[Marxism] No to Nuclear Weapons

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Apr 27 12:56:23 MDT 2006

Kris wrote:
>>Correct.  But, I would not use the word "radical."
>What would you use?
>I used to use the word fundamentalist but I started having the
>opinion that principles of tolerance and dialogue are the
>fundamentals of Islam and that right-wing Islamists like the Iranian
>government are deviating from these fundamental principles.

Nation Magazine, May 15, 2006 issue
 From Piety to Politics

No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam
by Reza Aslan

Perfect Soldiers: The Hijackers--Who They Were, Why They Did It
by Terry McDermott

Faith at War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, From Baghdad to Timbuktu
by Yaroslav Trofimov

In the months following 9/11, I was struck by stories in the press that 
more and more Americans were going to bookstores to buy copies of the 
Koran, hoping to find a clue as to the motivation of the suicide bombers. 
When the fall semester at Columbia ended and I went home to Kampala, 
Uganda, the invasion of Afghanistan had begun, the Iraq War was in the air 
and anxiety about the "war on terror" was growing by the day. But there was 
no queue at the local bookstore in Kampala of people looking for a copy of 
the Bible to understand the rapidly deteriorating international 
situation--even though there was no shortage of Bible-talk among promoters, 
executors and supporters of the "war on terror."

Islam watchers at universities and think tanks in the West have pored over 
the Koran, marker in hand, looking for suras and ayas that either hinder or 
promote coexistence between Muslims and others. Few Islam watchers have 
considered how passages from the Koran translate into concrete acts. That 
is what makes the three books under review here so refreshing. They draw 
the obvious but all too rarely made distinction between Islam as faith and 
Islam as ideology.

Reza Aslan's brilliantly readable introduction to the historical faith, No 
god but God, provides a suitable bridge between the two. A central question 
informs Aslan's endeavor: Does the legacy of the Prophet of Medina lie in 
his revolutionary message or in the autocratic powers that the Constitution 
of Medina granted him? Aslan's book tells the story of how Muhammad's 
revolutionary message was gradually reinterpreted, and subverted, by his 
successors into an orthodoxy and how a narrow coterie of religious scholars 
were able to establish themselves as its custodians, in the process 
transforming the Koran from the source of a moral message to the repository 
of a comprehensive legislation, the Sharia.

Often depicted by its critics as inhospitable to women's rights and 
inherently bellicose, Islam introduced notable reforms with respect to 
gender and war. For the first time in Arabia, notes Aslan, women were 
"given the right both to inherit the property of their husbands and to keep 
their dowries as their own personal property.... If the husband died, his 
wife would inherit a portion of his property; if he divorced her, the 
entire dowry was hers to take back to her family." Aslan distinguishes 
between two different discussions of gender in Islam: religious and social. 
Whereas men and women stand as absolute equals before God, the social 
message of the Koran calls for equalizing--rather than leveling--the 
position of men and women in society. Muhammad also pioneered a notion of 
war that was revolutionary in distinguishing combatant from civilian and 
emancipatory in insisting that war--as the Koran says--cannot be holy, only 
just or unjust. Meant to differentiate pre-Islamic from Islamic notions of 
war, jihad prohibited all but strictly defensive wars.

After Muhammad's death, however, the position of women deteriorated, the 
scope of the umma (the community of believers) was narrowed and the 
understanding of "the lesser jihad" was distorted. The codification of the 
faith represented the practice of Islam in power rather than Islam in 
rebellion. As Aslan points out, the sexual subordination associated with 
Islam in its most rigid application--separation of the sexes, obligatory 
veiling--was an innovation of Muhammad's successors. The second caliph, 
Umar, a pious but misogynistic man who had earlier been refused the hand of 
Aisha's sister, introduced segregated prayers, forbade Muhammad's widows 
from performing the hajj and instituted several penal ordinances against women.

If the reversal of many of Muhammad's social reforms empowering women was a 
result of internal developments in the caliphate, the transformation of 
jihad into a war in defense of the faith--based on the idea that the world 
was an unstable relation between two antagonistic domains, dar al-Islam 
(the domain of peace) and dar al-Harb (the domain of war)--came largely in 
response to an external threat, the Crusades.

