“Throw reason to the dogs—it stinks of corruption” read a slogan written on the wall of the Ministry of Justice in Kabul when the Taliban were in control before the US invasion of 2001. A crude slogan perhaps, but it seems as good a summary of the challenge of Islamist terror as one is likely to find in nine simple words. Attacks on innocents everywhere from Paris to Bamako, Madrid to Beirut, Brussels to Ankara, and now San Bernardino, added to the videos of deliberate cruelties uploaded onto the Web, seem to defeat any rational explanation.
The horrors suffered by the victims—beheadings, shootings, beatings, torture, even crucifixions—are not the collateral damage of a shock-and-awe blitzkrieg executed by generals, but deliberate acts of savagery aimed at inciting revenge. Bombing ISIS in Syria and Iraq appears to confirm its end-of-world expectations. However, there are many strands in this horrific ideology that need to be unraveled before policymakers will find the right strategy to overcome it. Bombing may work when facing “rational actors.” Can it be successful against a combination of fanaticism and “unreason”?
In the Islamic world the struggle between reason and dogma is almost as old as the faith itself. As Mustafa Akyol noted in The New York Times, when Saudi officials and Muslim critics argue about the responsibility for recent disasters in Mecca, including the collapsing crane that killed more than a hundred pilgrims and the horrific stampede that may have killed more than a thousand (including hundreds of Iranian citizens), they evoke ancient debates between rival Islamic schools going back to the ninth century CE.
Ranged on one side were scholars known as Maturidis and Mutazilites, who believe that God does not violate His own cosmic laws, that humans possess free will as “creators of their own deeds,” and that reason must be used to interpret the scriptures and establish moral truths. The rationalist theology—comparable to ideas of natural law adopted by Catholic theologians following Saint Thomas Aquinas—is still adhered to by the Shiites. Their opponents, the Sunni Asharites and the even more rigid Hanbalis—precursors of the modern Wahhabis who hold sway in the Saudi kingdom—insist that human agency and natural laws of cause and effect impiously limit God’s omnipotence.
The struggle for rational thought within the Islamic world is part of the wider struggle for power in the Middle East, as is shown by all three books under review. In his fine overview, The New Threat, Jason Burke, the Guardian’s South Asia reporter formerly based in New Delhi, and one of the shrewdest observers of contemporary Muslim activism, makes it clear that while “Islamic militancy remains a very diverse phenomenon which will not be destroyed by the elimination of a single group, still less an individual,” his focus is on “extremism from within the Sunni majority tradition, as the direct threat to Europe or the US from groups within Islam’s minority Shia strand is currently negligible.” The same, he argues, is true of threats from Palestinian groups based in the West Bank and Gaza, and locally focused groups in South Asia and the Far East.
While champions of Israel and their allies of convenience in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf principalities will doubtless dissent from this view on the ground that a much greater threat to the West—not to say to the whole of our civilization—comes from an apocalyptic-minded Shiite Iran possessing nuclear capacity, Burke’s judgment is soundly based. Although he refrains from analyzing the nuances of Islamic theology, it is clear that the dangers arising from Sunni revanchism are not just political, but inspired by powerful religious feeling.
Sunni Islam, in contrast to Shiism, contains a strand of dogma that is irrational because God’s commands are supposed to be accepted without being questioned, while their implementation was based—historically—on a theology of manifest success. The early conquests of Islam, from central France to the borders of China, were seen as proofs of divine favor and a vindication of Islam’s “supercessionist” doctrine, according to which the message of Muhammad, the last in a succession of prophets sent by God to guide humanity, corrects the earlier revelations granted to Hebrews and Christians. The argument from manifest success worked well during periods of triumph, but faced many problems when the vast majority of the world’s Muslims became the subjects of “Christian” nations whose religion was supposed to have been “superseded” by the revelation of Islam:
In the century between 1830 and 1930 almost the entire Islamic world, from Morocco’s Atlantic seaboard to the easternmost tip of Java, from the central Asian steppes to sub-Saharan Africa, was invaded or subjugated or both by non-Muslim powers…. Almost all the invasions provoked a violent reaction among many local people. Resistance took many forms but, naturally enough in a deeply devout age, religion played a central role. Islam provided a rallying point for local communities more used to internecine struggle than campaigns against external enemies…. All were eventually crushed. The technological and other advantages of the invaders were simply too great and the division among their enemies too deep. But to the believer, even these failures reinforced their faith: if victory was a sign of the favour of God, defeat was evidence the true path had been abandoned [italics mine].
