Abdullah al Andalusi argues that secular regimes in the Muslim world and Western governments are far worse at misrepresenting Islam than terrorist organisations.
Many Muslims complain that the TTP, ISIS, Boko Haram and Al Qaeda cause the biggest misrepresentation of Islam – and they become highly active in denouncing them, demonstrating against them, or holding conferences and lectures intellectually criticising them and openly advocating Muslims to disassociate themselves from them.
While it is true that the methods and tactics of these groups do misrepresent Islam to those who don’t know better, people actually ignore the larger and more egregious perpetrators of the misrepresentation of Islam – the Muslim governments, the media and politicians of the Western world, and ultimately, the Muslim world itself.
The Misrepresentation of Islam by Muslim Governments
Like the rise of uncivilised barbarian tribes after the fall of the Roman Empire, the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate led to the rise (and foreign imposition) of a collection of secular warlords, feudal rulers and dictators masquerading as ‘elected presidents’ and ‘constitutional’ monarchies. These rulers rule over a colonised Muslim people – who have forgotten what actual Islamic rule is like, and are politically illiterate when it comes to understanding the rights and protections the Shariah gives them – and more importantly – the purpose that it came to drive us with.
Consequently, these rulers govern according to a collection of mostly Victorian-era colonial ideas of ‘modernity’ and a highly defensive secular ideology. Of course, when the people have lost a common way to live that is higher than them, they resort to a sort of ‘law of the jungle’ where power and reputation become the only social currency.
Religiosity, morality and virtue have become in the Muslim world, traditions and relics from the past that although hold some esteem, are viewed as ‘idealistic’, and impractical in the new ‘jungle’ of the dog-eat-dog world that the Muslim world has become after the fall of its civilisation. Some people call this a returned state of ‘jahiliya’, and they wouldn’t be wrong. You see, Jahiliya (i.e. ignorance) is the Islamic concept of anarchy, and anarchy doesn’t mean an absence of government – because humans always form hierarchies in any situation, whether they are gangs, the mafia, tribes or states. True anarchy is where people live absent of anything higher than basic power concepts, where the simple rule is – ‘might equals right’. The strongest rules, the weakest serves – and different factions perpetually fight each other. Such was the Jahiliya of Pagan Arabia (who had government – but lived for nothing higher than power and reputation).
The gross misrepresentation of Islam occurs when these governments control the institutions that produce Islamic scholarship – twisting and controlling Islamic scholarship and thought to justify their regimes and their arbitrary (and unIslamic) laws with their self-appointed right to rule and do as they please.
The people are told that ‘Islam commands them to obey as long as the leader calls himself a Muslim’ (of course, this is curiously suspended when it comes to overthrowing of popularly elected Mohammed Morsi of Egypt). As a result, in the minds of the Muslim Ummah, people serving in the army, working in the courts, the business owners, the shopkeepers, and the street sweepers – their country and all its injustices becomes synonymous with Islam.
The irony is that it’s actually secular rulers, who believe that government and laws should be detached from Islam. And they are the ones who get involved with the Islamic institutions to dictate and control what religious legal edicts they say – so that their government can be officially justified by Islam, which is having their cake and eating it. Furthermore, whenever non-Muslims enquire about Islam and its claim to bring justice, they look to the Muslim world, and all they see is the sorry and pathetic state it is in – all justified by the (secular) state approved ‘Islamic scholars’ – which spreads the misrepresentation of Islam beyond the Muslim world.
These governments and regimes, have killed, arrested, taken hostage and tortured far more people through unjust laws, corrupt police practices and actions of security services (and secret services) than the most craziest terrorist groups – yet we overly-focus on condemning the latter and not the former. For example, the actions of ISIS have been heavily condemned for their sectarian killings – yet the Iraqi government hasn’t received hardly any condemnation despite their sectarian massacres on a far larger and systematic scale – for a longer period of time – in ways far more gruesome than any ISIS practice.
