By Andrew L. Urban
In the age of postcolonialism, Muslims have become largely preoccupied with the attempt to remedy a collective feeling of powerlessness and a frustrating sense of political defeat, often by engaging in highly sensationalistic acts of power symbolism. These are not my words, but those of author and academic Khaled Abou El Fadl # who adds, “It is not an exaggeration to say that Islam is now living through its proverbial dark ages.”
El Fadl argues (1) that the normative imperatives and intellectual subtleties of the Islamic moral tradition are not treated with the analytic and critical rigor that the Islamic tradition rightly deserves, but are rendered subservient to political expedience and symbolic displays of power.
“With the deconstruction of the traditional institutions of religious authority emerged organizations such as the Jihad, al-Qa’ida and the Taliban, who were influenced by the resistance paradigms of national liberation and anti-colonialist ideologies, but also who anchored themselves in a religious orientation that is distinctively puritan, supremacist and thoroughly opportunistic in nature.
“This theology is the by-product of the emergence and eventual primacy of a synchronistic orientation that unites Wahhabism and Salafism in modern Islam – what I call “Salafabism.” The consistent characteristic of Salafabism is a supremacist puritanism that compensates for feelings of defeatism, disempowerment, and alienation with a distinct sense of self-righteous arrogance vis-a-vis the nondescript “other” – whether the “other” is the West, non-believers in general, or even Muslim women.”
In other words, the power vacuum left by the failed institutions of Islam’s religious authority has been filled by the extremists. This is not new in human affairs, witness post-Soviet Russia and post-Saddam Iraq. But this is the first time we are experiencing it through the prism of a major religion. One of the most important elements that differentiate Islamic extremists is the mind set of the suicide bomber or Jihadist who is ready to die.
Instead of Islam being a moral vision given to humanity, says El Fadl, “it becomes constructed into the antithesis of the West. In the world constructed by puritan modes of thinking and their groups, there is no Islam; there is only opposition to the West. This type of Islam, which the puritan orientation offers, is akin to a perpetual state of emergency where expedience trumps principal and illegitimate means are consistently justified by invoking higher ends.”
Invoking higher ends is where these groups come into direct conflict with the higher ends invoked by democracy. Of course democracy is not a religion, but it stands for certain values which are at odds with the methods as well as the ends pursued by the violent groups to which El Fadl refers.
It has always seemed surprisingly hypocritical of Jihadists to loudly denounce the Western world’s morals while chopping off our heads with blades. Surprising because of its brazen and evident self-contradiction. Can this be put down to moral selectivity? No. The bitter truth is that the enraged Jihadists see no moral conflict here: the West must die is a valid, just and holy call to arms. Bare flesh on the beaches and visible female hair is blasphemy, worthy of the death sentence.
It’s pointless to approach these conflicting moral positions with a rational mindset. It’s equally pointless to approach it from a religious angle, contrasting the Christian God and his call for forgiveness and love, with the Islam being perpetrated in which the god of Islam is an ever-angry, revenge-seeking, blood-thirsty General.
As El Fadl reminds us (see the opening sentence of this article), it was colonialism that began the decline of religious authority and eventually led to Islam ‘going rogue’.
“Colonialism formally dismantled the traditional institutions of civil society, and Muslims witnessed the emergence of highly centralized, despotic and often corrupt governments that nationalized the institutions of religious learning and brought the awqaf under state control. This contributed to the undermining of the mediating role of jurists in Muslim societies.
“The traditional institutions that once sustained the juristic discourse have all but vanished. Furthermore, the normative categories and moral foundations that once mapped out Islamic law and theology have disintegrated, leaving an unsettling epistemological vacuum.
“There is a profound vacuum in religious authority, where it is not clear who speaks for the religion and how.”
And like everyone else who approaches this subject – from any perspective – El Fadl does not propose a scenario of how Islam will recover its genuine voice and structure of authority that will return its legitimacy to enable it to co-exist with the West and democracy. What he does say, is that “Muslims have no choice but to reengage morality in order to generate an effective social rebirth.”
# Khaled Abou El Fadl is the Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law where he teaches International Human Rights, Islamic Jurisprudence, National Security Law and Political Crimes and Legal Systems.
(1) Injustice in God’s name: The corruption of modern Islam, ABC Religion and Ethics, Sept. 24, 2012