Mission

Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

Steven P. Blackburn, scholar and librarian at the Hartford Seminary, wrote the first review of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. It came out in October 2010 in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. I will be posting three other reviews shortly.

15 December 2011

The Bethlehem Call 2011

“The existence of international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns and other forms of non-violent resistance is an established fact. . . . The severity of the Palestinian situation makes comparisons with apartheid in South Africa superfluous and almost irrelevant. The benchmark is international law and not South Africa.” This excerpt from the Second Kairos Bethlehem Conference document, The Bethlehem Call, is an angry yet hopeful statement by over 60 seasoned activists from 15 countries, including prominent Palestinian church leaders on Dec. 13th.

I say “angry,” because prophetic statements are always angry in the face of persistent and systematic injustice. Listen to what 8th-century BCE prophet Amos intoned before a stunned Israelite audience:

“This is what the Lord says:

‘The people of Israel have sinned again and again,

and I will not let them go unpunished!

They sell honorable people for silver

and poor people for a pair of sandals’” (Amos 2:6).

Then again:

“Listen to me you fat cows living in Samaria,

you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy . . .

The time will come when you will be led away with hooks in your noses” (4:1, 2).

Or again this:

“I hate all your show and pretense – the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. . . . Away with your noisy hymns of praise! . . .

Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,

An endless river of righteous living” (5:21, 23, 24 NLT).

The statement was forwarded to me by veteran Christian activist, Tom Getman, through the auspices of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU), an organization I have long followed. Tom was World Vision/Palestine Director in 1999 when I conducted my 5-week research project in Hebron, staying at the Bethlehem Bible College. He is now CEO of an NGO that networks with the UN on issues of justice (the Getman Group), based in Washington, DC.

In his email to several friends and colleagues, he had this to say about this 3-day meeting he just attended in Bethlehem:

“Amazing experience of encouragement even if not optimism in the midst of deep darkness. Not so different from the first Christmas Light in the midst of the Roman Empire. And the Palestinians are choosing exuberant hope with non-violent response rather than being victims even now that 87% of the West Bank is under Israeli control (along with all the forests and 47% of the wells).

I suspect this will turn out to be historic in the nature of the Barman Declaration, South Africa Kairos 1985, and the Dr. King Letter from the Birmingham Jail. The Church is on notice!”

Please read this document for yourselves. I only want to highlight two aspects of it: its call to dismantle the oppressive chains of global Empire; and its connection to American evangelicals.

The brutal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, now in its 45th year, continues unabated, abetted by international silence. Palestine is indeed “a global issue” – one of many instances of how political power and economic clout converge to trample the rights of the poor and weak. In the words of the document,

“Today, the illegal regime and illegal forms of the Israeli occupation of Palestine assumes dimensions of systemic injustice whereby the unthinkable and unimaginable becomes globally accepted, supported and normalized. This is an example of Empire (global domination) at work . . .

As witnessed with our own eyes, the treacherous conditions imposed by the Israeli occupation on Palestinians and their land have reached a level of almost unimaginable and sophisticated criminality. This includes the slow yet deliberate and systematic ethnic cleansing and the geo-cide of Palestinians and Palestine as well as the strangling of the Palestinian economy. . .”

This is also a Christian statement, though clearly worded to include other faith traditions. Its tone is raw. Irritation and resentment are palpable among the lines of this collective litany. These men and women are back from visiting Palestinian villages and refugee camps, having witnessed first hand the marks of an increasingly cruel apparatus of control. Listen to this passage explain that “God takes sides for justice against injustice”:

“In the deep pain of the Palestinian people in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, of Palestinian refugees and of Israeli Arab citizens, we witnessed the tears of God. God keeps the flame of faith alive, as the darkness of despair closes in. God lives and breathes in the lament of those whose future has been stolen. In the cries of the dispossessed we have sensed the passion of God for right to prevail.”

That is my second and last point. It's a language that people of many faiths could call their own, from MLK to Gandhi, and surely the Dalai Lama (for whom “God” is a religious symbol he deeply respects). Plainly, it's also the language of the Hebrew prophets, which Jesus reappropriated, and never more vividly than when he chased the money changers from the Jerusalem Temple courtyard.

I know that my friend, the Rev. Naim Ateek, who was canon of the St. Georges’ Cathedral (Anglican) in Jerusalem during our family’s stay there in 1992-1996, had much to do with this conference. I had the privilege of working closely with him while teaching in Bethlehem. More than anyone, Naim has tirelessly brought together Palestinian Christian leaders in Jerusalem all across the traditional gamut around a contemporary reading of the Bible. This is the mission of Sabeel, the Center for Palestinian Liberation Theology, which he founded (see his Justice, and Only Justice)

Yet among all the mainline Protestants, those along the spectrum of historic Orthodox churches and Roman Catholics, all of whom gratefully acknowledged his efforts, there have also been many evangelical Protestants from several countries – like Tom Getman and myself. I mentioned EMEU, and there are many others in a fast-growing network of evangelicals who look back with gratitude to the pioneering efforts of Jim Wallis and Ron Sider in the 1960s. You would have to add to this list many Mennonites and Quakers (the historic “peace churches”) and evangelical spin-offs like the “emerging church” movement represented by Brian McLaren (A New Kind of Christianity) and young activist/authors like Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution).

I will write more about these issues, mostly because of the ignorance and hence, prejudice that surround them in most peoples’ minds. For now, I direct you to my piece on Christian Zionism in “Resources,” at the end of which you’ll find a list of books and a couple of amazing DVDs as well. We evangelicals, especially since the late 1970s, are guilty of much theological distortion, which sadly has resulted in fateful political alliances. I join many other voices in saying, “enough!”

In light of this week's broadly ecumenical manifesto, I'll end with “A Franciscan Benediction,” the chosen conclusion of the Bethlehem Call. In this precious time of Advent, waiting in our hearts for the coming of the Son, we gather hope – believing that even in Bethlehem, where Christ was born two millennia ago, his peace will change once again our broken, violent world.

“May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, at half truths and superficial relationships so that we may live deeply within our hearts. May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation. May God bless us with tears to share for those who suffer in pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world so that we can do what others claim cannot be done. And may the blessing of the God of Abraham and Sarah, and Jesus born in Bethlehem of our sister Mary, and of the Holy Spirit, who broods over the world as a mother over her children, be upon us and remain with us always. Amen.”

10 December 2011

Whence the Salafis?

As you read the papers these days, you hear that “the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis” are the parties most standing to gain from the elections taking place in Egypt. We’ve covered the Muslim Brotherhood, but who are the Salafis?

Salafism is about a new, international and self-absorbed subculture that is completely obsessed with legal norms and rules that are traced back to the Prophet himself. Here the Sunna overshadows the Qur’an in importance. It fits to the tee Olivier Roy’s picture of the religious community of the twenty-first century – what he calls “neofundamentalism” – in which young people who are reacting to the traditional piety of their parents (or lack thereof) come under the sway of charismatic religious teachers, join their tight-knit, high-commitment community, while feeling certain and proud that they are followers of the “true” faith.

The phenomenon of the religious enclave of born-again believers huddled together against a hostile world is found among all religious traditions in one form or another. For the Salafists in particular, the appeal is enhanced even beyond its offer of a new community to join and a strong sense of identity and purpose. Indeed, the Salafi message is even more attractive because of its deep roots in Islamic history.

