The Ecstacy of Ideology: Islam,terrorism and grand narratives

In 1998, the Arabic newspaper Al-Quds-Al-Arabi published a document declaring “Jihad against Jews and Crusader”. The “fatwa” briefly listed out grievances against the United states, condemning US for “occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.”

These crimes were enough to declare the killings of all Americans, “civilian and military”, as the duty of every Muslim. The document bore the signature of Osama Bin Laden,along with heads of Jihadist groups in Pakistan,Bangladesh and Egypt.

Three years after the fatwa was published, the 9/11 attacks shook the world. It seemed that the “clash of civilizations” predicted by Samuel Huntington was finally here.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the then US President George W. Bush proclaimed that this was a war of “good versus evil”. Senator John McCain further re-inforced this point when he said “this is the face of transcendent evil”. The philosopher Sam Harris was more blunt. We were not at war with terrorism, he wrote, we were at war with Islam.

Are we? Does Islam pose a unique challange to the world? Is Islam irredemable? Or is it, as liberals keep reminding us, “a religion of peace”?

Religions cannot be divorced from the socio-political context in which they originate. They are a product of their times. For instance, monotheism, as we know it today, was born out of political complications. The earliest form of monotheism was propagated by the Egyptian king Akhenaten. However, this lasted for a very brief period.

Initially, there was no separation between the church and the state. The political and the religious were one. Battles were not fought merely between nations/empires. They were fought between Gods. Divine beings were directly involved in war. In the Old Testament, Yahweh directly strategizes the war(2 Samuel 5:19–23). The defeat of a tribe meant the defeat of the God venerated by that tribe. Usually when a tribe lost, it adopted the God of the winning tribe. This is not to say that they stopped believing in their previous God. The tribes accepted the existence of different dieties. They merely worshipped the stronger deity. This form of belief is known as monolatry. Contrary to what Biblical fundamentalists believe, the Old testament asserts the existence of monolatrism. Consider this verse:-

“When Elyon gave the nations their inheritance, when He divided the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the Yahweh’s portion is His people.”( Deuteronomy 32:8)


Elyon or El or Elohim/El Shaddai(usually translated as God or Most High)is the deity that the likes of Issac and Abraham worshipped. Yahweh(usually translated as Lord) is the deity which appeared to Moses much later. When the Israelites were defeated by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, they refused to stop worshipping Yahweh. The existence of their nation was predicated on the superiority of their God. They came to terms with their defeat by proclaiming the existence of only one God i.e. Yahweh. They still had to reconcile the existence of Elohim(God of Abraham,Issac and Jacob) with their worship of Yahweh. Thus, Yahweh tells to Moses “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham,Issac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them”(Exodus 6:2–3) Problem Solved!

This is but one of the examples of how contempary political situation influences the formulation of theological precepts.

The difference between religions often emerges due to the political context around which they’re formed. Islam was formed by a conquered people, unlike Christianity. Its founder, unlike Jesus,Moses and Buddha, ruled over a state. There is a precedent of separation of church and state(Matthew 22:21) in Christianity. Islam, on the other hand, considers the bond between the sacred and the profane to be adamantine.

The historian of Islam Bernard Lewis points out that Islamic society has always been a polity as well as a religious community. Lewis further points out that for many Muslims, their loyalty to religion transcends other loyalties. It is for this reason that we have an Organization of Islamic Conference but no such organization for Buddhist or protestant nations.

The military form of defensive Jihad finds explicit support in the Quran as well as Hadith. Consider this verse, for instance:-

“Those of the believers who stay at home, other than the disabled, are not equal to those who strive in the path of God with their goods and their persons. God has placed those who struggle with their goods and their persons on a higher level than those who stay at home” (Quran 4:94)

Muhammad leads prayer, Medieval Persia

Muhammad’s death splintered the Islamic community. Within 29 years of the Prophet’s death, three caliphs were assassinated. Two of them were assassinated by Muslims who believed they were justly removing tyrants. Later, the Ḥashishiyya(Assassins) sect was formed with the intention of eliminating those who were impious. They primarily targeted Muslim rulers, though they did murder some Christians as well. They were also known as the fidayeen (those who sacrifice themselves). Scholars have argued that they are the closest precursor to contemporary terrorists/suicide bombers.

