Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Political Islam

Moslems not Islam behind political turmoil:
Lecture at PBCC/Lake Worth, FL December 12, 2006

As a Christian Arab, I do not feel well qualified to interpret political Islam. But I do it because there is a growing need for interfaith civility. I observe that too many Americans are falling victims to mass media disinformation about Islam.

Has televangelism invaded the secular media in America? First I worried about the radio and TV of the conservative Evangelicals. Then I worried about Channel Fox. Now I worry about a CNN’s popular evening program that claims to alert society to the alleged danger of living with fellow Arab and Moslem Americans. Increasingly Arab conservative Christians are set up by overpowering anchor men to act as TV experts on Islam using alarmist theology and simplistic politics to explain the Middle East. Perhaps the largest American industry today is the manufacture of 9/11anxiety.

Any time I lecture about the Middle East the audience tends to ask questions about Islam and violence. I inevitably have to explain that Islam does not produce Moslem behavior. I add that socio political conditions in which Moslems live produce this behavior. I would also claim that the same is true for Christians, Jews and for adherents of other religions.

To illustrate I would explain that Moslems in Spain lived in harmony with Christians and Jews for seven centuries. I refer to a wonderful book written by a Yale professor, Maria Rosa Menocal, titled The Ornament of the World. I would refer to liberal ecumenical religion scholars such, as Karen Armstrong, to show that interpretation of the scripture is more important than the text itself. I would point to the existence of fundamentalism in all three monotheistic communities and cite examples of terror in non Abrahamic religions.

I would try to show that moderate and conservative Moslems are in sharp conflict about Islam just as Christians are in conflict over Christianity in American society. In the US God is now highly politicized. Americans are split about the theology of human sexuality and foreign relations and Arabs are split on the theology of politics and democracy building.

I would take a historical approach and show how Christianity had taken eighteen centuries to terminate wars of religion, albeit not totally. I would point to Ireland where Catholics and Protestants did not fight for God, but for power and opportunity.

I would add that it is political leaders who opportunistically assume religious roles in order to mobilize people with symbols of religion. I would recall my experience when I spoke in Northern Island about the civil war in Lebanon to an international conference of reconciliation. The local Irish audience expressed so much affinity with my interpretation of religion and politics. It is in Ireland where the expression “religion is often a badge to identify the enemy” was coined.

Islam, Christianity and Judaism meet as sister religions around the personage of Jesus. While all Moslems venerate Jesus and his mother Mary ( Mariam in Arabic) most Jews would also respect Jesus as a Jewish reformer.

In reality there is no generic form of Islam, a world of over a billion people. There are immense variations in the practice of Islam and in its interpretation. There are Shiites and Sunnis. There are moderate Moslems and fundamentalists and tolerance waxes and wanes at different cycles of history. There are the moderate Sufis of the Middle Ages and the modernist Ibadis of today’s Oman in South East Arabia. There are secular Moslems, and in contrast, there are Moslems who confuse secularism with atheism.

In the past most Moslems lived the faith of the oral and moderate tradition. This form of existential Islam is more open for social change. Many people learn their faith at the dining table or through conversations with their grandmothers. But there are those who live literally by the book and those who do not even read the Koran or frequent the mosque.
Today the written scripture has become too important in shaping Islam and Christianity.

Islam has five basic pillars: witness to Muhammad as the last messenger of God, daily prayer, doing charity, fasting a month a year and visiting the Ka’ba in Mecca, the place of origin of the faith. Leaving the two tenants of the pilgrimage and the orientation to Muhammad, the remaining three pillars, prayer to one God, charity and fasting are also fundamentals in Christianity and Judaism.

There is much flexibility in practice of worship. Most Moslems do not visit Mecca but they do not disqualify as Muslims when they can not afford international travel. God is Supreme; he has no partners. Muhammad is a messenger of God but he is not divine. Moslems can not understand why Christians conceive of the divine in three dimensions. This complication in Christian theology for Moslems is what they consider Ishrak, a sort of confusion that diminishes divinity.

God is always present in the mind of Moslems. Whenever one mentions God one says subhanahu wa ta’ala, praise be upon him. When you mention Muhammad you say salla lah alayhi wa sallam. When you start your day, begin a journey, embark on a challenging task you call upon his name: bism illah. The expression “praise the Lord” for Christians and “bism illah” are equivalent.

Perhaps Islam and Christianity are best differentiated around the construct of the Divine, God vs. Allah. Islam is Unitarian and Christianity is Trinitarian. Moslems have a sharp distinction between the Divine and the human; the relation between the two domains is the Koran, the received holy word. Daily Moslems pray that there is only one God: in Arabic, la ilaha illa llah. Every Moslem hears this verse several times a day in a chant from the minaret. The result is comforting; it is mesmerizing.