 

A very, very old reflex

The Arabic adjective “Salafi” comes from the plural noun salaf, that is, the ancestors, and more specifically here, the righteous forbears who were companions of the Prophet. Depending on who you ask, the salaf could include all the leading lights of the Islamic past; but Salafis have a more narrow focus: the salaf are the first leaders of early Muslim community, the first four “rightly guided caliphs,” and those pious companions who passed on reports (hadiths) of Muhammad’s words and deeds after his death.

Preoccupation with hadiths is what most sets Salafis apart from other Muslims. This too is what characterized the earliest Muslim reformers. To be pious, or to earnestly seek the path of faith revealed in the Qur’an, one had to know the teaching of the Prophet. He was the only one who could rightly interpret the meaning of the sacred text. Also, less than ten percent of the Qur’an is about the dos and don’ts believers consult on a daily basis. The Sunna (the “perfect example” of the Prophet, as found in the most authentic collections of hadiths) is what fills out the blanks left by the Qur’an.

Hence, the first properly religious movement in Islam was the ahl al-hadith, “the people of hadith,” who emerged in the second and third century after the Prophet. As I said, the early exemplars of piety made careers of studying hadiths – going from one Islamdom city to the next, sitting at the feet of the greatest hadith scholars, who would have memorized thousands of these reports. They in turn, once they had amassed sufficient knowledge, would become teachers for the next generation of hadith seekers.

After the first Islamic dynasty, the Umayyads, was replaced by the Abbasids, who moved their capital from Damascus to Baghdad in 757, a class of Muslim intellectuals appeared with a thirst for learning. They had inherited a sophisticated imperial realm (a mix of the former Byzantines and Persian Sasanians), in which Christian and Jewish scholars were reading and translating Greek texts of philosophy, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and more. Famously, Caliph al-Ma’mun in the early ninth century CE, founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, which instantly became the world’s greatest center of learning. Now the many texts in Greek and Syriac were being translated in Arabic, with Christians, Jews and Muslims working side by side.

This marks the beginning of Islamic civilization as we know it, its classical period which gave birth to the explosion of science and philosophy. It also produced the science of hadith criticism and qur’anic interpretation, both of which led to the rise of the main schools of Islamic law. Often catalyzed by vigorous debates with Christians and Jews, Islamic theology made its appearance at this time too. But it was the next century (10th cent. CE) that witnessed the rise of the dominant school of Sunni theology (still today), Ash’arism, which found a middle path between the rationalists (Mu’tazilis) and the text-only advocates (Qur’an and Sunna, with emphasis on the latter), heirs of the ahl al-hadith.

Yet the conservative, textualist Sunni trend lived on – always patrolling the theological and legal waters in order to denounce and eradicate any “innovation” (bid’a), or any recourse to human reason to explicate the texts, and especially any import of Greek philosophy! “Just stick to the texts,” was their motto, starting with the Sunna. [For a brilliant and feisty treatment of today’s Salafi Puritanism, read UCLA scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl’s The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (HarperOne, 2007)] Its earliest and most famous standard bearer, Ibn Hanbal (d. 855), spent quite a few years in prison, and mostly under the watch of caliph al-Ma’mun. He bravely taught that the Qur’an was eternal and not created – the official state-sponsored Mu’tazili doctrine at the time. A jurist of some repute as well, Ibn Hanbal was later honored as the founder of the Hanbali school of law, the strictest and most literal of the four main Sunni law schools, and the official legal school of Saudi Arabia.

 

The Wahhabi revival and its 14th-century roots

Actually, the Salafi reflex turned up most famously in two other conservative reformers. The first was the 14th century jurist Ibn Taymiyya, whose eventful career (he too went to prison several times) is mostly remembered by some fatwas (legal rulings) related to the Mongols who had conquered Baghdad, along with a good part of the Middle East of the time, and who by then had converted to Islam. Unconvinced, Ibn Taymiyya declared them “unbelievers” – i.e., non-Muslim, and therefore legitimate targets of military action. To be fair, Ibn Taymiyya was a great theologian with a surprising breadth of knowledge and intellectual sophistication. Sadly, starting with the writings of Syrian Rashid Rida in the 1920s, he has became the patron saint of all the radicals who tend to declare their moderate coreligionists kuffar, or infidels.

The second Salafi reformer was the Arabian theologian of the 18th century, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who focused on Ibn Taymiyya’s narrowest views, like his zero tolerance for the veneration of saints and their tombs, and for all other Muslims who did not adhere to his rigid, puritanical rules – all in the name of God’s Oneness (tawhid). You guessed it: he was obsessed with the Sunna, but only following its most rigorous interpretations. Politically, he judiciously allied himself with an ambitious tribal leader, Muhammad Ibn Saud, which meant that, after they had conquered most of the peninsula by the next decade, his religious ideology was passed down to future generations. His name, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, gave rise to the shorthand “Wahhabism,” which is the official legal/theological doctrine of today’s Saudi Arabia.

The literature on Wahhabism is abundant. Let me just state three characteristics here that are particularly relevant to our discussion. Each one carries with it tensions that are exacerbated in the present era, especially since 9/11.

First, it started as an activist movement – militaristic, in fact. Today, wealthy as the Saudi state is, its monarchy holds on to power mostly because it can afford to lavish financial benefits on its citizens. That is wearing thin, of course. Still, it mostly manages to keep a lid on political opposition groups. So until now, Wahhabism is officially promoted as apolitical, as focused on building an Islamically righteous society.

Second, the qur’anic notion of “commanding right and forbidding wrong” and its traditional tool hisba has been actively enforced since the 1920s in Saudi Arabia through the ubiquitous religious police, who make sure, among other things . . .

      • that women are wearing their full body black coverings
      • that unrelated and unmarried men and women are not alone in the same car, on the street or in a mall
      • that male pilgrims for the Hajj are not wearing any gold jewelry
      • that that no one in Medina prays in the direction of Muhammad’s tomb (even the Prophet cannot be venerated as a saint, or, heaven forbid, as an intercessor).

 Finally, Wahhabism has evolved from a sectarian, parochial and regional movement at home in traditional Arabian tribal culture to a state ideology awash with petro-dollars and imbued with immense political clout globally through the international Islamic bodies it founded (including the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, or OIC), and of course through OPEC and its American and western clients. As a result, it decided early on to spread its narrow Sunni ideology throughout the Muslim world, building mosques and schools and disseminating its literature everywhere it goes. As such, Wahhabism is directly related to the Salafi revival of the last forty years. In some places it has help spread this puritanical ethos; in others, Salafis have openly denounced Wahhabis. Either way, both movements are linked.

But in order to tell that story, we have to first examine the modern pedigree of Salafism.

 

The unlikely evolution of modern “Salafism”

Those readers who know about the great modernist reformer of the nineteenth century, Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), will be scratching your heads about the definition I gave earlier of “Salafi.” Indeed, it was Abduh, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, who first coined that phrase in the modern era, with a quite different meaning. Though he had no sympathy for the excesses of Sufism either, Abduh saw himself as representing the best the Islamic heritage had to offer. For him, all the great qur’anic commentators, the sharpest legal and theological minds of the past should be consulted – but not in a slavish way. One also needed to take stock of the best of western modernity and make good, judicial use of our God-given powers of reason.

Suffice it to say here that two main currents developed from the influence of this exceptional modern reformer: 1) a mostly secular-leaning current; and 2) a much more conservative one, starting with his colleague Rashid Rida (the one who resurrected Ibn Taymiyya in the 1920s), Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the current I’ve mentioned before – 20th-century islamism.

