There is no one Islam, but many Islams
There is no one Islam, but many Islams
Sunday, March 29,2009 02:38
By Rami G. Khouri

At a gathering of experts in international humanitarian law (IHL) in Geneva this week, much of the focus was on countries and societies where Muslims form a majority of the population. There was also a discussion of terrorism, and how groups that engage in terrorism can be dealt with in relation to IHL. Much of this discussion centered on terror in and from Islamic societies.

This is understandable to a large extent, given the massive media coverage of the terror that has become such a common and disfiguring part of many Muslim-majority societies. It would be the same if a discussion of modern anti-Semitism ended up talking mostly about Christian Europe and Russia; or a discussion of covert operations for regime-change addressed the actions mostly of the United States and Great Britain in the past 50 years; or if a review of settler-colonialism and ethnic cleansing centered largely on modern Israel and Apartheid South Africa.

Some historical concepts are indelibly associated with some parts of the world. The association of terrorism with Islamic societies is a sign of our times. When I was asked to speak on these issues, I suggested that the best way to get an accurate and complete picture of Islamist political trends and the role of terror in Muslim lands was to acknowledge six ways to approach Islam, that help to define it. These sometimes converge, and often do not:

First, Islam as a religion, which has many varieties around the world;

Second, Muslims as individual men and women who seek the comfort of dignified citizenship within stable statehood;

Third, Islamism as a widespread phenomenon of political mobilization and expression that transcends countries and religious movements;

Fourth, nationalist Islamism, that operates with a view to liberating oneself from foreign occupation or to changing a state"s policies;

Fifth, social and community Islamism that sees individuals living their lives and organizing their local communities according to Islamic dictates of justice, modesty, compassion and generosity;

Sixth, Salafist militants and terrorists like Al-Qaeda and smaller groups that have sprung up around the world, that see themselves fighting a global defensive jihad to protect the Islamic umma (community) from foreign domination or internal subversion and corruption.

When I hear people speak about "what"s wrong with Islam" or "Islam and the West", my immediate response is to remind them that there is no such thing as a single "Islam" that can be diagnosed, analyzed or engaged as a monolithic whole. The variety and dynamism of changes in Islamic societies, and in the hearts and minds of individual Muslims, is staggering these days. This is understandable, given the intensity of the degradation that many Muslim-majority societies have suffered in the past half-century of foreign manipulation, domestic mismanagement, and abuse of political power, and local deterioration of social, environmental and economic conditions.

The six different forms of Islamist identity and expression that I suggested above evolve constantly, reflecting changing realities at the local level in most cases. Turkey has become the world"s most impressive democratic, constitutional and largely secular Muslim-majority society, and one of the few where the military and security forces are largely under civilian oversight. Egypt, on the other hand, sees Islamism spread throughout society mostly in the form of the increasing piety of individuals and the activism of groups at the community level - while Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood engage in formal politics, knowing very well that the military-dominated ruling elite will always control policy.

It is noteworthy that the overwhelming majority of Muslims and Islamist groups has rejected the violent strategy of the small Salafist militants such as Al-Qaeda. But it is also worrying that the core grievances of both the militants and the non-violent majority are virtually identical. Salafist militants decide to bomb foreigners and Muslims alike, but most disgruntled Muslims deal with their predicament of imprecise citizenship rights in slightly incoherent and often corrupt countries by trying to lead more pious lives, while challenging the status quo and the power elite as they can.

If we disaggregate Islamic societies or Muslim-majority countries into our six categories of individuals, community, political, transnational and nationalist groups, core religious values, and a handful of extremists, we would appreciate that most Muslims and Islamist groups have responded to their individual and national predicaments with patience, rationality and non-violence.

Most of them - individuals and movements alike - are still trying to express their grievances and articulate the positive values (justice, equality, accountability, rule of law, compassion) that they would like to see define their lives and societies. The handfuls of criminals and anarchists in the Islamic world should not detract from the reasonable aims of the majority any more than anti-Semites, settler-colonialist fascists or criminals should be allowed to define the entirety of Christian Europeans, Israelis, South Africans, or Americans and British.


Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

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