Why Obama and most liberals fundamentally misunderstand Islam and ISIS
This essay will cover the following points:
1. Islam and Enlightenment: Inherent Conflict
2. Islam and the World: Shared Values
3. A Review of Muslim-Majority nations and their Political-Social Center-points
4. Selected Infographics
A Brief Introduction
The issue of terrorism and ISIS, a terrorist state, and their relationship to Islam is a fraught subject that walks through the minefields of bigotry and xenophobia on one side, and self-destructive ineptitude and delusion on the other. Anyone who walks this field will step on mines and antagonize people. I write this article to inspire discussion and a fuller understanding of the issues. Therefore, I welcome your amplifications and expansions of my topics and points, and your critiques. However, I am only interested in data-driven analysis. This article attempts to compile verifiable and reliable data. Too many of these discussions, including Obama's speech of 12/6/15, are nothing but fluff, emotion, and sermonizing, urging us to either play-nice with our friends (liberals) or punish those bad guys (conservatives).
This article first outlines three pillars of Islam that are in conflict with the Enlightenment, pillars that both Muslim and non-Muslim sources agree are foundational. Then I look at some shared values that will tend to ameliorate conflict, and which may eventually lead towards greater understanding and respect. Finally, I look at a wide range of Muslim-majority countries to assess the current state of Islamic ideology as reflected in political and social values.
A note on terminology:
First, I use the acronym ISIS, although ISIL is a valid alternative. Second, I talk about Islamist thought, Islamism, and Islamic fascism. They are all the same thing to me. Some may object to my use of "fascism," as this term is generally used to describe non-religious dictatorships and ideologies. However, Islam, unlike other major religious ideologies, is very forthright in integrating the political into the religious sphere. Therefore, I believe "Islamic fascism" can stand as a term that means "repressive, intolerant, fundamentalist Islamic ideologies applied to politics and social organization." I am NOT making the argument that Islamic governments are inherently fascist. Far from it. Islam has many faces, but like any political entity, it can incline to fascism. In this era, that inclination has become common, and therefore, many people, lacking historical perspective, imagine Islamic fascism to be normative.
1. Islam and Enlightenment: Inherent Conflict
When I say "Enlightenment" I am referring to the ideas of democracy, universal equality of individuals, and the endorsement of multi-cultural values without favoritism towards a specific ethnicity. As is only too obvious, these principles are incompletely realized even in the most "enlightened" communities and societies.
The Enlightenment, as it emerged in C18, posed a direct challenge to Christianity, Judaism, and Western monarchies, and led to a long history of violence and vitriol. While the West continues to struggle to implement full and well-functioning versions of enlightenment-inspired governments and social institutions, most regions of Islam are only now, for the first time, facing the confrontation with these principles. As we look across the Islamic world we can see it begin to struggle with the Enlightenment just as Christianity, Judaism, and Western monarchies did over the period 1792-1945.
Consider this excerpt from the Middle East Values Survey of 2013:
In the second half of the twentieth century, a dominant trend among the indigenous intellectual leaders portrayed an image of the West that was militarily aggressive, economically exploitative, and culturally decadent. They forewarned their audience against Western cultural invasion and conspiracies against Muslims. Such perceptions have gained considerable traction in the seven countries [in this study], as 85% of Egyptians, 80% of Iraqis, 64% of Lebanese, 30% of Pakistanis, 83% of Saudis, 54% of Tunisians, and 83% of Turks consider Western cultural invasion to be a very important or important problem. More liberal countries like Lebanon and Tunisia tend to be less concerned with Western culture.
This is why I don't see ISIS as a reaction to American policy in Iraq, western economic interests in the Middle East, and/or British and French colonialism. Its roots are much deeper and reflect the massive turmoil generated by Enlightenment principles in conflict with deeply entrenched and calcified medieval Islamic ideologies and models of government based on Islam. While ISIS is also a product of long standing internal Islamic conflicts, dysfunctional economies, and the power vacuums created by the meltdown or dismantling of inveterately dysfunctional governments, these problems simply add complexity to the underlying trajectory that has brought us worldwide terrorism, numerous implementations of Islamic fascism, and ISIS. That underlying trajectory is a product of the clash of Islam with the Enlightenment.
This conflict centers around three anti-Enlightenment pillars in Islam. Those pillars are:
1. Dar al Islam and Dar al Harb
Any understanding of Islam and its trajectories in world politics, including ISIS, requires a careful appraisal of these three pillars. When I say "pillars of Islam" I am referring to concepts that are embraced by the vast majority of religious Muslims in the world today. They are as essential to defining Islam as Messiah and Trinity are to Christianity.
Dar al Islam means "region of peace." Dar al Harb means "region of war." While there can be allegorical and metaphorical interpretations of these terms by liberal and mystical-minded Muslims, in main-stream Islam the terms are understood in a very literal sense. Dar al Islam is the place where Islam predominates. The rest of the world is the Dar al Harb, the region of war, were Islam does not yet predominate. [To verify this for yourself, you might begin at en.islamway.net, Dar Al-Islam And Dar Al-Harb: Its Definition and Significance.]