Ironically then, the Salafis emerged from Abduh’s desire to create a modern Islam in the late nineteenth century. His “back to the sources” slogan was taken by the majority as a return to the Qur’an as read through the prism of the Sunna – a betrayal, to my mind, of Abduh’s teaching. Many local groups formed in the Muslim world (Egypt and Indonesia are good examples) in the 1920s and 1930s aimed to reform society in a more traditionalist Muslim way. For instance, a movement born in India developed its own devotional literature and sent its missionaries two by two, going door to door. Within a couple of decades they had encircled the globe with their brand of conservative piety. Still today you can find clusters of Tablighi Jama’at wherever you travel.

All these groups were adamant about staying away from politics. By contrast, it was the politically engaged, the islamists who captured the limelight – right until the end of the last century. Best known among these is the Muslim Brotherhood, of course, which after its great 1954 “persecution” at the hand of Egypt’s military junta (Gamal Abd al-Nasser was beginning to emerge as the head) renounced violence and stood the course until now.

Those who grabbed the attention of the media, however, were the smaller offshoots, whose theology and practice were more radical. And most of those, like the student-based Gama’a al-Islamiyya, used violence to achieve their goals. Nevertheless, some leaders were emerging at the time that can only properly be labeled “Salafi,” as we read in the recent book, Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement. The Albanian-born scholar Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999), for instance, taught in Saudi Arabia for years, but not without wrangling the Saudi authorities on many points. His focus was strictly on hadith study.

A famous Saudi legal scholar, Salih Ibn Fawzan al-Fawzan (b. 1935), exemplifies the Salafi love of doctrinal purity and loathing of all of those who disagree when he wrote that Muslims in non-Muslim countries should emigrate to Muslim countries, since rubbing shoulders with unbelievers will lead one to form loyalties with them – something strictly forbidden in these circles. Even more radical are the views of Palestinian-Jordanian jihadi-Salafi Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who took that doctrine a step further and declared the Saudi state apostate. Bin Laden, no scholar he, was greatly influenced by al-Maqdisi.

Beyond the Arab world, Nasir al-Din al-Albani’s influence can be seen in large Salafi movements in Indonesia (around Jafar Umar Thalib), in Ethiopia and in France. As I said, Saudi oil money has undoubtedly contributed to this spread of conservative Sunni theology and practice.

On the other hand, it’s no secret that for decades some of the most influential ulama (religious scholars) of Saudi Arabia have been teaching a more activist and politically-minded ideology, which can easily be linked to Bin Laden and many other Salafi-jihadi groups. Truly, Wahhabism is in the balance.

[2018 edit] Today the crown prince who effectively holds the reigns of power in Saudi Arabia, the 32-year old Muhammad bin Salman (known as MBS] has embarked on an ambitious reform program, giving women the right to drive and other symbolic freedoms, and significantly setting out to curb the power of the Wahhabi ulama. The religious police is all but disbanded, for instance.He is promoting his plan to wean the Saudi economy from its dependence on oil (the 2030 Vision), but at the same time is hellbent on rooting out any dissent. Numerous journalists, bloggers, and others with critical views of his rule have been imprisoned. There will be no "Arab Spring" on his watch!

In the end, with or without Wahhabism, Salafism is likely to endure as a hodge-podge of contentious movements, often very hostile to one another. What links them, however, is this reflex of going back to the Prophet’s example and teaching, in order to make sense of today’s world and find a way to live as faithful Muslims – in spite of it (for the quietist Salafis), or in order to change it (for the Salafis who in Egypt this year have formed three political parties, hoping to cash in on the February revolution).

But there’s a lot more to Salafism than its historical roots, theological hobbyhorses, and present manifestations, contradictory as they might be from place to place. Through the lens of sociology, Salafism fits within a wider pattern observable among many religious movements the world over. That will be my next blog post, as I try to come full circle in my observations about the sociology of religion.

I highly recommend this site, initiated and directed by Hofstra College anthropologist Daniel Varisco, with the participation of many other scholars from various disciplines. Along with an extensive and easy-to-use catalog of several thousand previous blogs, this site offers accessible yet scholarly commentary on many aspects of this part of the world and the Islamic tradition.

http://tabsir.net/

 

Only two Muslim scholars in the US come close to being recognizable public intellectuals. The closest candidate is Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the Iranian-American philosopher and religion scholar at George Washington University who in a series of lectures in 1967 was the first to address the ecological crisis theologically – Christian theologians trailed him.

The second might be the former British ambassador to Pakistan, the anthropologist Akbar S. Ahmed, who was the third to occupy the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University (also in Washington, DC). Check out a review of his recent book is Journey Into America.

But if you live in the UK, you will certainly have heard of physicist Ziauddin Sardar (b. 1951, Pakistan), one of Britain’s top 100 public intellectuals, according to Prospect magazine. With over forty-five books in print, hundreds of articles, he edits the journals Futures and Critical Muslim. Sardar is both a university professor and a journalist of great repute, and a broadcaster. His most recent work is a three-part documentary, “The Life of Muhammad,” for BBC2.

Sardar’s latest book, Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam was published this year by Oxford University Press. Though he's neither an 'alim (a classically trained Islamic scholar) nor an Islamicist, I highly recommend it to you. It’s a fascinating introduction to the Qur’an and a captivating window into how one influential thinker reads it.

Here I only deal with the first five verses of the second sura (just skipping verse one, with the mysterious letters A.L.M.) – the longest chapter of the Qur’an and the one that, for Sardar, nicely summarizes the central themes of the Qur’an as a whole. I will then draw some quick parallels with Christian teaching.

 

2. This is the Book, wherein is no doubt, a guidance to the God conscious

3. Who believe in that which is beyond the reach of human perception, are steadfast in prayer, and spend of what We have provided them;

4. And who believe in the Revelation sent to you, and sent before your time, and know for certain there is an afterlife.

5. These are truly guided by their Lord, these are the ones who prosper.

 

Earlier in the book, Sardar had asserted that a Muslim, by definition, is “someone who accepts the Divine origins of the Noble Reading” (5). Put otherwise, the Qur’an is the Word of God. [By the way, Christians would not capitalize “word” if referring to the Bible; Jesus is the Word of God, as in John 1:1, for example]. As Sardar has it, “This is the Book” means “it is the direct word of God”; and that, in turn, “is the foundation of faith and the most basic belief” (71).

This Book, asserts the Qur’an, is “a guidance to the God conscious.” In Arabic, it is “a guidance to those who have taqwa – one of the most repeated Qur’anic words. The older translation was “fear of God,” but Sardar’s preference is “God consciousness.” He explains,

Taqwa is consciousness, an awareness of the certainty, reality and presence of God that is experienced intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. It is the realization that, as the Qur’an says, God is nearer to us than our jugular vein” (72).

This guidance is meant to steer us in our daily lives, enabling us to stay on the “straight path” (as stated in Sura 1, the Fatiha, or “Opening”). So it’s a dynamic guidance, stirring us to action: “Taqwa may be the basis of faith, the certainty on which belief is founded, but the real challenge is to incorporate it into all our thoughts and actions.”

What is more, God consciousness “shapes the way we conceive the world around us.” Thus taqwa is our God-given capacity to reason and probe both the world and the sacred text. For that reason, doubt must be part of the process. It is here connected to our perception of the Qur’an and it recurs throughout the book:

“[Doubt] is presented as a continuum which stretches from being an essential aid to belief all the way to a blinkered determination not to believe under any circumstances. Doubt is a function of our free will: we are free to accept or reject belief in God” (72).