The Muslim governments are by far, the worst advocates of Islam – not because they are Muslims, but because they claim Islamic legitimacy for themselves – whether they claim to be secular or not.
The misrepresentation of Islam by Western Politicians and Media
If we see politicians like Geert Wilders from Holland who makes blanket attacks on Islam, we call him an Islamophobe, yet no one seems to notice that the biggest Islamophobes are actually the ones who claim to not attack Islam – yet in reality they fight intellectual, political and military wars to suppress its revival.
Western colonialism didn’t just succeed in detaching Islam from politics, but also helped to detached Islam from parts of itself, and therefore from our minds. What was left was an empty husk of rituals and some theological beliefs left behind. The huge part of Islam that consisted of the mu’amillat (i.e. collective practices, actions, guidance and implementation in life’s affairs) became a distant memory. This new lobotomised ‘religion’ was re-labelled as ‘Islam’ by the West, while any attempt to revive a holistic Islam was called a number of pejorative names: ‘fundamentalist’, ‘extremist’ and of course ‘Islamist’ (which was actually the first Western name for Islam after they stopped using ‘Mohammedan’).
Western politicians not only misrepresent Islam (in the extreme), but their target audience for this misrepresentation are Muslims themselves. Every time a Muslim uses the word ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘Islamist’ to describe a Muslim who understands Islam’s full and complete guidance in all affairs of life, it represents another victory for a Western project that started at colonialism.
In the West, the intellectual battle continued, when, quite ironically, many Muslims who were born or live in the West, had access to academic resources, history, and translations of Arabic books, which awakened their understanding of what Islam truly is in its full glory – to which secular Western politicians are now reacting to, by implementing domestic policies intervening in Islamic theology and creating and funding ‘reformist Muslim’ groups to dictate a ‘modern’ form of Islam that conforms to Western culture and ideology (i.e. liberalism and political individualism). They then use the excuse of ‘the war on terror’ to gradually silence, cajole, bully, pressure and even criminalise Muslim political and ideological dissenters.
However, what is more shocking is the relatively mute reception the Muslim community in the West have shown to this outrageous denial of our right to believe and practice our religion, free from state control or diktat. It is the misrepresentation of Islam by Western governments (and media) that allows them to persecute Muslim intellectual life, and therefore, Islam, yet most Muslims falsely believe that ISIS’s misrepresentation of Islam is more of a pressing concern – even despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are not under ISIS’s control – while millions are under the control of Western governments, or Western backed puppet ‘Muslim’ regimes who also use the same tactics to suppress any return to holistic Islam.
In fact, the misrepresentation of Islam by ISIS has been made larger by the huge Western media focus who twist the reports to conflate and demonise all Muslims who campaign for the return to a holistic Islam.
The Misrepresentation of Islam by the Muslim world
This brings us to the most serious, and a most damning truth – the worst advocates of Islam is the Muslim world itself. As mentioned earlier, the Muslim world is benighted with a state of ignorance of Islam – and the collective lack of the key prerequisite to understanding Islam and the world – thinking, or to be more exact, rational thinking. The use and application of rational thinking is called ‘hikma’ in Arabic (wisdom) and is connected to the Arabic root for sound judgement. This is reflected in the Quran’s teaching to base thought upon observation of the world e.g. Quranic verses ‘do you not see…’, non-contradiction e.g. Quranic verse: ‘if the Quran had been for anyone other than Allah, you would have found within much contradiction’ and the prevention of blindly following assumptions e.g. Quranic verse: ‘doubt cannot avail against the truth’ or blindly believing traditions that carry no evidence e.g. Quranic verse: ‘they say we follow what our ancestors taught us’. These and many more verses give us the very definition of rational thinking!
The state of ignorance in the Muslim world has rendered Islam as a mere set of religious rituals, and some beliefs in the metaphysical ‘Unseen’, and a few religious labels. Where once Muslims lived by ideals, codes of conduct, a common purpose, automatic rights for everyone regardless of their reputation, duties and reciprocal obligations – Islamic civilisation has decayed into simple power relations.
