Controversial words are powerful.
The term ‘Islamic’ or ‘Islamism’ will always provoke a reaction. This applies regardless of where you live, your profession or personal beliefs. Usually, this reaction is an emotional one due to understandable reasons. Islam has many followers who live across the world. Some are politicians, neighbours, celebrities, writers, teachers and doctors. Others are not. According to the Pew Research Centre, Islam will be the largest global religion by the end of the century. This is not without mentioning the billions of Muslims already alive. Because of this, it makes sense for anyone to comment on Islamism or demonstrate an interest in it.
Muslims are also engaged in these ongoing discussions and debates. A fantastic example comes from the debate channel Jubilee. The Oxford University Forum is also good. However, it is irresponsible to not mention the number of Muslims who cannot tolerate difference. The murder of Samuel Paty, the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the ongoing fatwa against Salman Rushdie as well as countless other examples of intolerance exist against non-Muslims as well as ‘bad’ Muslims. It is wrong to dismiss these.
Whenever ‘Islamic’ is used in a derogatory or critical way, Muslims express offence at its usage. This occurs for many reasons. Two crucial ones are: the personal nature of Islam and other religions, as well as the community aspects of Islam. When a person’s religion is insulted or demeaned, this is not just seen as an attack on them or even the religion. It’s seen as an attack on all believers, including family and friends.
The reverse occurs, too. Positive views on ‘Islamic’ culture, theology and ideas receive a mixed reception. On one side, there are figures such as Robert Spencer, who reject the conflation between Islamism and contemporary Western liberalism.
This essay will avoid the usual binaries of a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ view on Islam. Rather, I hope to depict Islam from a historical standpoint. The skilled historian understands the diversity and conflict within each religion and acknowledges the changing nature of definitions, theology, and culture. Too often, Islamism is treated as static without chance for reform or even change. This has led to negative portraits from figures such as church historian Philip Schaff, who depicts ‘Islam as not a new religion’ while conquering the ‘fairest portions of the earth by the sword.’
On the reverse, politicians such as Theresa May have decried Islamic terrorism as ‘not Islamic.’ Her logic is that terrorists are perverting the ‘true essence of Islam’ which fits a mostly liberal and Western worldview. Others are not satisfied with this approach. The journalist Douglas Murray criticized these portrayals of Islam in his blockbuster book, The Strange Death of Europe. This is troublesome from an epistemological standpoint. Islamic history spans over a thousand years and covers many regions in the world. During this time and space, humanity has witnessed countless wars, economic transformations, scientific breakthroughs, urbanisation, inventions and changes in leadership. I doubt there is a sole meaning of ‘Islamic.’ Religious categories are not the Mirror of Erised from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. We may desire Islam to be certain things or possess a particular meaning. However, reality is different.
There are also calls for reform. Two famous examples include Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. However, even if these individuals did not exist, the many meanings and interpretations of ‘Islamic’ would. All religions require a nuanced view. This is especially true when one has negative feelings or opinions towards it.
Historians, however, have a wealth of time to draw on. We can analyse Spain and the Arab conquests in the first millennium. Or, we can consider how Islam emerged from present-day Saudi Arabia. A fascinating topic is Muslim interactions with Christian communities and other minorities. I highly recommend Christian Sahner’s expertise in Christian Martyrs Under Islam. Much to his authority and respect, Sahner avoids these usual ‘Islamic binaries of good or bad’ and focuses on the historical sources and evidence. Combined with his analytical skills, his research remains a treasure in a world which demands simple and polemical definitions.
Another nuanced group are the many religious scholars on YouTube. Not all, of course – some are more interested in conversion or politics than communicating information. I am particularly impressed with Let’s Talk Religion. The audio and visual quality is excellent. However, the content is also terrific with relevant academic sources and a succinct understanding of religion’s nature. It is possible, desirable even, to talk about Islam and Muslims without declining into the usual ‘Islamic values’ trap. In numerous ways, historians and religious scholars are held back by believing there is a consensus among all Muslims about ‘Islamism.’ It is a controversial and loaded term, yes, but also an important one in understanding the intellectual and cultural debates shaping Islam around the world. Just as an average Christian has an idea of what Christianity means, the same applies for Muslims with Islam.
Because of this, we should not abandon our quest to understand ‘Islamic values.’ There are uses for it. However, historians and religious scholars must use their knowledge and analytical skills to not let this cloud their research and quest to understand Muslim communities and intellectuals on Islam.
Sadly, there are crude examples of ‘Islamic values’ being used to justify barbaric actions. The Islamic State is a recent one, where religious minorities including Christians and the Yazidis were slaughtered. This bloodshed stained the Middle East and reached Europe. It is tempting to treat ‘Islamic’ as an abstract principle with little relevance or meaning. Yet for many, it is a daily reality.
A year after conquering Kabul, the Taliban have banned women and girls from secondary and higher education, whilst blocking many workplace opportunities. In many heartbreaking videos and photographs, women hug and console each other after they are prevented from entering university. This cruel decision from the Taliban has provoked outrage across the world. Western governments were quick to condemn: Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, has called on the Taliban to reverse this decision, saying ‘education is a human right.’ Similar views were shared by Australian, Norwegian, French, and British government officials. In response, the Afghan Minister for Higher Education, Nida Mohammed Nadin called on Western nations to avoid commenting on Afghanistan affairs. To Nadin, female education conflicts with ‘Afghan and Islamic’ values.
Yet many Muslim-majority nations mirrored these Western leaders’ opinions. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the Turkish foreign minister, described the ban on women’s higher education as ‘nothing humane or Islamic about it.’ Similar responses came from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Taliban’s recent return to power did not come easy, either: Tajikistan and Kazakhstan views them as terrorists while other nations, including Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates, are responding with caution. Consequently, Islamic countries have displayed significant unease about the Taliban’s role within the Middle East. Afghanistan remains a poor country with little international power. The supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, seeks to overturn secular and Western influence within Afghanistan through draconian censorship and strict laws. However, upending twenty years of American influence is not guaranteed and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan may face opposition from within.
From this, we observe a geographical and political conflict within not only Afghanistan, but the broader Middle East, about the meaning of Islamism.
It will not disappear soon.