Category Archives: Political Ideology

– 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

– Islamism and Classical Sunni Islam: Are They the Same?

 

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

This section explains how specific aspects of classical Islam have been altered by Islamist movements. Islamism is primarily a product of modernity, and not of classical Islam, which partially explains the similarities between Islamist movements and twentieth century European ideologies. While authors are quick to point to similarities between them, they seem less convinced of the modernity-Islamism connection. They somehow lend more credibility to the classical Sunni Islam-and-Islamism connection, which is incorrect.

Without modernity there would be no Islamism. Author and scholar, Bruce Lawrence, says,

“Without modernity there are no fundamentalists, just as there are no modernists. The identity of fundamentalism, both as a psychological mindset and a as a historical movement, is shaped by the modern world.”[[i]]

Ghazi ibn Muhammad says,

“The rise of secularism has paradoxically contributed, by way of militant and ignorant reaction, to the rise of fundamentalism.”[[ii]]

How did modern Islamists arise? Key factors led to the rise of Islamists include the altering of the religious scholar-and-caliph arrangement that had existed for over 1,000 years in classical Sunni tradition; the weakening of the Ottoman Empire and desires for independence and autonomy by the Arabs; European colonial and imperial subjugation of the masses and its associated effects; imposition of rulers on the ‘independent’ Arab peoples by colonialists; domestic factors (tyrants, corruption, etc.); and US foreign policy.

Sovereign states originated in early modern Europe and were later adopted by Muslim countries following decolonization. Like other postcolonial societies, “Muslim” state elites also attempted to instill nationalism among their populations, which was often a mix of ethnic and religious identities.[[iii]]

In the modern milieu, Islamists opposed colonial subjugation while imitating their methods. While demonstrating their opposition, Islamists accepted the new political unit of the nation-state. They did not denounce democracy but eventually advocated it. They participated in elections, while certain Islamist groups were forbidden to participate until recently.

In spite of their seeming rigidity, Islamists’ statements resemble the words of liberation and human rights groups, including inter alia their claimed support for women rights. Moreover, their attire is usually Western and they are willing to cooperate and collaborate with non-Muslim governments to promote themselves. Aid from the US and other countries, for example, supports this view, as well as their position on maintaining peace agreements with Israel.

Islamists do not adhere to Islamic tradition, but rather reformulate their understanding of the Qur’an and Sunnah to justify their current efforts and forms of government rooted in modernity. Islamists, unlike the Muslim majority in the age of classical and contemporary Islam, have not propagated any of the four Sunni schools of law (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali).

Rather, Islamists have prioritized politics over religion. Making religion subservient to politics is a priority that contradicts the views of the Muslim majority, and contradicts classical Sunni tradition. The sections below explain the matter in more detail.

For more than 1,000 years, classical Sunni Islam demonstrated a general separation of religion and state. Religious scholars guided the masses and served to keep the caliph in check, while the caliph was responsible for political and administrative functions, and ensuring the security of the territory. In other words, religion took precedence over politics. Islamists reversed classical Sunni priorities. To them, politics takes precedence over religion.

The upsetting of the religious scholar-and-ruler arrangement due to various internal and external factors occurred in the second half of the 1800s, which had profound and unprecedented effects on the political and religious landscapes. In particular, the Ottoman reform to codify the Shari’ah

“sought to transform Shariah from a body of doctrines and principles to be discovered by the human efforts of the scholars into a set of rules that could be looked up in a book.”[[iv]]

The codified law replaced the religious scholars and, according to Harvard scholar, Noah Feldman,

“took from the scholars their all-important claim to have the final say over the content of the law” and “transferred that power to the state.”[[v]]

While in the classical arrangement religious scholars generally had full religious authority, codification of the law took their long-held authority away, and restricted them to “family-law matters.”

The creation of a legislature in 1876 by the Ottoman Constitution – the “first democratic institution in the Muslim world” – that could have replaced the scholars as the “institutional balance to the executive,” was soon suspended (as was the Constitution later) by Sultan Abdulhamid II. With no scholars or legislature to keep the executive in check, “the sultan found himself in the position of near-absolute ruler,” which “set the pattern for government in the Muslim world after the Ottoman empire fell.” This paved the way for “dictatorship and other forms of executive dominance – the state of affairs confronted by the Islamists who seek to restore Shariah”[[vi]] (italics added).

