Separating Islamism from Islam

Some years back my wife and I befriended three Moroccan brothers who had been summarily locked up for 10 years … Continued

Some years back my wife and I befriended three Moroccan brothers who had been summarily locked up for 10 years by the late king of Morocco. Tossed into a cell with little light and a ceiling so low that one of the brothers developed a hunched back, they were only released after a human rights campaign in France secured their freedom. One brother finally came to America, where he settled down in a small town in Texas. There he wrote his memoirs and discovered a kind of happiness, surrounded by people who new little of the world he came from, but who were kind and welcoming.

I haven’t spoken with my Moroccan friend since the late 1990s, but my guess is that despite and occasional indignities that some Arab Americans suffered after 9/11, he continued to find peace in that small corner of Texas. Indeed, his story resonates with me, as my father narrowly escaped the Holocaust and with his parents began a life in the United States. There they encountered that distinctive mixture of ignorance and opportunity, freedom and prejudice, diversity and insularity that makes the USA such a compelling and paradoxical land.

I was reminded of those paradoxes after reading that Florida’s attorney general recently directed 500 state employees to watch “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.” The documentary, which I have seen in its abbreviated web format, has been criticized by American Muslim and Arab organizations for its supposed sensationalism, and especially for what some see as its failure to clearly distinguish between the Islamic religion and the hate dogma advocated by radical Islamists.

The documentary’s images of Islamist extremists chanting anti-Jewish and anti-American slogans are deeply disturbing. Having encountered such hate speech in my own research and travels, I have no qualms with a film that seeks to educate Americans about the nature of radical Islamist movements and ideologies.

But what does concern me is the film’s failure to place its barrage of shocking images and language in any historical, political or social context. While contexting should never explain away or excuse the inexcusable, it is vital for helping viewers arrive at a sober judgment of the nature of the threat depicted on the screen. In its absence, viewers will rely more on their hearts then their heads–a process that could easily drive some to conclude that Islam itself is to blame for Islamist radicalism.

Of course, Islam and Islamism are in some way related, but so are the teachings of Jesus as manifest in the Spanish Inquisition or Catholic Liberation Theology. To suggest a direct line from the mysterious or contradictory messages of a particular faith to its political construction by a leader or organization not only does a great injustice to the multitude of meanings that people attach to faith: it also surrenders the agenda to those who claim that they alone represent the true and authentic Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Thus to say that the Islam of al-Qaeda voices Islam itself, is to effectively agree with those Islamists who insist that they are the Party of God (Hizb Allah) and everything else is the Hizb ash-Shaytan (Party of the Devil). Do that, and you have lost the fight.

Still, I understand why many Americans find the distinction between Islamism and Islam is difficult to fathom. Grasping it requires a basic familiarity with the religion itself. In a society where cultures and religions coexist in peaceful ignorance of the precepts of other faiths, Jews and Christians who might find the terms “Radical Judaism” or “Radical Christianity” offensive (or simply confusing), might easily miss why a film entitled “Radical Islam” –which might have its merits –has nevertheless elicited such concern in the Muslim community.

Moreover, it must be said that religions are ultimately what we make of them. If radical Islamists act and speak with the loudest voice, then films, news programs and the like that fail to differentiate Islam and Islamism will seem compelling and even instructive– thus conjuring up the worst fears and apprehensions.

How to address this problem? One obvious solution lies in education. Centers for Middle East studies — including Georgetown’s own Center for Contemporary Arab Studies– have outreach programs that teach the fundamentals of Islam through high school curriculum projects and other initiatives. The United States Institute of Peace also runs similar programs via its Education and Training Center.

However vital, such education programs have their own pitfalls, including the tendency of some educators to try to discredit radical Islam with apologetic arguments about the peaceful or pluralistic nature of Islam itself. Of course Islam embraces these values. But if you read the Quran or Hebrew Bible, you will find passages that speak of peace and brotherhood, and others that celebrate war and confessional allegiance. Thus to say that “Islam is a religion of peace” makes no more sense than saying that “Islam is a religion of war.” Both statements downplay the mysteries and dissonant voices that constitute faith in favor of a political message or slogan.

How then can we address the challenge of radical Islamism without inadvertently echoing the extremists’ manipulation of religion? How can write about and study, much less advocate or promote, a tolerant or “liberal Islamism” and at the same time criticize the radicals for cloaking ideology in the veil of religion?

For a growing number of disillusioned Muslim thinkers, the only satisfying answer to this vexing dilemma is to renounce all efforts to ideologize Islam. This is the position of Abdol Karim Soroush, a courageous Iranian thinker who I have written about, and who is now a visiting scholar at Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center.

