The Future of Islam

In recent weeks, a young Iranian-American author has been making his rounds of the talk show circuit. Turn on the TV and you might catch a glimpse of him on "Meet the Press" or more recently Jon Stewart's "Daily Show". Reza Aslan is a man in demand these days.

Aslan's new-found popularity is hardly surprising since his latest book, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, offers a surprising answer to the question on every American's mind since the Sept. 11 attacks: Why do they hate us? As it turns out, says Aslan, it's really not about "us" at all. Islamic terrorism, he argues, is for the most part a symptom not of a clash of civilizations but an internal conflict within the Muslim world -- a centuries-old battle over the future of Islam.

In offering a rich, nuanced, and insightful history of Islam, the book challenges dogmatic views on both sides of the political divide, be it the right-wing conflation of the battle against terrorism with a Christian crusade or liberals' fear of Middle Eastern groups that call for the establishment of a religious state. More shocking for progressives: he is also optimistic about the future of Iraq as the first successful experiment in Islamic democracy.

Reza Aslan spoke to AlterNet from his home in Santa Barbara.

Lakshmi Chaudhry: Let me start out by asking you what motivated to write this book? What were you trying to achieve?

This book was actually a result of a series of courses that I taught at the University of Iowa. I was a visiting assistant professor there, and taught the religion and politics of the Middle East. After Sept. 11, the course became so popular that it occurred to me that it’s information that most Americans don’t have. Most of the western world is fairly ignorant when it comes to the faith and practice, and history and political culture of Islam and of the Muslim world.

It also occurred to me that there were few people who were explaining this from a perspective of faith, as well as from an objective scholarly perspective -- as a Muslim and as a scholar of comparative religion.

The most startling claim you make in the book is about the Sept. 11 attacks. According to you, they did not, in fact, mark the moment of a clash of civilizations between the West and a pan-Islamic Jihad, but rather a moment in an internal conflict within Islam -- a 14-century-long internal conflict within Islam. Could you talk about that?

We are now living in the twilight of that era of Arab-Islamic reformation. This is a process that began around the time of the colonialist experience, some 100-150 years ago, when Muslims were, for the first time, forced to respond to not just the realities of the modern world -- secularism and modernization, and industrialization -- but also the western cultural hegemony that came part and parcel with the colonialist experience.

So naturally there were two broad reactions to it. One, there were those groups of modernists, reformists, and moderates who eagerly accepted these enlightenment principles that the colonialists were preaching -- concepts such as human rights, individualism, constitutionalism and rule of law -- and to a far lesser degree, democracy and popular sovereignty. They not only adopted [these principles], but strove to create an indigenous vision of these principles, and an indigenous Islamic enlightenment.

Then there were those Muslims -- who at that time I would say represented the majority of the Muslim population -- who responded to colonialism by reacting violently against it, by rejecting that western cultural hegemony, including these wonderful principles, as being a part of colonial oppression. They wanted to respond to modernity by reverting instead to what we would now refer to as the fundamentals of their faith. They wanted to go back to a purely and distinctly Islamic identity.

What we’re seeing now is a natural evolution of this reformation that began then, and which, in essence, is coming to a close. I call Sept. 11 a part of that internal clash because that precisely was the reason for the attacks on New York and Washington. Whatever we want to say about bin Laden, the savagery of his followers and their murderous inclinations, they’re not stupid people. They recognized quite clearly that this kind of spectacular attack on U.S. soil was going to engender an exaggerated response. That is precisely what they were hoping for as an opportunity to galvanize support for what was a losing cause before Sept. 11.

So they hoped that the U.S. response -- which would necessarily be bloody and violent -- would then create a counter-response. And they could then channel that anger and rage at the U.S. into support for their version of fundamentalism.

That’s right. Before Sept. 11, those of us who studied the region were predicting quite confidently that this was the end for these movements towards traditionalism and fundamentalism. Regardless of the enormous impact that Wahabbi Islam -- this puritanical vision of Islam from Saudi Arabia -- was having on Muslims throughout the world, including Europe and the United States, there was still every indication that the tide of reform and modernism was going to wash away these small factions of traditionalism, militantism, and extremism.

After Sept. 11, it went exactly as they had planned. We not only gave these small groups a disproportionate amount of attention, but also a disproportionate amount of power. Because of course, that is the whole point of terrorism – it’s the tactic of the weak. Its purpose is to give the illusion of power. So not only do we offer them that, but we also handed them the language with which to transform the so-called war on terrorism into a war against Islam, a war against Muslim values -- another colonialism endeavor, or in other words, another Crusade.

And how much ever the White House was saying that this isn’t about Islam, you point out that so much of the post-9/11 rhetoric was in fact framed in this Crusades-like language. So that made the job that much easier for someone like bin Laden.

Absolutely. It's sort of an unfortunate fact that we really played into the propaganda of these puritans by framing the war on terror in the terms that we did -- using that cosmic language of good versus evil, as a crusade against evil-doers etc. And even though the administration, and most people within the government, immediately changed the rhetoric very soon afterwards and tried to be very clear about the purpose and function of the war in Afghanistan and a larger war on terror, the seeds already had been sowed.

You write, “The West is nearly a bystander and an unwary complicit casualty of rivalry that has raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story.” Yet the book itself reveals plenty of evidence that the actions of Western nations have time and again worked -- however unintentionally -- to strengthen the fundamentalists in this internal clash. Whether it's the British siding with bin Saud and his virulent brand of Wahabbi Islam to create Saudi Arabia or the United States arming the Mujahidin who later became the Taliban. Is this is about simple short-sightedness or is there a historical pattern here?

Well, all nations have as their first priority their own self-interests and their own self-preservation. But we have been not just careless, but sometimes ridiculously so in our dealings with the Middle East. In the pursuit of our own interests, we have pitted clans against one another, drawn arbitrary borders around multiple cultures and multiple peoples for the exact purpose of being able to manage them better from a colonialist perspective. We’ve really sown the seeds of the discord and chaos that is taking place not just in the Middle East, but also in South Asia and large parts of Africa.

The important lesson to be learned from the colonialist endeavor is that we have a very limited role in the reform and the evolution that is taking place within Islam and within the Muslim world. We can encourage that reform. We can pour money into the already established institutions of reform being run by Muslims themselves. We can encourage our allies in the Arab world and Middle East, to ease their anti-democratic policies and allow the moderate voice of religious opposition -- like the Hezbollah in Lebanon -- a role in the government so we don’t allow that voice to become radicalized.

You stress the importance of recognizing the difference between Islamism and Islamic fundamentalism. Is that what you're talking about when you refer to the religious nature of politics -- because there is a tendency to lump all Islam-based ideologies together as "fundamentalism?

We do have a tendency to lump all of religiously-influenced opposition throughout the Middle East under the rubric of Islamic fundamentalism. But, of course, that’s a ridiculous way of thinking about it for a whole host of reasons.

First and foremost, there are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world -- that’s almost one out of four and a half, five people on earth -- and so it would be ludicrous to consider the vast array of political sentiments that exist out there to be confined to just either secularism or fundamentalism. But that's pretty much how we polarize it around here.

Even the term Islamism is such a problematic term because it means many different things to many different countries and it has meant many different things in history. The Islamist party in Turkey, for instance, is an exceedingly modern, exceedingly moderate, ideology – one that certainly does want to inject a greater role for Islamic identity within the secular Turkish government but has no interest in creating anything remotely like what the Islamists in Afghanistan created. So Islamism is a term that has a wide variety of meanings.

And what is the implication of that in terms of changing our perspective?

What we need to recognize is that there is a legitimate religious voice of opposition. And the opposition comes not just from religious factions, it just comes in a theological language because this is a region where religion and politics are very intimately intertwined.

So these autocrats in Pakistan, and Jordan, and Morocco -- and the list goes on and on and on -- are so afraid of the democratization of the region, they outlaw religious opposition and then therefore force it into the mosque where it becomes radicalized. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because then [the autocrats] say to the world: My despotic regime is necessary because if it weren’t for me, the fundamentalists would take over. The United States, especially, has fallen for that trick.

In the United States, we have this distorted vision of Islam because we say, for instance, there is no separation between mosque and state in the Muslim world, which is not true. It’s a very simplistic way of putting it. Certainly the relationship between the public realm and the private realm is more fluid in parts of the Muslim world. But in all cultures, the best way to express one’s political and social agenda to a large audience is by couching that agenda in theological terms. We did that ourselves here in America.

Or with liberation theology in Latin America, for example, which is an articulation of socialist ideals within a religious framework.

I think that’s a great way of putting it because there are a number of distinct comparisons between Latin American liberation theology and what I call “Jihad theology,” or “Palestinian Jihad theology.” Both of them do involve violent factions, of course, but primarily this is an attempt to tap into the symbols and metaphors of faith that are shared by so many of the people you are trying to reach in order to engender a political response against outside oppression.

According to you, we should be in fact more worried about Wahabbism, which is in fact the single most dominant strain of modern Islamic fundamentalism -- the real threat that needs to be battled within the Muslim world.

Like any puritan faith, Wahabbism has a false ideology of Islam as having been adulterated by the various cultural and religious innovations. That somehow if we stripped Islam of these wonderful, beautiful elements of diversity that have grown up around it from the very beginning, then we can go back to the original vision of Islam. That is a complete historical fabrication because there is no original vision of Islam. Islam, like all great religions, as I’ve mentioned, is in a constant state of evolution, a constant state of interpretation. So to try to refer to these religious and cultural innovations as an adulteration of pure Islam is a ludicrous notion and it must be fought with all severity.

The problem is that Wahabbi Islam has been for so long -- and still continues to be -- disseminated, funded, and supported by the Saudi regime. The regime, which has more money than god, is able to create mosques, schools, colleges, foundations, and charities throughout the world, particularly in Europe and the U.S. So they are having a far greater influence on the identity of Muslims, particularly amongst certain disenfranchised groups than they should be allowed. I truly see this movement towards reform as synonymous with a fight against Wahabbism..

So when you raise the question -- Can Islam become the basis to a liberal democracy? -- your answer is a resounding yes. Right?

Absolutely. There’s no reason to think that Islam is somehow inherently anti-democratic. No religion is inherently anti-democratic. All religions are just as much shaped by the metaphysical issues that they tackle as they are by the social, cultural, and political, and for that matter, spiritual milieu in which they rose from and within which they developed.

Religions are constantly in a state of evolution, constantly adapting to the needs of the community of faith that they represent. If they do not evolve, if they do not adapt, they die. The reason why we call Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. the world’s great religions is because they have been in a constant state of evolution and have managed to survive huge changes in the cultural, political, historical identity of their followers.

Islam, I would say, is even more adaptable and even more in line with what we now consider to be fundamental democratic values. The foundation of the Muslim faith -- the community that Mohammed created in Medina fourteen centuries ago -- was so deeply egalitarian and so radically democratic in ways that would shock a modern audience now. Also since Islam is not a cradle religion -- since Islam doesn’t have, let’s say a pope or a Vatican or any kind of officially sanctioned clerical hierarchy -- then it is infinitely more adaptable because it could be interpreted, and is interpreted, in a host of ways.

You point out in the book that an Islamic democracy will not be secular, i.e. entail the kind of separation of church and state that we in the West consider to be essential in a democratic system. And part of your argument against this Western notion is making the distinction between secularism and secularization. In other words, secular systems of government are the end result of process of secularization that a democratic state undergoes -- not a prerequisite for democracy. So our preconception that a Middle Eastern democracy should start out as being secular is actually pulling the cart before the horse, right?

Oh yeah, and not only is it pulling the cart before the horse, it’s just fundamentally incorrect. As we are constantly reminded by certain sectors of American society, our own democracy is firmly rooted in a Judeo-Christian moral framework. Certainly we are dedicated here in the United States to the process of secularization -- which is the process in which certain powers are removed from the ecclesiastical authorities and given to civil authorities. But we are not a "secular" nation.

Secularism that is an ideology that wishes to remove religion from the public realm, and that is not the United States at all. Religion has always been, and is very much a part of our laws, our constitution, our social morals and values, and our very national identity. And this is not unique to the United States. Israel -- while dedicated to the principles of democracy -- is nevertheless firmly rooted in very distinct and almost exclusivist Jewish morals. Its identity is Jewish.

So it very clearly indicates that you don’t need to have secularism as a foundation of a democracy. What you really need to have is pluralism. It’s pluralism that defines a democracy, not secularism. As long as you are dedicated to allowing the principles that are necessary in order to be called a democratic country to prevail -- particularly a social and religious pluralism -- then which particular moral foundation you choose to build your democracy on is truly irrelevant.

All religions, in essence, are a language in which we talk about our faith. Like any language, it can be interpreted in multiple ways. It can be used to create and justify both horrific actions and the most wonderfully sublime actions. And just as easily, it can be used to justify both the autocratic as it can to justify the democratic.

All this sounds great in theory. But aren't progressives around the world -- be it in India or the United States -- justified in their fears that weakening the separation of church and state opens the door for religious nationalists and their agenda -- which includes excluding or marginalizing minorities?

