By Khaled Abou El Fadl
Ramadan is a month in which Muslims are supposed to retreat from the materiality of their existence into an effort to realize their superior perennial and luminous nature.
It is a month in which the exercise in self-denial is supposed to unshackle one's sense of empathy for the suffering and oppression of others. It is supposed to be a month of worship and peace.
Muslims are exhorted to expend an extra effort avoiding bloodshed, violence and all offensive behaviour.
Other than Ramadan, there are four sanctified months, known as al-ashhur al-hurum, during which Muslims are commanded to set aside all disputes and avoid warfare. These four (Dhu al-qi'da, Dhu al-hijja, Muharram and Rajab) are months of truce, amnesty and non-violence - with the only exception being an imposed war of self-defense.
In the classical juristic tradition, there is a great deal of writing on setting disputes aside, suspending feuds, conflict-resolution and even forcible seizures of indebted property during these four months and Ramadan.
It never ceases to amaze me how little contemporary Muslims know about their own ethical and moral traditions. Not only are the moral objectives and ethical lessons behind these traditions lost on contemporary Muslims, but Muslims who go on their merry way killing and maiming mostly other Muslims are oblivious to the sanctity of blood in Islam.
"What does it mean for people to fast from eating and drinking, but not from killing one another?"
It now has become somewhat of a mantra to remind people that the Qur'an says that whoever kills one soul unjustly, it is as if they have murdered all of humanity. I supposed the loophole here is that the Qur'an says "unjustly," and it is the habit of people to always assume that justice happens to align itself with their whims.
Throughout the month of Ramadan, I thought of the blood being spilled in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere. And I found the idea that it is very likely that both those who were doing the killing and those getting killed were both fasting most unsettling.
What does it mean for people to fast from eating and drinking, but not from killing one another? What sanctities need to be desensitized in a person's heart before they kill the other during prayers and in a mosque? What bizarre distortion needs to take place before soldiers massacre civilians in the mosque named after a famous Sufi woman who has enjoyed the status of a saint in the Muslim world, and then burn the corpses and the mosque all together?
Sisi: great reformer or petty despot?
In Egypt, there seems to be something fundamentally asinine and even insane about religiously justifying the killing of unarmed protestors, imprisoning people who express any opposition to the government, beating and sexually assaulting demonstrators in public, and practicing the most atrocious methods of torture and dehumanization against those detained all over country - and then for the same great leader who continues to perpetuate these atrocities to posture himself as a great religious reformer. How do you preach against terrorism and teach people the evils of militancy, intolerance and cruelty, while your very actions are a living contradiction?
It was not that long ago when demonstrators from Tunisia to Bahrain lifted the banners of hurriyya (liberty), karama (dignity), 'ish (food) and silmiyya (non-violence). How do things deteriorate so quickly from an insistence on peaceful means of toppling governments to a full-scale militarization of the conflict?
After all, I still remember the genocide in Bosnia - the Bosnians were slaughtered like sheep because they could not acquire weapons, and they could not do so because Europe persistently refused to allow the Bosnians to arm themselves. Is it not miraculous how fighting parties in the Middle East seem to have weapons fall right into their laps without any difficulty?
"How do you preach against terrorism and teach people the evils of militancy, intolerance and cruelty, while your very actions are a living contradiction?"
In Egypt, it is now beyond dispute that we have a regime that rivals in its ruthlessness and bloodiness the regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia combined. Since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi executed his coup, more than 10,000 have been slaughtered in the streets, mosques, universities and high schools, let alone in police stations and military quarters. There are at least 50,000 political detainees, and torture is so ingrained in the system that you do not even have to be a political activist to become its target.
There are well over a thousand political opponents sentenced to death, and Sisi was filmed recently giving instructions and berating civil judges for taking too long before carrying out the executions. About two hundred parliamentarians from Egypt's only freely elected but judicially annulled legislature are rotting in prison. Recently, a parliamentarian was killed execution-style along with eight others in an apartment building after being finger printed and lined up.