My guess is that there are a great many America Muslim thinkers who would be open to this post-Islamist stance, who want to rescue religion from all politics itself. Whether this is possible or even advisable I am not sure. But in a country where religious freedom is enhanced by distancing mosque/church/synagogue from state, we should be sensitive to the costs all communities pay when we conflate faith with Islamism, Jewishism or Christianism. This requires more than peaceful coexistence, more than settling down to a comfortable life Los Angeles or Laredo. It requires a deeper appreciation of one’s own faith, and those of our neighbors down the street.

This post is dedicated to my step-mom, Josie Woll, who passed away last week.

By Dan Brumberg | 
March 18, 2008; 3:01 PM ET


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  • Meredith

    Sir, the problem is that the PR is all going in the wrong direction. Non-Muslims can’t solve Islam’s problems. Only Muslims can do that — by doing the hard things: standing up to extremists, handling spurious and destructive hadiths, ensuring equal rights to women and non-Muslim minorities and providing the rights to other religions that we in the United States provide all faiths, unless they be in clear violation of human rights conventions (which, in some ways, Islam as practiced by all eight mahdhabs is).Muslims appear to be waging a HUGE PR campaign to make us all believe that Islam is a religion of peace. But right it isn’t. There have been more than 10,700 jihadist attacks against the peoples of 20 countries and five religions since 9/11. The number of dead is in the hundreds of thousands.That flies in the face of the PR (or lawsuits by CAIR) that are apparently engineered to seduce or bully American public opinion into complying with a demand that we see Islam as a religion of peace when blood is let everywhere — and vicious laws against women make Islam the last great practitioner of overarching peonage in the world.Although I sympathize entirely — as I have had Muslim friends of 30 years, and I know what good people the vast majority of them are — there is no excuse for the kind of manipulation that is going on here.Muslims have a serious job to do for Islam — to return it to the purity of its original Meccan message — relegating the Medinan verses to historical value and hanging onto only those hadith which entreat equal rights and a tolerance which Islam carried in its greatest periods. It can be said of Islam that at times in history it was the only religion whose light shone for the oppressed, but this is no longer true.If anything is a reality about religion, it is the best of things, and it can be the worst of things. Be careful now, because Islam is sinking by the weight of evil placed upon it by vicious desert tribalist mores and the lies of the many greedy and violent who bent the work of a great Prophet to everything from debased punishments for trivial crimes to the criminalization of the female form to the creation of an internal muttawiyin of thugs who take the punishment of all others as their right and quote the Qur’an all the way to the next market bombing, beheading, stoning or amputation. And all too often now, these people sit in the position of the highest shari’a courts of Iran, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia.As I see it, Muslims are failing Islam. Content to reap the ill-gotten gains of notariety, pretense, and the piety of the poseur, they ignore the real task at hand: that Muslims themselves must police their own, must have the courage to confront this scourge and scrub clean every tenet of all eight mahdhabs that allows it to be so — every definition of jihad left in place by which evil people can declare war outside of any legal framework and then blame their religion for itlIf you do not take back your power from these people, they will overtake you completely, because that is their aim, and Muslims are alwyays the first victims of this aggression.Do not expect that once you capitulate completely, however, we will capitulate as you did. We will not.For we will save freedom and tolerance for the future, both for you and for us, despite your best efforts to blame us for what is decreed in sunnah and surah alike.It is extraordinary to me to see Muslims complain about “discrimination” in fora such as this when women have no freedom, when gays get walls dropped on them in public executions, when conversion to Christianity is punishable by death in many Muslim states. The sheer hypocrisy is staggering. Staggering.

  • Asim, San Antonio

    Every religion, race and culture has radicals including the US;Muslim Raidicals are no exception.The fundamental issue that is so misunderstood and often distorted is that the radicals who happen to be Muslim and their Radicalism, has absolutely nothing to do with Islam:it has to do with Political grievances from within by despotism and repressive tyrants in the Arab/Muslim world and from without in trems of foreign military intervention such as Bush’s invasion,destruction and occupation of Iraq Or the festering and longest military occupation in modern history of Arab Palestine for the past sixty years by a colonial settler state-as Maxime Rodinson put it-that is the racist apartheid jewish theocracy,Israel.The problem is deeply rooted in Political Grievances such as the Professor pointed out in Morrocan death cells-such grievances take an Islamic expression and garb because there are no other legitimate institutionalized channels of experssion:no democarcy and no freedom of expression in the Muslim world with few exceptions.Islam is moderate by definition and a Muslim is moderate by Quranic definition-this is abundantly crystal clear in the Quran and the Sunnah.But moderation does not mean accepting foreign occupation such as the Bush’s of Iraq and I say that because the occupation of Iraq is against evry grain of American values and mind set except for radical extreme right wing neo-cons Christians and I might add jews such as Wolfaitz and Perle because of their loyality to the colonail settler apartheid state;Moderation also is not accepting jewish occupation of Palestine-and the so called “Arab Moderate states” are nor more than self-serving dictators whose priority is not to liberate PAlestien and Iraq but to deseprately cling to their dicatroships.The Quran, the Bible and all human laws and norms sanction self-dfense: The Quran says :”Fight those who fight you But don’t transgress because God loves not the transgresors” and “Fight those who turn you out-up root you-from your homes;” That is absloutely rational and just.