Right, but as uncomfortable as it is, there are two aspects to this situation. One, democracy by definition is going to be defined by the morals, values, and cultural identity of the majority of the people. And if those morals and values are religious in nature, then, unfortunately, that’s simply how it is. A democracy has to represent the sentiments and values of its people -- as long as the rule of law is in place, as long as the fundamental principles of human rights, freedoms of speech, religion, or the press, all of these things that make a democracy a democracy are not violated.

That said, secularization is an inevitable, historical process. We in the U.S. have had 250 years to work on this American notion of secularization and separation of church and state. Yet we still are at a point where we’re having fundamental arguments about whether the Ten Commandments belong in the Supreme Court or not; whether a congressman can stand on the floor of the Congress and talk about our domestic and foreign policy as a coming to fruition of God’s will on earth. So we’re still working on it. And quite clearly 50 or 100 years ago, the influence of Protestantism on this country was far greater, and even devastatingly so than it is now.

My point is that the only possible way for democracy to flourish in the world is if it’s indigenous. It might start out far more religiously inclined that we want it to, but as long as it’s dedicated to these principles of democracy then it will inevitably be on this path to secularization. Let’s give it a chance—we’ve had 250 years and we’re still working on it. They haven’t had a day yet.

The book predicts that the battle over the future of Islam is likely to be very bloody, and violent. So what do you expect to see over the next five to ten years?

I think that we’re seeing it now. Immediately after Sept. 11, as I mentioned before, these forces of extremism and militantism were galvanized and were really given this strength, both in numbers and in ideology because so many people were afraid to speak out against them. This was not only because they feared for their lives, but also because most Muslims didn’t accept the U.S. actions even though they disagreed with the actions and ideology of the Taliban and of al-Qaeda.

I think that pendulum has swung now. We are now four or five years removed from those events, and a sense of contemplation and calm has descended upon the world. Not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but throughout the Middle East, Muslims themselves are saying: enough is enough. This is not our faith. This is not how we’re going to move into the next century.

A lot has to do with how successful this political experiment is in Iraq; how successful the political experiment is in Afghanistan; and how successful the West -- particularly the U.S. -- is in pushing for democratic reform amongst our allies. That’s the important thing – amongst our allies. We have no influence over, for instance, Iran. But we have an enormous amount of influence of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. When the president in the State of the Union Address in a single breath praises Saudi Arabia and Egypt and condemns Syria and Iran, most of us wonder what in the world is the difference between Saudi Arabia and Iran? These are both fundamentalist regimes that have very poor human rights records -- Saudi Arabia far, far worse than Iran.

How do you read the situation in Iraq within this context? So are concerns -- both on the left and the right in the United States -- over the future of Iraq under a religious Shi'ite authority misplaced?

It does come out of that same misunderstanding--that inability to recognize the nuances of theo-political thought in the Middle East. For us to think that because the new Iraqi government is going to be dominated by the Shia majority, it is somehow a precursor to another so-called theocracy as we see in Iran is really ridiculous.

But I want to say about Iraq is that I am incredibly hopeful and incredibly heartened by what is taking place there. At a very early stage, Iraqis recognized what is taking place in their country with the coalition forces and the agenda of the United States. So they co-opted that agenda and made the post-war process their own. It is the Iraqis who forced this election to take place. It is the Iraqis who set the parameters for that election and it’s the Iraqis who will set the parameters for the new government and for the building of a constitution.

Now that post-war Iraq may not look the way we would like it to look. It will certainly not look the way that the American administration intended it to look, but that’s irrelevant. What we want is absolutely irrelevant.

What we need to do is make sure that this democratic movement in Iraq is distinctly Iraqi because democracy cannot be imported -- it has to be reared from within. It has to be rooted in the cultures, values, traditions of the people themselves. If we can encourage that process to take place naturally in Iraq, then Iraqis will have an opportunity to create a vision of genuine Islamic democracy -- the kind that Iranians had originally intended on creating before the clerics hijacked that movement. Iraqis have seen the failed religious experiments in Iran, the failed nationalist hypocrisy in Egypt, the failed military dictatorship in Pakistan. They have access to the many, many ways in which Islam has been misused to give sanction oppression and autocracy.

And if they succeed, it will indeed spread to other parts of the Muslim world. So the supreme irony of this entire thing is that we may very well get precisely what the president and the neo-cons promised us in the first place –not because of their actions, but because of the Iraqis themselves. Because there is such a huge yearning for and acceptance of these democratic values among Iraqis, but as long as it is done on their terms. And hopefully that is what’s going to happen in Iraq. I feel very good about that.

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