It has become a norm to hear, that the Muslim ‘extreme’ is of the minority, a thesis perpetuated by the Muslim ‘normal’. But when those within the majority Muslim-bracket prefer the deeds exemplified by Daesh (Arabic name for Islamic State) propaganda, the argument proves inconsistent. The opposing premise then inscribed by mainstream media and politicians alike, is that a problem persists within Muslim communities who fail to openly condemn such extremism. To which one response is, that foreign policy further aggravates Muslim grievances; a point epitomised by Baroness Warsi’s resignation in 2014 when Britain failed to condemn Israel’s bombing of Gaza. This unfortunately reinvigorates the all too familiar binary of ‘us and them’.
As such, the ‘us and them’ narrative purportedly reimbursed by both state and non-state terrorism is not only an experience within the West however. There are those for instance who construct the threat of Islamism (politicised Islam) to sustain their own political agendas further isolating Muslims, for example: Burma, Egypt, Bangladesh and Israel. As a result, Muslims unable to legitimately claim recognition politically respond in various ways, most commonly by reviving the ‘us and them’ narrative when all else has failed. The victims in this case are those who not only sympathise but are also prepared by the failed promises of their faith and culture in secular societies, ready to transform this sympathy into something more; what we may term the post post-colonial experience.
This preparation for ‘something more’ has its roots within a smaller spectrum devoid of politics and religion, which deserves more attention. How and why the Muslim identity has become the apparatus of expression, through which individuals feel relieved of their former selves has much to do with social and cultural atavisms. With the case of those joining Daesh, it follows a process of decolonisation, the better-known post-colonial experience which Frantz Fanon described as “the veritable creation of new men”. Under this pretense, a certain level of dissatisfaction has sought to create once more a myth that strives beyond what was either achieved or lost during and after colonialism. The Islam that arose from thereon remained confined by its authorisers and so myths or prophecies, revived and exaggerated gave precedence to alternatives, freeing Muslims from their confinement. But this tradition is nothing new and the myth it often gives birth to is a reaction to that confinement, at times perpetuating from the ‘normal’ to the ‘extreme’. Nevertheless the Daesh myth has appealed to a new generation and it is one that is sired by the post post-colonial experience, made easier by the foundations set in mainstream Islam, that which is of the majority.
We begin in twelfth-century Muslim-Spain, when Islamic Philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd) would warn of the dangers of leaving scripture to the theologian, who merely carried personalised popular beliefs but could not interrogate scripture through rational reasoning. Averroes surmised that theologians used their religious authority to exercise power over the Muslim masses. Hence, theologians as Ibrahim Najjar writes [citing Averroes] “defined true belief and heresy, thereby setting the ground for defining the true Muslim and exercising a tremendous influence on the political life of the Muslim community. They monopolized the access to the true faith”. On that basis, Averroes concluded that as human societies progressed, in order to avoid the dangers of scriptural hermeneutics, philosophical interrogation should supersede theological interpretation. With the current issues facing Muslim communities today, Averroes’ warning and council surely deserves more attention than has been warranted, as to why we will now discover.
Many of those who have often radicalised have done so with either little knowledge of that which they claim to know so much of, or by locating a resonance elsewhere which accommodates for both their sympathies and grievances. As noted by Mehdi Hasan, many, if not all search for religious reasons to justify their ‘extreme’ stance, as did British Muslims Mohammad Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar when they were reading Koran for Dummies before their ascent into the ‘extreme’. In other instances, Nabeelah Jaffer’s attempt at clarifying misreadings of the Quran to Daesh jihadis was met with complete silence and Alaa Murabit found her fight for women’s rights in Libya was denounced as anti-scriptural. Whilst in Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak has cited the mufti (religious legal expert) in declaring protests to be ‘haram’ (religiously impermissible).
This tradition of reading scripture based on a particular understanding and then applying it to suit one’s personal circumstance is nothing new of course, nor specific to Islam, yet with all the various forms of information available, a lack of independent thinking seems to reign supreme and unchallenged. It is a tradition that emanates from the role presupposed by the (male) theologian or the Imam (priest) who supposedly represents the ideal Muslim, who also prohibits the intellectual vigour to preach beyond scripture. This tradition is reproduced and embedded into the Muslim masses that cannot themselves go beyond scripture, fearing the reprisal in doing so. The struggle that ensues is that of decolonising one-self, so to dissolve any reprisals by crediting one-self as the ‘ideal’. This involves the creation of something ‘new’ by destroying the ‘old’, whilst adhering to the ‘common sense’ constituted by the theologian.
In his Prison Notebooks Antonio Gramsci asserted, that a social class could achieve hegemony through consent if only by inserting a ‘common sense’ with associated classes. Applying Gramsci’s theory, in the West what we find is a Muslim trans-national association with one particular brand of Islam – the Salafist-Wahabi school, a doctrine exported by Saudi Arabia and one that Daesh also follow. According to Jocelyn Cesari “contemporary Salafism has become the most widespread” form of Islam. Cesari further states whilst Salafism originated with a more diverse and open approach, its revived look under Saudi Wahabism in 1932 sought to reject not only critical approaches to Islam but also secular concepts. A statement typified by the assassination of King Faisal in 1975 after he sought to modernise the kingdom.