In tracing the trajectories of the various Sunni-based movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS, Burke covers much ground that will be familiar to readers of his earlier books on al-Qaeda and September 11.1 What distinguishes his writing is not so much the quality of his research but the commonsense way in which he draws together the strands of a highly complex reality to create a picture that is not just convincing but readable.
Despite his book’s title he is not especially alarmist. He sees the “new threat” from Islamic militancy as being directed mainly at other Muslims, and especially the Shiites who have been the primary targets of Sunni revanchism in Iraq and Syria. While recognizing that it may be impossible to distinguish this threat from the Islamic militancy that “affects us domestically” in cities such as London, New York, Paris, and Madrid, we should remain aware that “the number of those in the West who have died in international acts of terrorism, including the nearly 3,000 killed in the 9/11 attacks, is only a fraction of the total who have died in the Islamic world from violence related to extremism.” While this may be hard to accept after last year’s atrocities in Paris and San Bernardino, it does not detract from his wider argument. What fascinates and alarms, he says, is not the dangers of terrorism, but its unpredictability:
Many of the places where we usually feel safe—trains, airports, schools—suddenly become danger zones. We extrapolate from the individual attack, and turn it into a general rule. A gunman has attacked a museum so no museum is safe. A classroom, thousands of miles away, has been bombed, and we cannot help but wonder if it could, might, happen here. Our faith in the institutions we have built to protect us is shaken….
In mentioning institutions Burke evokes an important theme. The sociologist Anthony Giddens argues that people living in the industrialized world have replaced (without necessarily admitting it) belief in a supernatural deity with trust in anonymous, “abstract” systems such as the international banking system or the depersonalized interactions between specialists such as the engineers, mechanics, baggage handlers, security staff, pilots, air traffic controllers, and even financiers who keep airplanes aloft. When any part of a system fails (as happened with the banking crisis) or is attacked at some point of weakness (by hijackers using box cutters, by jihadists bribing baggage handlers, or through inevitable security lapses), we sense our vulnerability.
The patience of travelers shuffling through airport security who allow their most personal possessions—not to say their intimate bodies—to be routinely examined by strangers attests to the global reach of the modernist credo: there may or may not be a god or gods, but it is in the integrity of human systems that we put our trust. The jihadists understand this. As “true believers” who know that Allahu Akbar, meaning “God is Greatest,” they know that any breach they make in such rationally ordered systems is likely to puncture faith in them.
For well over a century Sunni Muslims have wrestled with the problem of managing a world they no longer control and that no longer adheres to imperatives sent down by God and revealed by Muhammad in the manner of their forebears. Unlike early Christianity and Shiite Islam (both of whose founding figures suffered martyrdom), the Sunni tradition factors triumph into its historical narrative, making it much more difficult for it to adapt to modern conditions of pluralism than traditions—Jewish, Christian, Shiite—forged under conditions of failure, persecution, or exile.
Such traditions, as “losers” with disappointed expectations, learned to make adjustments to a world that rejected them at their very beginnings. Sunnis, by contrast, had the luxury of twelve centuries before they were forced to confront historical failure. Reformers in the Sunni tradition included Sayyed Ahmed Khan in India (1817–1898), who was inspired by the failure of the Muslim-led rebellion of 1857, and Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), who after opposing the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 pragmatically accepted the reality of imperial rule. Both men found ways of accommodating a belief system predicated on the theology of manifest success with the realities of colonized or semicolonized countries in which the vast majority of Muslims found themselves living.
In sum, such accommodations involved a de facto separation between religious and worldly realms, allowing for the latter to develop following colonial interventions. But these strategies, adopted for the most part by the national governments that succeeded the colonial regimes in Asia and Africa, have always been challenged by traditionalists and radicals who refused to accept that secular laws based on rational discussion should trump decrees handed down from God.
Muhammad Abduh, the leading nineteenth-century Islamic jurist regarded by many as the greatest reformer within the Sunni tradition, saw reason and revelation as working in parallel. Reason—as scientific endeavor—operated on a separate track from religion, which must respect its methods. Reluctance to apply rationality to social or technological issues was itself a form of shirk, or “idolatry”—the association of lesser beings with the divine. Despite his enormous influence Abduh failed in his project of comprehensively reforming Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the foremost institution of Sunni learning and scholarship.
