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Political Islam or the Concept of Islamism

by Enes Ergene on . Posted in An Analysis of the Gülen Movement

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Since the Middle Ages, there existed polemical views of Islam in Western societies, defining it as a terrorizing and deviating belief system. Until quite recent times, Islam was considered to be a heathen and idolatrous religion. The writings of European travelers who visited various countries of the Muslim world during the Middle Ages resemble the figments of a wild imagination. In these texts, Muslims appear as lustful, heathen, barbarian, and deceptive. Even the powerful political sovereignty of Muslims was viewed as connected to their sexual powers and barbarianism. Lust, oppression, and barbarianism—these seemingly were the sole elements that made up the Islamic East.

In TheDivine Comedy, Dante (d. 1321) sentenced the Prophet, peace be upon him, to the eighth level of hell. Many European writers and thinkers, including Machiavelli (d. 1527), Simon Ockley (d. 1720), Boulainvilliers (d. 1722), Diderot (d. 1784), Molière (d. 1673) and Voltaire (d. 1778) have also described Muslims, Islam, and the Prophet as lustful, inductive to oppression, and vulgar.[1] Even Pierre Loti (d. 1923), who was known to be a friend of the Ottomans, considered local women in the Muslim world as lustful, corrupting, and alluring. When describing Egypt under Napoleonic rule, Flaubert speaks of libidinous men who commit adultery with their concubines in the great squares of Cairo within view of the public. This is all strange when one considers the fact that Islam has been viewed as a religion that brings strict rules to male-female relationships. The obvious discrepancy between the image of Islam as a faith that brings strict limits to the libido, and the openly libidinous picture of Islam that the European travelers painted, seemed to raise no questions in the European mind. This is a profound symbolic indication of the lack of commonsense in non-Muslim interpretations of Islam and Muslims.

For Jocelyne Cesari, the reasons for this discrepancy should be looked for in the history that came about as a result of the conflicts between Islam and Europe in the Mediterranean after the Middle Ages. She argues that all the information about Islam is a product of a Eurocentric viewpoint which has been built on both political and religious contradictions that have existed for centuries. From the most personal mode of behavior to the collective, the reality of Muslims has been buried under stale descriptions that have been heaped upon it. There is no need to heap information in order to fill up this section. Even these few paragraphs are enough to express that when it comes to discussing something concerning Islam, there is a great difference between the intellectual viewpoints of the West and the cultural foundations of Muslims.

The literature concerning Islam in Europe is, of course, not limited to travelogues. When we come to the 1800s, we see that scientific research into Islam began rather early. These studies eventually emerged into an organized system of thought: Orientalism. However, behind these intense studies, there was the constant awareness of the "other." This anthropological approach to Islam was not successful in relieving European conceptions of prejudices; on the contrary, it enhanced these prejudices and, in the end, it declared Islam to be the enemy to Western values and to scientific progress in general. Orientalism built a tradition of science and thought that was based on an ontological differentiation between the West and the East. It thus prepared a legitimatizing ideology for international colonialism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

One of the main arguments laid out by the Orientalist thinkers was that Islam considered all scientific research a sin, which categorized Muslims close to barbarian groups. While Ernest Renan's (d. 1892) account of Islam and Muslims might not appear a direct attack, it revealed Orientalist conceptions nonetheless. For Renan, Muslims are different in the sense that they hate science; they consider research to be unnecessary, futile, almost heresy; and they hate natural sciences, believing they play rival to God. Renan did not feel the need to prove what he wrote, and he was clearly no specialist in Islam. He was known for his work on Judaism, and he was first and foremost a researcher in Semitic traditions. However, his research also had strongly anti-Semitic aspects, and perhaps his none-too-neutral attitude toward Islam was informed by his anti-Semitic attitudes. In his well-known conference on "Islam and Science," he attributed the lack of scientific progress in the Middle East to Islam. According to him, of all the Semitic religions and cultures, Islam has concerned itself more with revelations and poetic enthusiasm than with science and scientific thought.

What Renan says, in fact, is more of a description of the Western Christian church's attitude toward the sciences in the Middle Ages. The rationalist attitude taken toward the church after the Renaissance and the Enlightenment has been deflected toward Islam through the writing of European travelers in Islamic lands, thereby producing a corresponding image of Islam.