There are so many features in theology and worship that are common among the three sister religions. The three faiths are challenged to abide by the Ten Commandments. When in late November, Pope Benedict XVI prayed with Turkish Imams in a local mosque he demonstrated that the two religions are in contact with the same divine source. For all “three” life is sacred. For all, killing one innocent person is a crime against all humanity.

Today, not all are active in interpretation of the scripture. In modern times Christians and Jews tend to live in political climates that allow believers to reinterpret inconsistencies in their scriptures. The growing human rights revolution may have served the believers to think through their beliefs along universal values.

In contrast, interpreting the Holy Koran today is not very free politically. Moreover, the Koran for many Moslems is eternal like Jesus is for strict Christians. One can not easily change these foundational dogma features either in Christianity or in Islam.

Christians have taken centuries to soften the meaning of the concept of “son-of-God” through use of analogy in relating Christ to God. Moslems have so far been too slow in evolving dogma and adapting it to challenging societal conditions.

Moslems today live in politically restraining, educationally limiting and economically disadvantaged countries. But from their angle, many Moslems are not eager to emulate Western Christians whom they consider to be non spiritual and imperial.

Religion plays an integrative as well as a disruptive role in society. Perhaps, the dominant side of religious life can be positive. Think with me. In societies where the state is unable to deliver basic human services to people religion may play a major role in facilitating social order. Without religion people in the third world would go out of control and revolt.

And poor people do rebel, but not enough, considering the magnitude of human suffering in most regions of the world. No wonder Marx cynically opined that religion is the opiate of the masses. But on the whole the comforting and integrating function of religion is not dulling to the intellect.

Religion and social traditions can provide good will among people in the worst of conditions of living. Today you can walk at night in the congested streets of Cairo or New Delhi without being afraid of being mugged.

But often collective religious sentiments can lead to societal rupture. Religious mobilization is increasingly becoming a political tool to organize communities desiring societal change.
The majority of Moslems live in societies of economic contrast, autocracy and foreign intervention. In such conditions, the modern state is absent; loyalty to the government has eroded. In fact it has never been strong. The state tends to control its population with force, not with a social contract.

In many Moslem countries people tend to see their government as an enemy. In a society that is weak in civil structures, such as unions, political parties and social agencies the mosque becomes the organizer par excellence. If nationhood is weak, if ideology is thin, how does one get people to unite across family and tribal loyalties? Politicized religious indoctrination provides societal glue to face a national threat; too often that threat is an oppressive political regime and/or its foreign allies.

Poverty, tribalism and autocracy alone do not explain resurgence of political Islam. In the Arab world Muslim politics has gained strength in recent times. Failure of Arab identity to dominate Arab political organization is not easy to explain. Arabs have always been ambiguous about whether they are Muslim first or Arabic first. In times where Arab identity and nationhood were strong, during the fourties through the seventies, political Islam was controlled. Since the 1980’s the cultural identity of Arabia has been declining is favor of Muslim identity. The creation of a Jewish State in the late forties in the heart of Arab land, increased manipulation of the Christian west in the region and the organizational failure of the local secular party system may partially explain the waning of secular politics in the Arab world.

In Moslem countries where the state has managed to create a relatively decent relation with its citizens political Islam is either moderate or weak. Turkey is an example of a Moslem country where the State is respected by the people. In Turkey, there is active civil society, poverty is not obscene and the army is vigilant and sensitive to people’s symbols. Malaysia, Tunis, Jordan, Bahrain, Mali, Senegal, Indonesia and Morocco are other examples where political Islam is moderate and where political violence is limited. India, a democracy of one billion people, has a large Moslem population that is peaceful.

The future of political Islam is not easy to predict. There are no easy fixes for governance of third world countries. Moslems will continue to experiment with various ways to improve their societies. So far, for political reform religion has been the most familiar but not necessarily the most creative avenue of positive social and political reform.


The author’s blog is aldkkani.blogpsot.com. His email is grubeiz@adelphia.net.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Ghassan,

Thank you for doing your best in giving a stratified-layered understanding to something that is often given only passing soundbites (often portraying Muslims only in a negative light) in the American media.

Thank you for sharing a viewpoint that comprises the majority of Christian Arabs but is intentionally by-passed for a more inciteful and demagoguery right-wing pundits openly hostile to Islam and Muslims.

Your easy-to-digest explanation of the phenomenon of politics and religion in Muslim countries and the basic tenets of Islam is very refreshing.

I would like to read more of this... :)

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