Instead, secular education took hold outside of Islamic thinking and norms of behavior, leading to a bifurcated cultural outlook with “traditional” lifestyles of the poor and rural people contrasted with the urban and seemingly “Westernized” attitudes of secular-educated professionals and technocrats. Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949), an Egyptian schoolteacher, founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 with the aim of healing this cultural division by bringing modern institutions shorn of their then-Western colonial trappings—as he saw them—into an Islamic cultural frame.
In The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century, Henri Lauzière charts the trajectory of the reform movement, showing how the slippery term salafiyya, or Salafism, used by Western scholars such as Albert Hourani to describe pioneers of the reform movement, including Abduh and his mentor Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (circa 1839–1897), is now applied—more correctly—to the ultra-conservative movement that holds sway in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Salafism is usually characterized as antipluralist and literalistic in its interpretation of Islam’s founding scriptures, with its primary focus on the dos and don’ts of personal conduct, based on the supposed example of Muhammad, his companions, and the first generation of Muslims known as al-salaf al-salih, the “pious forefathers.”
Fundamentalism—a problematic term when used outside of the Protestant tradition—hardly captures the meaning of Salafism, nor does “archaism” as used by Arnold Toynbee in his Study of History. A rough and ready neologism that might translate salafiyya into English could be “pristinism.” While Lauzière’s impressive exposition of the term’s slippery semantic history is primarily of interest to specialists, his analysis is of crucial importance in demonstrating Salafism’s commitment to textual literalism, its hostility to rational engagement with the Muslim scriptures, its rejection of pluralism, its occasional embrace of violence, and its links with Saudi authority and power.
The great scholar of Islamic thought Henry Corbin (1903–1978) dwelled on the irony of Salafist logic, arguing that since it is utterly opposed to imaginative or poetic interpretations of religious texts, it “succumbs to the very idolatry it denounces.” Two events stand out in what might be called the “treason of the Muslim clerks” who suspended their moral and intellectual faculties in pursuit of Saudi acceptance. The Moroccan scholar Taqi al-Din al-Hilali (1893–1987) was a highly cultivated man fluent in English, French, German, and Arabic who “was truly fascinated by the methodology, intellectual rigor, and positivism of Western scholarship” during the seven years he spent at the University of Berlin from 1933 to 1940 and greatly admired his supervisor Richard Hartmann “for his dedication to academic freedom, his lack of bias, and his high scholarly standards.” By the mid-1970s, however, he had succumbed to the Saudi seduction. He did so when he became the cotranslator of a Saudi-sponsored version of the Koran into English. This version has been aptly described as the “Trojan horse” Koran because it translates verses requiring women to cover their entire faces, apart from their eyes, on the basis of highly contested and questionable readings of the original.
More abjectly still, Hilali insisted on flattering Abdulla ibn Baz, the Saudi kingdom’s highest religious authority, on whom his academic status depended, by endorsing Ibn Baz’s insistence (on the basis of his literal reading of Koranic verses) that the sun revolves around the earth. Although this was a small advance from the 1920s when teachers at the Prophet’s mosque in Medina were still telling students that the earth is flat, Ibn Baz issued a fatwa stating that any Muslim who propounded heliocentrism and refused to repent was an apostate deserving of death whose property could be confiscated. Although the ruling was ridiculed outside of the Saudi kingdom at a time when American and Soviet astronauts were already orbiting the globe, Ibn Baz remained in office until his death in 1999.
A more worrying story of moral capitulation, with implications for our time, involves Abduh’s leading disciple, Rashid Rida (1865–1935), who offered unconditional support to Ibn Saud following his conquest of the Hijaz, the Muslim holy land containing the cities of Mecca and Medina. After taking the city of Taif in 1924, Ibn Saud’s shock troops—known as the Ikhwan, or Brethren—massacred many of the inhabitants, including men, women, and children. As an Arab witness wrote of Ibn Saud’s forces at the time, “They normally give no quarter, sparing neither boys nor old men, veritable messengers of death from whose grasp no one escapes.” Rida, who is generally regarded as the link between the modernist outlook of Abduh and the more restrictive modernism of the Muslim Brotherhood, found himself unable to condemn Ibn Saud’s Wahhabi fanatics, arguing that such actions “happened in all wars and were generally the result of mistakes or personal grudges.”
