Can Islamism be Distinguished from Islam?

by Lorna Salzman

A recent column by Daniel Pipes expresses a belief that Islam, the religion, can and should be distinguished from radical or political Islam, which is a totalitarian ideology and therefore little different from secular totalitarian ideologies we witnessed during the 20th century (Communism, Nazism, Marxism, Maoism).

Wishful thinking on behalf of secularists, liberals, libertarians and pro-democracy activists has probably convinced these groups that such a distinction is possible. But a deeper look at what characterizes the religion of Islam raises some serious doubts.

The foundations and doctrines of Islam have been made accessible by the writings of numerous historians, political analysts, religious leaders and academics. The most repulsive practices of sharia law are now on full display across the world: the enslavement and abuse of women; the hatred of non=Muslims, Jews in particular; the oppressive patriarchy that defines transgression and oversees its punishment (mostly against females); the banning of nonMuslim literature, arts, and most significantly science; media censorship and state=sponsored propaganda against enemies, which is to say everything and everyone foreign and nonMuslim.

All of these are repugnant to those who believe in democracy, personal freedom, equality and human rights. But Muslim societies boast of these precisely BECAUSE they abhor these in the extreme, and have no hesitation in saying so publicly. So we need to ask different questions about Islam and sharia law and seek explanations that can shed light on the Muslim hatred of the whole panoply of post-Enlightenment values that have allowed western culture to reach such high levels of scholarship, artistic accomplishment, scientific progress, equality and, not least, democracy.

As some progressive Muslims have already noted, Arab and Muslim cultures have been left behind in the dust, mired in medieval theocracy, ignorance, superstition and the persistent belief in restoration of the ancient caliphate reigning triumphantly over the rest of the world, in a pervasive state of underdevelopment of minds, souls, intellects and social progress. Independent studies measuring levels of social and technological development routinely conclude that the Arab world is at the bottom in every aspect: poverty, illiteracy, technology, health, culture. The Arabs are today's barbarians.

The fact that many of the Arab countries possess oil wealth beyond measure but no internal political resistance exists to the unequal distribution of wealth and lack of development indicates that more than corruption is at work. Something else in the Arab/Muslim world is pushing the men of these societies into terrorism against foreign cultures and religions rather than against their own oppressive rulers. That thing is of course religion. One must in some sense admire the success of a religion that can make the poor and oppressed people quietly accepting of their own miserable lives and governments.

The success of Islam in the Muslim world is therefore more than just revelation and indoctrination, though these are fundamental to the propagation of the Islamic state. It is helpful to have a sacred scroll or book and a powerful priesthood to keep people in line. But they are not enough. Even the Catholic Church learned this early on; the early Christians took the gods and goddesses of paganism and transformed them into saints to ease the transition and comfort the faithful. Later the church gussied up its strictures with luxurious accoutrements: extravagant cathedrals, sculptures, paintings, to ease the pain of an otherwise ascetic faith.

Islamic doctrines and practice have persisted for nearly two centuries not through art or philosophy, both of which were ruthlessly suppressed, but through expansion of their theology into every aspect of daily life; religious doctrine was expanded from belief in a solitary god into the realm of physical reality by assuming an EXPLANATORY role regarding human relations and behavior and humanity's place in the cosmos.

This explanatory function pertains to everyone's life and thought processes. No other is allowed; no other appeared. The space that otherwise might have allowed philosophical dialogue, free inquiry, scientific investigation and experiment was thus filled in its entirety, pre-empting rationality, dissent and science. In sum the intellectual impoverishment of Muslims is a direct reflection of radical Islam.

Elsewhere, in the west, starting in the late 17th century and onward, science served as the chief explanatory force in everyone's life. In place of superstition, whether pagan or religious, science produced demonstrable evidence for how and why things work,, i.e. a rational basis for cause and effect. Today, whether someone has an education or not, or belongs to a religion or not, a general belief in real objective causes for events exists. When two planes crash into two skyscrapers in NYC, or Hurricane Katrina inundates New Orleans, everyone knows that there were real forces and/or people behind those events. (Conspiracy theories and rants of Christian fundamentalists about these being punishment for American imperialism or homosexuality are voiced but not taken seriously).