This is classic, medieval supersessionist thinking, identical to Christian supersessionism. It is the belief that Islam is the only true and correct understanding of God, and that Islam will, and must, prevail over all other religions. This view directly conflicts with the Enlightenment ideas of free-choice and religious relativity. [See the infographics at the end of this article, especially the two about tolerance for teaching other religions to children and tolerance for criticizing religious leaders.]
Jihad is probably the only one of the three pillars that is widely known outside of Islam. Like Dar al Islam, it can be interpreted as an allegorical or spiritual striving with self or with evil tendencies, but most Muslims in Muslim-majority countries understand this term literally. [Quoting from Wikipedia's article on Jihad: According to orientalist Bernard Lewis, "the overwhelming majority of classical theologians, jurists", and specialists in the hadith "understood the obligation of jihad in a military sense." Javed Ahmad Ghamidi states that there is consensus among Islamic scholars that the concept of jihad will always include armed struggle against wrong doers.] Jihad is the means whereby Dar al Islam will conquer Dar al Harb. Jihad elevates conflict and war to a holy obligation, to be pursued whenever it is politically and militarily feasible and expedient. It is the basis of Islam's "golden age of expansion" from 630-750 CE. You can see a map of this expansion here: Islam's Expansion.
Jihad is, ironically, the foundational principle of Islamic colonialism. I find it odd and hypocritical to hear and read rants by Muslims against Western colonialism, including Said's Orientalism, when, in reality, Islam has been a colonialist ideology from its origins. The principle of jihad, sadly, is a guarantee that conflict between Islam and the rest of the world will persist into any foreseeable future.
Finally, dhimma is the formal legal implementation of Islamic supersessionism over all non-Muslim peoples in the Dar al Islam. It is, quite literally, Islamic apartheid. While many Muslim scholars try to sugar-coat the dhimma, saying it established "protections" for non-Muslims under Sharia law, we have to ask, why would non-Muslims need to be protected, and from whom? Dhimmis who emerge from dhimmatude have a very different story to tell. From the horror stories of the Yazidis escaping ISIS, to the imprisonment of the founder of Bahai by the Ottomans, to personal and social histories of Jews and Christians who lived in Arab lands [see, for example, Dhimmis and Others: Jews and Christians and the World of Classical Islam, edited by Uri Rubin and David Wasserstein], dhimmatude as seen by its victims, its dhimmis, is oppressive and hateful.
Aspects of the dhimma are integrated into the law in many Muslim countries. They include such laws as: 1. the death penalty for any Muslim who converts, or who espouses atheism, and 2. strict controls, limits, or outright prohibitions on building or repairing churches, synagogues, and other non-Muslim religious buildings. The implementation of the dhimma by ISIS is but a more extreme version of these laws. Indeed, the onerous taxes, beheadings, and massacres by ISIS fit squarely into the long and troubled history of the dhimma in Islam.
A Few Sources:
'The Dhimma's Return', by Mark Durie (excerpted from his book, The Third Choice): http://www.newenglishreview.org/Mark_Durie/The_Dhimma's_Return/,
Bat Ye'or's The Dhimmi, V.S. Naipaul's Among the Believers, or search the internet on such terms as "dhimma" or "Islam and Copts/Yazidis/Bahai/Jews/Hindus/etc"
2. Islam and the World: Shared Values
While there is substantial reason to be pessimistic, Islam shares many core values with all the other major world religions and cultures. Muslim holy texts, beginning with the Koran, provide many and consistent endorsements for the Biblical Prophets, for Kings David and Solomon, for Jesus, and for many Jewish and Christian holy texts. Further, the ethical foundations of Islam are virtually identical with every other world religion. The primacy of compassion, hospitality, generosity, and peace provide a viable counter-weight to jihad and dhimma.
Just as Judaism and Christianity struggled with, and are still developing a common ground with Enlightenment principles [indeed, just today, 12/10/2015 a Vatican commission issued a new document declaring that Catholics should not try to convert Jews] , so we can expect, over the course of the coming 100-200 years, that Islam will find solid common ground with Enlightenment principles, and thus develop compatibility with multi-cultural values. But this will be a slow and non-linear process, just as it has been in the West.
3. A Review of Muslim-Majority nations and their Political-Social Center-points
The following terse comments are based on research using the following sources.
World Values Survey
Religion, Society, and Politics in the Middle East, by Robert Lee and Lihi Ben Shitrit
Middle Eastern Values Study: A Comparative Assessment of Egyptian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Pakistani, Saudi, Tunisian, and Turkish Publics
Pew Research Center: The World's Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society
Pew Research Center: Chapter 1 (of above study): Beliefs About Sharia
A monarchy. Among the most moderate countries on this list, but that belies the general tenor of society. The ruling party of the country, the PJD is a moderate Islamist party, and the prime minister is an Islamist. In other words, the general population is deeply conservative.
Wracked by a civil war through the 1990's between Islamists and a military dictatorship, a war that cost 150,000 lives, recent years have seen much less violence, but Islamism is still strong in this very conservative nation.