As a result, “Doubt and certainty are not diametrically opposed.” We have to push through the fog of doubt through the use of reason and reflection in order to arrive at certainty. At the same time, warns Sardar, the self-proclaimed skeptic (see his 2005 autobiography), “[c]ertainty that is never questioned, that ignores or is not tested by doubt, can become prejudice, complacency, the blind following of tradition that undermines the meaning and spirit of the very guidance that should be applied to our daily circumstances in the conditions of the times in which we live” (73).

This connects to another theme of the Qur’an: taqwa, this process of “reasoning consciousness leads us to apprehend al-ghayb, or as Sardar has it, “that which is beyond the reach of human perception.” Literally “the unseen,” al-ghayb stands for all that relates to God, his being and his activity in the world.

I think immediately of the key New Testament passage about faith:

“Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1 NLT).

Hebrews 11 then proceeds to list all the great men and women who obeyed God in their generation – often at great cost to themselves – and thereby displayed faith. Take Moses for instance:

“It was by faith that Moses left the land of Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger. He kept right on going because he kept his eyes on the one who is invisible” (v. 27).

The Qur’an then states that these people who believe in the unseen are “steadfast in prayer.” More than just the ritual prayer (salat, one of Islam’s “five pillars”), for Sardar it is connected to the Qur’an’s repeated exhortation to study God’s “Signs” in creation. So prayer cannot be divorced from worship in the form of “experimenting with the material world, promoting thought and learning” – science, in other words.

Moreover, those who remain conscious of the unseen “spend of what He has provided them” – another key Qur’anic theme which Sardar is keen to emphasize. It’s all about distributive justice, he writes, about making sure that the more fortunate share with those who have less. In his words,

“Other people have a claim on our resources, economic, intellectual and creative, social, cultural or emotional. People are not absolute, exclusive owners . . . It is by distributing, putting to work, sharing the bounties that come our way that we ‘prosper’” (75).

As the Qur’an teaches a few verses down, humanity was created as God’s trustees, called to manage the earth’s wealth in His stead and care for one another in His name. So prosperity is not just about material wealth, but especially about the richness of compassion and love we display for one another.

Notice too that those who “believe in the Revelation sent to you” also believe in the revelations sent before. Sardar is a passionate religious pluralist (to be explored in a later blog). For him, the messages sent by God to humanity from Adam to Muhammad are all of equal value. No one has a corner on the truth. Sadly, he notes, Muslims along with people of other faiths have been guilty of “turning the commonality and continuity declared by the Qur’an into an exclusive and excluding identity.” Instead, we should be drawing together the common threads of the various religious traditions that will enable us to change society for the better:

“There is a shared rationale for finding the means to work together to make the world a better place, a place of peace and peaceful cohabitation based on transformative change. In a globalized world of increasing interconnection, there is no separately sustainable way of seeking, let alone establishing, justice, equity, dignity and well-being for all. The message from God is not and should not be a brand name, certainly not a ‘holier than thou’ arrogance that divides Muslim from Muslim, and all Muslims from members of other faiths” (74).

I come back to the Epistle to the Hebrews, near the end of that faith chapter. The parallels to Sura 2:2-5 are striking:

 

“For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.

Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to his name.

And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God” (Hebrews 13:14-16).


As Muslims and Christians we won’t agree on some central tenets of our respective revelations, but we certainly can celebrate – and hopefully put into practice – a God consciousness that empowers us as God’s trustees to shape our world in a way that brings honor to His name.

A reader of my previous blog, “McCarthyism Returns in the 2010s,” asked a very reasonable question [when it was first posted on the Peace Catalyst website]. He or she had wondered how accurate my placing Robert Spencer among the “purveyors of hate and misinformation” actually was. I like this. I want feedback and the opportunity to promote an honest and transparent conversation. What is more, I write this answer trying to emulate the Apostle Paul by “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

I used “purveyor of . . . disinformation” as a blanket statement on the heels of Fear, Inc.’s Chapter 2 title, “The Islamophobia Disinformation Experts" (get the pdf from here). In that sense, this covered Spencer and several others, including Frank Gaffney and Daniel Pipes.

Besides his writing books and blogs, Spencer is a tireless and effective activist. He founded Jihad Watch and continues to direct it, with the goal to correct “popular misconceptions about the role of jihad and religion in modern-day conflicts.” He also co-founded with blogger Pamela Geller Stop Islamization of America and the American Freedom Defense Initiative.

Yet Spencer is the most prolific of all these anti-Muslim warriors – a dozen books on Islam, including the 2005 bestseller, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), with hundreds of newspaper articles and blog entries to his name. He’s written nonstop on Islam since his Masters Degree in 1980 (Religious Studies, University of North Carolina), and though he’s accumulated a good deal of knowledge, his sources are either secondary or translated into English.

For this blog I have carefully combed through two of his more recent books, as I discovered that his works do overlap a fair amount. I also glanced at a large volume he edited in 2005, The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims. None of the authors of that volume are scholars with academic posts, and they are generally considered too biased to be taken seriously by Islamicists in the academy.

Nevertheless, two of these writers have international reputations. Bat Ye’or, who has specialized in the historic treatment of the dhimmis (“protected minorities”) under Muslim rule, authored seventeen chapters in The Myth of Islamic Tolerance; and Ibn Warraq, the pen name for a former Muslim from Pakistan who writes scathing critiques of Islam, contributed the Foreword and a chapter on apostasy. As the other contributors to this volume, they clearly have an axe to grind.

Spencer’s mostly accurate research

In his two books, Religion of peace?: why Christianity is and Islam isn't (2007) and Stealth jihad: how radical Islam is subverting America without guns or bombs (2008), Spencer accurately quotes dozens of Islamic sources and cites many historical events – and all of this carefully footnoted. The second book, in particular, references dozens of current events that at least seem to be based on credible media sources.

Let’s start with Religion of Peace? In his Chapter 5, “Cherry-Picking in the Fields of the Lord,” he admits that on the subject of violence, “the evidence of the Qur’anic text itself goes both ways” (p. 71). From the Meccan period, when Muhammad was leading a small, battered and often persecuted fringe group, we find many conciliatory verses – don’t argue, goes the text, God will judge on the Last Day (but he fails to mention that the famous “freedom” verse, “no compulsion in religion,” comes from the early Medinan period).

Then there are texts that command defensive war when under attack. Here he is careful to emphasize all the most unsavory texts, like the injunction to make no prisoners until the land has been “thoroughly subdued”; permission to take the wives of the slain as one’s concubines (Q. 33:50); and the statement that “the highest rank” of believers “in the sight of Allah” are those who “strive with might and main in Allah’s cause, with their goods and their persons,” a clear reference to military jihad (Q. 9:19-20). And finally, he mentions the famous “sword verses” (Q. 9:5, 29), adding some rather dark commentary over the centuries gleaned from Ibn Warraq (75-81).

As I wrote in my two blogs on jihad, the Islamic legal understanding of these verses in the classical period (10th-14th centuries) was indeed that the later verses abrogated the earlier more peaceful verses, and that the world was divided between the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War. I then added that mainstream Islamic scholarship and leadership had moved on in the modern period to a strictly defensive view of jihad. Spencer won’t acknowledge this.