Following the defeat of the Byzantine army in 634 and the Sasanian Empire 
soon after, the third caliph, Uthman, came to power and took on the 
self-styled title Khalifat Allah (Successor to God). Uthman's key 
accomplishment was to collect and canonize the Koran from numerous records, 
oral and written, of bits of revelation. Seeking to establish an orthodoxy, 
he rounded up and brought to Medina variant collections of the Koran and 
set fire to them.

Aslan's point is simple yet subversive: Muhammad's biographers lived and 
wrote in the context of a powerful empire, and their accounts reflected the 
political and religious ideologies of ninth-century Damascus, or 
eleventh-century Baghdad, rather than seventh-century Medina. This was 
truer still of the hadith (the oral anecdotes recalling words and deeds of 
the Prophet), which are second only to the Koran as a source of orthodoxy. 
As Aslan notes, the Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher has demonstrated that 
many of the hundreds of thousands of hadith then in circulation were in 
fact "verses from the Torah and the Gospels, bits of Rabbinic sayings, 
ancient Persian maxims, passages of Greek philosophy, Indian proverbs, and 
even an almost word-for-word reproduction of the Lord's Prayer." By the 
ninth century, when Islamic law was being formulated, Muslim legal scholars 
divided the hadith into two categories: "lies told for material gain and 
lies told for ideological advantage." The Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi 
has written of power struggles behind each hadith and behind each translation.

The Constitution of Medina assigned to Muhammad authority over religious 
and political matters, while allowing non-Muslims freedom in religious 
affairs. However, after Muhammad's death a consensus emerged among both 
Sunnis and the supporters of Ali, that religious guidance was distinct from 
political authority. This history is especially important to recall, since 
much contemporary commentary innocently echoes extreme Islamist claims that 
there is no distinction in Islam between religion and politics. The 
secularizing tendency was set in motion by Abu Bakr, the first caliph, who 
is said to have proclaimed on assuming the caliphate: "Behold me, charged 
with the cares of the government. I am not the best among you. I need all 
your advice and help. If I do well, support me; if I make a mistake, 
counsel me.... As long as I obey God and the Prophet, obey me; if I neglect 
the laws of God and the Prophet, I have no right to your obedience." Umar, 
the second caliph, continued to uphold Abu Bakr in this regard. In Shiite 
Islam, too, the secularizing position was upheld by Ali.

Indeed, the caliph was so rarely in a position of religious authority, able 
to define how one is to worship God or who is and is not a Muslim, that 
historical Islam developed with a strong secularizing impulse. Nor did a 
parallel and separate statelike authority develop in the religious realm, 
as it did in Western Christianity, with Roman Catholicism organized as the 
prototype of the Roman Empire and Protestant churches in the fashion of 
nation-states. The relationship between church and state, a key question 
for the secularizing movement in Western Europe, was not an issue in Islam, 
as it was in most other religions.

Even as it turned into a kingship, the caliph evolved as a secular 
position. It was only in the first half of the ninth century that the 
caliphate turned into a theocracy (and more recently in postrevolutionary 
Iran, with the installation of the clergy as guardians of the 
Constitution). What Aslan calls the Inquisition began with a single 
question--Is the Koran created or is it co-eternal with God?--and divided 
the Rationalists (or Mu'tazilite), who took the former position, from the 
Traditionalists, who upheld the latter. When the Islamic Inquisition ended 
at the close of the late ninth century--with the understanding that the 
caliph would never again embroil himself so explicitly in religious 
affairs--the Rationalists were discredited because of their close 
association with it.