Reputation is the only social currency (just like in street gangs) and is mislabelled as ‘honour’. And just like street gang culture, if you have no reputation or standing, you get nothing, and people can walk all over you. Hence why many in the Muslim world kill, take revenge, react violently to being insulted, and take extreme measures to protect their reputation – just like street gangs do.
In a society without any real confidence by the people in the ‘official (yet arbitrary) rules and laws, many feel forced to lie, cheat, steal, take bribes and beg to earn their daily bread. Being truthful, honest, upright or refusing bribes – is viewed as putting a disadvantage against your competitors. Getting any kind of rights from the state requires family connections or reciprocal favours from friends who are within the structure of government (at some level).
These behaviours are not merely the providence of corrupt people, but many people who are considered normal average people just trying to survive and get along with their lives, feel that at times, these behaviours are ‘necessary’ in a corrupt society.
In such anarchy, Muslims form into groups based on race, nationality, city, tribe, school of thought, sect, class or sub-culture – and vie with each other for power and prestige.
The Muslim world considers Islam as a checklist of morals that should be adhered to, in convenient circumstances – yet any understanding of Islam as an actual purpose for their life is lacking and vague. Instead, they exist merely to exist – until they die. Islam in its purely ritualistic and limited non-political form, is of course still seen as respect worthy in Muslim societies – but following it completely is seen as, though laudable, completely impractical, out-dated, ‘living in the past’ and overly-idealistic. Those who adopt public ‘full Islamic practice‘ either use it to elevate their reputations – and hence their social standing and social currency, yet partake in the same social practices as the rest of society (e.g. a government employed Islamic scholar who merely parrots the government line), or they isolate themselves from the corruption of what they see as Muslim ‘mainstream society‘ – usually by living in fringe areas with likeminded neighbours and wearing ‘traditional clothes’ and focus purely on ritualistic religious actions.
You may ask how can religion still be held in respect in a Jahil society? Quite easily in fact, consider that the pagan Arabs of pre-Islamic Mecca took great pride in being hospitable to pilgrims, praying and circulating the Kabba. They even respected certain holy months in the year where no fighting was allowed between tribes. Virtues like generosity were as valued by the pagan Arabs as they are by Muslims today! The point is, much display of virtue and religiosity was mostly for show, rather than because they had committed their entire lives to living for an all-embracing higher purpose that guided them with a detailed methodology and way of life!
Now, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t any good in the Muslim world – far from it – the fitra (innate nature) of the people, and the remnants of Islamic practices from the times of Islamic civilisation maintain a lot of goodness, kindness, mercy, generosity, and strong family and community ties. The problem is, if the people do not have a common way of life, underpinned by an all-embracing purpose, they will act pragmatically, selfishly and defensively – ultimately clashing with each other and fighting each other to get ahead. And in extreme circumstances, they will do extreme things, believing it to be ‘necessary’.
The rulers in the Muslim world are brutal and very hard. The reason for this is because they are products of the society they were born into, and in order to stay in power over a society that exists in anarchy. They feel they must use fear, intimidation and leverage family connections, favours, and even twist religion to their cause to justify their reign of power.
This is unfortunately why every time a leader is replaced in the Muslim world, the following one is just as hard as his predecessor – or they get kicked out of power via a military coup. To stay in power, and guarantee the protection of their own family too, these leaders see it as ‘necessary‘ to kill, torture and imprison anyone they feel is a threat to them – even if it means hundreds or thousands must suffer.
Unfortunately, due to the ignorance of many in the Muslim world, this misrepresentation of Islam by the people and the rulers lead many believe, and lead others to believe, that this is the best Islam can do. Many people apostate from Islam, become secular liberals, and look towards the West – because they see the anarchic state which the Muslims wallow in. What they don’t realise is that what caused them to be in such a state is due to, not just the absence of the Islamic mindset, but the absence of wisdom and the absence of actual Islamic government. Islam is actually the untried solution, yet due to these misrepresentations, many think it can’t work, despite the fact that the Muslim world has experimented repeatedly with secular liberalism, fascism and communism – leading to spectacular failures each and every time.