Also correct are the data he presents on Islamic anti-Semitism over the centuries. It is true that there are harsh passages in the Qur’an about Jews – though he fails to mention that this was in the context of the three Jewish tribes in Medina either in sympathy or in outright collaboration with the Meccan enemy during the war years (624 to 628). Still, there is no shortage of hateful literature aimed at the Jews in the course of Islamic history, including today.

Then in his second book, Stealth Jihad, Spencer quotes all manner of media publications about incidents related to Muslims in the US – some people being tried for terrorism, and others allegedly linked to terrorist organizations. But here is where I want to draw a line: the outline of what you “recount” might have a factual basis, but your “spin” might weave a story line that gravely distorts the actual facts.

The ideological divide

Here I have to point out that the debate, especially in the United States, is fraught with strident ideological clamoring. As you gathered from my previous blogs and from your own browsing on the Internet, this polarizing does have clear political overtones.

A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution highlights a polarized America on the issue of Islam and Muslims largely along party lines. Among the number of respondents who doubt whether Islamic values are in any way compatible with American ones, the numbers are much higher for Republicans (63%) and Tea Party affiliates (66%). A majority of Democrats (55%) and Independents (53%) disagree with this view.

People also divide according to the news channels they tend to watch. Thus, two-thirds of those who say they trust Fox News agree that Muslim values are at odds with those cherished in the United States. Yet only 37% of viewers of CNN and public television shared those views. “The divisions are along partisan and ideological lines,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI in a recent interview. He added this,

 

“We’re seeing just as polarizing divides around this issue as we’ve seen in such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. That’s one of the new things that this survey shows. We may be living with this as a new front in the culture wars” (Lesley Lathrop in the Portland Examiner).

 

This happened during the previous presidential elections too. The 2007 documentary “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War against the West” was produced by a heretofore unknown entity (Clarion Fund) and distributed to 30 million US homes in the spring of 2008. Clips of suicide bombings were juxtaposed with clips of Hitler haranguing the crowds in 1930s Germany. It was a glossy, fear inducing, lavishly funded piece, meant to sway voters to the Republican side.

Distorting the facts

Spencer accurately quotes many classical and current Islamic sources, but he also twists the facts in a couple of ways. First, he peppers his book with blanket statements to the effect that “Islam” is, no matter what Muslims may say, a fascist ideology.

In the first chapter of Religion for Peace? (“No, Virginia, All Religions Aren’t Equal”), he enunciates his book’s thesis:

 

“Islam seeks the conversion, subjugation, or death of not only Christians but also all other non-Muslims. Thus it is imperative that all the victims and potential victims of Islamic Jihad – Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, secular Muslims, and all others – recognize that, in the immortal words of Benjamin Franklin, we must all hang together, or we shall indeed all hang separately” (9).

 

This comes after several pages of quotes by al-Qaeda figures, and in particular, of the American terrorist, Adam Gadahn, who in a 2006 videotape lambasts Christianity and ends with the following invitation: “Isn’t it time for every Christian, Jew, pagan, and atheist to cast off the cloak of spiritual darkness which enshrouds them, and emerge into the light of Islam . . . ?”

Plainly, Spencer is projecting the ideology and doctrine of the most extreme (and tiniest minority) elements of the Muslim community onto the whole. On page 25 he offers his justification for this: “Nowhere in the world is there a significant anti-jihad, anti al-Qaeda, or anti-bin Laden movement.” But this is simply not true – from all the largest Muslim organizations globally, which have condemned terrorism in the strongest terms, to the hundreds of respected Muslim scholars and leaders who signed the Common Word document and continue to promote it.

A second way Spencer distorts facts is by choosing them selectively. Hence, in his chapter on anti-Semitism he reports how four thousand Jews were massacred in Granada on December 30, 1066. He quotes from historian Richard Fletcher’s book Moorish Spain (University of California Press, 1992).

I looked up the passage in Fletcher’s book and the very next paragraph reads: “This was an isolated outbreak. By and large the eleventh century was a time of peace and prosperity for Spanish Jewry. It was also a time of cultural vitality” (Fletcher, p. 97). Spencer was definitely not quoting the passage in its context.

I have no room to illustrate this same kind of selective quoting from various sources in his book Stealth Jihad. But to give you an idea, here is one example:

“Islam is a religion of the sword and there are, by even the most conservative estimates, more than one hundred million active jihadists seeking to impose sharia not only in the Islamic world, but in Europe and ultimately in the United States” (209).

Here Spencer a) makes a sweeping statement; b) is plainly using an inflated, undocumented number with emotionally charged words (“jihadi” and “imposing sharia”), ostensibly to instill panic in his readers’ minds.

The crux of Spencer’s own anger

Right from the start, the reader is confronted with animus and venom, and the outraged tone runs from beginning to end. Yet the root of his anger is not just Islam and its terrorist threat, but Islam as the arrogant denier of the goodness and truth of Western Judeo-Christian civilization, and thus forging an alliance with the no less hated phalanges of the political Left.

This perceived double attack led by a secular, even atheist Left, in conjunction with the forces of “Islamofascism,” seems to have thrust Spencer and his ilk into a siege mentality. We cannot limit our attacks to Islamic terrorism, he warns; we must also fight to regain our Judeo-Christian heritage, which has “two legs: The Christian and the Jewish one. Europe rises or falls with the fortunes of Israel” (Religion of Peace?, 10). This sounds strangely similar to the writings of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far-Right activist – turned mass killer – who, as it turned out, quoted copiously from Spencer.

Spencer also laments what he sees as the “establishment media” floating naïve platitudes designed to placate a determined enemy. After 9/11 President Bush “summed up mainstream assumptions” by declaring that “Islam is a peaceful religion” and that the terrorists “have hijacked a great religion” (Religion of Peace?, 14). But the truth, intones Spencer, is that we are living on the edge of disaster, and Western internal squabbles only make it easier for Muslims to achieve their sinister goals. This is because Islam, to be truly “Islam,” necessarily includes what he calls “supremacism,” i.e., taking over the world either militarily or by other means – the “stealth jihad.”

What is “truth” in a democratic society?

Free speech includes the right of people to engage in conspiracy theories. But is it ethically defensible to devote all one’s energy to attack another religious group? When I played for my Interreligious Dialogue class a CNN clip in which Spencer’s colleague Pamela Geller debates with a Muslim journalist the desirability of housing the Cordoba House two blocks from Ground Zero, the reaction was strong and unanimous. Students used “embarrassing,” “outrageous,” and “totally contrary to our democratic American values” to describe Geller’s speech.

Truth in a democratic society has an ethical component, particularly for people of faith. If every person has inherent dignity as created in God’s image and empowered to be his trustee on earth, then we must commit to speaking the truth so as to build up our fellow human beings and co-citizens. I am free to dig up all the dirt I can on the “other,” but how does that foster a sense of solidarity and constructive engagement with that “other,” so that we might tackle together the very real problems of our world?

I began by saying I wanted to “speak the truth in love,” as I believe Jesus would want me to. I believe that any scholarship stemming from venom and hate should be questioned. It’s both wrong and counterproductive. Here I tried to glean truth from Spencer’s work, but at the same time denounce the hate and prejudice, and as a result, the glaring lies.

This is a small excerpt from Chapter 10 of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, which seeks to trace the Christian and Jewish exegesis of Genesis 1 and 2 over the centuries, particularly on the issue of humanity in the image of God (often referred to in Latin: imago dei) and God's mandate for humankind to rule over the earth in his stead. For the Jewish side, I was blessed to discover the following book:

Cohen, Jeremy. "Be Fertile and Increase, Fill the Earth and Master It”: The Ancient and Medieval Career of a Biblical Text (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Universtity Press, 1989).