Aslan argues that as the Traditionalist position elevated the ulama 
(religious scholars) to a position of unquestioned textual authority, the 
ulama in turn elevated the Koran from the source of moral guidance to that 
of sacred law, the Sharia. And yet the Sharia was designed to regulate an 
individual's external actions; it had little to do with regulating inner 
spirituality. As it became clear that the Koran would not suffice as the 
source of law for an empire, the development of Sharia drew on other 
sources: the sunna (based on the hadith), the qiya (analogical arguments), 
ijma (legal precedent) and, finally, fatwa. Most misunderstood today (in 
part because of the Rushdie affair), a fatwa is not a binding legal ruling 
but the opinion of a qualified legal scholar, arrived at through ijtihad 
(independent legal reasoning) that the community is free to accept or 
reject. A vital source of law until the eleventh century, fatwa was 
outlawed as a legitimate tool of exegesis by the Traditionalist ulama. The 
ulama developed four schools of law among the Sunnis and one among the 
Shiites; until the modern period it was common for believers to switch 
their allegiance from one school to another at their pleasure, turning 
legal pluralism into a source of personal freedom. But with colonial 
modernity came total allegiance to one particular school of thought. This 
is why the Islamist demand for Sharia as the foundation of a truly Islamist 
state must face a conundrum: which particular interpretation of Sharia: the 
Sunni or the Shiite? If Sunni, then the Shafii, the Maliki, the Hanafi or 
the Hanbali? The problems created by the political pursuit of an Islamic 
state begin to recall the disputations among revolutionary Marxists over 
the nature of the proletarian state.

Aslan's principal ambition is to revive a tradition in Islam that joins 
pluralism with a strong secularizing tendency. The foundation of Islamic 
pluralism can be summed up in one indisputable Koranic verse: "There can be 
no compulsion in religion." The problematic side of Aslan's otherwise 
marvelous book surfaces when he attempts to deduce a politics for the 
present from his historical analysis. Lapsing into an unfortunate 
evolutionism, he assumes that Muslim-majority countries must follow the 
trajectory of European history, including religious wars: "What is taking 
place now in the Muslim world is an internal conflict between Muslims, not 
an external battle between Islam and the West."

Yet colonialism added a new, inescapable dimension to this internal 
struggle inside Islamic civilization and societies. With modern 
colonialism, the West--particularly Western civilization--ceased to be an 
external factor. The colonial state was a form of modern power; its 
establishment set in motion a dialectic between (Western) state and 
(non-Western) society. Since at least the fifteenth century, the West has 
no longer been external to the non-West. Through conquest and occupation 
and protracted top-down projects to change society, the West (as a 
civilization) has become an integral part of the societies it has 
conquered. Despite--or because of--its violence, the colonial encounter 
breached the levees between civilizations. One product of the breached 
levees is the colonial and postcolonial intelligentsia, which is neither 
Western nor non-Western. This single fact sheds light on why Aslan's 
civilizational history is not enough to fulfill his political ambitions.

Contemporary political Islam needs to be understood as a product of the 
encounter between the West and Muslim-majority societies. Intellectual 
responses to colonialism ranged from those who admired the West and saw 
Westernization as necessary for modernization (Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan and 
his Kashmiri protégé, Chiragh Ali) to those who followed Jamal ad-Din 
al-Afghani (1838-1897), the founder of Islamic modernism, who claimed that 
the intellectual foundations on which the West was built--social 
egalitarianism, popular sovereignty and the pursuit and preservation of 
knowledge--were borrowed from Islam. Their differences notwithstanding, 
both sides agreed that the ulama had so stifled independent thought and 
scientific progress that it had led to the decline of Islamic civilization. 
Aslan traces the genealogy of contemporary political Islam from Afghani to 
his student Muhammad Abdu, who advocated a return to the unadulterated 
values of the salafs (the pious forefathers) and "who would become Egypt's 
most influential voice of Muslim reform." Abdu called for a reopening of 
the "gates of ijtihad" and, like Sir Sayyid, "demanded that every man-made 
source of law--the sunna, ijma, qiyas and the like--be subject to rational 
discourse. Even the holy Quran must be reopened to interpretation, 
questioning and debate from all sectors of Muslim society." Abdu 
categorically rejected the possibility of placing secular powers in the 
hands of the religious clerics. Together, Afghani and Abdu founded the 
Salafiyyah movement, Egypt's version of the modernist project.

