Islam, Islamists, and Violence, Part I

Views on the relation between Islam and violence

Two clear doctrines regarding the relation between violent Islamist groups and Islam are currently in circulation. A first widespread doctrine holds that these groups are Islam itself, or at least its accurate expression; a second widely held doctrine states in turn that Islam is entirely innocent in the matter. For my part, as opposed to these two, I will defend the hypothesis that ISIS and similar groups are produced under political, economic, social, and psychological conditions –both regional and international– that are susceptible to study and clarification, and that the process by which these groups are produced involves also the production of the very 'Islam' from which these groups derive themselves by necessity.

It is my view that an investigation into the relation between violent Islamist groups and Islam should also be an investigation into Islam: what is Islam? What is intended by this expression that appears to explain so many things, yet which itself seems to require an explanation? Why does Islam appear to be an entity that Muslims themselves do not understand, let alone non-Muslims, and which so many Islamists feel the need to explain to others, resulting only in more ambiguity? I claim that Islam is an entity in a perpetual state of active production by those who then adhere to what they have just produced. This production is undertaken by differing and often conflicting Islamic groups, seeking legitimacy and a clear identity. But in the same move, this entity loses its shape and its clarity, becomes an empty signifier that can be filled by anything from piety to 'wood-gathering' (a common practice by ISIS thugs who stop people at check points, seize their property, and possibly murder them under the pretext that they are 'unbelievers'), from political movements to nihilist organisations, from the power of protest against discrimination to an instrument of random killing, from the public religion of Muslims to the dominance of an aggressive minority.

I also claim that while religion often grants legitimacy to violence, it does not cause it. Causalities are to be sought in the worldly realm, and necessarily so. Regarding the violence of religious groups, I believe that the focus of the discussion should be moved from the religious and the legitimised, to the worldly and the causal.

Islam is ISIS!

The doctrine that equates Islam with ISIS has become widespread in Syria after the rise on the scene of the latter in 2013. This doctrine claims that ISIS and similar groups ('The Nusra Front', 'Ahrar Al-sham', 'The Army of Islam' and others) are the realisation and truth of Islam, or its accurate expression.[footnote:, The Free Ones in the Time of Alienation, video issued by ISIS] This doctrine relies on references to certain seemingly clear verses of the Quran that call for the killing of unbelievers, impose the payment of a poll tax on the People of the Book, calling them 'the dejected', and give foundation to the discrimination against women. The aspiration to conquer countries and 'inherit the earth' is also attributed to a Quranic basis, and judgment against apostasy is deemed necessary by the religious law that Salafists and other political Islamists consider to be part of the core of Islam. Many of the most outstanding personalities in the religious history of Islam, such as Ibn Hanbal (780-855), Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328)|, and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1791) – not to mention more recent personalities such as Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) or Usama Bin Laden (1957-2011) - are today both the most extreme and the most strict and the winners of the Islamic legitimacy, and it is to these figures that the violent Islamist groups adhere and ascribe authority.

Yet have these verses not always been there? What is it that has led the Salafists to advance in such leaps and bounds in Syria in the years of the revolution, after being such a secondary presence during recent times? And how do we interpret the existence of a variety of Islamist movements with all their internal conflicts, if their determining factor is the one conclusive Islamic text?

And is there then no chance for any coexistence alongside Islam, if we accept that these aggressive movements are truly identical with it? If there can be no Islamic alternative to ISIS, is this not a door open to perplexity and nihilism?

Is this doctrine an intellectual hypothesis that one can find clearly formed in the work of serious scholars, or is it rather a tool being used in the social, political, and ideological conflicts that have raged in our societies, before and during the revolutions, and still today?

During the two decades prior to the Arab revolutions, and particularly during the decade following 11 September 2001, a 'culturalist' school of thought has arisen. This method of explanation refers all the conditions of our society, including its political organisations, back to the determinants of culture. This 'culture' (which leaves out particularities of history, geography, politics, and economics) is claimed to be 'inherited' (rather than acquired); the 'culture' is referred to as religious (ignoring all in our literature, history, and popular culture that did not relate to religion), and related back to Islam (ignoring thought and doctrine from the Christian, Jewish, and Yazidi traditions); in Syria, this culture is referred to as being dominated by Sunni Islam (ignoring the Alawite, Druze, Ismaili, and Shia cultures). By this series of reductive steps, this 'culturalist' method transforms politics, economics, and the international situation into factors devoid of influence, and even derives many of these factors from religion itself.

This doctrine may not set out to deliberately serve one aim –namely the justification of the Assad regime– but it moves in an ideological and political field that makes itself suitable to serve this very function. Without exception the holders of this view took a reticent position on the Syrian revolution from the beginning, maintaining a silence towards the regime or perhaps muttering quietly in the background.

For some time it appeared that this supposition was given a great slap in the face by the Arab revolutions, which were widespread social uprisings directed essentially against the political regimes in these countries, motivated by just social and political demands. In all of these revolutions religion manifested as a power for protest, and in all of them religious groups rose up; these movements advanced at the ballot box in Tunisia and Egypt (before being prohibited and warred against in Egypt by military coup), while in other countries the situation became engulfed by violence.

In general the form taken by these ascendant Islamist groups seems to be closely bound up with the condition of the local structures in the concerned countries. The more strongly ruined this structure was, the more strongly extremist and violent these movements were. Tunis and Syria serve as two opposite poles in this respect. In Tunis 'civil society' was relatively vital, with active trade unions and universities on a good level. The predominant movement among Islamists, either by choice or necessity, took this situation into consideration. In Syria, on the other hand, we find the example of the greatest degree of 'ruin'. For decades the country was ruled by a so-called 'state' that did away with the entire public sphere, which was possessed entirely by the Assad family. Large sectors of the population were estranged entirely, while the rest of the population became docile followers of the ruling family. Civil society was in tatters, the unions were slavish, and the universities were under occupation, their social and intellectual functions having collapsed. And when the revolution reared up, it was faced from the beginning with unrestrained war, not reigned in by any national or human concerns.

This at least partial connection between violent Islamic movements and societies that have been brutalised permits us to doubt the existence of a direct relationship of identity between those movements and Islam, even if this belief would appeal to two opposing groups: these same violent groups that base their identity and legitimacy on the claims of their complete symmetry with Islam, as well as those groups diametrically opposed to the Islamists, and to Islam itself, whether their aim is to support the status quo or in the context of sectarian conflict. For similar statements are made by groups on the right in the West, which have become notorious for certain practices, such as burning the Quran, or racist acts against Muslims.

Islam is innocent of all that!

The doctrine that would wholly indict Islam is always accompanied by an opposing doctrine claiming Islam to be innocent of all that, and claiming ISIS in particular to be a conspiracy aimed to deface the image of Islam, perhaps a product of Iran or the Assad regime, or of foreign intelligence agencies. The use of this cliché (that Islam is innocent of all this) must then resort to the claim that while Islam is perfect, Muslims themselves are flawed, and that all faults lie in the application, by necessarily flawed people, of a perfect religion, not with the perfect religion itself. To the letter, the same justification was used by communists at the time of the fall of 'the socialist camp' a quarter-century ago.

But how can Islam be innocent of movements that not only insist on their belonging to it, but also seem to be able to outdo all others in confirming this belonging? And how can Islam be innocent when these movements quote seemingly clear verses of the Quran, not to mention prophetic sayings and historical accounts that justify their actions, or even make them obligatory, while their Islamist rivals merely mutter reservations that do not touch the core of the extremists' claims? How can these movements not belong essentially to Islam if their Islamist rivals fail constantly and essentially to condemn the use of violence in the name of religion or the use of compulsion to impose an Islamic regime and Islamic dogma itself?

The religion-compulsion compound forms a continuum on which various Islamists –from the Muslim Brotherhood to ISIS, from the 'thinkers' like al-Qardawi to the Wahaabi legal scholars, to the Sharia scholars of the Nusra Front and the Islamic Front in Syria, occupy different positions, but they equally fail to say one clear thing about it: it is the view of Islam that "compulsion in religion" is not legitimate and not acceptable. If compulsion were acceptable in religion, there would be no intellectual impediment at all to the ascent of ISIS. Rather, ISIS would be the power that would employ compulsion in the name of religion more resolutely than all others, with greater determination and sincerity, while others would be either dwindling in strength or hypocritical. If violence was not refused in the name of Islam, and if all Islamists were claiming that there was nothing wrong with the use of violence in the name of a doctrine, and the killing of an apostate is necessary for example, and a secular person is an unbeliever, then how can Islam be innocent of all that? Is the problem one of 'excesses' here and there? Around this point, the existence of movements and organisations opposed to ISIS and fighting against it cannot be justified.

The Islamists negate the relationship between religion and compulsion, but when it is demanded of them to offer clear statements in defence of freedom of religious belief, including the freedom not to believe and the freedom to change your belief, they dissimulate and evade.

I would claim that there is no essential difference amongst the Islamists in this respect. The desired break between religion and compulsion remains in concealment.

It becomes evident in this discussion that in the prevalent interpretation of Islam strong conditions of possibility for the violent Islamist groups exist, even if it appears that that possibility does not move into the area of reality without suitable real conditions, which make it desirable and obligatory. This then means that a change in real conditions would weaken the possibility of the creation of these groups –but what would prevent their coming about entirely is the elimination of the conditions that made it possible within the dominant interpretation of Islam.

Aside from the religion-compulsion connection, I see that there is something else deeply entrenched among Islamists: the Imperial Imagination, connected to the conquering of lands and the occupation of territory. Political Islam, or rather militant Islam, can generally be recognised by this imperialist aspiration based on the mix of religion and power, or on the essential legitimisation of compulsion. Under current conditions it is impossible to oppose practices of compulsion against non-believers or the holders of unconventional views within our own countries, without also opposing the legitimacy of wars of conquest and imperialist violence, and without opposing the Imperialist Imagination of Islam. The two kinds of compulsion have gone together in the past, and are always connected politically: foreign expansion means tyranny at home. To break with tyranny at home, it is necessary to break with the desire for foreign expansion.

The aim is not condemning the past, but rather it is precisely to make the past pass away, to separate from it so that it is not repeated today. And if the past is being repeated today at the hand of ISIS, this is because we, as societies and as cultures, have not questioned this imagination, and have not halted before its symbols and dreams.

What I conclude from this is that Islam is not innocent of ISIS, nor of any of the political Islamists we know of. Indeed to be considered innocent of ISIS, agents of Islam would have to define their religion as divorced from compulsion on the one hand, and by an essential refusal of the occupation of foreign lands on the other.

There is nothing in the doctrine that 'Islam is innocent of all that' that demands to be taken seriously. It tends systematically towards the casting of curses onto evil others: American spies, Iran, the Assad regime, Mossad. This doctrine thus becomes an instrument to accuse and acquit, closed off to close deep-rooted examination of the violent Islamist groups, and it fails every time to explain the causes of its constant impulse to defend Islam, or the cause of Islam being a site of such disturbing actions that require vigorous defence.

In its current state, 'Islam' is a strategy for granting legitimacy to various mutually conflicting politics, for movements that are potentially criminal, and for regimes and political situations that can be inhumane. It seems that it can be easily utilised to serve aims that Muslims and Islamists consider it must then be defended from. But the very fact that they find it innocent has no support in their imagination or in their political religious thought.

Who is the Agent?

The third position is that of those who doubt the projection of a simple and direct relation between Islam and the violent groups. I will attempt here to formulate a notion of this relation with the maximum amount of clarity.

The extreme Islamist groups draw their basis, no doubt, from the Islamic totality, and they do nothing that would enable other more 'moderate' or less extreme Islamic groups to claim that they are outside of Islam. But all Islamist groups must, in that very act, re-construct the very notion of that Islamic totality, in order to derive themselves from it by necessity.

For example, the Jihadi Salafists focus on two suras of the Quran, Sura Anfal and Sura Tawba, and they accuse the Assad regime of omitting these two angry and violent suras. One mujahid from the Nusra Front told me this in the summer of 2013. They consider that the Sword Verse ('kill them] the non-believers [where you have found them...') cancels out a large portion of the rest of the Quran, including the verse 'no compulsion in religion'. The Sword Verse then becomes, in my view, a foundational verse, which destroys by abrogation all of Islam as a religion, so that it becomes an ideology of conquering and subjugation. On such a decisive basis, speaking of peaceful resistance, for example, becomes a mistake in doctrine, a grave sin, and not merely an unsuccessful policy.

In the eastern Ghouta to the east of Damascus the 'Army of Islam' has adopted a saying it attributes to Omar ibn Al-Khattab as a slogan: "we are a people that God has ennobled with Islam, so if we attain glory by any other means God disgraces us!" This is a speech that not only grants a grand legitimacy to this military Salafist formation, but which strips away legitimacy from all others. What is Islam? Islam is what the 'Army of Islam' brings into being, and therefore anything that this army happens to do.

In Douma in the building taken over by the Shura Council as headquarters, the following verses from the Quran are hung: "God raises up those of you who believe, and ranks high those who came to knowledge"; "are those who know and those who do not know equals?"; "those who grasp the book and undertake prayers, indeed we do not send astray the reward of the good-doers"; "recite in the name of your lord who created, created man from a clot, recite and your lord is most generous, who taught by the pen, taught man what he did not know". It is clear that here we have an approach to the teachings of Islam that will give a greater legitimacy and prestige to the 'scholars' of this particular association. The distinguished scholar-gentlemen chose what would set them apart from others, and would raise them in ranks above others rather than unite them with the people.

In any case, we see that the agents here are human groups (Jihadi Salafist, the Army of Islam, the Shura Council in Douma...) that we can easily recognize; there is nothing esoteric about them, they live in particular conditions that are not, in turn, science-fictional. These groups are keen to show themselves as mere followers of a divine example, to claim that they play no more than an obedient and passive part in this, simply carrying out piously the holy obligations placed upon them. In fact, the opposite is true. They choose from the Islamic totality what suits their own behaviour, grants it legitimacy, and weakens the legitimacy of their rivals. Thus we would not find a Salafist group that adopts as its slogan this koranic verse: "Do not make aggression, for God detests aggressors!" Or a Shura Council whose slogan is: "the kings –if they enter a village, they defile it, and make the most noble of its people disgraceful!" Or a legal council whose slogan is: "God forgives all sins"! Or a political Islamist movement whose slogan is: "no compulsion in religion"!

What does it mean that human groups in particular historical conditions are the active agent in the relationship between themselves and 'Islam', and that Islamic texts are the passive party responding to the demands of these active parties? It means that in approaching these groups we must move from texts and Islamic totalities to human groups in their practical environments, their conditions of existence, their real actions, and their everyday lives. It means that we must think about this matter in terms of politics, economics, society, geography, and international relations... all of the methods and systems that we use to approach human phenomena in general.

Islam ceases to be self-consistent once these groups have selected out just those aspects that grant themselves and their political agenda an aggrandised legitimacy. In order to preserve this legitimacy, they rebuild the framing of 'Islam' around only those things which they have selected, just as they conceal this selection process, so that their selection appears to be Islam itself –just as was the case in Douma. In this way, these powers become the truly Muslim powers, carrying the banner of true Islam, which is 'innocent' of all else. The jihadi will say, for example, that Jihad is 'the peak of the hump of Islam', will add something about 'the glory of Islam', citing the verses on killing from the Tawba and Anfal suras. His jihad will therefore be a mere fulfillment of an Islamic command, rather than the result of a 'jihad' in which he himself undertakes to restore the framing of Islamic belief as constructed through his choices. This way, it is maintained that the people invent nothing –on the one hand, the restoration of the framework alters the totality of doctrine, in the sense that that which has been chosen becomes central; on the other hand, the relationship is reversed between actor and recipient, so that the religious belief seems to be the active element in the relationship, while the religious group is passive, negated, obedient to the command of God.

This reversed picture forms a basis for those 'modernists' who equate ISIS or other groups with Islam. What they fail to recognise is the ideological process by which ISIS produces the Islam from which it itself came into being, not to mention the political and social processes that gave rise to the very conditions of ISIS's arrival, chiefly the conditions of a tortured {or dealt with violently for a long time} society (and deranged, as I will claim in what follows). But this leads the holders of this doctrine to claim exactly what ISIS and those like them claim about themselves (ISIS punishes those who call it Dae'sh, the acronym for ISIS in Arabic, and defines its own group as the Muslims, no more and no less). By this reductive method, they give over the religion of the Muslims to these powers, adding in this way lack of knowledge to recklessness in politics.

But, at the same time, the Jihadi Salafists did not invent the suras of Tawba and Anfal, nor did the Shura Council in Douma invent the verses praising the 'graspers of the book' and 'those who know'; ISIS did not invent their own religion for themselves. It is true that the restoration of a framework changes the arrangements of the totality within this frame, even if it does not add anything external to it. In the Islamic totality, and in its contemporary reading, as also in the consecrated historical imagination, we find the conditions of possibility for the powers of ISIS, conditions which are realised through a process of restructuring of the totality that makes prominent the verses and positions of Jihad, the hudood (physical punishment), the public authority of Muslims, and the isolation of women. It is therefore false to say that Islam is innocent of all that.

Translated from Arabic by T.W.