After nearly five years of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon controversy and the subsequent attacks, France witnessed a near-parallel recurrence of these events this past month. The aftermath was a lot of horror, anguish, anger and questions. Of the latter, one that was frequently asked was this: Are the acts of violence that Muslims commit merely epiphenomenal to Islam? It may not be the most important of the questions the incidents evoked but it is nonetheless quite important and relevant, especially for Muslims (like me). Right off the bat, it seems, rightly, to be one of those questions wherein the variables (those being Islam and politics) discern little associative relation before morphing into a chicken-and-egg situation. Despite the burdensome unanswerability the question provokes in many, it merits asking if the issues that Islam finds itself mired in today, violence being the foremost, are an abhorrent consequence of politics run amok. Should we throw up our arms in the air and resign to the hypothesis that politics, especially in today’s world, is everywhere? That every relation, social or economic, is subsumed within politics? That to criticize a belief or a social act without prioritizing its political dimensions is impossible?
It is a cliché by now—an oft-forgotten one though—to reiterate what the Europe and the USA (super-Europe as Sartre called it) under the banner of human rights have done to Muslims and the identity of Islam, all in the name of Kissengerian “We have interests.” In fact not only in the name of raison d’etre but in the name of a culture whose specificity these nations took for granted and whose assertion branded in shibboleths like ‘civilizing mission’ made doyens of liberalism like JS Mill support British colonialism in India and epitomes of rationality like Christopher Hitchens dub the Iraq war as the prerequisite for the freedom of voiceless Arabs. It was the hawkish Ronald Reagan who eulogized the mujahideen fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan and conferred on them the rare honour, along with the Contras fighting the US’s filthy war in Nicaragua, of being the “moral equivalents of our Founding Fathers.”
But even if what winds up as September 11 or San Bernardino has its roots in the Afghan training grounds rendered fertile by the CIA’s funding of billions of dollars or the US’s utterly reckless foreign policy in West Asia, it would be myopic to see such incidents merely as a by-product of narcissistic politics and interventionism.
While it is readily acknowledged that politicizations of belief in Islam, much like other religions, have led to most of its extremist manifestations, what contextualizes this extremism, if not originates it, is the way belief in Islamic societies is structured. The problem isn’t political as much as it is social and is in no way peculiar to only Islam although it is glaring in its case. Again, this socialization of belief is almost always incipiently political, the constitution of (political) beliefs or their tailoring happening in a wider ‘ideoscape’ especially among the immigrant Muslim societies in which acts of violence are discreetly individualized. West’s denouncements of such individual acts of violence as theocentric terrorism is a restatement of its being myopic and displacing its own culpability in the genesis of such violence. Europe’s and the US’s domestic policies and undying Islamophobia catalyse this violence; it is history that especially the US officiated coming into its own. The Stingers that the US funnelled into Afghanistan were quite portable, after all! Maybe the West has to bite the bullet on its own bloodguilt and inspect the harried domain of causality and correlation. But in case this sounds like a roundabout defence of the ‘Islamist’ violence, it needs reiterating and reemphasizing that explication of behaviour doesn’t excuse it. If his (he is mostly male) radicalism is multivariate and hence indicative of the intricacies of politics, present and past, what to make of his behaviour in his native places?
Take, for example, how Pakistan’s ISI facilitated the ravaging of Afghanistan while the Afghans battled out two superpowers or the commitment of Arab nations to the Palestinian liberation cause which reached its nadir in the recent embracing of the Israeli settler-colonial project by the Saudi-led coalition of Gulf nations or Saudi Arabia’s signing of a historic arms deal with the United States in 2017 the upper limit of which was set at 350 billion USD. Once pitted to be the civilizational nemeses by the unhallowed prophets of academe (viz, Samuel Huntington, Bernard Lewis, etc.), these Muslim nations and the West have since been working hand in glove, the only difference remaining that America seems to cater to the dollar while the Saudis to anything that is anti-Iran. Despite all this accounting for, do Muslims in their native countries have no agency at all? Are they mere puppets in the hands of those at the top? The fact of the matter is that despite living under decrepit democracies Muslims are as politically active and socially creative as any other of their counterparts in other countries.
