“ISIS has as much to do with Islam as the Ku Klux Klan has to do with Christianity,” asserts Dalia Mogahed to her TED-talk audience, an American-Egyptian scholar and Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), (Dalia Mogahed, 8:50). Those familiar with Islam would agree. However, Mogahed’s invitation to speak on such suggests there’s a need for it to be said, especially to those in the West.
We fear what we don’t understand. Because of the radicalized, religious affiliation and appearance of those that attacked the World Trade Center, and subsequent murdering of thousands of innocent people, they came to represent Islam as a whole in the eye of the uneducated Westerner.
When we are harmed by something, we subconsciously analyze the visual characteristics of the thing that harmed us and label it as identifiers for recognizing danger. In this case, head-coverings such as turbans and hijabs became synonymous with death and oppression because those with them resembled the U.S.’s attackers on 9/11 — even Sikhs who are often confused with the Muslim community. Unfortunately it is human nature to want to easily categorize things in neat little boxes to save our brains from having to do the extra work. But for the sake of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, we must fight this impulse.
For those of us familiar with the differences between the Ku Klux Klan and Christianity, the same may be applied to Islam and Islamism. However, we must begin by exploring the history of the latter within the Islamic world.
A Brief History in Islamic Revolutions
It goes without saying that the Islamic world has seen its fair share of ideological movements much like other faiths. Modernism is defined as a movement in society and culture aimed at syncretizing traditional ideals or customs with the experience and values of modern industrial life (Modernism, n.d.). Reformism is defined as supporting or advancing gradual change of one’s culture rather than the abolition of it (Reformism, n.d.). Within the context of Islam, modernism is the syncretizing of Islamic values into modern culture, or the reconciliation of Islamic faith with modern inventions such as nationalism, democracy, civil rights, rationality, equality, and progress. Islamic reformism is the renewal, or purification of Islam — whatever one’s interpretation of it may be.
Movements of Islamic reformation and modernism have seen a lot of different faces over the past few centuries. “…the term ‘Islamic revival’… is simply the expression of Muslim identity… an umbrella designation for a wide variety of movements, some intolerant and exclusivist, some pluralistic; some favorable to science, some anti scientific; some primarily devotional and some primarily political; some democratic, some authoritarian; some pacific, some violent,” (Lapidus, 2014). But why? “According to the orthodox Muslim conception, Muhammad was sent not only to preach a way of individual salvation but to found a virtuous society. It followed that there were certain ways of acting in society which were in conformity with the Prophet’s message and the will of God, certain others which were not. But as circumstances changed, society and its rulers inevitably found themselves faced with problems not foreseen in the prophetic message, and acting in ways which might even appear to contradict it. How to bridge the gap between what Islamic society should be and what it had become? In what sense could Muslim society still be said to be truly Muslim? This had been the problem of the Muslim thinkers of the later Middle Ages, but it came up again in a graver form as the movement of westernization advanced,” (Hourani, 136).
The syncretism of Islam and other cultures hasn’t been without opposition. Many nations outside Islam’s birthplace have experienced movements of Islamic reformation and modernism. Some peaceful, others not. Some movements are born out of nationalistic revival, such as the modernists, the Young Ottomans, who begot the Young Turks, while others are born out of religious zeal that may or may not become politicized, such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a 19th century reformer and modernist that sought to revive Islam to counter European Imperialism, and his pupil, Egyptian-born Muhammad Abduh’, who carried Afghani’s vision further but out of his love and devotion to Allah. However, while Afghani was opposed to the Western world entirely, Abduh’ sought to learn from the Europeans despite advocating for Egypt’s independence from them.
While Egypt has been a particular focal point for Islamic reform since then, it has reached a climax in recent years. The Muslim Brothers (also known as the Muslim Brotherhood), is a Sunni Islamist organization founded by Islamic scholar Hassan al-Banna. Beginning in 1928, the reformers were originally a religious, social movement that sought to unify neighboring nations under Islam. Their goal was to end European control of Egypt by educating its citizens, promoting businesses and setting up hospitals. It later progressed into a political movement at odds with the Egyptian government that may be described as a terrorist organization by some nations. A prominent member of the Muslim Brothers include Sayyid Qutb, who’s writings contributed to radical movements against the Egyptian government in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and may be responsible for the formation of terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda. In 1987, another terrorist organization, Hamas, was begotten of members of the Muslim Brothers, further complicating their image and agenda among the Islamic world as the Egyptian government, Saudi government, and others have sought to blacklist them.
Iran’s First Supreme Leader
To Westerners, one of the more recognizable reformists within the Islamic world is Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, otherwise known as Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Khomeini became the face of Shia Islam to the West, even appearing on the cover of TIME magazine as 1979’s Man of the Year. However, that association took a sour turn upon the announcement of Khomeini’s support of the Iran hostage crisis where fifty-two Americans were held prisoner upon the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by supporters of the Iranian Revolution.
Born in 1902 within central Iran, Khomeini began studying the Quran and the Persian language from an early age. In the early 1920s, his religious knowledge and charismatic personality elevated him to become an ‘ayatollah’, a term for a leading Shia scholar. Almost half a century later in 1979, he declared an Islamic republic and was appointed Iran’s political and religious leader for life. As the highest power in the country, Khomeini appointed governors of Iran’s judiciary, military and media, and even held the final say for election of the president. Once a religious figurehead equivalent of that of Gandhi by Western media, Khomeini evolved into that of a tyrant following his approval of the seizure of American embassaries (I knew Khomeini, 15:15).