  • Asim MA, San Antonio

    Meredith,All the Muslims need is to be left lone.If U were sincere U would condemn and deal the jewish occupation of Palestine and you would call the end of the jewish aparteid to end where Palestinain women give birth at jewish military check points; why don’y mention any thing about one million dead Iraqis-half are women;U need to voice your concern about Muslim women while their alive before they are bombed by F-16′s and Apachees in Palestine and Iraq-there were absloutely no Al Qadeah before the war on Iraq and there were absolutely ever were sucide bombers in PAlestine before 1947 when the jews ethnically cleanesed 70% of the indigenous PAlestinians.Yes Muslims should speak out against dictaroships in their lands and fight occupation:those two categories are either in israeli and Arab jails or are dead.

  • yoyo

    Being totally irrational at their core, all religions of the supernatural clamor to make more sense than the other guy’s religion, while the other guy does likewise. Is there no end to such lunacy?Let’s get REAL. There is no supernatural world outside of heads, only inside; where we create our own gods as well as tooth fairies, UFOs, cookie monsters and anything else we fancy.Just say no to religion, and walk on the sane side.

  • Jihadist

    Mr. Dan Brumberg,My condolences to you and your family on the passing of Ms. Josie Woll, your step-mother. ————————————————–Mr. Dan Brumberg,Thank you for your essay. Re: “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.” The title itself would irate Muslims who long complain that when IRA was active, no one ever said it was the Radical Catholic or Radical Christians’ War against largely Anglican England. Or that the Tamil Tigers were and is characterised as Radical Hindus’ War against mostly Buddhist Sri Lanka. As for the Radical Islam, it would be more apt to characterised these specifically by the groups and names such Al Qaeda who caused 9/11 among other terrorists acts in Africa and the Middle East too. Or Jemaah Islamiyah in South East Asia, including the Bali bombings. To say “Radical Islam” is against the west is to say what is more important is acts of terrorism against westerners, but not acts of terrorism these groups pepetuated against Muslims too and in cumulatively larger numbers than westerners. It is also denying that many Muslims are also victims of terrorism by these groups and are against them and their terrorism. And now the so called “war on terror” is conflated as war on Islam and Islam’s war against the west, in effect, the whole of western or Christendom against the whole of Islam. In identifying and specically vilifying the acts of these groups instead of all Muslims, perhaps there would be less perception by Muslims in the Muslim world that the west is on a war against all of them by the words they use, including Islam characterised as a ideology, and therefore one that must be eliminated, including all those who adhere to this religion/”ideology”. As you know, perception is everything. If you don’t already know it, the Protocol of the Elders of Zion is widely circulated in the Muslim world after the Six Day War in 1967 and the continuing Palestinian-Isreali conflicts. This is not help by the peception of close Israeli-US relationship and the fact that all US presidential candidates, since the sixties, also seem to have a “unconditional support for Israel” test. It does add fuel to the perception in the Muslim world that the US goverment and media is controlled by Jews etc, thus inceasing the mistrust of US impartiality and objectivity in initiating and mediating peace between Palestinians and Israelis. As for Islamism, if one must think of it as a political stance, platform or ideology of the Islamic based political parties functioning in the Muslim world (including in non-Arab Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey), broadly speaking, their political platform are like the Democrats in the US – promoting capitalism, focus on social welfare and social justice in state policies and administration. One can be a radical without resorting to violence. Muslims who are members of terrorist groups are extremists and fanatical radicals. They really are like the right wing Republicans on their politics. Especially the neocon nuts, in the characterisation of the “other” and methods of getting their points across towards their objectives – * armed conflicts in the Middle East, * hot war and wars for hearts and minds,* vilifications of not just the “other” but their whole society (against the west, against Islam),* acts of state terrorism against people, acts of group terrorism against people. We should get the neocons together with Al Qaeda. They understand one another. Both wants the world to see it their way and no other. Both wants everyone to be with them or against them. God help us all for being not with either one. We are all the collateral damage, the casualty of war in their battles in the ground, in the media, in perceptions, in reactions. Extremist and fanatical Muslims are given wide coverage by their opposites in their “war” with one another in the media and ICT. No surprise there. Truth is the first casualty of war, so goes the cliche. Education as a solution on Islam may not be it. For Muslims, it is not religion, but politics and foreign policy that is the cause of the alienation and the dissatisfaction in the so-called Islam and the West chasm. It is more often from the west one hears of the west being “at war with Islam” rather from Muslims, including Al Qaeda, saying they are at “war with Christianity.”No one, including Muslims, ever asked Christians, even Catholics to rationalise and explain IRA or to say all Christians and Catholics are judged by what the IRA said and do. No one in the west is called an apologist of Catholicism or Christianity in explaining the roots and causes of IRA’s grievances. Nor is anyone accusing Hindus of violence in Hinduism or all Hindus are like those of the and share the same views of the Tamil Tigers. Hindus and Christians would point out to the complexity of their faith and the diversity of their beliefs among their believers. Muslims understand this and have no difficulties in acknowledging and accepting the pluralism of the faith and their believers. For some odd reason, Islam and Muslims are regarded as monolithic. How to address extremist and fanatical Muslims? If they don’t break any state laws, well, they are free to voice whatever they want to say. If they break any laws on inciting or hate speeches, charge them. If they resort to terrorism causing deaths of innocents and wreak physical destructions of infrastructures, apprehend and charge them for those, including as murderers. Given that, I would not be too quick to call anyone terrorist if he is fighting against illegal foreign occupation of his country, or he is fighting for the independence of his country against foreign rule and domination. He is then a freedom fighter or insurgents if you like. Of course, I am also partial towards insurgents who fought against their repressive and brutal regimes that has no democratic elections. Muslims insurgents and radicals are mostly fighting against their own governments – in armed insurgencies or in ICT battles for hearts and minds. Thank you and best regards”J”