Coloniality weaponized religious identities, so when we acknowledge that the Hindutva of today’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India had its precursor in the early twentieth-century British legislation it doesn’t make us averse to condemn its active wielders today—modern Hindu males who haven’t had their consciousness fully erased by the heavy-handedness of politics. Likewise, the conservatism of Muslim societies which generates more lethal forms of violence routinely and offers moral scaffolding for everyday repressive regimentation and systems of conduct is a conscious arbitration between the ruling and the ruled.
To say that Islam of the twenty-first century has become a pan-ideology is to create a false dichotomy and only obfuscate the matter. Whether the appellative is religion or ideology, the Muslim subjectivity forms and is formed by it; we as Muslims remain interpellated within its various forms, as Althusser would have it. There is no need to sketch here the vile human rights record Muslim countries especially in the Middle East have. What is significant however is that such abuses have grown substantially since these countries took a theocratic turn—Pakistan under Zia, Iran under Khomeini, Indonesia under Suharto, etc. That none of the Middle Eastern nations has ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or that Iran still executes juveniles for petty offences is a shortcoming of their own. None of these countries is singularly representative of Islam, not even collectively but the problems aren’t specific to them either.
So when we leave the muck and mire of politics behind, what is left to canvass are the basic beliefs prevalent in Muslim societies and their legitimation and authorization through daily ordinary practices, and the structure of their truth claims. Now, like other major religion (at least the Abrahamic ones), Islamic beliefs are primarily scriptural and derive much of the sanction from figures of divine sanction. Basically such beliefs have value precisely because they are dogma. But the pith of the problem is the epistemic authority Muslims assert on what are essentially in-group beliefs. It is absurd to think that someone’s oral or verbal expression of something offensive to a specific group (no matter what the motivation) can be reciprocated with a sanction of murder unless the group believes its epistemic authority to be universal and demanding of a morality from other groups who have one of their own. The hate behind the Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo cartoons is obvious given that the community it targets in the name of satire has barely any means to counter its hegemonic test-of-tolerance in kind. The power of the word, in which the French literati believe a little too much, isn’t of the refugee Muslims. What exactly Charlie Hebdo is achieving through its art-for-art’s-sake provocations is suspect. Such patronizing calls for a reform of Islam only rigidify attitudes of Muslims towards change, reform becoming a watchword for West’s assertion of its norms.
That said, is everyone under an obligation to respect aniconism as much as Muslims do or any at all? That Muslims think that everyone is obliged thus is the cause of taking passing and unintended offences as sacrilegious, and deliberate insults and insults to injury as solicitation to murder. These denigrations are deplorable and need to be denounced for their racism, xenophobia and assertion of Christian white supremacy but not because they owe it to the truth of Islam and the status of aniconism in it. You lose it when you posit that to uphold your truth claim someone has to sacrifice his or her life. It is a claim of truth that is atavistic in its demand of a ritual sacrifice. To respond to a verbal offense with bloodshed is no quid pro quo, if that isn’t self-evident. And it is not entirely genuine to denounce this violence from within Islam, because this sort of abjurement comes primarily in the interest of faith and secondarily in consideration of the humanity of the victim. Yes, it underlines that Islam is too diverse to be bracketed as ‘a cult of death’ and that it embodies traditions of all hues but it simultaneously takes away from the significance and persuasive potential of treating humans as ends in themselves, something that is pivotal in hemming this violence. Of course, the Islamic orthodoxy would have you believe that the purest test of religious piety is to drench ones hands with indelible bloodguilt but the truth is that Muslims have known and know better. When Moses denounced the naïve shepherd’s prayers, in a parable of Rumi’s Masnavi—which anthropomorphized Allah—as blasphemous, Allah chagrined Moses, one of His most highly placed prophets. If Moses’s criteria of judgment aren’t fool proof how erroneous are the dogmatists of today who proudly sign anti-blasphemy charters sanctioning deaths of ‘apostates’ less and fellow Muslim brethren more!
The deliberate and widespread denigration of Muslim identity day in and day out in Western countries (and for a long time now in India and Myanmar and elsewhere) can’t be remedied unless the dynamics of power change. No matter what, majoritarianism is inescapable in the most liberal of regimes. And violence driven by hurt of belief and the persistent interrogation of their own identities is sterile and doesn’t help the cause of any Muslim. If anything, it is the West that comes off as triumphant when its histories and existent structures of racism and bigotry are overshadowed by and condoned through singular acts of violence they recursively instigate.
(Mir Uzair Farooq is a graduate student of Political Science at the University of Delhi)