Then in a conversation with ethicist Glen Stassen (Fuller Theological Seminary) a few years back I found out that he had written about the Puritan roots of the human rights concept. By the same occasion I want to recommend his pioneering work on "Just Peacemaking" -- a concept now that has caught on in several parts of the world.

 

 

 

The eyes of the world stared in disbelief at the clips of armored vehicles lunging into crowds of peaceful protesters in Cairo. Over 50,000 Coptic Christians, men, women and children, were marching on October 9 to protest the burning to the ground of a church in Aswan. Media personnel at the morgue witnessed bodies with bullet wounds and others partially crushed. Over two dozen people died that evening, most of them Copts.

 

A quick aside: this happened in Cairo, the capital city and microcosm of the whole country, with one fifth of Egypt’s eighty million inhabitants. Egyptians call it “Masr,” the same word for “Egypt.” We lived three and a half years in Ismailia, two hours northeast, midway on the Suez Canal, doorway to the Sinai Peninsula, and birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Because of medical care and banking needs, we had to take collective taxis regularly to “Masr,” where the pediatric specialist was. To pray for “the peace of the city,” then, is to pray for the peace of the nation.

 

Three days after the deadly protest, a Coptic Orthodox press release issued from the UK denounced the unprovoked army violence, but also deplored the wave of attacks on Christians and their places of worship just weeks after the revolutionary displays of national unity in Tahrir Square. I quote,

 

“For the first time we saw churches burned and demolished with the army looking on and doing nothing. Christians lost their lives, while those who had promised to protect ‘every Egyptian’ looked on. Since then, we have had an escalation of violence from Imbaba to Atfih to Aswan, along with the terrorist bombing of a church in Alexandria earlier this year. The common denominator in all of these, and every other attack in the past decades, is that there has been insufficient official investigation, and an absence of prosecutions and convictions.”

 

In light of this, the largest church in the Middle East (7 million) calls for a thorough investigation and for Egyptians as a nation to choose one of two roads:

 

One, “positive reform and the building of a new Egypt that is cohesive and that instills a sense of citizenship, ownership, and responsibility into every Egyptian, ceasing to focus on the person’s religion, but more on his or her contribution and accountability to a single nation state.”

 

Or two: “we merely continue denying the reality of the presence of conflict, leaving unlawful acts unresolved and unprosecuted, presenting one part of the community as a justifiable target, and continuing to drive a wedge between members of a single society, and this will lead to the demise of all.”

 

Egyptian Christians, continues the document, are no strangers to persecution and martyrdom in their long history dating back to the first century. The God “who seeks to protect His whole creation” will not allow the Coptic Church to be destroyed. Rather, we should fear the weakening of all of Egypt, if the country does not stand together.

 

The media statement concludes with the church’s response: a three-day fast of repentance and prayer, believing that “God’s name with be glorified and exalted above all.” As it happened, all the Catholic and Protestant churches in Egypt joined with their Orthodox brethren in the fast.

 

I applaud all these true followers of Jesus: they’re calling for justice in a peaceable way . . . then turning to God in humble submission to his merciful ways. May it be so!

 

Another group of Christians did something very creative. The day after (what some are calling “Black Sunday”), the Bible Society of Egypt put an add in several newspapers with this verse from the prophet Jeremiah (writing to the recently exiled Jews in Babylon): “And seek the peace of the city… and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace” (Jer. 29:7). Contact information followed, and then this phrase: “Let us share together in prayer for peace and unity in Egypt.”

 

Ramez Atallah, the Bible Society’s General Director, offers this comment about the project:

 

“This is the first time we have been allowed to quote a Bible verse in any of our public advertising, and many people, from all backgrounds, have called the Bible Society to thank us for the timely message and positive role. One prominent political figure, the editor of a major newspaper, called to say that he is grateful for all that we are doing to promote peace and unity in these difficult days.”

 

The history of Muslim-Christian misunderstanding, conflict and even war is long and tortuous, and nothing grates the Muslim psyche more than the memory of Christian missionary efforts of the past. If you read Hasan al-Banna’s memoirs, you will notice this was a strong irritant which added to his motivation to reawaken his beloved umma (“Islamic community”) through the launching of his grassroots movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. No doubt, any advertisement for the Bible will strike some Muslim zealots as Christian propaganda exploiting a human tragedy for the sake of proselytism.

 

I disagree. This was meant as a peacebuilding initiative. And in fact, both Muslim and Christian responses were overwhelmingly positive. Atallah offers one example:

 

“A Muslim Arabic teacher called to say thank you for the beautiful verse that was used in the ad. His supervisor had asked him to say a word to the student body about National Unity, so he asked the Bible Society if he could use this verse, to share with all of the students.”

 

Still, the beginning of this blog demonstrated just how difficult implementing this vision would be in many villages and neighborhoods around the country. Nonetheless, a powerful prophetic voice rises up for those still willing to listen – from unexpected quarters.

 

The then influential Egyptian judge, Hasan al-Hudaybi, to the surprise of many inside and outside the movement, was named in 1951 the second General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. The founder, Hasan al-Banna, had been assassinated two years prior, almost certainly by government agents. Three years later, the “great persecution” (mihna) closed in the Brotherhood like a steel trap. The movement was dissolved, hundreds were arrested and six were executed.

 

Hudaybi, already sixty-three and in poor health was placed under house arrest for six years, then imprisoned for another seven years. These were trying times for him as a leader. As it turned out, persecution from the outside was light, compared with the bitterness of the strife within. His foe, eloquent with the pen and razor-sharp in his radical ideology, was none other than Sayyid Qutb. For Qutb, Egypt had long past the point of no return. It was no longer Muslim, as its laws and political institutions had been imported from the pagan west. As a jahili society (having reverted to the state of polytheistic pre-Islamic 7th-century Arabia), it had to be destroyed, so as to rebuild a new, pristine nation on the foundation of the Qur’an and Sunna (the Prophet’s good example).

 

In effect, Sayyid Qutb was reverting to the practice of the first “withdrawers,” the Kharijites, who isolated themselves in remote places, calling themselves the only true Muslims and launching attacks on the rest. To declare fellow Muslims “apostates” in Kharijite fashion – and thus to justify their killing– is to engage in takfir (labeling a Muslim “kafir”).

 

Hudaybi issues several pamphlets that aim to refute this dangerous ideology of takfir (see my 2007 article on Hudaybi in Comparative Islamic Studies). I won’t go into the arguments here – only to say that he won. His successors followed suit. Just a minority in the end embraced Qutb’s Manichean worldview. Nonetheless, his views inspired many radical and violent offshoots since then, and most recently, al-Qaeda and its allies.

 

As it turns out, Hudaybi’s prison travails bear directly on the issue of Muslim and Christian harmony in Egypt. In one particular pamphlet (“Our Constitution”), he explains that the Egyptian constitution is quite acceptable the way it is, as long as the moral content of Islam – which is the same as Christianity and Judaism, he adds – is respected. That is why educating the young is so important, he continues. Egyptian schools must intentionally draw on the moral fiber that is found in the Qur’an and the Bible. I quote from my own translation:

 

“It is good for Muslims and Christians to be trained by the spiritual formation provided by their respective faiths so that they come to agreement on what is good and virtuous. It is the government’s duty to provide this education with all seriousness in primary and secondary schools for both Muslims and Christians.”