While in exile in Iraq, Khomeini gave a series of 19 lectures to a group of his students on Islamic government. Notes of the lectures were soon made into a book of no more than 150 pages. The book was first published under a series of various titles, however the current version is now referred to as Islamic Government, (Dabashi, 2006). Khomeini’s interpretation of Shia eschatology and theodicy, such as the Shia notions of struggle against injustice and worldly oppression, became the cornerstones for the foundation of which the Iranian Revolution was built.
Islamic Government argues for the need for the implementation of Islamic law in Iranian government in response to Iran’s liberal leadership at the time, which Khomeini viewed as corrupt and oppressive. Khomeini structures his argument by first using Muhammad as an example for the natural unification of Islam with the ruling powers of government. Because, “when the Prophet appointed a successor, it was not for the purpose of expounding articles of faith and law; it was for the implementation of law and the execution of God’s ordinances,” (Khomeini, p. 163). Khomeini’s reasoning for Muhammad’s intentions to politicize his own teachings is due in part to the law-bound nature of the faith itself. According to Khomeini, “men are commanded to observe certain limits and not to transgress them in order to avoid the corruption that would result”, (Khomeini, p. 170) in other words, man cannot be trusted to be led by his own conscience. He continues by saying that “this cannot be attained or established without there being appointed over them a trustee who will ensure that they remain within the limits of the licit and prevent them from casting themselves into the danger of transgression”, (Khomeini, p. 170), for he believes that the catalyst for the transformation of an individual is for the negative reinforcement of one’s behavior, rather than one’s desire to be transformed. In short, because of the ideological framework of Islam pertaining to one’s salvation being earned by one’s works, or adherence to Muhammad’s teachings, not only does Khomeini reason that Islamic societies should be governed by Islamic law, but that “if no such restraining individual or power were appointed, nobody would voluntarily abandon pleasure or interest of his own that might result in harm or corruption of others”, (Khomeini, p. 171). Naturally, Khomeini would eventually become that trustee.
The Marriage of Mosque and State
According to Khomeini, politicized Islam is Islam. Any nation governed by anyone other than God is un-Islamic. This is how Khomeini’s Islamic government differed from the non-Islamic government of a nation by Muslims. The definition of an Islamic State is one where there is no separation of Islam and state, giving birth to a new definition of Islam altogether: Islamism. The term came to use around the time of the Iranian Revolution, who according to Mozaffari, credits Khomeini for the need to separate this type of Islam from the religion itself by dubbing it as such. “Islamism is a complex phenomenon with multiple dimensions and various ramifications. Like other political doctrines, Islamism, in its contemporary shape, is an ‘ideology’, a ‘movement‐organisation’ and a ‘form of government’”, (Mozaffari, p. 17). Overall, “‘Islamism’ is a religious ideology with a holistic interpretation of Islam whose final aim is the conquest of the world by all means,” (Mozaffari, p. 21).
In conclusion, the Islam Khomeini introduced to the world in the 20th century is only one definition of Islam; unfortunately, it has often been the only one that foreigners understand of Islam. But there may be a reason for that. While Khomeini’s education and experience was helpful in his rise to power, the rapid spread of Islamism that mobilized the masses towards his revolutionary goals may be attributed solely to his personality. “Ideological confidence… gives it an advantage in the so-called ‘war of narratives,’ where the best (though not necessarily the most truthful) stories are full of passionate intensity, and the worst lack all conviction,” (Cottee, 2017). Arguably, it’s not until anyone understands the ideology of terror groups can they be identified as a deviation from a faith’s fundamental tenants and be properly combated. He makes the point that “religion matters because it is a legitimizing resource of real potency, and, in the hands of innovating ideologists, provides moral justifications for violence… [as] a key element in any causal explanation of its occurrence… in illuminating the conditions that enable people to kill for self-proclaimed religious purposes…” (Cottee, 2017).
Ideology is a powerful thing because if an individual’s presuppositional worldview is shaped by one that requires the death of others for one’s own salvation, that individual can only be changed with another narrative, for ideology has the ability to outlive the individual. So, “the practical implication that flows from this is that ideas are causally important and that ideas that promote violence… must also be countered by better, more compelling ideas…” (Cottee, 2017). It’s for this reason that Westerners must understand the difference between Islam and Islamism, for the sake of both Muslims and/or those victimized by extremist groups.
Mogahed, Dalia. “What it’s like to be a Muslim in America.” TED, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=535&v=wzkFoetp-_M&feature=emb_logo
Modernism. (n.d.) In Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/modernism
Reform. (n.d.) In Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reform
Hourani, A. Arabic thought in the liberal age, 1798–1939. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
I Knew Khomeini., Al Jazeera, 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjgR_TZrpi8.
Euben, Roxanne L., and Muhammed Q. Zaman. Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from Al-Banna to Bin Laden. Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 163–80.
Dabashi, Hamid. Theology of Discontent : The Ideological Foundations of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. New York University Press, 2006.
Mozaffari, M. “What is Islamism? History and Definition of a Concept.” Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 8(1), 17–33, 2007.
Cottee, Simon. “‘What ISIS Really Wants’ Revisited: Religion Matters in Jihadist Violence, but How?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, vol. 40, no. 6, 2017, pp. 439–54.
Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, 2014.