However, seeking to restore the Shari’ah did not mean bringing the religious scholars back. Had Islamists wished to restore the classical Sunni arrangement, they would have done so, but did not. Religious scholars were marginalized or became coopted by governments, thus becoming “government scholars,” and, to a high degree, mouthpieces of the governments they worked in.

The long-held role of religious scholars throughout classical Sunni tradition changed profoundly. They were no longer as powerful as they had been, and no longer in charge of Shari’ah. The call for Shari’ah without religious scholars by Islamists took effect – an arrangement completely alien to classical Sunni tradition. The classical Sunni fabric of Shari’ah was altered.

The geo-political situation of the time brought major changes to traditional Sunni society. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed and World War-I ended, the Muslim world was under European imperial control, which brought further changes to the traditional makeup of Arab-Islamic society. In the words of Graham Fuller,

“Imperial rule quickly distorted the natural development of the Muslim world, dismantling traditional structures of leadership and governance, destroying traditional institutions, and upsetting cultural patterns, while failing to encourage organic development of native alternatives. Imperialism represented the wholesale export of foreign cultural instruments and structures to be imposed upon the East.”[[vii]]

Under the yoke of European colonialism and their puppet regimes, Arab populations continued to be controlled. Ethnic nationalism was at its peak in the Arab world under Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s as a reaction and resistance to European neo-imperialism.

When Arab nationalism was seen as a failing effort, especially after the Arab defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, “Islamic identity” replaced Arab nationalism from the 1970s onward. Ethnicity and religion, the two most common characteristics of the Arabs, were therefore used by Arabs as means to attain freedom and human rights.

In the view of the author, the shift from nationalistic to “Islamic” slogans did not represent a shift to a more religious, ideological society. Rather, religion was used as a means to achieve the same aims. That is why Islamist movements are better described as political rather than religious. Had religion been the primary interest of Islamists, as stated, they would have prioritized and re-established the power of the religious jurists. This did not happen. No Ayatollahs or Azharites are being called to run a government, and any role they may have is limited. Rather, independent theologians have continued to be marginalized, which is a trajectory away from Sunni Islam’s classical tradition, not towards it.


[[i]] Bruce B. Lawrence. Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989. p.6.

[[ii]] Ghazi bin Muhammad. The Sacred Origin and Nature of Sports and Culture. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1998. p.36

[[iii]] M. Ayoob, op. cit.,pg. 15.

[[iv]] Noah Feldman, “Why Shariah?,” The New York Times, March 16, 2008, accessed May 22, 2013,

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/16/magazine/16Shariah-t.html?pagewanted=all

[[v]] Ibid.

[[vi]] Ibid.

[[vii]] Graham E. Fuller. A World Without Islam. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2010. p. 249.

– Exaggerating “Ideology” in Islamist Movements.

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Exaggerating “Ideology”

The “ideological” dimension has been exaggerated by many so-called counter-terrorism experts. For example, Patrick Sookhdeo in Fighting the Ideological War says,

“Western discourse must discredit arguments that Islam is under attack from the West while delegitimizing Islamism by presenting it as a totalitarian political ideology detrimental to Muslims” (p.41).

Sookhdeo also says,

“As Arab countries throw off the yoke of authoritarian and dictatorial governments, so political Islam has begun to shape their societies with a new totalitarianism” (p.43).

Indeed, “experts” like Sookhdeo exaggerate the role of ideology in Islamist movements, just as a group of scholars exaggerate the role of ideology in the Cold War.

While ideology is undoubtedly important in the battle against Islamism, classifying the enemy as loyally and inflexibly ideological is not always realistic.

Stefan Durand says,

“Islamist movements make an instrument of religion and try to use it as an ideology, but they do not intend to create ‘a new man,’ as was the case in fascist Europe.”