 

This would be a good time for the Muslim Brotherhood to dig up Hudaybi’s wise and peaceable teaching. I believe we should see the Bible Society ads in this light. Now more than ever, common values and spiritual resources are crucial for the healing of this broken nation, especially in view of the dramatic demonstrations of national unity by Egyptians, both Muslim and Christian, during the spring protests in Tahrir Square (refer to the picture).

 

Paul-Gordon Chandler, author, Anglican priest and rector of St. John’s Church in Cairo, put it this way in a newsletter at the end of March:

 

“The scenes are moving, as Egyptians wave flags and carry banners depicting the cross and crescent embracing, with slogans such as ‘The crescent and the cross are one. We are all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian.’ Around the country, Muslim imams address religious harmony and the importance of unity in their Friday sermons. In the now world famous Tahrir Square, Muslims and Christians have prayed together for the unity and safety of Egypt. In essence the Egyptian revolution ended up as a summons to national unity, thereby condemning religious sectarianism. It has been deeply inspirational.”

 

I have no doubt that many of the young members of the Brotherhood who spontaneously joined the protesters in Tahrir Square in the first week of the uprising were following Hudaybi’s guidance, whether consciously or not. This is the kind of energy the army now in charge wants to dissipate at all costs.

 

Clearly, the ruling junta, by mowing down Christian protesters, calculated that fanning the flames of sectarian strife would strengthen their grip on power and divide the rising forces of democracy (see sociologist Khalil al-Anani's excellent article on this).

 

Equally, I can say that many ex-members (mostly in their 20s and 30s) left the Brotherhood for more pluralist pastures. Perhaps not so coincidently, I heard a young Brotherhood cadre (still in his twenties) speak at a think tank venue in Washington. His name was Ibrahim El-Houdaiby. I went up to talk to him after. Amazingly, he turned out to be Hudaybi’s great grandson, then in charge of running the Brotherhood official website. He has now left the organization and joined a more inclusive political party.

 

To sum up, I believe with Hudaybi that Muslims and Christians can draw upon their respective sacred texts and find the necessary resources to put aside past grievances and bitterness – calling for justice, while at the ready to forgive. And yes, I believe too the Bible Society was inspired to proclaim Jeremiah’s ancient message to the deported Jews in Babylon, now addressed to all Egyptians: “Seek the shalom (peace and prosperity) of the city!”


[I begin a series of four blogs introducing readers to important developments in the sociology of religion – and Islam in particular. The next ones are respectively, “Is Fundamentalism Still Relevant?”, "Whence the Salafis?" and "The Global Salafi Phenomenon"].

Roughly after the “Six-Day War” of 1967 and the passing of Egypt’s socialist president Gamal Abd al-Nasser in 1970, social scientists began to notice the rise of “political Islam,” or “islamism,” as we mostly call it now. Of course, this trend began with the greatest mass movement of Islamic sociopolitical transformation in the modern era, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928.

By the way, I always use the lower case “i” for “islamism,” as we are talking about a way of imagining how Islamic values might lead to specific political arrangements in our modern nation-state world. This is about political ideology, and only secondarily about religion.

Several leading sociologists believe that the heyday of islamism is over, and that the is experiencing a radical transformation, and thereby heralding the advent of “post-islamism.” In this blog, I highlight the work of Asef Bayat.

 

“Islam” and democracy

Bayat is an Iranian sociologist, who taught for over a decade at the American University of Cairo, then in the Netherlands, and now at the University of Illinois. In a recent book (Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn, 2007), he chided academics and pundits who wax eloquent about whether Islam is compatible with democracy or not. They’ve got the question wrong, Bayat says. You’ve got to start with religion and sacred texts.

He explains: whether concerning Bible, Qur’an, or Baghavad Gita, there is no “truth” except that which specific people see in the sacred text through the lenses of their own interpretation, which in turn is shaped by the received tradition, the questions raised by their own historical and sociopolitical situation, and their own convictions and inclinations. Even with specific doctrines long held in a particular tradition, distinct differences appear between individuals and groups. But especially when it comes to applying moral values to new social challenges or political directions, the sky is the limit as to possible choices and potential disagreements. In fact, that is what his book is about:

“A central argument of this book is that sacred injunctions are matters of struggle, of competing readings. They are, in other words, matters of history; humans define their truth. The individuals and groups who hold social power can assert and hegemonize their truths. Historical narratives in this book demonstrate how societal forces, notably social movements, play a decisive role in changing and shaping the ‘truth’ of holy scriptures” (p. 4).

So don’t talk to me about “Islam and democracy,” Bayat counsels; rather tell me how specific social actors have chosen “to determine the inclusive nature or authoritarian thrust of religions.”

You have a good example of this in my blog “My Brother’s Keeper,” which recounted the disagreement between qur’anic commentators who considered the verse “he who kills one person, it is as if he had killed all of humanity” to literally apply to all humanity, and those who limited the verse to a person who killed a fellow Muslim. Alan Iser, a rabbi colleague of mine at St. mwo4meph’s University, looked up this passage in the Babylonian Talmud and noticed that it reads, “he who kills a Jew”; but in the two earliest manuscript versions we read, “he who kills a human being,” as it is also stated in the Jerusalem Talmud. Apparently, in good sociological jargon, birds of a feather flock together, but they also can be very aggressive toward birds of another feather!

 

Islamism defined

Now let’s look at how Bayat defines islamism. Schematically, and using Egypt as his case study, islamism emerged . . .

 

- .  . . as a set of ideas that gave a particular social group a powerful sense of identity (“a language of self-assertion”);

- this set of ideas (or “discourse”) was used to mobilize . . .

- mostly middle-class business people, students, professionals, “who felt marginalized by the dominant economic, political, or cultural processes in their societies”;

- they were feeling marginalized at a time when in their eyes both socialism (in Egypt think of Gamal Abd al-Nasser’s regime, 1956-1970) and capitalism (Anouar as-Sadat’s regime, 1970-1981) had failed;

- this "Muslim middle class" was basically saying "no" to its "excluders": its national elites, its secular governments and their western backers (whether the USA or the Soviet Union)

 

 So in response, they cobbled together an authentically “Islamic,” genuinely Egyptian web of beliefs and practices that fused “piety and obligation, devotion and duty,” while imagining “Islam as a complete divine system with a superior political model, cultural code, legal structure, and economic arrangement – in short, a system that responded to all human problems” (p. 7). Their slogan, after all, was “Islam is the solution.”

Bayat’s book offers two case studies, Egypt and Iran. The 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran imposed islamism from the top down, that is, by means of the state; whereas in Egypt, society was islamized from the bottom up. An “Islamic mode” of living was spread by person to person and by preaching in the mosque and through cassettes. As Bayat puts it, it was no revolution, but . . .

“a pervasive Islamic social movement with a conservative moral vision, populist language, patriarchal disposition, and adherence to scripture. By the early 1990s, through da’wa and associational work, the movement had captured a large segment of the civil society moving to claim space in state institutions” (p. 12).

In a sense, it was “a passive revolution,” in that by sheer popular and pervasive influence, it forced the state to adopt religious symbols as a means to hold on to power. Nevertheless, Bayat makes the point that in this tug-of-war the state always came out on top. Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in capturing by the ballot just about every professional union, and despite its extensive and excellent charitable network, which in many cases outdid and overshadowed the work of state agencies and the more numerous secular NGOs, Mubarak’s regime managed to stay in control. Though the Brotherhood remained the best organized political opposition, it never succeeded in topping twenty percent in any legislative election. In the mid-2000s, the secular movement was making gains, yet without managing to topple Mubarak and his clique – until the “Arab Spring” of 2011, that is.

