Islam, Islamists, and violence. This is connected to the desire for the emergence of a new type of personality, one that would define itself through ethical, political, and emancipatory commitments, by means of a new imagination and new roles rather than fixed identities and rigid slogans. We must change, we must love to change, we must work to change. Beyond its value as a liberating personal and social experience, this change is itself our participation in the change of the world, and a condition of this change.

It will never be possible to compete with religion on the level of culture, and with the Islamists on the levels of society and politics, without the existence of courageous and liberated agents, who are themselves open to self-change.

Translated from Arabic by T.W.

1 — (1972, Arabic translation by Kamil Dagher, Beirut, 1982)

2 — (1966, Arabic translation by Nazih al Hakim, Beirut, 1968)

"The people want Islamic Kalifate!" This is a symbolic takeover of the basic slogan of the Arab revolutions: "The people want to overthrow the regime".
Posted 13 Jan 2015
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