Today, it is possible to see the deep traces of the Orientalist tendency in several Western analyses of the Muslim world. Western media is dominated by the presentations that propagate a chaotic picture of symbols and Islamic cultural concepts. Descriptions of violence and fanaticism are updated, and thus the Western imagination is provoked against Islam. Moreover, the media focus only on the symbolic dimension of Islam and the Muslim world, and on the political and ideologically fundamentalist dimensions. They never make reference to other components of Islam. Betrayed by various media, it is impossible for the public to understand the political games that are being played in Algeria, Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iraq. As long as they do not have access to sound knowledge and information about Islam they will only be plunged into terror when faced with such images. The phenomenon of the rising Islamic awareness in the Muslim world today will be, for them, synonymous with international terrorism.

This viewpoint has been enhanced by some of the movements that have come from within the Islamic world: the Iranian Revolution, the crisis of the American embassy hostages, the assassination of Anwar Al Sadat (d. 1981), the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Algerian and Afghani crises, and the recent situations in the Gulf and in Iraq, in particular. The Western media's handling of these issues pointed to new hostilities after the collapse of the communist bloc. With every international act of terrorism that has been associated with Islam, the so-called "clash of civilizations" thesis has gained strength. In contrast to the heavy emphasis on Islam as a political actor, there is still little scholarly interest in the theological aspects of Islam. This lays bare the intellectual and ideological roots of the tendency in the Western imagination that insisted, and continues to insist, on reading Islam at a political level.

Two aspects of the political Islam claim attention here. First, under the influence of the great ideologies of the twentieth century, the movements of political Islam have tried to define Islam, first and foremost, as a political system. Second, they consistently employed a discourse related to, "getting back to the origins." This was undoubtedly a new movement of thought. It favored not the fourteen centuries of tradition, but the Islamic sources directly (the Qur'an and the Sunna) and the way of life of the first group of believers. Political Islam in this regard is defined as "Islamism"; the terms are treated as synonymous.

Both sociologically and cognitively, Islamism is a modern movement. Although its social base is composed of rural and middle-class sections of society, actors generally emerge from urbanized populations. Receiving their education in modern schools, Islamists have lived in close quarters with revolutionist, Marxist, and militantly ideological groups. They adopted political and ideological attitudes, organizational practices, and modes of social opposition in the non-Islamic countries, and they applied these forms to Islam so as to develop a new ideological movement that we call Islamism. They saw no problem in making use of Marxist, militant, or liberationist discourses in their political pro-grams. Sometimes the discourses and the ideological polemics they produced veered off to a point where they could not even be explained through Islamic principles.

The political Islam views Islam from the framework of the city and contemporary politics. Islam was now more a political and ideological system rather than a system of heart-felt, spiritual, and divinely transcending values. It had to say something concerning the new values of consumption being propagated by the big metropolis—the world of the cafés, theatres, music. In short, it had to say something about the set of values of the modern society and the city. Such an Islam was undoubtedly an Islam that the classical ulama and traditional Muslim society were not used to. The Islamists wanted their conception of political Islam to penetrate all fields, from the individual, to the social, to the scientific. It wanted Islam to resist colonialism in Palestine, Lebanon, Algeria, and Tunisia. In Egypt and India, Islamists sought to fight poverty and economic crises apart from colonialism; in Turkey and Iran, it was expected to tackle the problems of modernization. It had to address all political and social discourses developed by all factions, from the pretentious intelligentsia of the Middle East; to the tribal rural and local cultures in the Far East; to the Marxist, liberal, nationalist, and universalist ideologies of the West. Motivation through a belief in the afterlife, as can be seen in traditional Islam, became almost irrelevant. The result of this situation is that the belief in the afterlife lost its importance in ideological Islam; this made Islam more inclined to worldly pursuits.