  • Concerned The Christian Now Liberated

    Ooops, make that “a modern appreciation for the major faiths”.

  • Nivedita

    Jihadist:The fight in SL has nothing to do with religion, but ethnicity. Painting the Tamil tigers as Hindu terrorists does not help your cause.

  • Anonymous

    United States have been manipulated into imagining they are a people under siege whose sole refuge and protector is their government.If it isn’t communists,it’s Al-Qaeda.If it isn’t Cuba it is Nicaragua.As a result,this,the most powerful nation in the world-with its unmachable arsenal of weapons,its history of having waged and sponsored endless wars,and the only nation in history to have actually used nuclear bombs-is peopled by a terrified citizenry,jumping at shadows.A people bonded to the state not by social services,or puplic health care,or employment guarentees,but by fear.

  • < ?: +)/ Ya Ya

    ABOLISH THEOCRACY & MONARCHY In The MIDDLE-EAST & On The World, ASAP, then All Will Be ONE!

  • Soja John Thaikattil, Sydney, Australia

    Dear Professor BrumbergPersonally I think that Muslims should be encouraged to study Judaism and Christianity to increase understanding between the three religions. It would be an eye opener for Muslims to note how much in the Quran can actually be traced directly to Jewish and Christian Scripture. Bridges should be built based on what on all three religions have in common, and the common points should be emphasized over and over again. One should be aware of the differences without any attempt to gloss over them. Only thus can genuine dialogue be established. You are doing great work and I wish you success in all your efforts including your attempt to increase understanding through this blog!Soja John Thaikattil

  • Sybil N Lisansky

    This is a well written, reasoned explanation of radical Islam that applies to all radical religions. Thank you, Professor

  • Sybil N Lisansky

    This is a well written, reasoned explanation of radical Islam that applies to all radical religions. Thank you, Professor

  • Sybil N Lisansky

    This is a well written, reasoned explanation of radical Islam that applies to all radical religions. Thank you, Professor

  • Sybil N Lisansky

    This is a well written, reasoned explanation of radical Islam that applies to all radical religions. Thank you, Professor