In the 18th century,Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab formulated the doctrine of Wahhabism. He advocated for a purer version of Islam,relying only on the Quran and Sunna. He considered the reverence towards the graves of prophet Muhammad and his companions to be unislamic. These were innovations(bid’ah) which needed to be shunned. According to him, every pure Muslim had an obligation to wage Jihad against Muslims and non Muslims alike. Since Muslims had abandoned the teachings of the Prophet by committing sins such as veneration of graves, they were now no different than Mushrikin(polytheists).

Inspired from wahabbism, the Islamic theorist Sayyid Qutb argued that contemporary Islamic society is no different from Jahilliya(the age of ignorance before the Prophet preached Islam). Even “Islamic culture, Islamic sources, Islamic philosophy and Islamic thought are constructs of Jahiliyyahh.”To return to the ways of the First Muslims, it was necessary to eliminate the “lordship of Man”. The idea of Jihad being just a defensive war was fundamentally wrong. It was a product of the “defeated mind”, claimed Qutb. How did he reconcile these beliefs with clear injunction of Quran to fight only in defense? The Quran forbids the believers to transgress(2:190). The permission to fight is granted only for those who have been wronged,persecuted and oppressed(22:39). These contradiction are often reconciled by claiming that these were earlier verses, thus they held less value than newer verses(such as 9:29) which asked believers to fight those “who do not believe in Allah or the last judgement”.

The tradition of abrogating certain verses(Naskh) originates from the Quran itself. The Quran states “For whatever verse We might abrogate or consign to oblivion, We bring a better one or the like of it. Are you not aware that Allah is All-Powerful?”(2:106)

Drawing upon this tradition, the Jihadists claim that all of the peaceful verses were abrogated.

However, nowhere in the Quran is the killing of civilian women or children is prescribed. Osama Bin Laden made this clear when he said “the one issue on which all people agree, even if they themselves have been the victims of oppression and hostility, is that you cannot kill innocent children”. Yet, Bin Laden’s so called “fundamentalist” terrorist organization actively engages in the unislamic massacare of innocent Children as well as Muslims.

Critics of Islam argue that we are faced with an ideological battle. The only way to come out of this battle is to destroy the motivating ideology i.e. Islam itself. This kind of attitude is exemplied by the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Islam, she claims, is beyond reform. The problem isn’t a few rotten apples, the problem is the “entire basket”. Quoting Sam Harris, she re-iterates that Islam is a moderlode of bad ideas. Islam needs a reform.

I consider this strand of thinking to be unpragmatic for the most part. What they fail to understand is that even those who claim to be “fundamentalist” dont actually adhere to everything that the Quran or the Hadiths prescribe. They don’t hesitate to resort to clear unislamic means to achieve the end, as we have seen. Moreover, the argument that Islam has not undergone reformation like Christianity is not entirely correct.

Consider the example of the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini. The fatwa called upon Muslims around the world to assassinate Rushdie and those involved in the publication of the book. Rushdie’s “crime” can be seen as tantamount to apostasy. Lewis has argued that the fatwa was in direct contradiction to Islamic jurispendence. Fatwa is a ruling. Apostasy is punishable by death according to many Hadiths. Both sunni and Shia schools of Islamic jursipendence consider apostasy to be a crime. However, they differ on the punishment. Some schools prescribe a waiting period for recantation failing which they are to be executed. The Ja’fari and Hanafi school only prescribe solitary confinement and flogging for women until they recant. Moreover, these punishments are applicable in Islamic states. The idea of prescribing punishment to a Muslim in a distant part of the world is of relatively recent development.

Suicide bombing, too, is a relatively recent development which finds no support in the Quran. Dying in the hands of the enemy is encouraged but killing yourself in the process is unislamic. In fact, suicide is actively discouraged both by the Quran and the Hadiths. The Jihadists are attempting to “reform” Islam, whether we admit it or not. They are making fundamental changes in the way Islam has been percieved for centuries. Islam is already going through a reform. The problem is the path that this reform is taking. The need of the hour is to change the path of this reform and advocate for changes that are conducive to the ideals of democracy, secularism and pluralism.