Considered the most moderate Middle Eastern Islamic country, it started the "Arab Spring" and remains the only democratic survivor of that movement that was about as successful as the French Revolution. Even still, as of March, 2015, according to Hassan Mneimneh of the Middle East Institute: From Yemen to Syria, Afghanistan to Tunisia, the Islamist civil war is global. Three main protagonists are engaged in it in Tunisia, with distinctly different approaches on method and increasingly divergent views on the end goal.
Shattered by an Arab Spring turned self-destructive, the country is a hotbed of Islamism and fundamentalist thinking.
The Sisi coup overthrew an elected government overwhelmingly represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, if you don't remember, is the father of modern Islamism and its many incarnations. ISIS and its like are now very active in the Sinai, and regularly orchestrate terrorist outbursts around this very conservative country. The Copts, an ancient Christian sect, are constantly under dhimmatude pressures.
Boko Haram, an ISIS affiliate, has waged war in Northern Nigeria for 10 years. 17,000 dead and 2 million homeless, as this group attempts to subjugate non-Muslim Nigeria, while ruthlessly controlling the Muslim "region of peace".
54% Muslim (half Sunni, half Shia) and 40% Christian, this country is divided along many fault lines, all active. The government has been usurped by Hezbollah, an extremist puppet of Iran, which runs its own government and army within the country. As the BBC reports (Five missing Czechs found in Lebanon, 2/1/2016), “Some areas of the Bekaa Valley, east of the capital Beirut, are notorious for lawlessness and drug trafficking.” Lebanon is also a Palestinian hotbed, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are confined to squalid, lawless refugee camps and denied citizenship. Don't look for moderation here any time soon.
Like Morocco, moderate on the surface, but with a seething fundamentalist undercurrent that probably represents 50% of the population. The Palestinian majority is disenfranchised by the Hashemite monarchy.
Multiple ethnicities and Muslim sects had been ruthlessly ruled by a small Alewite minority for decades. That control continues to crumble after 5 years of civil war, now driven by a host of competing Islamist militias. Perhaps exhaustion, but not moderation will follow in the wake of this disastrous conflict in which hundreds of thousands have died.
Ruled by the Saudi family which follows an extremist version of Islam, Wahhabism, there may be dreams of moderation here, but the prevailing ideology is not very different from ISIS.
Once the paragon of a Muslim secular nation, the country took a sharp right turn in 2002, electing the AKP, an Islamist party that has slowly implemented a deeply conservative, anti-Western agenda. Traveling through Anatolia in 1977 I was stunned by the degree of conservatism that prevailed outside of the 3 main cities. I recorded those thoughts in a short story, 'A Pilgrimmage (sic) to Mecca', which I renamed 'A Pilgrimmage to Jerusalem' so as not to offend Muslim sensibilities. That conservatism has only expanded its hold since them. The country has harshly suppressed a Kurdish separatist movement and insurgency, at the cost of over 40,000 deaths, 4000 destroyed villages, and a half a million to a million Kurds forcibly evacuated. Outside of Istanbul and Ankara, don't look for moderation here.
I don't need to tell you about this disaster and the extremism that prevails through innumerable religious, ethnic, and social fault lines. Genocide and ethnic cleansing leave a deeply scarred society.
Self-proclaimed leader of the rise of fundamentalist Islam since the revolution in 1977, this country has promoted anti-Western, anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist hatred and violence as a core organizing principle of its ideology. A secular, democratic undercurrent has been harshly suppressed, but Western optimists continue to hope for a successful counter-revolution. I share that hope without optimism.
Extremist to the bone. Period. And it has been like that for hundreds of years.
Quickly rejecting a secular path after its establishment in 1947, Pakistan has progressively implemented the dhimma. Christians and other minority faiths and sects live in danger, having suffered numerous pogroms and suicide bombings. Blasphemy laws are commonly used to oppress the Christian minority along with liberal Muslims. Now, like Afghanistan, large tracts of this country are outside any central rule, and are governed by local Islamist warlords.
Aspires towards moderation.
The most populous Muslim country in the world, it is a working, pluralist democracy. "Most Indonesian Muslims are probably conservative in their beliefs and practices, but don't think they need to vote for a Muslim party or politician to live in the society they prefer," said R William Liddle, a political science professor at Ohio State University, who studies Indonesia. (Al Jazeera, 12 May, 2014)
A Few More Sources:
World Almanac of Islamism:
Institute for Social Policy and Understanding: The Moroccan Path to Islamism,
http://www.ispu.org/pdfs/ISPU_Brief_MorPath-4.pdfThe Middle East Institute:
MEMRI, The Middle East Media Research Institute:
Al Monitor, the pulse of the Middle East
4. Selected Infographics:
Estimates of Islamist activity:
Wife Must Obey Husband - Percentage that Disagree
Preferences for Women's Dress:
Don't Teach Children Other Religions:
Don't Criticize Religious Leaders:
Don't Allow Criticism of Islam: