About three years ago, in Birmingham, England, I lectured a large Muslim audience on the topic “The Evidence for God.” My lecture focused on the modern scientific discoveries that support the idea of a fine-tuned universe and an intelligently designed life. The audience consisted mostly of very interested Muslim students.
Yet there was a small, dissatisfied group. During the question-and-answer session, one rose and passionately objected to the conference’s whole idea. “Why are we wastingtime with all this useless philosophical and scientific sophistry?” he demanded. “Shouldn’t we concentrate on establishing the worldwide Islamic state that will save us from all evils?”
Later I learned this angry young man was a member of the radical group Hizb-ut Tahrir, firmly dedicated to establishing a global Islamic state. I am sure he and his comrades saw themselves as pious Muslims. Yet something was terribly wrong with their faith, a defect that left them much more interested in the case against “capitalism” than in the case for God.
This extreme politicization is not peculiar to Hizb-ut Tahrir but a common trait among groups and individuals who advocate Islamic radicalism. They actually seem motivated by hatred of the West, expressed in Islamic terminology. Antoine Sfeir, a French scholar studying Islamic radicalism in Europe, characterizes the movement as “a kind of combat against the rich [and] powerful by the poor men of the planet.”
It is thus not surprising to see former Marxists join the ranks of Islamic radicals — including figures like Carlos the Jackal, who recently penned a book titled “Revolutionary Islam.” This brand of Islam, Carlos argues, “attacks the ruling classes” and stands against “the enslavement of nations.”
This is a deviation from Islam proper. Radicals see Islam as a force to lead “enslaved” nations against “ruling” ones. The Koran, however, presents Islam as a way to lead all humans to God’s path. From a purely Koranic point of view, non-Muslims are potential brothers to whom Islam should be presented “with wisdom and fair admonition … in the kindest way.” (16/125) Moreover, Jews and Christians are already under divine guidance; the Koran calls them People of the Book and orders Muslims to agree with them on the basis of monotheism. (3/64) But from the radical point of view, all non-Muslims, especially Westerners, are dehumanized enemies to be insulted, attacked and murdered.
The big difference between these two perspectives comes from their motives. The starting point of Islam is submission to God, whereas the starting point of Islamic radicalism is rebellion against the West. When people begin from such markedly different premises, even if they refer to the same texts they arrive at very different conclusions.
Islam has produced a magnificent civilization, beautiful mosques, tolerant Sufis and law-abiding citizens; Islamic radicalism produces suicide bombers and coldblooded killers. It is a worldview much closer to Bolshevism than any theism.
Yet isn’t Islamic theism involved, one might ask? Aren’t there any traditional Islamic teachings the radicals use to justify their hatred and violence?
The answer is yes. There are some traditional Islamic teachings that give confidence to a militant perspective. The good news is they can be ameliorated by a critical — yet faithful — evaluation of traditional Islamic sources and a modern exegesis of the Koran.
Here is the catch: The majority of contemporary Muslims rely uncritically on religious schools formulated more than a millennium ago. Those schools’ founders were pious Muslims, but they lived in a medieval world and interpreted the Koran within that milieu. There was then no democracy, pluralism or international rule of law, and their political doctrine assumed a perpetual conflict between “us” and “them” — the “house of Islam” versus the “house of war.”
Yet times have changed. We Muslims don’t ride camels anymore. We drive cars. Similarly, we can’t apply a medieval political doctrine to the 21st century.
There is a modern phenomenon called the open society, in which all Muslims are free to practice and evangelize their faith. We should embrace it and develop intellectual tools that will let us boldly stand for our values while respecting others’. This will not depart from our faith but provide a great service to it.
And as a first step, we Muslims should rid ourselves of animosity toward the West, because it perverts our religion’s very essence. Islam is not about avenging our failures, justifying our hatreds and establishing repressive political systems. It is true it has principles that will guide the political sphere, too; but it does not start there. It starts with faith in God and the moral values He has decreed.
I wish the young militant in Birmingham, along with the radical group he represented, could realize this.