He further says,

“They propound archaic religious and social precepts rather than an overall coherent ideology. The popular success of these movements is often due to factors unconnected with ideology”.[[1]]

Recent events have shown that the majority of Islamists today – those who wish to attain power through peaceful elections – are more flexible and pragmatic than Islamists of only a few decades ago. Time has demonstrated that inflexible adherence to ideology may be in retreat.

Olivier Roy, commenting on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood when it came to power before being toppled, says,

“While the Muslim Brotherhood may finally have come to power, it is at the expense of its own ideology,”

and says,

“The ‘failure of political Islam’ is not the political failure of the Islamists; it is the collapse of Islamism as a political ideology.” [[2]]

Being overly focused on ideology may lead to neglecting other important characteristics of Islamist movements.

Of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Brynjar Lia says,

“While not denying the importance of ideology, it seems appropriate to look for characteristics and qualities other than just ideological particularities when searching for…reasons behind the Society’s remarkable expansion in the 1930s” (p.14)[[3]]

Furthermore, Mark Fallon, head of the International Association of Police Chiefs, and former counterintelligence official, who “oversaw the prosecution of dozens of high-level terror suspects” and conducted a study of “hundreds of ex-terrorists,” says the most common matter in the study’s findings

“is that the trigger that turns someone to violence is a very personal one and is usually based on local conditions. The global environment is used to recruit these people, but it’s generally some local condition or individual event in that person’s life that turns them.”

He then says,

It wasn’t about ideology; it wasn’t about theology; it was about identity” (italics added).[[4]]

Post-Islamism Dilutes Ideology

Some scholars describe Islamists today, especially after the Arab Spring, as going through a post-Islamist phase. Post-Islamism,[[5]] originally coined and described by Asef Bayat in reference to reforms in Iran, and later applied to Islamists by European and other scholars,

“…represents an endeavour to fuse religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and liberty. It is an attempt to turn the underlying principles of Islamism on its head by emphasizing rights instead of duties, plurality in place of a singular authoritative voice, historicity rather than fixed scriptures, and the future instead of the past. It wants to marry Islam with individual choice and freedom, with democracy and modernity (something post-Islamists stress), to achieve what some have termed an ‘alternative modernity.’”

Bayat further says,

“Post-Islamism is expressed in terms of secular exigencies, in freedom from rigidity,”

and

“in breaking down the monopoly of religious truth.”

If Islamists are going through a post-Islamist transformation, then Islamists are being influenced and molded by exigencies of the secular world, and not vice-versa, as the authors seem to suggest. This ‘softens’ the “totalitarian” element in their character as they tailor their views to the wants of a rights-demanding society.

Ghaffar Hussain says,

“Post-Islamists are Islamists mugged by reality”

and the

“emergence of post-Islamism should be welcomed because it signals the failure of classical Islamism and teaches us that most people in the region are not motivated by ideology, instead preferring practical politics.”

He continues,

“In the long-term post-Islamism will also weaken the more extreme elements who are still dreaming of creating a totalitarian theocracy.”[[6]]

Responding to the Arab Spring, author Arshin Adib-Moghaddam says,

“What is slowly being engineered is an Islam that is geared to cultural emancipation, rather than ideological indoctrination.”[[7]]

Commenting on the lack of progress of the Islamist regimes since the Arab Spring began, former visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institute, Khalil al-Anani, says,

“…the most visible result of Islamists’ failure is the “desacralization” of their ideology,”

which means

“Islamism, as a religious and political ideology, is increasingly losing its credibility and symbolic power.”

Commenting on the Islamist experiment of governance, he says,

“After two years in power, such a state has proven to be nothing but a mere “mirage”

and

“…while Islamist parties are ascending, their ideology, ‘Islamism,’ is surprisingly descending.”

