– Islam as a “Vehicle”: Islam Beyond Religion and Ideology.


(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Islam was and is being used as a vehicle – or means – by Arabs in an attempt to achieve their long-awaited rights and other aspirations. The classical Sunni makeup of Shari’ah was not a priority to Islamists. They did not want classical Sunni Shari’ah to return, but claimed to want Shari’a under a modern arrangement.

But how serious were Islamists about wanting Shari’ah? It is difficult for the author to believe they are serious because they have continued to marginalize the religious scholars whose job it is and always was to guide Muslims.

When Islamist demands for justice, freedom, and human rights are examined, their use of religion as a vehicle seems to be a sensible alternative to Arab nationalism, which they earlier lost hope in.

This is not an unrealistic assessment and is not the first time religion or ideology have been used as “vehicles” to express other frustrations, or serve as a rallying cry to unite the masses towards specific goals.

The history of the United States is filled with examples. “Closer to home in the West,” says author and scholar Graham Fuller,

“the entire Black Muslim movement in the US, beginning in the 1930s, reveals the deliberate use of religion to intensify existing social distinctions against the white oppressor.”[[i]]

In the United States,

“in times of war, most mainstream churches and clergy – Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish – are impressed into service to lend religious legitimacy to the national struggle.”[[ii]]

James Byrd, author of Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution, says,

“…the most productive year for preaching in colonial America was 1776. Sermons led the way in applying the Bible to the American Revolution.”[[iii]]

Even “martyrdom,” often attributed literally as part of “Islamic” ideology by militants and their detractors, was celebrated.

“During the American Revolution, references to martyrdom were everywhere.”[[iv]]

This, however, does not mean that the American Revolution was a “religious” or “Christian ideological” effort. Religion was a vehicle for American patriotism and independence from British colonialism and domination.

Likewise, the Arabs used and are using religion as a vehicle to protest subjugation in their countries. And the vehicle is usually not as important as the goal the vehicle is intended to reach.

Indeed, the Palestinians used several vehicles, including religion, to express resistance:

“[A]n Arab nationalist phase, a Marxist-Leninist phase, and, finally, an Islamist phase.”[[v]]

The vehicle of Islam was also used by Saddam Hussein when he modified the Iraqi flag to include, apparently in his own writing, the Islamic “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is Great) in 1991 in an attempt to garner support by religious clerics and Muslims against the US and its allies. His “Islamic” rhetoric and symbols did not make him more of a Muslim, or any less of a secular, socialist Baathist.

Islamists likewise use Islam for modern, political aims, and, in the words of Mohamed Bechri, former President of the Tunisian Section of Amnesty International,

“Islamism is nothing but politics draped in religious garb.”[[vi]]

Yet, Islamophobes appear to blame religion directly without a more sophisticated understanding of the role of religion as a vehicle in the socio-political landscape of the Arab region.

[[i]] Graham E. Fuller. A World Without Islam. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2010.  pp. 256-257.

[[ii]] Ibid., p.269.

[[iii]] James P. Byrd. Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. p.4.

[[iv]] Ibid., p.12.

[[v]] Ibid., p.266.

[[vi]] Mohammed Bechri, “Islamism Without Sharia: The Tunisian Example,” Fikra Forum, May 21, 2012, accessed May 26, 2013, http://fikraforum.org/?p=2260

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