But that is the point. By the early 2000s the Islamic movement was losing steam, partially through internal divisions running along generational lines, and partially because Egyptians in general were more concerned with the nuts and bolts of democracy, and especially freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. Already, several sociologists were writing about “post-islamism.”

 

The post-islamist turn

As Bayat reworks an article he published in 1996, he characterizes post-islamism as both a condition and a project. First, as a condition, it refers to a movement that in many Arab countries ran out of options. It was simply not succeeding. He specifically points to . . .

“social and political conditions where, following a phase of experimentation, the appeal, energy, and sources of legitimacy of Islamism are exhausted, even among its once-ardent supporters. Islamists become aware of their system’s anomalies and inadequacies as they attempt to normalize and institutionalize their rule. Continuous trial and error makes the system susceptible to questions and criticisms. Eventually, pragmatic attempts to maintain the system reinforce abandoning its underlying principles. Islamism becomes compelled, both by its own internal contradictions and by societal pressure, to reinvent itself, but it does so at the cost of a qualitative shift.” (pp. 10-11).

As a project, post-islamism is a conscious reworking of the Islamic spiritual legacy so as to highlight its support for human rights and liberty, and hence, for a multiplicity of voices, since its texts have to be reinterpreted again and again in new historical contexts. In the case of Iran, the Revolution set the stage for a variety of internal movements of opposition:

“The end of the war with Iraq (1988), the death of Ayatollah Khomeini (1989), and the program of postwar reconstruction under President Rafsanjani marked a turning point toward post-Islamism. It expressed itself in various social practices and ideas, including urban management, feminist practice, theological perspective, and social and intellectual trends and movements. Youths, students, women and religious intellectuals, as well as many state employees, among others, called for democracy, individual rights, tolerance, and gender equality, but they refused to throw away religious sensibilities altogether” (pp. 11-12).

As I see it, the popular “green” opposition to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection results led by reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi in 2009 was violently repressed and failed at that stage. But Iranians, muzzled as they are by a ruthless authoritarian regime, have certainly not given up. They remain as pious as ever; but piety for them means justice, the rule of the people, and freedom of conscience. The Arab Spring may soon become a Persian reality.

 

Tunisia, Turkey, and Egypt

Not surprisingly, Bayat quickly published his thoughts on the Arab Spring (“Egypt, and the Post-Islamic Middle East"). What was striking to him was the sheer diversity of the movement. One of the early slogans was, “our revolution is civil; neither violent, nor religious.” The Muslim Brotherhood, wary after decades of battering, imprisonment and torture by the regime, joined the movement belatedly. The Salafis (more conservative and puritanical – see blog 3), appeared even later.

The roots of this uprising were discernible long before this. Egyptian Islam had undergone some radical transformations in the 1990s, argues Bayat. The Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the radicals whose campaign of violence claimed several thousand lives, laid down their weapons in the late 1990s, traded their former ideology for a peaceful da’wa (proselytizing) and an active engagement in the political process – something, of course, Mubarak expressly refused to grant them. But serious debates were taking place within the Brotherhood too. One result was the breaking off of a new faction, the “Middle Party” (al-Wasat), which advocated national unity in the name of democratic values. And to prove their point, they chose a Coptic Christian as their leader.

This religious transformation could be seen throughout the region. The largest islamist movement in Tunisia, al-Nahda, is back on the political scene after a ban of over two decades. Its founder, Rashid al-Ghannouchi (whose thinking I covered in several published articles) just came back from his exile in the UK. He chose to step down from any official position and give way to younger leadership. In all his interviews, he stresses that his party remains committed, now as then, to multi-party democracy and the respect of human rights in the international sense. Bayat rightly claims that he and other former islamists are now looking to Turkey’s ruling AKP Party as their model. Indeed, Turkey’s ruling islamist party has managed to pass several impressive reforms:

“It has (for example) abolished the death penalty, ended army-dominated security courts, removed curbs on free speech, brought the military budget under civilian control, authorised Kurdish-language broadcasting, and established workable relations with both the west and the rest of the Muslim world. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister and the leader of the AKP, is now one of the most popular leaders in the Muslim-majority middle east.”

To be sure, islamism as a dream is not dead. People of faith everywhere long to see the values found in their sacred texts embodied in the sociopolitical arena. But the facile slogan “Islam is the solution” no longer has the same resonance. As the public square in several mideastern countries has been cleared and swept, the political forces come forth to propose solutions are varied, even among the religious parties.

If anything, the Egyptian army’s outrageous attack on unarmed and peaceful Coptic demonstrators on October 9th reinforces Bayat’s thesis. In spite of the army’s henchmen and Muslim extremists who deliberately tried to stir up sectarian violence, the Egyptian people were not duped. One of the leading liberal activists who launched the February revolution, Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, had this to say the next day: “Cairo yesterday was a part of Syria. This is a threat not just [done] to the Copts, but to all of the people. We saw what would happen if we rose up against the army.”

What was the Muslim Brotherhood’s reaction? In an official statement it was anything but supportive of the Copts (“they chose a bad time to march”). But we know that many charismatic reformists have either left or been expelled from the party over the summer (see the excellent article by Stephen Glain on the “Fault Lines in the Muslim Brotherhood” in a whole issue of The Nation devoted to the Arab Spring). The establishment of an “Islamic state” is still their central platform. But whether they can actually mix politics with their staple offering of teaching and charitable programs in a democratic atmosphere is up for grabs.

I would venture to guess that with all the political wrangling ahead and the ideological cracks within the Muslim Brotherhood, it could well be headed for some major losses in the coming years. Already, many of the most capable and charismatic young cadres have left the movement (or been expelled). With their vision of inclusion and pragmatic alliance with the secular and Christian forces challenging the military’s hold on power, they are eloquent representatives of the post-islamist mindset.

This is an excerpt from Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, found in Ch. 2, "Beyond Modernism: Time, Space and the Self." I believe Muslims and Christians, in order to make their dialog more productive, must take a serious look at the intellectual, economic, social and political context of our contemporary world. Since Muslims live predominantly in poorer countries (Arabian Gulf Arabs are a small minority!), they are naturally more concerned about the disparity of power between rich and poor states, and about how the current "neoliberal" capitalist system on a global scale works to maintain the status quo rather than to empower the weak.

Hence, my book leans on a multi-disciplinary approach that seeks to bring the social sciences and the humanities to bear on how best to understand the challenges ahead of those who want to make the world more just and peaceful. Here I use one of the most quoted authors in the humanities, British geographer and social theorist David Harvey, now Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York CUNY.

Books

  • Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love
    Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love

    This book is now published and available as an ebook. Unfortunately, with the current COVID-19 pandemic, the publisher cannot send out the actual physical books. Read a summary for each of the 6 chapters and buy it on the publisher's page. Here's the abstract, or précis:

     

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  • Earth, Empire and Sacred Text
    Earth, Empire and Sacred Text

    This book seeks to construct a Muslim-Christian theological discourse on creation and humanity, which could help adherents of both faiths work together to preserve our planet, bring justice to its most needy inhabitants and contribute to peacebuilding in areas of conflict. For more information or to purchase (now also in paperback!)

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