The Salafist-Wahabi flame ignited in the 1970s when Saudi Arabia injected copious amounts of wealth into Wahabi-receptive organisations in Muslim-minority states. For instance, in 2002, a Saudi magazine Ain al-Yaqin had reported Saudi investment included 2,000 Islamic schools abroad. Additionally, King Fahd is reported to have spent $75 billion in the 70s/80s on Islamic institutions outside of the kingdom. Whilst Yahya Birt estimates Saudi has been spending $2-3bn a year since 1975 on Islamic-based causes, including the production of leaflets, CDs, websites and books.
Furthermore, according to Yousaf Butt approximately 2,500 members of Daesh are from Saudi and it is not surprising that they have sought to usurp the kingdom by claiming a caliphate in Iraq/Syria, because it is relevant for the myth they are trying to portray. This myth is aimed at fulfilling prophecies linked to the end of days, stories theologians embed into Muslims from a young age. Inevitably, the theologian’s word is used as a manifestation of the ‘ideal’ whilst also used to oppose the theologian’s ‘ideal’. The resulting entrapment of this paradox leaves open a vacuum, which gives prominence to the likes of Daesh, whom re-invent the religious fervour on the basis that they are truly creating something new, or so they believe.
Muslims in Need of a Myth
In Ancient Greece, muthos (myth) was a way of expressing a truth through story-telling, writes Catalin Partenie. Plato suggested that while philosophers could rationally provide evidence for an argument, the masses at times required myths in order to be persuaded. The ‘noble lie’ as Plato termed it, contained some truths, and muthos enabled an understanding of these truths. In the nineteenth century however, Friedrich Nietzsche would highlight a problem that would come about in the absent of Plato’s muthos. It was for Nietzsche a cultural problem post-Enlightenment, as modernity was anti-mythical. The Enlightenment sought to do-away with myths through science but science could never replace the socio-cultural value of myth which had been reduced to fictitious fairy-tales. Myth according to Nietzsche “communicates an idea of the world” and “man…stripped of myth, stands famished among all his pasts and must dig frantically for roots, be it among the most remote antiquities”. This was Nietzsche’s concern, that if science could not replace myth, then what would or could? What we witness today, in the context of Muslim extremism, is that Nietzsche’s concern has unravelled a disastrous consequence.
This consequence, though engulfed by the political atmosphere of post-colonialism and 9/11, is made more so disastrous by the incited warnings of Averroes in the twelfth century. Islam as Cesari argues could now be left for the student, engineer or doctor to preach, much thanks to the internet; the theologian merely taught but his authority elsewhere declined. This authority only declined as it failed to deliver on some promises and so it is common to find groups like Daesh promise an Islamic utopia as a part of the myth which Muslims have been deprived of in both East and West. In Europe, Akbar Ahmed best describes how and why this occurs:
“When they need to discuss their problems, the youth find it difficult, if not impossible, to speak to the local imam in the mosque… [They] have little idea or interest in European history or culture…often unable to speak the local European language fluently. So when young Muslims approach them to talk of the social problems facing European youth – alcohol, drugs, sex, bullying – they have no idea how to effectively advise them…in short, they have made themselves almost irrelevant to the Muslim community…the parents as well, in their desire to establish themselves economically in European society, have become disconnected from the next generation as is evident from their shock and horror when their sons and daughters are charged in terrorist cases”
Despite the outright demeaning role allocated for Muslim/non-Muslim women and the heinous punishments carried out on both Muslims and non-Muslims, men and women continue to join Daesh. In addition to Akbar Ahmed’s explanation for this, Deeyah Khan proposes escapism as a reason – escaping the fundamental difficulties of being Muslim in a secular society, especially for women. Daniel Hannan on the other hand suggests that those joining Daesh “are convinced that they can see things more keenly than others, and that this clarity of vision elevates and ennobles their aggression”. Whilst Suraj Lakhani’s research suggests a certain level of romanticism is involved, whereby the excitement of travelling and fighting for a cause presents an imagined utopia. Similarly, Nabeelah Jaffer’s recorded communications with young Daesh jihadis brings to the fore the many different explanations from escapism and narcissism to romanticism. But what they all have in common is the complex asserted by Nietzsche, they are all trying to fill the vacuous nature of their post post-colonial experience and Daesh merely offer an opportunity to do so. As succinctly summed up by Deeyah Khan “[Daesh] Islamic State positions itself as a place of refuge, a shining mirage in which Muslim fantasies can come to a glorious fruition, where domination and power can be reclaimed”.
The Muslim Efficacy
Whilst Muslims continue to follow and remain loyal to the Salafist-Wahabi teachings, Averroes’ warning becomes ever more apparent that philosophical interrogation is a necessity. The failure to go beyond the confinement established by the theologian has left the new generation of Muslims dissatisfied and thus seeking an alternative, unfortunately with the added political disillusionments extremism has become a popular choice. Whether or not Muslims of the ‘normal’ condemn extremism, extremism will continue to flourish under the guise of the theologian, desperately seeking a better myth. Furthermore, if we are to take Nietzsche seriously, then we may find that under the ‘common sense’ of the theologian, these myths will continue to be created even after the death of Daesh. They will become more extreme and absurd as we continue to search for a myth that accommodates for the post post-colonial experience.
Rubel Mozlu has recently obtained an MSc from the University of Bristol in International Relations with the intention of pursuing a PhD on the topic of philosophy, religion and terrorism. His MSc main thesis focused on ‘Liberal Democracy and Culture’ with a particular focus on Egypt’s revolutions and Bangladesh’s election boycott. His current interests are in the MENA region, Islamic history, Western and Eastern Philosophy and Culture.
Cover image ‘État Islamique – Daesh P1050161‘ by Thierry Ehrmann