Nor does Rida appear to have been bothered by Wahhabi assaults on the Prophet’s tomb in Medina. Rida was adamant, says Lauzière, that God rewarded orthodoxy (correct belief) and orthopraxy (correct behavior) with greatness and success in this world. Far from being venal, his attraction to Ibn Saud was fundamentally religious, based on the theology of manifest success. Given his admiration for Ibn Saud’s achievements, he saw “no use in tolerating the errors of ‘unorthodox’ Muslims when they remained blind to the genius of King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz [ibn Saud].”
The theology of manifest success drew scholars to the Saudi kingdom even before the money it obtained from oil enabled it to develop “its formidable network of transnational proselytism”—as Lauzière puts it—through organizations such as the World Islamic League. From the 1970s onward the purist version of Salafism exported from Saudi Arabia became normative, overshadowing earlier versions regarded as “rationalist” or “renewalist” in their approach. It became a totalist—not to say totalitarian—ideology seeing Islam not merely as a “religion” in the narrow sense of theological belief, private prayer, ritual worship, or ethical duties, but as “a total way of life with guidance for political, economic, and social behavior,” as William Shepherd put it in his 1987 essay “Islam and Ideology: Towards a Typology.”
The theology of manifest success does much to explain the failure of the presidency of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, where in July 2013 the military overthrew the only Islamist government to have been elected in a transparent manner after barely a year in office. In Inside the Brotherhood, the most impressive account of the Muslim Brotherhood published in English since Richard Mitchell’s 1969 study, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, the Cambridge sociologist Hazem Kandil takes his readers inside the movement by virtue of the access he enjoyed as an “informal” lecturer on “secular ideologies” to a group of members who worried that “their poor grasp of secular platforms” was hampering their political strategy.
Over a period of five years, from 2008 until after the fateful putsch of the Egyptian military against Morsi, Kandil bonded with them sufficiently to be allowed to observe them closely in their “‘natural habitat,’ amongst themselves and their families, rather than ‘in action’ (teaching, providing welfare, campaigning), as other researchers had done before.” The outcome, as he sees it, is “an entirely new approach to studying Islamism” that shifts the focus from what adherents “say and do to who they really are…from the inside: how Brothers are cultivated; how they interact; and what goes on inside their heads.”
While Kandil avoids talking about his lectures, they clearly failed in their purpose. His book is built around an extensive body of materials: memoirs, published and unpublished writings, interviews, and his own experience as an observer-participant, as well as a host of secondary sources. It establishes a new standard, even a new genre, of political writing.
By immersing himself in the Brotherhood he arrives at insights that many suspected without fully knowing or understanding the lives and thinking of members of the group. While it was known that one does not join the Brotherhood but must be chosen, Kandil provides details of its cultlike status. It is the movement that decides if you are suitable: “Brothers constantly vet relatives, neighbors, colleagues, and—the most yielding pool—mosque attendees for potential recruits.” They must pass through a three-year probation period—unbeknownst to themselves—before being invited to join.
The most revealing of Kandil’s disclosures concerns the ways by which the members of the Brotherhood engage with the Koran, the fundamental source of Islamic faith and practice. Instead of immersing themselves in exegesis like traditional scholars, they should, he found, limit their readings to “prescribed portions.” The Brotherhood’s house is one of worship and toil, not a place of arguing philosophers. Wisdom—and truth—will come not by discussion, but by creating the right zeitgeist around the membership. If the soul is perfected, the rest will follow.
Kandil was struck by the absence of students of politics, sociology, history, and philosophy among the educated members of the movement’s leadership. As the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide Omar Telmesani once put it, “philosophy is no more than the accumulation of human follies,” while social sciences are associated with forbidden “Westernization.” Indeed one of the striking things about the movement, which denies any such definition but considers itself “an island of awakened Muslims amidst an oblivious community,” is its anti-intellectualism:
If the Brotherhood wants to keep zealots and moderates, puritans and mystics, poor and rich under the same roof, it must eschew detailed debates. In practice, this amounts to allowing every faction to fancy Islamic government as it wishes.
Overall, Kandil explains, obedience is favored over analytical thinking—a feature that makes the Brotherhood appear both totalistic in the Salafist manner and pietistic like a Christian monastic order:
The Brotherhood is simply a womb. Its mission is to produce the men and women who will bring about change. There is no need for a plan. The mere existence of this exceptionally devout community guarantees success in every field.