Not so in the Muslim world. Today one regularly reads media reports like the following:

"Egyptian Cleric Ahmad Abd Al-Salam: Jews Infect Food wih Cancer and Ship it to Muslim Countries" (MEMRI, 2/24/09)

"Iranian Filmmaker Nader Talebzadeh Denies the Holocaust and States: Al Qaeda and the Mossad Carried Out 9/11 Together" (MEMRI, 4/02/08

"Iranian TV Swine Flu -A Zionist/American Conspiracy (MEMRI, 5/12/09

"Hamas TV Scientist Dr. Ahmad Al-Muzain: Bayer Derived Its Treatment for AIDS from Prophet Muhammad's Hadith About the Wings of Flies" (MEMRI, 11/13/08

"New Conspiracy Theory in Egypt: It Wasn't Saddam But His Double Who Was Executed" (MEMRI, 1/30/07)

"Pakistani Security Expert Accuses Western Zionists, Hindu Zionists of Planning 11/26 Mumbai Terror Attacks" (MEMRI, 12/04/08)

(from Robert R. Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind).

The conspiracy theories that include the infamous fraud, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, repeated claims that Jews control the media and Wall St., etc., owe their persistence not merely to hysterical Muslim anti-Semitism but to the fact that the Muslim religion categorically rejects the notion that there can be rational NON-theistic explanations for events. In this atmosphere, the wildest speculations are promulgated and believed, not only because the Muslim media suppress western news stories but because their religion prevents them from believing them in the first place.

This is an extraordinary way of thinking and living, so alien and so vexing to rational minds, that it prevents us from understanding the real roots of Islam and from shaping a rational response to it. Worse, it misleads us into thinking that the ordinary adaptations, concessions and dialogues we utilize in foreign relations will suffice to tame Islamic terrorism or persuade Muslim immigrants to accept the conditions of secular democratic society. It is not a question of "multiculturalism", tolerance, "interfaith dialogue", but rather a question of WHETHER observant Muslims -as opposed to secular and apostate Muslims - can EVER overcome their innate resistance to reason.

Honesty compels us to note the similarity of Muslims to fundamentalist Christians who doubt evolution and preach creationism. These people have also rejected rationality and science and their world view is no less retrogressive and irrational than Muslims, nor are their efforts to mold secular institutions and impose their irrational views on society less reprehensible and dangerous.

Robert Reilly's book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, traces this closure back to the post=-Hellenic period, but his analysis of why Islam rejects democracy is especially astute. In a democracy, he says reason is prime and a pre-requisite for democratic legitimacy and order, whereas in Islam, power is prime, in thrall to Allah.

Thus, democracy and constitutional order are a form of blasphemy. He quotes an Al-Qaeda author, Yussuf al-Ayyeri (killed in 2003) in his last book entitled "The Future of Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula after the Fall of Baghdad":

"It is not the American war machine that should be of the utmost concern to Muslims. What threatens the future of Islam, in fact its very survival, is American Democracy".

Says Reilly: "Because democracies base their political order on reason and free will, and leave in play questions radical Islamists believe have been definitively settled by revelation, radical Islamists regard democracies as their natural and fatal enemies. Man-made law is a form of "shirk" in that its purported authority impinges upon that of the divine law that has already been prescribed for every situation. It places man's laws on the level of God's. Thus it appears to divinize man and is seen not so much as a form of political order but as a competing false religion. This is why Sayyid Qutb (LS note:the philosophical father of the Muslim Brotherhood) declared in "Milestones": Whoever says that legislation is the right of the people is not a Muslim".

In "Democracy: A Religion!", Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a Palestinian-Jordanian theologian, confirms Qutb's view and says Muslims must "destroy those who follow democracy, and we must take their followers as enemies- hate them and wage a great jihad against them". Reilly stresses that because Islamists regard reason as impotent, the transformation they seek requires FORCE; force is the only instrument for fundamental change.

When one realizes that there are unbridgeable chasms between Muslims and nonMuslims - chasms regarding the knowledge of reality and perception, of how one defines or receives knowledge, of how one explains cause and effect, of the conflict between reason and irrationality - one realizes that this is more than a religious conflict between one people's god and another. Judeo-Christianity and its subdivisions, by embracing science and the Enlightenment, embraced the possibility of democracy and freedom, of dissent and free inquiry, all of which made intellectual progress in science and the arts possible.

The inescapable conclusion is that Muslim integration into nonMuslim democracies will require the erasure of the foundations of Islam and its replacement by a wholesale embrace of western reason and philosophy. In effect, the religion of Islam has to revert to a simple form of privately practiced monotheism like that of Judaism. Muslim leaders who do not understand this or persist in thinking that traditional Islam can be forcibly imposed on western societies are living in a dream world.

Those who will suffer the most from this stubbornness are the young Muslims, those of future generations, and especially Muslim women, who will be doomed to an impoverished life of both mind and body. In effect they will remain religious slaves, never to be freed. Those of us who still suffer guilt over black slavery in this country should ponder this fact. If ever there were needed a new struggle for freedom, the one to free Muslims from their religion is the one most desperately needed.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.