Islam is the antithesis to secularism; it is a political phenomenon that draws its life from the spiritual and moral. Should the west, therefore, view Islam with fear, hope or indifference? ‘
Of the three it is hope that looks out of place, beyond the scope of consideration, in today’s discussions, but George Bernard Shaw once, writing quite some time before the sharp polarisation of thinking post 9/11, made a challenging prediction about Islam: ‘I have prophesied about the faith of Muhammad that it would be acceptable to the Europe of tomorrow as it is beginning to be acceptable to the Europe of today.The world has changed drastically since these words were written: the communist bloc has collapsed; the west has assumed an unrivalled ascendancy and a new challenger to that ascendancy has been named: Islam. Now that Islam is in the spotlight, could it ever, as G B Shaw predicted, be ‘acceptable’ to Europe and the west; is it a threat to Europe and the west along the lines of Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ prediction, or is Islam just a mild nuisance as per Fukuyama’s ‘end of history thesis’?
Sadly, this question suffers in too many of the current debates because the political aspects of Islam that attracted some older writers, such as Shaw, are often abstracted from the discussion about Islam and placed in the category of mere ‘militant’ offshoots or anti-western cultural interpretations of Islam. With politics conveniently excised from the modern western definition Islam might be viewed as an irrelevance to societal discussions, were it not for the surging tide of political expression voiced by Muslims throughout the world. Older orientalist writing may sometimes have distorted Islam, but Islam was not recreated in the image of secularism; whether praising or condemning Islam, orientalists made the political nature of Islam the theme of discussion. The political perception of Islam is clear, for example, in Shaw’s writing: Islam ‘is the only religion which appears to me to possess that assimilating capacity to the changing phase of existence which can make itself appeal to every age’, and about Muhammad he said: ‘I believe that if a man like him were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world, he would succeed in solving its problems in a way that would bring it the much needed peace and happiness.’ Some idea of Muhammad’s statesmanship in addressing the problems of his own day can be gained from observing the terms of the treaty he made with the tribes who came under his political authority in the early days of the Islamic state that he established. One of the articles of this treaty states: ‘The Jews of the tribe of Auf, who are a party to this agreement and are the supporters of the Muslims, shall adhere to their religion and the Muslims to theirs. Excepting religious matters, the Muslims and Jews shall be regarded as belonging to a single party.’
However, in the view of many western writers today the political claim that any religion might solve the world’s problems is unthinkable. The combination of prophet and statesman in the person of Muhammad; the existence of a detailed political system to govern the affairs of mankind left by the prophet Muhammad, and the growing political aspirations of Muslims today is a source of concern for such writers. This concern is exemplified in the opening sentence of a recent book by Daniel Pipes, ‘militant Islam reaches America’, which posits the question: ‘Does Islam threaten the west?’ He answers the question in the negative, but warns that an entity called ‘militant Islam’ does threaten the west, ‘in many and profound ways.’ The distinction he made between Islam and its militant form is his own secular distinction: ‘Islam is the religion of about one billion people and has been the host of one of the world’s greatest civilisations… In contrast, militant Islam is a utopian ideology, initiated in the twentieth century, that attracts only a portion of Muslims (perhaps 10-15%), seeks to capture control of governments…’ In other words Islam is a spiritual faith and militant Islam is passionately political; Islam has about 1 billion adherents and militant Islam has between 100 and 150 million adherents; Islam is original and militant Islam is a modern invention; Islam can be a good host to civilisation, but militant Islam with its utopian pretensions would strangle civilisation. Such distinctions are commonly made. Will Hutton, for example, made the distinction between Islam and ‘radical Islam’ supporting the French ban on the Muslim woman’s head scarf in the Guardian newspaper on the 11th January 2004: ‘Radical Islam represents the biggest challenge to western civilisation since the demise of fascism and communism’. More recently Peter Hill expressed the same perceived dichotomy in his editorial critique, in the Daily Express, on the 3rd of March 2005. He was writing against the judicial ruling in support of Luton schoolgirl Shabina Begum’s right to wear a headscarf in a British school: ‘The wearing of such garb is not a religious but a cultural matter and it is a culture that is repressive and unequal.’ My concern here is not his expression of distain for Islamic culture, but the assumed distinction between religion and culture. This is another dishonest attempt to redefine Islam in order to present secularism as an axiomatic truth that is benign to religion. He also repeats the idea that he is not opposing mainstream Muslims; he is only opposing a minority of fundamentalists: ‘The wearing of the jilbab is not something supported by the vast majority of Muslims in this country, it is a fundamentalist statement…’ This article seeks to question some of these underlying assumptions and offer a basis for a better understanding of Islam, as it is rather than as those outside its fold would wish it to be.