Sisi has boldly declared himself responsible for everything in the country - including people's religiosity. This has translated into the most repressive measures against the Islamic faith in modern Egyptian history. Not only have a thousand mosques been permanently shut down, but every sermon given by any cleric in a mosque is now strictly regulated. Sisi is the first leader in history to limit the duration of the Friday sermon to fifteen minutes and the prayers to five. None of these restrictions apply to Christians.
This Ramadan, three very prominent clerics were fired from their posts and permanently banned from leading prayers in a mosque, giving sermons, or even teaching privately at home simply because they uttered a public supplication that God aid the victims of injustice and punish the unjust. They did not name names or point fingers, but apparently Sisi's regime is very aware of its crimes and is rather sensitive about it.
I think the most ardent supporter cannot deny the gross violations committed by this regime against its people, and yet the United States government and so many in the West continue to consider Sisi an important strategic ally in the region. They also continue to supply his regime with the arms and money with which he slaughters and torments his people.
Some in Washington, D.C. are even counting on Sisi to reform the entire Islamic faith so that they will have an Islam that is not such a pain in the neck. Apparently, they want an Islam that, when they do things like invade and occupy Muslim countries or assassinate whomever they deem a Muslim terrorist, will simply say, "Amen, do what you see fit!"
"Even the most ardent supporter cannot deny the gross violations committed by the Egyptian regime against its people, yet the United States and so many in the West continue to consider Sisi an important strategic ally."
In a recent event at the prestigious National Press Club, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the infamous Islamophobe, told a supportive audience that "we" - that is, the West - are at war with Islam because Islam itself is the problem. She set forth a comical agenda - that I do not care to repeat - for the changes required to domesticate Islam into an acceptable form. She apparently wants Allah not to talk so much about hellfire and focus more on heaven, and she apparently expects Allah to learn to become less wrathful and angry. One might say that she expects Muslims to get Allah a really good psychologist in order to defuse His aggressions.
According to Hirsi Ali, the Qur'an must cease to be understood to be the literal word of God but, just like this article, it should be understood to be the work of men perhaps guided by some divine inspiration. Moreover, Muhammad is a bad moral example for Muslims, and so we must ask Muhammad to resign his tenure as Islam's prophet, and leave this post to more sagacious people (like Hirsi Ali).
Most significantly, she praised Sisi as the great reformer of Islam and claimed that her five conditions are precisely the reforms Sisi has in mind when he keeps calling upon al-Azhar University to rise up against sacred traditions that are no longer acceptable. For the record, her conditions are:
the Qur'an can no longer be considered sacred and Muhammad should not be followed as a moral example;
- Muslims should no longer focus on life after death;
- Muslims must do away with Shari'ah law;
- the principle of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil must be abolished; and
- Muslims should abandon the concept of jihad.
Hirsi Ali's dribble did cause me to reflect upon Sisi's supposed role as a Muslim reformer, and this in turn led me to reflect upon the redundant circular thought and dynamics that seem to have doomed the fate of the Middle East since the modern age.
Defining and dominating Muslims
The theme of changing, altering, or otherwise manipulating the Islamic faith so that it would be more yielding to Western interests is not a new one. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he pretended to be Muslim and dreamt of creating a new Qur'an, which he would author, and that would be fit for a new civilized Eastern religion.
The British carefully engineered the birth of Arabia with its different emirates with the aid of Lawrence of Arabia pretending to convert to Islam and feigning outrage at a non-Arab Caliphate. John Philby, an intelligence officer for the British Colonial Office, pretended to convert to Islam as he persuaded the Kingdom of Najd - a fanatic Wahhabi Bedouin territory - to annex the Hijaz and become the leader of the Muslim world. When General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem in 1917 as a conqueror, British intelligence was busy convincing the gullible that Allenby really meant al-Nabi (the Prophet), and that this pious Muslim was restoring Jerusalem to the hands of Arab Muslims.
More recently, as the Bush administration prepared to enter into its open ended war against terrorism, it demanded a re-evaluation of the madrasa system and even intervened in religion curricula taught in schools in a number of Muslim countries.