  • Asim MA, San Antonio

    Soja,Among divine faiths only the Quran came down to us as revealed to the Prophet and was written down immediately after his death;there is only one Quran to all Muslims regardless of their diversity.The Muslims know as part of their faith about the missions and scriptures of Abraham,Moses and Jesus who are all revered by Islam as the Prophet Muhammad to Muslims;two thirds of the Quran are didcated to Banu Israel-the followers of Moses and at least one chapter is fully didacted to Myeriam-Mary and Jesus is referred to as a holy prophet like Muhammad. My point is that Jews and Christians are the ones who should learn more about Islam from Musilms and original Muslim sources rather than rely on distorted images pushed and promoted by western media form dubious” experats on Islam.” Islam is the faith of Abraham,Moses, Jesus and Muhammad:they all belived in the one and only God,Allah in Arabic,because they submmitted to his well, the very meaning of ISlam.Islam and Slam have essentially the same meaning:Peace and submission to Allah. The standard Muslim greeting is”The peace, the mercy and the blessings of Allah be upon you.” Every one talks about a handful of loud radicals who happen to be Muslim-but no one ever talks about the overwhelming majaority of Muslims who are moderate by definition and behavior which make at least 99.9% of of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.We never hear about this majority because of media’s hunger for sensationlism and self-serving politicians and lobbyists.

  • victoria

    I think jihadist and asim ponted out the distinction between religion and other causes that motivate a people to use terrorist methods. i dont see how the teachings of Jesus were manifested in the spanish inquisition ( im not sure how soja missed that one) i can easily see how they are manifested in liberation theology though. by juxtaposing moderate muslims against extremists- the one extreme being ‘apologists’ and the other being violent and irrational- the impression is created that we are on opposite extremes, that the qur’an and bible are also equivalent in their message- the quran has thousands of exhortations to peace, non-agression,forgiveness and gentleness- and has a handful of well publicized examples of instances where violence is mentioned. and the few verses repeated over and over again are always preceded and succeeded by tempering verses of moderation, reason and mercy in it’s use. but they bear no balance- one greatly and numerically outweighs the other- (is stating something that is good and true “apologist”?) and this statement- again, giving equivocal value to “islam is a religion of war/peace’ is not a definition of muslims for their own religion, but an accusation levied. but the true contention that islam is a religion of peace- favors the voices of the faithful- therefore, of course it makes sense to say islam is a religion of peace- and there is no dissonance at all in recognizing that radicals are cloaking their ideology, not in religion- but in political and social injustices. they bear the familiar fundamentality of any religious who seek to push their own agenda under the guise of religion. you don’t blame the religion for its corrupted memebers- there is plenty of blame to go around in the basic question of the nature of man himself- how do we address the challenge of radical islam? the radicals are the symptom of the underlying diseases of the oppression and subjugation, and downright opportunistic robbing of their resources- and this can be done by a people to their own people- or from strangers across the planet- such is the nature of man- poverty, and manipulation of people- not a religion- is what is creating the manifestation of the disease- as for spending any effort pointing out the hypocrisies, corruption, greed violence etc of any given group of humans- it might make the critic feel superior for a short time- but its piling ugliness and negativity onto an already overburdened world. it is enough of a struggle to find the good within ourselves. and the qur’an, and philosophy of islam offer (we, as muslims) enough tools to guide us- there are plenty of very loud voices, even here in this forum to conuteract, trump, and overwhlem the voices of anger that swell- but it is also up to the people to want to hear this-i suspect people think the voices of radicals are so loud because their voices are more interesting to those ears seeking lurid sensationalism. its always much easier to point the finger outward than back to oneself. as always, peace

  • witness

    “How then can we address the challenge of radical Islamism without inadvertently echoing the extremists’ manipulation of religion?” This may be achieved through continual and outrageous displays of G_d’s love for Muslims, despite their antagonism against anyone who does not share their love of Muhammed and the Qur’an. Yeshua calls His followers everywhere to show His outrageous sacrificial love for mankind to everyone they meet- just as He showed His selfless love for His own brethren (the Jews). Even more- Yeshua died not only for their sins, but for the sins of the whole world.. The ideological war the free world is fighting with Muslims has a spiritual dimension behind the intellectual reality. Selfless love changes hearts and convinces.Ephesians 6:12-18 (NIV): “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of G_d, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground… Stand firm then, with the belt of Truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of Righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the Gospel of Peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of Faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of G_d. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.”

  • Concerned The Christian Now Liberated

    Thomas aka God Talker, Moses of the NT, Baum,You noted: “I cannot explain the Trinity but I have met God the Father, God the Son in the Catholic Eucharist and God the Holy Spirit.”You might not be able to explain it but we can. You were hallucinating from lack of sleep and/or from the influence of drugs and alcohol and/or a blow to your head and/or you had one very bad dream.

  • Concerned The Christian Now Liberated

    Pilgrimsoul2008,You simply are making the case that all religions are significantly flawed. Remove the flaws. What is left?? “Do no harm” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”. And the world will be a better place!!!!!

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