He concludes by saying,

“If the Arab Spring would tell us something after two years of torturous transition, it is that Islamism is yet another ‘illusive’ ideology that can’t preserve its credibility and salvation power without fulfilling peoples’ aspirations which may put Islamists’ future at stake.”[[8]]

Of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions of the Arab Spring, Islam scholar Olivier Roy says the demonstrators,

“…are operating in a secular political space, and they do not see in Islam an ideology capable of creating a better world.”[[9]]

Marc Sageman, former CIA psychologist and terrorism scholar who conducted studies on terrorists, concluded,

“[T]errorists in Western Europe and North America were not intellectuals or ideologues, much less religious scholars. It is not about how they think, but how they feel.”[[10]]

As stated, the protestors are largely non-ideological as well. Author and expert Fawaz Gerges says,

“On the whole, the revolts are peaceful, non-ideological, post-Islamist, and led by the embattled middle class, including a coalition of men and women of all ages and political colors: liberal-leaning centrists, democrats, leftists, nationalists, and Islamists.”

In addition,

“Clerics and mullahs are not key drivers; there is no Ayatollah Khomeini waiting in the wings to hijack the revolution and to seize power.”[[11]]

He also says that

“the revolutions have reinforced what many of us have already known: al-Qaeda’s core ideology is incompatible with the universal aspirations of the Arabs.”[[12]]

Recently in May 2013, Emad Abdel Ghafour, a Salafi adviser to former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, said he “had no problem” with Egypt’s peace with Israel.[[13]]

Even Salafis are being molded by the new social-political realities of the day.

Al-Qa’eda Beyond Ideology

Author and former FBI agent, Ali Soufan, who investigated the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, said,

“…al-Qaeda’s rhetoric is not an ideology; it’s anti-American narrative” (italics added).[[14]]

In other examples, ideology does not always appear to be the motivator of actions of certain well-known militants.

Fawaz Gerges who had interviewed some of Zawahiri’s former cohorts in Egypt, Yemen, and other places in the late 1990s, says,

“The consensus was that pressing financial and operational circumstances forced his” – Zawahiri’s – “hand and caused him to join bin Laden’s front, a tactical move to rescue his sinking ship.”[[15]]

Some cohorts said,

“Zawahiri had no genuine interest in transnational jihad” and used the World Islamic Front to fight the “near enemy.’”[[16]]

Moreover,

“at the end of the Afghan war in 1989, none of the leading figures – neither Azzam, Fadl, Zawahiri, nor bin Laden – called for targeting the United States,”

and,

“at this stage, none of the important voices advocated an armed confrontation with the West.”[[17]]

Gerges further notes,

“Although there is no single explanation for bin Laden’s antipathy to America, the Gulf War and its aftermath, particularly the stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia, were primary.”[[18]]

Had ideology been the primary cause of their animosity towards the United States and its allies, why did they not express their ideological opposition towards the “infidels” earlier?

Terrorism expert, Jessica Stern, says,

“Terrorist movements often arise in reaction to a perceived injustice, as a means to right some terrible wrong, real or imagined. Yet ideology is not the only, or even the most important, factor in an individual’s decision to join a terrorist group.”

Stern continues,

“In interviewing terrorists, I have found that operatives are often more interested in the expression of a collective identity than they are in the group’s stated goals.”

She concludes,

This understanding – that ideology is not the only, or even the principal, reason that individuals are drawn to terrorist groups – needs to be incorporated into our counter-terrorism efforts, especially when we consider counter-radicalization” (italics added). [[19]]

The exaggeration of the role of ideology in Islamist movements has resulted in a myopic view of the terrorist threat by Islamophobes who appear to see most issues through a religion-ideology lens. This distorted view has caused them to create an unrealistic narrative that amalgamates everything “Islamic,” historically and contemporarily, as a single, fixed, and unchanging entity.

It is time to focus on other factors of extremist movements other than ideology to truly understand and win the war against extremists of all stripes.


[[1]] Stefan Durand, “The lie that is ‘islamofascism,’” Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2006, accessed May 20, 2013, http://mondediplo.com/2006/11/05islamofascism

[[2]] Olivier Roy, “Debate: There Will Be No Islamist Revolution,” Journal of Democracy 24:1 (Jan.2013): 14-19, accessed May 23, 2013, http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/sites/default/files/Roy-24-1.pdf

[[3]] Brynjar Lia. The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement, 1928-1942. Reading, England: Ithaca Press, 1998. p.2.