Where do the Terror groups come from?
Many Muslims like to blame terror groups on one sect of Islam (those who usually do this, do so for their sectarian reasons), or they blame these groups on people who desire a holistic Islam (usually as a pathetic attempt to call for secularism and reformation) or an old prophecy of the ‘Khawarij’ (despite the fact that the Khawarij fought the Islamic Caliphate, and many of them even rejected it as an obligation. They never fought to establish it!).
However, the awful and unfortunate truth is, that terror groups that rise up and aim for power, and kill, torture and take hostages come from the same Jahil mindset that pervade the Muslim world, and are no different from them. What makes them different could be that they have undergone a particular set of extreme experiences that led them to, with their mindset, undertake extreme, unIslamic actions.
Just compare them to the governments of the Muslim world and you’ll see the same patterns. To take and keep power in Jahil societies, they both justify as ‘necessary’ to kill their opponents, those who insult them, even those who publicly disagree with them – all to stay in power ‘for the sake of order’. People complain about ISIS killing civilians, yet if they have done so, they are no different to secular Saddam Hussein, Nuri al Maliki, Bashar al Assad, General/President Sisi (whose soldiers fired on civilians), Ghaddafi, and the Algerian government during the civil war. All these governments also used Islamic scholars, or invoked Islam to say that their government and actions were justified (secular Saddam Hussein even put ‘Allahu Akbar’ on the Iraqi flag, and claimed to be a descendent of Prophet Muhammed (saw)), while the pro-Sisi Mufti of Egypt gave a fatwa to Egyptian soldiers worried about firing on protestors, that it was ok to do so!
The only difference between groups like Boko Haram, ISIS, TTP and the secular regimes in the Muslim world, is that the former wants to establish a society with perhaps more overt Islamic practices, while the latter does not see it as ‘necessary’ to maintain their power by requiring their citizens to partake in these actions as obligatory.
The reason for this is, the secular ‘faction’ of the Muslim world, who were left in power by colonialism merely require the secular religion of nationalism be taught and practiced to shore up the people’s desire to obey them. However, some secular regimes are overtly portraying themselves as ‘Islamic’, when they deem it necessary to keep the people’s loyalty.
Further evidence that terrorist groups actually come from a common Jahil mindset is the case where we find that many in war-torn areas of the Muslim world join the ranks of these groups. Some people even say that if they do not get aid or food from their governments, they will join such-and-such a group. We witnessed this in Iraq, when many Baathists (who are secular Arab-nationalist socialists) joined Al-Qaeda! Many of these people were brutalised in U.S. prisons first. Others who join feel that their reputation or standing as Muslims is being attacked by the West, and like anyone from their society, they fight to defend what is ultimately an extension of their reputation or honour.
We witness this when many fighters enlist stating that they are angered by Western attacks against Muslim civilians, and they justify killing Western civilians in retaliation as essentially (the UnIslamic concept of) revenge – despite the fact that Islam prohibits the deliberate targeting of civilians!
It’s not Islam that makes them commit these crimes, but a mentality no different to the societies they emerged from, where many people will do anything to defend their reputation, honour and standing – including revenge that targets innocents.
As Muslims, the terrorists are not the biggest “mis-representers” of Islam. They are merely a symptom of the greater problem. It is the Muslim governments, the Western governments, and ultimately, a pervading mindset within the Muslim world that constitutes the biggest misrepresentation of Islam. If we truly want to end the misrepresentation of Islam, we must start with denouncing and calling for change upon these biggest and most serious culprits.
If people suffer from nightmares, then they should realise that nightmares only come from themselves.
Abdullah al Andalusi is the founder of the Muslim Debate Initiative. He is an international lecturer, thinker, speaker and debater on Islamic and Muslim issues.