It is also not correct to claim that Islam is a religion of peace. As we have seen, there is enough in Islam that can be used to justify violence. Islam is a religion and like every religion it has its faults. Every religious person picks the parts he/she likes and rejects the one which doesn’t fit her/his narrative. One can’t accept everything in a religion for the simple reason that there are contradictions in every religion. It is neither purely a religion of peace nor a religion of violence

Islamic society is often accused of being frozen in the middle ages. Yet, the tradition of openness and rationality actually flourished under Islam in the middle ages. Muslim philosophers such as Al Kindi drew influence from Greek treatises and helped to translate them into Arabic. The likes of Al Khwarizmi widely influenced the establishment of Algebra as a separate discipline. The rationalist school of thought called Mu’tazila gained traction. It sought to bridge the gap between faith and reason. At the same time, philosophers like Al-Ash’ari advocated for a closed view of Islam. It was the Mu’tazila school which was accepted as the standard doctrine. The seventh Abbasid caliph actively persecuted Muslims who did not subscribe to the rationalist doctrine.

Starting from Alfonso I’s conquest of Zaragosa, Islamic civilization began to decline. Hulagu’s conquest of Baghdad served as the final nail in the coffin. The Mongols destroyed mosques,hospitals,shops,houses and most notable the grand library of Baghdad. This library housed the works of Al Kindi, Averroes, Al Ghazali, Omar Khayyam and other Islamic scholars. Islamic society retreated to orthodoxy in the aftermath. It was during this time that puritanical and extremist forms of interpretation such as those of Ibn Tammiyah and Abd Al-Wahhab gained popularity.

Islamic society since then has not been able to recover the “Golden Age”. The transnational revivalist Jihadist groups like Al Qaeda argue for a return to the glorious past of the first Muslims. Al Qaeda initially fought in Afghanistan to ward off the Soviet invaders. The radical terrorist groups flourished in the most backward countries, ravaged by war and deprived of resources.

Bin Laden requested the leader of the Taliban(Afghanistan) Mullah Omar to shelter Al Qaeda. Omar agreed. Not long after Taliban sheltered him, the Al Qaeda started terrorist attacks. The Taliban was an organization which had no pan-Islamic ambitions. It was merely fighting for Afghanistan. The terrorist attacks irked Mullah Omar. He announced that Bin Laden has “no authority to issue fatwa”. Why did the Taliban continue to shelter him? The anthropologist Thomas Barfield describes it in this manner:-

“[The Taliban did not] anticipate the potential difficulties that might arise by giving sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda movement in the late 1990s. After September 11th 2001, when the United States threatened them with destruction if Osama and al Qaeda were not expelled, Omar called for an assembly of clerics to meet and affirm his claim that because Osama was a guest of the country he could not be given up. With a nuanced approach that would have done credit to any Pashtun tribal jirga, the assembled clerics told Omar that he must indeed protect his guest, but that because a guest should not cause his host problems Osama should be asked to leave Afghanistan voluntarily as soon as possible. It is notable that the question Omar tabled was not one of sharia jurisprudence, but rather an issue of Pashtunwali. Thus, and very fittingly, the last major policy decision of the Taliban before they were driven from Afghanistan was based on good customary law standards in which religious law provided only the window dressing”

The sacred tenets of Pashtunwali tribal code notably include hospitality towards vistors(Melmastia) and giving sanctuary to a guest, even at the cost of your own life(Nanawatai). The taliban did not surrender Bin Laden because of these codes, not because they had the same goal. Here is how Mullah Omar explains it:-

Islam says that when a Muslim asks for shelter, give the shelter and never hand him over to enemy. And our Afghan tradition says that, even if your enemy asks for shelter, forgive him and give him shelter. Osama has helped the jihad in Afghanistan, he was with us in bad days and I am not going to give him to anyone.

He was not giving shelter to Osama because they shared the same religion. He was giving shelter to Osama because he had accepted him as a guest. He did “not want to go down in history as someone who betrayed his guest”.

The attempt to portray all Islamist groups as a monolith is wrong. These groups have different goals and therefore need to be tackled differently. The Taliban has no interest in expanding to other countries. Its merely concerned with its own country while the Al Qaeda wants to establish a global caliphate. Both are fighting a doomed war. However, the Jihadists capture the imagination of the public because they use terror as a tactic. More people die from air pollution and diabetes every year than terrorists. Yet, terrorism is percieved as a greater threat. Don’t get me wrong, we definitely need to tackle terrorist groups. But exagerration of the problem is exactly what they want. They want us to accept that this is a battle between good and evil, between Islam and the infidels, between two civilizations. By framing our rhetoric in this manner, we’re merely accepting their grand narrative. This merely helps them spread propaganda.