[[4]] Doug Saunders. The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?. New York: Vintage Books, 2012. p.104. Saunders cited from Interview from Council on Foreign Relations: Masters, Jonathan. Interview with Mark Fallon. Radicalization and U.S. Muslims, March 11, 2011, accessed June 2, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/counterradicalization/radicalization-us-muslims/p24354

[[5]] Asef Bayat says, “The categories “Islamism” and “post-Islamism” serve primarily as theoretical constructs to signify change, difference, and the root of change. In practice, however, Muslims may adhere simultaneously to aspects of both discourses. The advent of post-Islamism does not necessarily mean the historical end of Islamism. What it means is the birth, out of the Islamist experience, of a qualitatively different discourse and politics. In reality we may witness for some time the simultaneous processes of both Islamization and post-Islamization.” (Asef Bayat, “What is Post-Islamism?” ISIM Review 16 (Autumn 2005): 518–542, accessed May 22, 2013, doi: 10.1080/09546550802257226, https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/17030/ISIM_16_What_is_Post-Islamism.pdf?sequence=1)

[[6]] Ghaffar, Hussain, “Post-Islamists in the Arab World (or, Islamists Mugged by Reality),” The Guardian, November 12, 2011, accessed May 24, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/12/post-islamism-middle-east-democracy

[[7]] Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, “Do Tunisian Elections Mark Shift to ‘Post-Modernised Islam?’” CNN Opinion, October 28, 2011, accessed May 25, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/28/opinion/adib-moghaddam-tunisia-islam-shift

[[8]] Khalil, al-Anani, “Desacrilization of Islamism,” Foreign Policy, February 11, 2013, accessed May 23, 2013,http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/02/11/desacralization_of_islamism

[[9]] Olivier, Roy, “This is Not an Islamic Revolution,” New Statesman, February 15, 2011, accessed May 26, 2013, http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2011/02/egypt-arab-tunisia-islamic

[[10]] Marc Sageman. Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-first Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. pp. 156-57

[[11]] Fawaz A. Gerges. The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. pp.17-18.

[[12]] Ibid., p.5.

[[13]] Elhanan, Miller, “Morsi’s Salafist Adviser: ‘We Have No Problem With the Peace with Israel,’” The Times of Israel, May 26, 2013, accessed June 5, 2013, http://www.timesofisrael.com/morsis-salafist-adviser-we-have-no-problem-with-the-peace-with-israel/

[[14]] Interview from Council on Foreign Relations: Masters, Jonathan. Interview with Ali Soufan. Islamist Extremism After the Arab Spring, September 14, 2012, accessed June 1, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/middle-east/islamist-extremism-after-arab-spring/p29053

[[15]] F. Gerges, op. cit.,p.36.

[[16]] Ibid., p.37.

[[17]] Ibid., p.46.

[[18]] Ibid., p.49.

[[19]] Jessica, Stern, “What Motivates Terrorists?” January 21, 2011, accessed May 21, 2013,
http://www.hoover.org/publications/defining-ideas/article/58841

– Is Classical Sunni Islam a “Political Ideology”?

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Sebastian Gorka of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies says,

“One of the greatest — self-induced — obstacles we have to understanding our enemy is mirror imaging, seeing Islam as just one more religion like the religions we are most familiar with — Christianity and Judaism. However, if one understands that Islam, not just in its extreme forms, but in its mainstream version, sees politics, economics, law and faith as integral to each other and as part of “shari’a” — the way of life, then one understands that even the phrase ‘political Islam’ is a case of the West using its terminology for something that does not reflect Western concepts and categories. It is pointless therefore to use the phrase ‘political Islam’; Islam is political” (p.188 – Fighting the Ideological War).

Gorka oddly describes mainstream Islam as political Islam and understands Islam as a political ideology. Gorka’s lack of understanding of the history of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism will be discussed in a separate post.

However, while Gorka sees mainstream Sunni Islam as a political ideology, his view is more similar to the minority of Islamists than to the majority of Muslims who do not share this view.