The issue, however, is much deeper than simplistic attempts at manipulating Muslim politics through deception. Since Napoleon, a firm historical logic has been anchored in the Muslim world - an historical logic that is dictated by the severe imbalance in power between the invader and invaded, the dominator and dominated, and the colonizer and colonized.
The British historian Arnold Toynbee labelled those who would reject Western dominance as zealots, but different terms were used in different times and contexts: extremists, reactionaries, mad dervishes, fanatics, barbarians, terrorists, saboteurs and traitors, renegades and others.
"The ultimate hegemonic power is the power to define and not the power to conquer."
The fundamental idea was to anchor a dichotomy between an Islam that inspires its followers to resist domination, and an Islam that motivates it followers to submit. This was a dichotomy between the bad Muslim who resists and the good Muslim who submits. Whether British, French, or American, empires always covet the power to define. This is because the ultimate hegemonic power is the power to define and not the power to conquer.
With the power to define the French, for instance, made 'Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza'iri, the Algerian hero who resisted French occupation (d. 1883), a fanatic mad man, and the British transformed Muhammad bin 'Abd al-Wahhab, the extremist founder of Wahhabism (d. 1792), into the Martin Luther of Islam. With the same power, the Ottomans became a heretical corruption of the true Islam, and Sufi orders, because of their role in resisting colonialism, became marginal to mainstream orthodoxy. And with the same power, the religious place of the Hijaz and its meaning, and the centrality of Jerusalem in Muslim theology were reinvented. With the same power, the very place of the institution of the caliphate in Muslim theology was practically voided.
Each colonizer had their preferred brand of legitimating dogma that stroked their consciences into believing that their invasion and domination was unique and good if not necessary for the natives. The French raised the banner of liberte, the British preached civilized values, the Italians proclaimed efficiency and administration and so on. I once even had the odd opportunity of attending a function with Paul Wolfowitz who gloated that the United States was bringing Iraq democracy and capitalism.
The persistent problem, however, is that the moralistic dogma espoused by dominant nations invariably becomes a code of damnation for the dominated. If dominant nations preach democracy, for instance, and the native population believes the dogma and produces a democracy that makes demands contrary to the colonizing master's wishes, the master must undermine the process.
The logic is circular and self-serving. If the natives would have really learned democracy, they would have never made the choices that they made, which also happen to be at odds with colonizer's interests. A democracy that leads to undesirable results deviates from the right path, which must ultimately lead back to the master, and not away from this master.
"What threatens the West is the prospect of Muslims attaining sufficient self-determination and epistemological independence and the power of self-definition."
One would have thought that the fallacies of colonialism would have been vanquished and vanished, but not in the case of Muslims and especially Muslims of the Middle East. We - namely, the West - continue to perpetuate old habits acquired from the ages when we perceived Muslims as emotional and irrational natives easily fooled and led, and who fundamentally are incapable of governing themselves in any meaningful way. There is nothing more intimate to a people than their convictions and beliefs, and we continue to see ourselves as entitled to interfere in policing these convictions and beliefs. We continue to seek the power of definition over Islamicity - its good and bad, and by failing to imagine that there could be an "in between."
This is precisely why, when elections produce a model of Islamicity that is not consistent with how we see Islamicity - when this model defies our dichotomous logic of "good Muslims submit" and "bad Muslims resist" - or when we encounter shades and variations that rob us of the power to define and categorize our dominated subjects, we are not only challenged but we stand troubled and puzzled. We are not puzzled or troubled by the existence of complexity among Muslims. Rather, what threatens us is the prospect of Muslims attaining sufficient self-determination and epistemological independence and the power of self-definition.
This is why we - the West - executed the coup against the freely elected prime minister of Iran Mohammad Mossadiq in 1953; we supported the military coup in Algeria in 1991; we actively supported and protected many dictatorships in the Middle East. Each time that our secret agencies go to work to support "our man" and vanquish his opponents, we count on and place all our hopes in a local dictator who will get the job done on our behalf.