Edmund Burke

Grand narratives are extremely important. They help to unite a society. One shouldn’t confuse grand narratives with history. They are merely stories that we as a society collectively tell ourselves. These stories don’t have to be true. They are, to use Edmund Burke’s terminology, a “mixed system of opinion and sentiment”. Burke talked about the value of “pleasing illusions” which “incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society”. These illusions, he argued, were “dissolved by reason”. Religions and ideologies are grand narratives. Group identities are often “fictions” which solidify and become real in the political and socio-economic sphere due to looping effect.

These narratives have severe limitations. They act as hindrance and often prevent us from seeing nuance. In the case of Islamic terrorism, they prevent us from recognizing the fact that the violent conflicts that we witness today are the result of scarce resources. As Scott Atran writes “When resources become scarce and competition intensifies,tribe relationships may contract and patrilineages begin to tear apart at their branching points”. Islamism results from a sense of being defeated and humiliated. This feeling of being “wronged” is one of the crucial motivating factors which drives an individual to terrorism. This is not to say that ideology has no role to play. Ideology serves as a means to an end. Its a catalyst, a symptom but not the source of the problem.

Let me elaborate:- 80% of Palestinians support suicide bombing. They agree that Islam permits suicide bombing. However, only 4% believe that Muslims have a duty to kill non Muslims. Its not religious piety which leads Muslim to support suicide bombing. In fact, in countries like Pakistan and Indonesia, the majority of Muslims do not support it. Palestinians believe suicide bombing is sanctioned to kill people because of what they “have done” and not “because of their contrary religious beliefs”.

It is this “percieved sense of injustice” which currently afflicts most of the Muslim world. Ironically, it is the same sense of injustice which forms the bulwark of the Hindutva grand narrative. No, I’m not claiming both are the same. I’m simply pointing out the similarities between their grand narratives.

Leftists in India rightly point out that there multiple factors which lead to Islamic terrorism. However, they fail to do the same multivariate analysis when it comes to Hindutva “extremism”. They do not critique the Hindutva right. They critique the grand narrative of the right. They sell you a better story, not a better solution. The narrative goes something like this:- The BJP is a fascist right wing extremist party which is hell-bent on turning India into a “lynchistan” and “Hindu Rashtra”.

This narrative ignores the fact that India has always been an intolerant nation. Intolerance and mob lynchings didn’t start with the election of BJP. Only the opposition to it was amplified. Mob lynchings are not the the result of extremism of the right. They are merely the symptom of violence prevalent in every transitioning society. The solution, if this narrative is to be taken seriously, is the election of a party which rejects the Hindutva grand narrative. However, mob lynchings are actually committed by people of all communities. The problem here is the breakdown of law and order. The solution to this is:- rapid industrialization, police and law&order reforms.

Let’s understand this by taking the example of the United States. Lynching in US was rampant in mid to late 19th century. The victims belonged to both white and black races intitially though it became a racial issue in late 19th century. It experienced a spike in 1880s and started to decline in 1920s. Why? The Industrial Revolution! In America, the second industrial revolution/the Gilded Age started around 1870s and lasted till 1920s. It was around the same time that the demand for institutional changes, including women’s suffrage and political reforms became widespread. This was known as the Progressive Era(1890–1920).

Mob violence and intolerance are actually two separate problems. Industrialization doesn’t completely eliminate intolerance but it leads to a decline in violence. Mob violence cannot be solved by a change in government unless we start demanding systematic changes. The problem that we face now is one of resource scarcity and backward economic development. Unless these issues are resolved, otherization and mob violence will continue. I am not minimizing the danger of religious extremism. I recognize it as a problem. I also recognize the value of grand narratives and the need to feel a sense of pride. VS Naipaul correctly diagnosed Indian society as a “wounded civilization”. However, religious extremism is not the problem, it is a symptom. The grand narratives here serve as a distraction. Political groups use it only because it helps them win elections. The leftists have got their priorities wrong.

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