Islam, religion and ideology

Sami Zubaida
14 February 2007

Meghnad Desai, in his openDemocracy article "The roots of terror: Islam or Islamism?" (6 February 2007), quite reasonably makes a distinction between Islam as religion and Islamism as ideology. This distinction is valid under some circumstances, but not so clear in others. It may be argued that under present circumstances, and certainly since 9/11, there are many points of convergence between the two.

A key to Desai's approach is the statement: "religion is a private matter - or at least ought to be". Religion is hardly ever a private matter, and only considered as such under the special and rare conditions of the modern liberal, secular society in some of the west.

Religious authority, often coercively enforced, is a feature of most religious forms, historically and at present. I don't need to remind the reader of the religious persecutions and wars in the history of Christianity and Islam, and Judaism was the victim only because it had not assumed state power until the formation of Israel.

Religious authority in some parts of western Europe only retreated after struggles and revolutions and the secularisation of government and society that ensued, but was never happy with this retreat: witness the current battles over abortion and homosexuality. Such authority was reasserted with a vengeance when championed by political regimes, such as Franco's Spain.

Sami Zubaida is emeritus professor of politics and sociology at Birkbeck College, London. Among his books is Law and Power in the Islamic World (IB Tauris, 2003)

Sami Zubaida is responding to the article by Meghnad Desai:

"The roots of terror: Islam or Islamism?"
(6 February 2007)

Islamic religious authority was checked in parts of the middle east by modernising despots, such as the Ottoman reformers, Muhammad Ali Pasha in Egypt, Atatürk in Turkey and Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran. It also loosened its grip on the popular mind with the economic and cultural processes of modernity (urbanisation, education and an individualised job market, loosening of communal and familial bonds, media and entertainment), and the salience of secular nationalism and leftist ideologies for much of the 20th century.

And, as Desai points out, Islam has had its modern reformations, mostly secularising, starting in the 19th century, with roughly similar themes continuing to the present. So much of modern Islamism is precisely the reassertion of religious authority and the rejection of past reforms.

I have argued elsewhere that secularisation is a necessary condition for "fundamentalism": the essence of this latter is precisely that the scriptures and traditions are literally correct and not open to interpretation or compromise. Salafism / Wahhabism, the most widespread forms of expanding Sunni religious assertion, aim precisely at making religion public, often not just as political ideology, but as the moralisation of individual conduct as well as of public space. Strident Shi'ism proceeds in similar directions: witness the violent enforcement of "moral" conduct on a terrified population by the Mahdi army and other militias in Iraq.

Muslims in western societies follow diverse religious and political orientations and have diverse lifestyles. Indeed, Muslims do not constitute a "community", but are differentiated by ethnicity, class and generation and education. The assertion of Islam as their primary identity is, indeed, a misleading ideology, upheld equally by Islamist publicists and many institutions and authorities of the "host societies".

Also by Sami Zubaida in openDemocracy:

"The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (February 2003)

"The next Iraqi state: secular or religious?" (February 2004)

"Understanding the insurgencies in Iraq" (April 2004)

"The London bombs: Iraq or the 'rage of Islam'? " (August 2005)

"Iraq's constitution on the edge" (August 2005)

"In search of British Muslim identity…" (October 2005)

"Democracy, Iraq and the middle east"
(18 November 2005)

Many sectors are secular and only nominally "Muslim", though all the signs are that these are declining in a wave of religious assertion. Others are occasionally observant and "cultural" Muslims. Rigorous Salafism may be a minority orientation, although an increasingly prominent one. Its authority and influence are assured by the lavish financial provisions of Saudi sources, establishing mosques, schools and charities, and dispensing clerics and preachers.

A totalising vision

Do these observations of diversity, then, reinforce the distinction between religion (private) and ideology (public)? I would argue not, because Muslim identification since 9/11, irrespective of degree or type of religiosity, has become ideologised in the increasingly dominant discourse of umma nationalism.

Umma nationalism seems to be, currently, a dominant mode of thought for many Muslims, in the west as well as the Muslim world. It conceives the political world as one of confrontation between Muslims on the one side and hostile Christians, Jews and Hindus on the other. It is a variant of the "clash of civilizations". It is a totalising vision which eliminates actual politics. The complexities of Iraq or Afghanistan or Palestine/Israel, of the ethnic politics of Europe, of the struggles of Chechnya, all these are collapsed to a single dimension of religious/communal confrontation.

It faces the equally total and simplistic notion of the "war on terror". This discourse of umma nationalism seems to be widely held, not only by committed ideological or religious Muslims, but also casually by many nominal Muslims.

The great majority of Muslims probably holds these notions lightly and certainly doesn't act upon them, socially or politically. Would this, then, confirm the distinction between religion and ideology? It would in that many of those who partake of this ideology, whether casually or earnestly, may not be religiously observant. But few who are observant would eschew it.

Islamic religiosity, under current conditions, almost invariably entails an ideological vision.

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