One among many ‘Islams’: Political Islam

image: L

baris-100x100by Baris Celik

In his September 2014 speech at the French Parliament, Laurent Fabius argued that naming the organisation as ‘Islamic state’ is what the perpetrators are actually aiming to achieve. Although they want to be associated with Islam, as Fabius said that day, they have nothing to do with it. But the issue gets a bit murky when who has anything to do with Islam and who has not. Because religion is not an exclusive possession for any individual or community, no one can draw its borders. In parallel to Fabius, from my understanding too, the acts and mentality of ISIS are diametrically opposite to Islam. On the other hand, I also think that ISIS is not comprised of a bunch of people who are there just to spread fear across the world by simply beheading others or bombing European capitals. That is to say, they do believe what they are doing is in service of a system like Islam. More correctly perhaps, they perceive Islam as a religion that stipulates them to do whatever is necessary before making their own ideas prevalent around the world. For me, such a perception does nothing but silence ‘all positive aspects of Islam’s heritage […] be it the tolerant spiritual concept of ‘God’s love’ that informs Sufi Islam or the enlightened reasoning of medieval Islamic rationalists’. (Tibi, Bassam (2000). ‘Post-Bipolar Order in Crisis: The Challenge of Politicised Islam’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 29(3), p. 850)

I think trying to understand the concept of political Islam can help at this point. And in order to do that, we need to engage deeply with the concept by looking at how a political meaning can be ascribed to a system that is understood as a discourse of peacefulness and generosity. Although some argue that Islam is not apolitical by nature (the argument that Islam actually addresses political issues by outlining political ethics of not specifically Islamic state but of any polity), I think today’s link between Islam and politics is thoroughly different from the naive underpinnings of traditional Islamic law or governance. The example of ISIS clearly exposes this difference. Indeed, one thing immediately comes up to my mind when I read the news about the explosions or recent anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe is that perpetrators try to link Islam with highly political desires. Although the concept of ‘political Islam’ has been discussed by academics and politicians alike, I think the relevance of the issue is subtler now. It seems to me that with the conjectures of old debates, we can hardly make any significant progress in understanding what Islam means for those who we do not approve. What is ultimately desired is to ‘degrade and destroy’ them, but doing this before understanding their mindset will hardly be possible. I think the longevity of ISIS and the situation in the Middle East prove this point. The Vice documentary on the order ISIS established across the lands it holds is worth a look in order to have an idea about the ‘ISIS-style governance’ and the Islamic elements in it.

mosque-casablanca-1216724 - Jenni L from iStock for Baris May 2016

The order demonstrated in the documentary claims to be in line with the shari’a law of Islam. For instance, taxes are collected and perpetrators are judged according to this legal system. But there is a perhaps trivial though an important point to mention. As Bassam Tibi argues, ‘shari’a/divine law is a post-Koranic creation, constructed by humans’ (Tibi, p. 850). This is a point worth stressing, because the question of what should be taken as a reference in practicing Islam has been occupying the thinking on the issue for centuries. But before that, a more essential question is to be answered: What does a Muslim understand from the concept of Islam? A system that should be established and applied in daily human affairs in a material sense, or one of finding the inner peace and pure self? If the first option is the answer, then the words in Koran is to be understood as they appear, and all the loopholes should be filled by the interpretations of ulema, the community of scholars who are experts in ‘Islamic law’. However, the latter point will say that there are deeper meanings of the words in Koran and the duty of Muslims is to use their brain power to explore these mystic meanings. For example, the ISIS mentality takes the phrases about jihad in Koran just literally and try to justify their actions accordingly. However, from the latter point of view, the meaning of jihad is related to one’s own war with the basic, material needs inside him or her (such as overeating, drug addictiveness and so on) and the effort to go beyond them.

Coercion is another issue in the political reflections of Islam. What is inherent in the many versions of political Islam is mainly a methodology based on reward and punishment. Accordingly, an individual is believed to be rewarded by God once he or she abides by the provisions of Koran. Interestingly, in case an individual violates the law, punishment is undertaken by the worldly authorities and through the methods which the ulema find appropriate. However, the mentality of coercion is more openly opposite to Koran. Takes these two verses for example: “Had Allah willed, they would not have been dualists! We have not placed you as a guardian over them! Nor are you responsible for them (i.e. you are not their representative, and you are not charged with changing or guiding them – 6:107)”. – Source:

“Say, ‘O people… Indeed, the Truth has come to you from your Rabb! So, whoever turns to the reality he will have turned for his own self, and whoever goes astray, he would only have gone against his own self! I am not your Wakil (the guide of your essence and consciousness – 10: 108).” – Source:

Talking about religion has always been a sensitive issue in itself, but today the level of sensitivity increases as the events shocking our consciousness have religious motivations behind them. From Paris to Brussels, the attacks that killed many innocent people claim to serve Islam. Above everything, the perpetrators have ‘Islam’ in their name. This shows that Islam, like all other concepts (be it religious or not), does not have fixed meaning that applies to everyone who claims to follow it. What I would like to stress is just trying to see the ideological basis of the organizations and people we condemn. There is a place for ISIS in political Islam. In other words, their actions are not opposite to their political applications and interpretations of Islam. There is actually a strand of Islamic law scholars who think that raping the women taken hostage at war is in accordance with the shari’a law. These thoughts are irritating, but they are today’s reality and show that ISIS is not playing a simple death match. It does have an ideology, it does have a system of thought, but, this is just another reflection of Islam from a heavily material, political, and ill-structured, point of view. For me, what we call as ‘religion’ should have far less to do with this world. Koran is the explanation of a system that cannot be reduced to a place that is only in the size of a dust in comparison to the whole universe.

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