The birth of the IS was not an unforeseen contingency but, instead, the uncalculated result of decades of Islamist rhetoric and propaganda which were also generated by the ambiguities of reformist thought. The anti-conformist analysis of the Egyptian scholar, Sherif Younis.
The establishment of the Islamic State on the Middle East scene and the ferocious persecution implemented by its militants against non-Islamic minorities (Christians, Yazidis) and ‘heretical’ Muslims (Shiites and ‘lukewarm’ Sunnis) proposes anew in a dramatic way a question that periodically enters the public space: is violent Islamism a product of Islam tout court or a monstrous accident of history which is only connected with the Koran in an exploitative sense? An interesting way of understanding the phenomenon of Jihadism emerges from the debate that the advance of ISIS has generated within the Islamic world itself.
Ever since the caliphate was proclaimed on 29 June, there have not failed to be opposed reactions on the part of Muslim personalities of different backgrounds and sensibilities, in a variegated front that includes, amongst others, important thinkers connected with the Muslim Brothers and ideologues of al-Qaeda. Albeit with different accents, all of them contest both the ‘caliphal’ ambitions of the Islamic State and its ruthless methods.
Amongst the critical voices a certain echo in the mass media has been achieved by two important institutional Muslim authorities: the Mufti of Egypt, Shawki Allam, and the Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abd al-Aziz Al al-Shaykh. Allam has stated that ‘the organisation of the Islamic State is a danger for Islam’, specifying that ‘it is a grave error to describe it as an Islamic State because it contradicts all Islamic values and the aims of the sharia’. These words were followed by a campaign launched by the Egyptian Dar al-Ifta (the institution, chaired by the Mufti, created for the purpose of issuing fatwas) to replace the phrase ‘Islamic State’ in the mass media with the phrase ‘ ISIL terrorist organisation’. The Mufti of Saudi Arabia expressed himself in similar tones and declared that ‘extremism and violence have nothing to do with Islam, they are its first enemy and Muslims are their first victims’.
Naturally, it is comforting to know that many Muslims do not identify with the ideas and the actions of the Muslim State. But such statements about a general extraneousness to ‘true’ Islam run the risk of being objectively unsatisfactory, as was demonstrated by the Egyptian scholar Sherif Younis, one of the most acute and competent interpreters of modern Arab and Islamic thought (even though he is almost unknown in the West), in two articles published on 18 August and 1 September respectively in the important Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Ahram. In the first, entitled ‘The Ideology of the Islamic State and the Islamist revival’, Younis wrote, without pulling any punches and with a frankness that is rare in the public debate of Arab-Islamic countries, that ‘to accuse violent organisations like this one [the Islamic State] simply to ignore Islam is a sort of grave simplification, if not connivance. The reality is that violence is a part of the Islamist revival and is based upon a reactivation of existing traditional elements. The gigantic loudspeakers in the mosques, above all in those neighbourhoods that have a Christian population, the boycotting of small workshops owned by Christians, the accusation of impiety launched against liberal thinkers who are critical of Islamist speeches or books, which implies an invitation to kill them, the reiterated attempts to insert the crime of apostasy in Egyptian legislation and in general the speeches involving instigation against the diverse, whether at the level of religion or of ideas. have constituted over time the elements at the level of ideas that we can recognise today in the practice of the Islamic State. And it is known that the teaching methods of Al-Azhar [the important university/mosque of Cario] used in the religious schools are full of similar ideas. The ideology of the Islamic State is nothing else but the crowning of the movement of Islamist revival given that it applies what the other Islamists say’.
The last stage of a long process, the radicalism of ISIS is to be located, in the view of Younis, in the ‘ideological hegemony of the Islamist revival’, which was created from the meeting during the first half of the 1960s of takfirist writings (centred around takfîr, the accusation of impiety made against ‘deviant’ Muslims) of Sayyid Qutb and Egyptian university youth. But whereas the ‘Islamist ideological’ bombardment has a history that by now goes back forty years, its premisses go back to before that.
This is the subject of the second article of Younis which was entitled ‘Shaykh Muhammad ‘Abduh and Fundamentalism’ and in which he called into question a consolidated way of understanding modern Islamic thought, identifying in the thinking of the Egyptian reformist ‘Abduh (d. 1905) the root of the problems of contemporary Islam and not, as many people argue, their solution.
According to the most widespread interpretations, including those in the West, the reform movement of Islam that began at the end of the nineteenth century developed in two stages: the first, which was progressive and enlightened, began with ‘Abduh and culminated with the great liberal intellectual Taha Husayn; the second, which was regressive and obscurantist, began with the founder of the Muslim Brothers, Hasan al Banna, and flowed into violent Islamism. Younis contests this understanding and places ‘Abduh at the origins of both these trajectories. ‘Abduh is said not to be the thinker directly responsible for the birth of fundamentalism but he did create the theoretical bases for it through the combination of a dual mechanism: the overcoming of (historically admitted) differences between the various Sunni juridical schools in favour of a unitary and exclusive interpretation of Islam and the return to the origins as the pathway to a renewal that was not only religious but also social and political. Used by ‘Abduh in a modernist sense (the openness of this Egyptian thinker to such subjects as the rights of women or economic activity are well known), these two axes are said to have prepared the ground for the mythologizing and ideological absolutisation of Islamic unity – understood as homogeneity – and of the experience of the first generations of Muslims. In this way, the development of Islamism is said to be not only an accidental perversion of a virtuous pathway inaugurated by liberal Islam but also the necessary outcome of the approach by which Muslim thinkers theorised the complex relationship between Islam and modernity.
To understand the point well, beyond the most specialist aspects, the terms of the question of this debate can be compared to what took place starting in the early 1940s in Italy in relation to the interpretation of Fascism. For Benedetto Croce, Fascism was the outcome of momentary cultural crisis, an irrational ‘parenthesis’ in the rational development of European history. In the view of Augusto Del Noce, who took up the ideas of Giacomo Noventa, it was not ‘an error against culture’ but an ‘error of culture’, and only this approach in his view would have prevented the birth of new Fascisms.
It is a good thing that Islamic thinkers condemn the traumatic experience of the Islamic State. But it is important, above all, for this State to be thought about. Without an adequate judgement, the Islamist projects could be temporarily opposed but never really overcome.
*Analysis published by Avvenire on 16 September 2014
*Domus Europa ringrazia il sito www.oasiscenter.eu