We count on dictators who will - and the reader may choose the expression they wish - reform, alter, mutilate, mutate, or reconstruct an Islam that is more consistent with our interests. These dictators are relied upon to shove the Islam we want down their citizens' throats, and to silence dissenting voices.
Unfortunately, this is what leads so many Western governments to forego all their ideals about human rights and democracy and support as ruthless a dictator - like the one in Egypt. So many pundits repeated after Muhammad Morsi's overthrow that the Egyptian people preferred a military dictatorship over "Islamic fascism."
Nothing in this statement is remotely accurate, but it is a powerful demonstration of the power of definitions. What does Islamic fascism mean? Fascism was an ultra-nationalistic totalitarian system of government that had a very specific structural system. Fascism does not describe the authoritarianism found in Iran, Saudi Arabia, or most despotic systems. The governments of North Korea and Myanmar might come closer to the fascist model but even then there are serious reservations.
"The West counts on dictators who will reform, alter, mutilate, mutate, or reconstruct an Islam that is more consistent with our interests."
Yet the expression "Islamic fascism" was invented by polemicists in the West, and was quickly imported and utilized by Muslims without anyone bothering to study the historical and theoretical underpinnings of the word.
If fascism was simply another word for dictatorial policies and the insistence that only true believers are entitled to salvation, then can we call Sisi's government fascist? The ex-mufti of Egypt Ali Jum'a preached to Sisi's officers that squashing their opponents and destroying Morsi's supporters is acceptable because they are not true Egyptians or Muslims and because they smell bad. Is he a fascist? The Pope of the Coptic Church, Tawadros II, defended the massacre in Rab'a and the arrest and execution of thousands, and blessed the repressive measures being undertaken by the Sisi regime because Egypt is going through what he described as the labour pains for a better future. Does this constitute an example of Christian fascism?
The Coptic Pope's statement reminded me of Condoleezza Rice's equally callous and indifferent statement in 2006 when she remarked about the violence in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the growing pains towards a new Middle East attained through the forces of constructive chaos. Incidentally, according to her autobiography, Rice believed that Jesus guided her administration's hand in the Middle East. Is she an example of Christian fascism?
Dividing and conquering the Middle East
My argument thus far is that the policymakers in the West and especially in the United States and Britain do not just tolerate dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, but at a minimum, refuse to oppose them and often will actively support them because of a basic sense of insecurity about Muslims exercising self-autonomy and determination. There is a visceral but historically rooted fear of the bogeyman of a united Islam and of Muslims demanding to be treated as equals and not as colonial subjects. Muslims are still the faceless, indistinct mass of dark-skinned natives who cannot be trusted unless they speak, act, and even covet what their imperial masters teach them.
Recently, Robin Wright, a journalist at the U.S. Institute for Peace and the Wilson Center, published an article in the New York Times titled "Imagining a Remapped Middle East," and a map titled "How 5 Countries Could Become 14." Wright fantasized a new Middle East with countries named Sunnistan, Kurdistan, Alawitestan, and Shi'itestan. For the New York Times to dedicate a substantial amount of space to this article with its coloured maps is some indication of the importance that the influential newspaper ascribed to Wright's analysis.
To be fair, however, it does not appear that Wright just dreamt this stuff up, but was inspired by the work of Ralph Peters, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and author, who published an article in the Armed Forces Journal, titled "Blood Borders: How a better Middle East would look." In this article, Peters envisions a Middle East that would be divided along confessional and ethnic boundaries. In his reconfiguration of the Middle East, Iraq would be split between Arab Sunnis, Arab Shi'is, and Kurds; Saudi Arabia would be split and divided, Jordan would expand its territory. Yet curiously enough, a Palestinian state is absent from both the Wright and Peters plans.
"There is a visceral fear of the bogeyman of a united Islam, and of Muslims demanding to be treated as equals and not as colonial subjects."
The idea of dividing up the countries of the Middle East into little ethnically and confessionally based states is not a new one. This is exactly what the United States did in Iraq, thus causing a civil war that will not end. In 2013, there was the so-called Biden Plan for dividing up Iraq, and in 2007, a non-binding resolution went through the U.S. Senate, which called for a decentralized Iraqi government with strong Sunni, Shi'i and Kurdish regional administrations.