Aslan weaves a magnificent tapestry of major thinkers in the history of 
Islamist thought, including Hasan al-Banna, a Sufi who turned away from 
nationalism, which he saw as the principal cause of World War I, and 
established the Muslim Brothers--not as a political party but as the 
world's first Islamic social movement calling for a just and egalitarian 
society. Whereas Banna was convinced that the state could be reformed only 
by reforming the self, the next generation of Islamists was led by the 
Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb, an advocate of revolution against secular 
regimes in the Muslim world, who was tortured in jail after conspiring to 
overthrow Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and hanged for treason in 
1966. Yet Aslan's "internalist" history fails to address at least three 
important concerns. The first is the embrace of violence that marks a 
rupture in political Islam between Banna's belief that Islamicization 
proceeded through social reform and Qutb's belief that it required the 
seizure of state power. The second is the spectacular rise of Islamism 
following the Iranian Revolution. And the third is the deep implication of 
the West in the unfolding story.

The ascendancy of political Islam has to be appreciated in both ideological 
and political terms. Ideologically, radical political Islam claims a 
contradictory inheritance. On the one hand, it shares with modern secular 
ideologies (nationalism, Marxism) an embrace of political violence as a 
liberating force. On the other, it is part of the resurgence of different 
forms of nativism (linked to racial, ethnic and religious identities) in 
large parts of the postcolonial world. The appeal of nativism lies in its 
critique of secular nationalist historiography, which has tended to 
highlight only the recent impact of Western imperialism as important to 
understanding the present. But nativism does not simply exalt precolonial 
history; it also promises a return to it, as if the deep impact of 
colonialism could simply be wished away.

Within the Muslim world, the allure of such nativism has grown since the 
defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war of Nasser, who embodied the hopes of 
secular nationalism in the region. By the time of the 1979 Iranian 
Revolution and the Islamic struggle against the Soviet invasion of 
Afghanistan, political Islam had eclipsed secular nationalism in the 
struggle against Western imperialism. Ironically, the West was deeply 
implicated in the political resurgence of radical Islam in the 1980s as 
part of a crusade against the Soviet Union, which had thrown its weight 
behind secular nationalists in the region. Determined to undermine its cold 
war adversary, the United States, in alliance with Saudi Arabia and 
Pakistan, provided the Afghan jihadists with ideological and political 
tutelage, and abundant financial and technical resources, including a 
network of militarized madrassas that trained tens of thousands of 
soldiers, some of whom would later turn their guns against their sponsors. 
This born-again version of Islam subverted key tenets of the faith by 
redefining jihad as an individual military commitment with no regard for 
the distinction between combatants and noncombatants.

The Koran, in other words, is not the place to look if you want to 
understand the roots of political Islam, whether it is the kind that 
inspired the 9/11 hijackers, the Islamic nationalism of Hamas or the Shiite 
radicalism of Lebanese Hezbollah. Still less can this phenomenon be 
explained by "culture talk" about the pathologies of the Muslim world or 
that figment of the Western imagination, the "Arab mind." As Terry 
McDermott, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, concludes in Perfect 
Soldiers, his book on the 9/11 assailants, Mohamed Atta and his 
co-conspirators were "fairly ordinary" people from intact middle-class 
homes who were neither deeply disturbed nor estranged nor duped by 
handlers. Politics had more to do with their anger at the United States 
than piety. If the point of McDermott's book is that the remaking of 
ordinary individuals into political militants was not some form of 
brainwashing--that it was also political--one needs to turn to Yaroslav 
Trofimov's Faith at War for an insight into this political process.

Trofimov, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, traveled through 
Muslim-majority countries in order to better understand why "sometimes 
those who know us best hate us most." The first part of his journey yields 
little for the simple reason that he sees little: Even as he travels 
through a multidimensional land, with a geography rich in history and swept 
by rapidly globalizing ideas, Trofimov encounters its inhabitants as if 
they were one-dimensional beings (Muslims) living inside a civilizational 
container (Islam). It is when he lets go of this assumption--in Tunisia, 
Iraq and Lebanon--that his journey begins to yield fruit.

In Tunisia Trofimov follows the track of a militantly secular regime that 
has banned all public expression of religiosity and set up an entire state 
apparatus for controlling Islam; at the same time, he sees how this same 
secular regime allows the Jewish minority in Djerba to run its own strictly 
religious gender-segregated education system. As he discovers how 
secularism can function as a prop for a dictatorship, making the veil, in 
the words of someone he meets, "a symbol of resistance for all," Trofimov 
draws his first political lesson: Like the Iran of the Shah, this secular 
dictatorship has engendered an opposition alliance between secular 
dissidents and Islamists.

Trofimov's education continues in Iraq. Wading through the popular 
bitterness of a country abandoned to looters on the morrow of "liberation," 
he witnesses the turnaround in Falluja. Following the killing of civilians 
by troops of the 82nd Airborne Division, the city, which had surrendered to 
American soldiers without firing a shot, first becomes a "byword for the 
bloody anti-American insurgency." It is then "bombed into rubble by 
American forces" and finally becomes "the first part of Iraq fully 
controlled by insurgents, an area where neither American troops nor Western 
civilians dared to tread for several months."

Worrying that he may have gone native like an anthropologist, Trofimov 
decides "to see Iraq as the soldiers did" and learns firsthand a basic 
lesson in rampant racism: He witnesses how skinny Iraqi troops without any 
body armor are sent ahead of Americans who, dressed in Kevlar helmets and 
bulletproof vests, not only hang back but taunt the Iraqis as "hajjis," 
turning an Arabic term of respect for one who has performed the pilgrimage 
to Mecca into a term of abuse akin to "gook" and "jap" of previous years, 
except that this time the abuse is hurled at an ally, not an enemy. The 
spread of anti-American rhetoric on both sides of the Euphrates--a prelude 
to the insurgency spreading all over Iraq--does not surprise him.

Trofimov turns to the Islamist resistance, both nonviolent and violent, and 
to the American attempt to win the middle ground through a step-by-step 
embrace of different brands of political Islam, culminating in the 
acceptance of Ayatollah Sistani's demand for a direct election based on 
universal suffrage. Sistani represents an Iraqi Shiite nationalism wary of 
sectarian identification. In contrast to Iran, where Shiite Islam claims a 
national status, in Iraq the Shiite majority not only confronts the 
challenge of coexistence with Sunnis, Christians and secularists; it is 
also characterized by a minority psychology of a group long locked out of 
power. Sistani both reflects this psychology and is keenly aware of the 
challenge of coexistence.

Sistani's rival, and the American nightmare, is Muqtada al-Sadr, whose 
ambition is to represent all Iraqis, not just the Shiites. Trofimov argues 
that the Mahdi Army, Sadr's well-armed militia, is proof that the 
resistance in Iraq is not just Sunni. Sadr has been keen to learn from the 
example of Hezbollah, an organization that arose in response to Israel's 
1982 invasion of Lebanon, and which, like the Afghan mujahedeen, would 
ultimately reverse a bloody foreign occupation. Trofimov meets with 
Hezbollah and finds it "the most efficient organization I have come across 
in the Middle East," adding, "in my dealings with the U.S. military, I 
never saw such precision." But Hezbollah is more than a guerrilla movement. 
It is also a shadow government that has run a variety of services, from 
water provision to garbage collection to a TV network, Al Manar. More 
important, Hezbollah has evolved from an insurgency into a powerful 
political party, establishing an attractive model for other insurrectionary 
groups in the region. As Trofimov notes, when Sadr launched the first of 
his two uprisings against American forces in Iraq in April 2004, "he 
declared his militia to be an Iraqi extension of the Lebanese group."

If the weakness of Trofimov's analysis is that it lacks a sense of the 
tensions within the resistance, his analysis of Hezbollah contains an 
important lesson: Having achieved its goal of ending the Israeli occupation 
of southern Lebanon, and faced with a political process that called for 
alliance-building, Hezbollah learned to subordinate political violence to 
the political arts of persuasion and organization. To grasp this lesson is 
to see the real political challenge of the Iraq occupation: Will the 
American-led alliance have the political wisdom and courage to realize that 
its only chance to tame the resistance is to make one last concession, 
total withdrawal?



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