[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
A few weeks ago, I ran into a quote from Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian Muslim scholar and Al-Jazeera televangelist, in Turkey’s controversial Islamist daily, Vakit. “Victory,” the 80-year-old cleric was saying, “is only possible by returning to Islam.” The “victory” he was referring to was the one Muslims would have won against Israel. “The defeat of the Jewish State is possible,” he reportedly declared in a sermon in Qatar, “only when Muslims fully return to the pure teaching of Islam.”
This is a rhetoric which is common to almost all Islamist leaders and movements. They all point to the troubles of the Muslim world and argue, “Islam is the solution.” By saying so, what they unconsciously do is to offer Islam as a means to worldly success. And, again probably unconsciously, they strikingly differ from the traditional meaning of Islam, which has been understood as, first and foremost, a path to heavenly salvation.
A Recipe For Totalitarianism
It is true that the Koran tells Muslims to ask God, “Lord, grant us good in this world and good in the hereafter.” So a Muslim believer can hope that faith will bless himself and his community in this world as well. But this is very different from saying that when Islam is practiced in full, Muslim nations will triumph. In the former view, what is sought is God’s blessing. In the latter view, Islam is formulated as a “system” which can be implemented in order to achieve political or military might. It is brought down to the earth and turned into an ideology.
In other words, while the goal of Islamism is “victory,” the goal of Islam is the consent of God. And that’s why the Islamists are in fact secularizers who disenchant religion from the divine.
The late professor Cantwell Smith had observed this curious trade-off between God and politics in his study of the evolution of the Egyptian Journal Al-Azhar from 1930 to 1948. From 1930 to 1933, the journal was edited by Al-Khidr Husain, a traditionalist Muslim, and its pages were full of moral instructions and theological contemplations. The beauty of nature, for example, was expressed in detail and praised as God’s creation.
In 1933, Farid Wajdi took over the magazine, and the content became increasingly political. Wajdi’s main goal was to assure his readers that Islam was “all right” as a system. According to Smith, a “profound irreligiousness” pervade[d] Wajdi’s journal, and “God appear[ed] remarkably seldom throughout [its] pages.”
British historian Karen Armstrong, one of the world’s most prominent writers on religion, grasps this problem clearly in her book, “A History of God.” “The political activism which characterizes modern fundamentalism,” she notes, “is in retreat from God.”
You can see this all around the Muslim world. If you talk to the more traditional pious Muslims, you will hear about the importance of following God’s commandments, praising Him for your daily bread, or raising your children with good morals. If you speak to an Islamist, though, you will listen to how evil and corrupt “western civilization” is, and how Islam will save the world from capitalists, “imperialists” or the Zionists. (It must be no accident that while traditional Muslims see Marxism-Leninism as a godless and evil idea, the Islamists often find it rather interesting and inspiring.)
All this explains why Islamism is a recipe for totalitarianism. If you think that your society will be all right if everyone acts according to Islam, then you can very well force them to be pious in order to achieve this collective success. If you perceive Islam as a “system,” like socialism, you can use state power in order to make every citizen conform to its standards. Hence you can employ religious police in order to force women to veil themselves, or oblige men to go to the mosque.
But if you were caring not about the “system,” but rather simply about the salvation of these people, you would be more interested in how they feel about what you do. The Koran boldly declares, “There is no compulsion in religion,” and it is absurd to think otherwise. You simply can’t make people more Godly by threatening them. You will actually make them hate the religion that you are trying to impose.
What Went Wrong
We can continue to blame the Islamists for what they have done, but we should also understand how they came to be. Most scholars who have studied Islamism note that this is a modern ideology, which started to grow in the 19th century and had its peak in the 20th. And what characterizes this period is the colossal crisis of Islam. The Muslim world was defeated by the West militarily, politically and culturally. And Muslims started to debate why all this came to be.
To the question, “What went wrong,” two totally opposite groups gave a rather similar answer: They both argued that religion was the key. Islamists said, “We have been defeated by the West because we abandoned our religion, so we need to restore it.” The secularists said, “We have been defeated by the West because we have been blinded by our religion, so we have to get rid of it.”
And, not too surprisingly, both of these ideological groups established authoritarian regimes. (See Iran and Turkey, respectively.)
The third answer – that I would also subscribe to – was that the Islamic world was defeated due to a complex historical process, which kept it away from modernization, and which had little to do with religion. So, the solution would be neither forced Islamization nor forced secularization. It was modernization through the incorporation of education, science, technology, capitalism and democracy.
Islamism will lose its steam only if this third way proves to be successful. And, luckily enough, it has been doing pretty well in Turkey in the past few decades. But, unfortunately, the secularo-fascists here are just too rigid to allow that to happen. If they succeed in their efforts to crush Turkey’s Islam-friendly modernization, it will be the Islamists who will gain from that. And the doomed rivalry between the two totalitarianisms – the Islamist and the secularist – will be enhanced.