This resolution was based on a strategy that Joe Biden and Leslie H. Gelb introduced in May 2006, a strategy that called for the establishment of three semi-autonomous religio-ethnic regions. But as early as 1982, Ze'ev Schiff, who was an Israeli journalist and the military correspondent for Haaretz, wrote an article stating that "the dissolution of Iraq into a Shi'ite state, a Sunni state and the separation of the Kurdish part" is the best outcome for Israeli interests.
Before the Bush era, in 1996, a report titled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm" was prepared by a study group in the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies led by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle for Benjamin Netanyahu, who was the Prime Minister of Israel at the time. The report envisioned igniting proxy wars, destabilizing regimes and breaking up countries.
In 1982, Oded Yinon, an Israeli journalist attached to the Foreign Ministry in Israel, published an article in Kivunim (the journal of the Department of Information of the World Zionist Organization) titled "A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties." This article put forward a plan to divide the whole area of the Middle East into small states based on confessional and ethnic identities and promoted the dissolution of all the existing Arab states.
We can go back into history, and discuss the first prime minister of Israel Ben Gurion's vision of a fractured and divided Middle East set out and explained in his diaries, but there is no point in doing this.
The point of real interest for me is not whether these aspirational plans of creating chaos, creative or otherwise, are actual strategic plans that are eventually executed in one way or another. The point of real interest is why do Western politicians, policymakers, analysts and intelligence groups engage in this type of wicked thinking in the first place?
What is truly remarkable is that, when it comes to the Middle East, even institutions like the New York Times are not struck by the absurdity of talking about Middle Easterners as if they are primitive colonial subjects that can only form the most basic loyalties on ethnic and confessional bases. It is as if lofty concepts such as civic societies and civic values are beyond the epistemological ability of those Muslims!
"The West resorts to fantasies of a divided and conquered Muslim Arab world for the same reason we have consistently failed to support a single Arab democracy in the Middle East."
As we observed in Iraq, the truth is that the powerful tend to construct the realities they imagine. We occupied Iraq with preconceived notions about the make-up of the country and our policies certainly promoted and consolidated this perceived reality. There is a comic irony in the fact that some in the West will support dictators like Sisi because of their proclaimed aversion to theocracies, but will then turn around and support the creation of confessional polities in which the only point of demarcation is religion.
We resort to such fantasies of a divided and conquered Muslim Arab world for the same reason that we have consistently failed to support a single Arab democracy in the Middle East. We prefer Sisi for the same reason that we once supported Saddam Hussein, celebrate and admire Ataturk, and ally ourselves so closely with Saudi Arabia.
We are always searching for and supporting leaders who will tame Islam for us - who will take out its fangs and smother its charismatic spirit. Failing that, our second choice is a sharply divided and conquered Islam with Muslims preoccupied with fighting and killing each other, and conspiring against each other with the full cooperation and aid of the West.
Whether the West rules over Arab states directly or through proxy militaries and kings that serve our interests, we continue to perpetuate paradigms that are outdated and dangerous. Dictators do not reform religions and do not produce civility. All they do is breed extremism and lock their societies in cycles of endless violence.
Perhaps it is time that the West started to treat Muslims with the dignity and respect that they deserve. Perhaps then, and only then, the demons that inhabit the West's nightmares about Islam can be exorcised. Perhaps the lack of repression, oppression and misery would lead Arab Muslims to cherish life instead of seeking the relief of death. Perhaps if we stopped supplying the dictators of the Middle East with Western built instruments of repression and torture, we could all live in a more civil world.
When Muslims demonstrate in their millions and cry out for hurriyya (liberty), we should consider believing them, and respecting their choices whatever they may be. The truth is that without freedom, there are no growing pains and, indeed, no growing at all - without freedom, there is only pain. And the pains of despotism tend to leave behind such frightful perversions that in due course will devastate and consume us all.
Originally published on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Religion and Ethics Website