Islamists tried to turn Islam into the manifesto of a reactionary ideology. While doing that, they did not want to base their ideas on the tradition of 1400 years. According to this Salafi attitude, classical, traditional Islam was no different than the static social structures of the Middle Ages. From traditional Islam, they thought, it was difficult to pro-duce systematic solutions to the problems pertaining to the nineteenth century. Consequently, Islamism stressed the first period of Islam and its original sources (the Qur'an and the Sunna). A group of these Islamists claimed that Islam was a system that preached essential principles only. This claim was proposed for the first time in the history of Islamic thought. Traditionally, Islam then brought detailed decrees to many specific issues. However, the Islamists oriented themselves not toward the entirety of traditional legal values that have stood the test of time, but to the original sources which they perceived as preaching only basic principles. Basic sources were reinterpreted in a way so as to stress human reason and entrepreneurship. In order to prove that Islam could develop modern concepts in the face of Western values, this was an attempt to read the Qur'an in a new, social, and political manner; for the traditional manner of reading did not give them the opportunity to deduce what they wanted from the sources. They reformulated many legal and political principles according to Western forms. It can further be said that what pertains to Islamists is their will to pre-sent Islam more as an ideology than a religion. This is what accounts for Islamism's emergence as a contemporary ideology within the context of urbanization, Westernization, and modernization and for the fact that it shares the socio-logical fate and foundations of other contemporary ideologies.

The rise of Islamic awareness should not be confused with radical political movements, however. It is a striking fact that the radical versions of political Islam have yet to build a social ground upon which their political ideals are built. The sociological foundations of these movements, rather than being religious and Islamic, are ideological, and they manifest themselves as a challenge to international imperial powers. Here, I assume that the insistency of seeking Islamic grounds for such movements is due to the rigid forms of Islamic attitudes which some Salafi movements in the Arab world adopt. These movements usually take Ibn Hanbal (d. 855) and Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) as their predecessors. The practical basis of Imam Ibn Hanbal's call for Islamic roots was the collapse of political and social morals in Abbasid society. Some who had to confront the threats that came from without effectively transformed this modest call by Ibn Hanbal into stricter attitudes. The demise of the Abbasid dynasty perpetrated by the Mongols, the wide destruction by Hulagu (d. 1265), and the conflicts that followed also resulted in a deep political and spiritual crisis. This multi-faceted crisis brought about a more obvious reaction which grouped itself into a particular school of understanding and interpretation around Ibn Taymiyya. This political and cultural environment was likened to the political and socio-cultural crisis that the Islamic world experienced before and after World War I. The emphasis of all the Salafis who favor violence is the same: that current ways of life lead to a sinful society and that political regimes have diverted away from Islamic essentials altogether. But Salafism that favors violence has remained quite weak and marginal in the overall picture of the Islamic movements. not been able to build a social ground upon which to stand. Hence, the rise or fall in Islamic awareness cannot be equated with the political aims of a group that is engaged in a political struggle.

A consciousness that goes beyond simple religiosity and worship would be more accurate when one speaks of the rise of Islamic awareness; and this is in keeping with the Islamic essence. This awareness is not necessarily a constituting of an alternative identity in the face of a social and cultural crisis. It is an attempt to transfer awareness and meaning to the identity that existed before and after the crisis.

The Gülen movement has, in that sense, been a blow to this relationship between the rising Islamic awareness and radicalism. The dynamics of the movement, now and in the past, have never been based on a purely political or worldly aim. Its foundational power brings about a high Islamic awareness and yet it never encourages the formation of a political party. That is why it is an exemplary movement where humane social values and ideals meet together to form a meaningful whole. I believe the success it has enjoyed in the field of education, in particular, is due to the solution it has presented to social problems that have been produced by years of deep cultural crises.

The Gülen movement offers a kind of "spirit of mobility" within which people from all sections of society can find something for themselves. That is what electrifies different groups of people. It is not like ideological movements that cry slogans and hold sway on the streets. Its social influence comes not from the streets, but from the fact that sincere individuals within it serve with a spirit of devotedness. One of the significant elements of the Gülen movement is that it bases itself on a model of a balanced human being. The institutions that it sets up are the results of an earnest "spirit of mobility" that is exhibited in the name of humanity. This spirit of mobility renders the movement active and dynamic, and saves its participants from turning into a passive and powerless mass that has no say in its own future.

Footnote[1] These authors still comprise the foundational body of work as "literary masters" required for students in the West who major in English, the classics, history, and political science.