Religion and terrorism expert, Mark Juergensmyer, says,

“The assumption of those who hold this ‘Islam is the problem’ position is that the Muslim relationship to politics is peculiar. But this is not true. Most traditional societies have had a close tie between political leadership and religious authority, and religion often plays a role in undergirding the moral authority of public life.”[[1]]

Furthermore, there is no equivalent word for “ideology” in classical Arabic, Persian, or other languages, which proves that classical Muslims never saw their religion as an ideology. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, scholar and professor at George Washington University, says,

“The case of ‘ideology’ is very telling as far as the adaptation of modern notions in the name of religion is concerned. Nearly every Muslim language now uses this term, and many Muslims in fact insist that Islam is an ideology. If this is so, then why was there no word to express it in classical Arabic, Persian, and other languages of the Islamic peoples?”[[2]]

“Traditional Islam,”Nasr says, “refuses ever to accept Islam as an ideology, and it is only when the traditional order succumbs to the modern world that the understanding of religion as ideology comes to the fore […].”[[3]]

Describing Islam as an ideology, whether by Gorka or by Islamists, is a modern notion – not a classical one. While Islam has a political dimension, Hamza Yusuf, author and Sunni scholar at Zaytuna College, says,

“…the focus of Islam has never been on rectifying the state, but rather on rectifying the state of the souls that make up the state.”

Yusuf then says,

“We need an Islamic state of mind more than an Islamic state.”[[4]]

Another author and Sunni scholar, Zaid Shakir, says, that

“…doctrine issuing from a particular ideology is marshaled based on its efficacy in advancing the cause, not on the basis of any preexisting moral or ethical standard. Such a formulation is at complete odds with Islam and, thus, largely alien to its classical tradition.”[[5]]

Islamic knowledge of creed and jurisprudence in almost all of Islamic history had not been the prerogative of politicians, but of religious scholars who taught the masses, and distanced themselves from rulers while largely retaining their independent roles as spiritual guides. When examining the Islamic sources, reference to political authority is scarce, while references to spirituality and belief are abundant. That is why Prophet Muhammad is known as a religious prophet, and not a politician, and Islam is understood to be a religion, and not a political movement by most people.

Moreover, political ideology is not one of the five pillars of Islam or the six Sunni articles of faith. The uncertainty of Muslims on the issue of leadership following Prophet Muhammad’s death illustrates that political leadership was not a high priority to Islam’s Prophet. Otherwise, Muhammad  would have made matters of political leadership clear to his followers as he did many matters before his demise.

While political leadership took on an important role in classical Sunni Islam, it was subservient to and confined within the limits of spirituality. Today, Islamist groups prioritize politics and make spirituality subservient to it.  People who conflate the two misrepresent both and confuse more than clarify.

It is for this reason why many caliphs throughout Islam’s history were not necessarily supported by the masses, but tolerated, even when certain caliphs displayed unIslamic qualities and used religion for political expediency and domination. But anarchy was believed to be worse than poor leadership as it brought more harm than good to society. Therefore, all actions of caliphs over 1,000-plus years should not be seen as representative of Islam’s teachings, and Muslims who lived under their rule should not be described as their wholesale supporters. To do so is to misunderstand and mischaracterize social-power dynamics in those times and to misrepresent Muslims and Islam today.

It is recommended that Gorka and others who hold similar views describe mainstream Islam as most Muslims describe Islam — as a religion and not a political movement or ideology.


[[1]] Mark, Juergensmeyer, “Does Religion Cause Terrorism?” National Policy Forum on Terrorism Security and America’s Purpose, September 6-7, 2005, accessed May 25, 2013, http://demcoalition.org/pdf/Does_Relig_Cause_Terr.pdf

[[2]] Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Islam in the Modern world: Challenged by the West, Threatened by Fundamentalism, Keeping Faith with Tradition. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010. p.12.

[[3]] S. Hussein Nasr, op. cit.,p.12.

[[4]] Hamza Yusuf, March 26, 2010, “The Importance of Being Ambiguous Or the Sin Tax of Ignoring Syntax,” Sandala Blog, May 24, 2013, http://sandala.org/blog/2011/03/26/the-importance-of-being-ambiguous-or-the-sin-tax-of-ignoring-syntax/

[[5]] Zaid Shakir, “Islam: Religion or Ideology?” New Islamic Directions, accessed May 27, 2013,http://www.newislamicdirections.com/articles/islam_religion_or_ideology/