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The crisis of political Islam (IV): The violent path Open in fullscreen

Azmi Bishara

The crisis of political Islam (IV): The violent path

The Islamic State group has exceeded others in the "management of savagery" [AFP]

Date of publication: 19 June, 2016

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Comment: The violence of the Islamic State group will force a rethinking within political Islam which uses the same scriptures albeit differently, writes Azmi Bishara.

This commentary, by Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara, is part four of a five-part series on political Islam. Catch up with part one,Problems of terminology, part two, Islamism and politics and part three Reform,violence - and join the conversation by following us on Twitter: @the_newarab

We are not tackling in this treatise quasi-theoretical premises that argue, for example, that violence is enshrined in Islam, or in religion in general, or even in the essence of man (why not  when such approaches proceed out of supposedly fixed essences?). This is not our concern here. Our concern is political violence resulting from the following factors:

One: Imposing specific behaviours and norms on people ostensibly derived from absolute religious duties, and deeming this dictation to be in one of the key missions and self-chosen definitions of a religious-political movement. In truth, this is inconsistent with the understanding of faith by many religious folk, who believe faith is based on free choice. In most cases, these movements often do not even wait to seize power before setting out to impose their beliefs on people.

Two: Considering violence the only path to power, after greatly manipulating the concept of jihad to the point that it is no longer recognizable. The new definition is based on declaring Muslim and non-Muslim rulers, and society itself, apostates, and refusing to reconcile with reality even for the sake of changing it.

Three: Losing hope in change through non-violent means, with the accumulation of frustration with and resentment against society, state. Those with this view now emigrate spiritually and morally from the society of infidels away towards an alternative Islamic society out of which they proceed to preparethemselves to conquer the bastions of infidelity and establish the Islamic caliphate.

Four: The growth in the number of people with characters that are aggrieved, introverted, extremely sensitive, belligerence, and begrudged as a result of endless oppression, humiliation, racism, persecution, and imprisonment and torture. These people could have been once believers in gradual reforms and democracy, but were stunted by regime actions or counter-revolutionary violence against their peaceful movements and aspirations.

Five: Violence at the hands of criminal elements that see extremist religious movement as a haven for their atonement and redemption, while continuing to be violent at the same time.

All the people affected by the violence sourced described above  can influence others who share similar experiences using social relationships such as family and kinship.  

But violence that is political and not religiously motivated perpetrated by religious and non-religious people alike, in self-defence or in reaction to violence by the regimes during turbulent transition periods, does not belong to the category above.

These five factors and others, such as sectarian violence, converged in the violence of the Islamic State group, which evolved out of Salafist-Jihadism under occupation and sectarian rule, following decades of tyrannical rule.

In Iraq, factors like the experience of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and its branches in Iraq; the presence of a tyrannical regime that, under international siege, staged a Faith Campaign while banning Islamist movements simultaneously; and then suffering in US occupation prisons and  prisons of a sectarian religious political Shi’i regime with tendencies for vindictiveness uprooting of others, all intersected to create a new generation of jihadists.

Some of the leaders of the Islamic State carry the scars of these experiences have assimilated and internalised them. What rallied even more support for the group was that Sunni Arabs, mostly Arab tribes, were excluded to the point of humiliation, even after their help had been sought against al-Qaeda.

The problem of the Islamic State is that it went so far in the "management of savagery" and sadism that it alienated everyone. It also monopolised absolute truth and declared an infidel all those who refuse to endorse its caliphate. Although the Islamic State group is an extension of the Taliban model (governing populations) and al-Qaeda (global Jihad) at the same time, it, unlike the Taliban, did not seize power in an existing state, but established its state on the lands of existing states without seizing power there.

The Islamic State group took the Salafist-Jihadist political discourse to its maximum extent, using it as a means for mobilisation until it fully exhausted it. By this we mean the discourse of Islamist groups that do not believe in the gradual "Islamisation of society", through preaching and guidance including to the rulers, but believe that declaring Jihad against the infidel society and then seizing power to impose the "true" Islam of the pious predecessor as they imagine it is the way forward.

The Islamic State also rejected citizenship and insisted on dividing society in accordance to the sect one is born into, to the point of declaring war on a large segment of citizens – now terms Rafida, Infidels, hypocrites, and so on and so forth.

Because the Islamic State took this discourse to its maximalist conclusion, clashing head on with the real world, society and state, it has entered itself into a predicament as it became a pariah among almost all Arabs and Muslims, and all people. The Islamic State thrust the Islamist discourse into a direct conflict with the daily needs of modern life, such as education, employment, healthcare, art, aesthetics as well as security and stability.

The problem is that the group did all this based on scriptures and Salafist interpretations thereof. Some of these are taught in the schools of some Arab countries, which has drawn some to conclude the problem lay within scriptures in and of themselves. Indeed, the question to the proponents of this view is: what has Islamic State done other than implement religious texts?

But these voices would not have rushed to such conclusions if they examined the scriptures of other religions, such as the Torah and the Talmud. They include texts that are much more violent, so much so that it would be embarrassing to quote them.

The debate with Islamic State is not a theological, philosophical, or doctrinal one on the interpretation of scriptures. In my view, the challenge is no longer about texts that have been subjected to all kinds of critiquing, analysis, interpretation, exegesis, and scrutiny, and I don't think Islamic State militants read these analyses or care about them.

No the debate should be about the historic, social, economic, and political circumstances of the emergence of forces that insist on interpreting and enforcing these texts literally, as though they are a modern manuals with instructions complete with policies, procedures, and guidelines.

The violent and exceptional transfiguration of what political Islam terms generally "the implementation of Sharia" will take all proponents thereof into a predicament – exactly like what happened with the practices of Pol Pot and Stalin, and the failure of the Soviet Union and Communist movements in general, even those that critiqued the Soviet experiment. Indeed, it soon became apparent that the stunted public does not discern much these hues of the same movement: all those who used leftist axioms like class exploitation and the state's ownership of the mean of production was soon associated with things like concentration camps in Siberia and the failure of communism to compete with capitalism. But the fairness of these judgments is not our subject here.

The violence which manifested itself in the practices of Islamic State, and how this group dealt with the achievements of Arab and Islamic civilizations; the shock it caused; and its Arab, Islamic, and global isolation will no doubt deeply impact political Islam in general, which uses the same terminology in its discourse even if it differs with the Islamic State in its methods and even if the two sides have warred and excommunicated one another.

Thus, the post-Islamic State phase that will come will force Islamist movements to review their discourse. Some Islamist intellectuals will criticize the silence and complacency vis-à-vis extremism when it started to emerge. Others will criticize the way scriptures were used in implementation of the Sharia in our time. Others still will criticize scriptures themselves.

Ultimately, the lesson is that the path of the Islamic State does not lead to the caliphate, but to a deep crisis for religiously motivated political violence​

Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian intellectual, academic and writer.

This article is part four of a five-part series on political Islam. Catch up with part one, Problems of terminology, and part two, Islamism and politics - and watch out for the next instalment by following us on Twitter: @the_newarab.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.


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