The result is a curious anomaly: an ideology without intellectual leadership (the singular exception being Sayyid Qutb, the ideological godfather of modern jihadism, executed by Nasser in 1966, who saw martyrdom as the greatest contribution he could make to the Islamist cause). Whether in parliament, where the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party formed the largest bloc after the 2012 elections, or under the doomed presidency of Mohamed Morsi, the Brothers saw piety rather than political process as being integral to power.
As one Muslim Sister (daughter of a longtime member) put it to Kandil in March 2013, during the heady days of Islamist government:
Islam does not endorse a specific form of rule…. There is no fixed model. The Islamic state can be a primitive community or an empire…. Whatever achieves justice, effectiveness, and efficiency is Islamic.
Another interviewee cites the Koranic account of Noah in which “Noah did not know his final destination” but
was ordered to build an ark on sand—which bewildered his faithless contemporaries—and urge believers to get on board. Those who refused, like Noah’s own son, drowned. It was up to God to decide when and where the ark should land.
The same logic, if one can call it such, informs the outlook Kandil calls “religious determinism”:
If someone perfects his ethics and worship, he becomes eligible for divine intervention on his behalf in politics, economics, and war.
Kandil describes an amateur historian, Raghib al-Sirgani (a urologist by training), who presents a somewhat nuanced version of the argument from manifest success, allowing a temporary historical failure, while retaining the belief that Muslims can only succeed by virtue alone. God may allow non-Muslims to achieve success through material means, but “Muslims cannot do without religion lest they turn away from their creator”: “To keep them perpetually attached to Him, God made victory in this world contingent on religiosity, not material means.” “This brilliant tweak,” adds Kandil, “is essential to justify to Islamists why Western nations were so powerful in every respect despite their immorality.”
The disaster of the Morsi presidency has been widely reported, along with its chilling aftermath—the slaughter of the Brothers and their supporters and the coup by Morsi’s defense minister, ‘Abd al-Fattah Sisi—although it was never allowed to be described as such lest the US Congress deprive Egypt of its subsidies. The Saudis, the Brotherhood’s former patrons, fearful of the appeal that a democratically elected Islamist party might have for subjects of the Saudi monarch who are yet to be citizens in any meaningful sense, performed a spectacular volte-face by declaring the Brotherhood a “terrorist organization.” While others have described these grisly events from the outside, Kandil takes us “inside the heads” of the survivors.
The violent clearing of the Brotherhood’s sit-in at the Rab‘a al-‘Adawiya mosque on August 14, 2013, during the holy month of Ramadan, was not just a human tragedy entailing the death of more than eight hundred Brothers and their supporters (according to Human Rights Watch), it was an “ideological tragedy” because, as Kandil sees it,
Islamists were absolutely convinced—a conviction reinforced every night by their leaders’ inspirational speeches—that divine intervention was at hand. They were promised that their deposed president would be miraculously restored to office, and God’s empowerment of His soldiers would be complete. They were assured that Archangel Gabriel himself prayed amongst them to support their plight…. For about 40 nights, Brothers held vigils, fasting during daytime, and praying from dusk till dawn to make themselves worthy of divine grace. Of course, the rest is history. The only intervention God ordained that hot summer day was that of Egypt’s ruthless security forces.
Is this “ideological tragedy” to be interpreted, however, as an ideological defeat? The rise of ISIS, often seen as set off by Sunni revanchism in Iraq and Syria, is not usually linked to the collapse of the Brotherhood’s ambitions in Egypt. Events since Kandil’s book was written should warn us against glibly separating Islamist aspirations region by region. The Islamic doctrine of tawhid—divine unicity—as Jason Burke reminds us, has all-embracing, even totalitarian possibilities when interpreted in such a way as to encompass both divine and worldly realms, and these possibilities will grow exponentially when allied to eschatological hopes. As several commentators have argued—most notably William McCants of the Brookings Institution—“the US invasion of Iraq and the stupendous violence that followed dramatically increased the Sunni public’s appetite for apocalyptic explanations of a world turned upside down.”2
For all their tragic suffering, many of the Egyptian Brothers believe that victory is inevitable, because God will reward their virtue. As a Brotherhood cleric told the faithful at the Rab‘a al-‘Adawiya sit-in, “Whoever doubts Morsi’s return [to power] doubts the existence of God Himself.” It seems unlikely that additional bombing, or tortures inflicted on people who see themselves as the only true believers, can demolish expectations rooted in mental spaces that reason cannot reach. Kandil’s book provides one of the most telling analyses of such mental spaces yet written.