The curse of radical Islam as a political religion
By Rodrigue Tremblay
Online Journal Guest Writer

Sep 13, 2006, 02:10

"Muslims must . . . educate their children to Jihad. This is the greatest benefit of the situation: educating the children to Jihad and to hatred of the Jews, the Christians, and the infidels; educating the children to Jihad and to revival of the embers of Jihad in their souls. This is what is needed now . . ." --Sheikh Muhammad Saleh al-Munajjid, an imam in Saudi Arabia

"Islam makes it incumbent on all adult males, provided they are not disabled or incapacitated, to prepare themselves for the conquest of [other] countries so that the writ of Islam is obeyed in every country in the world . . ." --Ayatollah Khomeni (1902-1989), religious leader of Iran

"The leader who needs religion to govern his people is weak . . . We have to rid ourselves of superstition. Anybody is free to believe in anything, but we need freedom of thought." --Atat�rk (1881-1938), founder of modern Turkey.

Some readers have told me that I do not write enough about the political side of Islam, especially as it relates to the mixing of religion and politics and to the fringe element of radical Islam which is supportive of international terrorism. As a matter of fact, I have written extensively on the question, but in French (see my 2001 book "L'Heure juste"). Here, then, is my position on this topic.

All proselytist religions tend to mix politics and religion because one of their objectives is to control how people think and behave. On this score, I would say Islam ("submission" or "surrender" in Arabic) doesn't fare well, because it tends to institutionalize a symbiosis between politics and religion. It is a religion that tends theoretically to concentrate temporal and spiritual authority in a single entity. Structurally, in Islam, the Caliph and the Sheik are supposed to be the same person, wielding spiritual and political powers over the people. Mind you, something approaching the same result prevailed in Christianity after the 4th century, when the Church and the Throne formed close alliances, the clergy confirming the power of kings and emperors, and the rich and powerful aristocracy protecting the equally rich and powerful religious hierarchy. It is only with the advent of the Renaissance that Christian Europe began talking about democracy as the most humanist form of government.

The more progressive and modern Muslim countries that have advanced the most economically, socially and politically, such as Turkey, Malaysia or Indonesia, are those that have rejected the unhealthy, near complete mixing of religion and politics that is called for by fundamentalist Islam. In other Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, a more extreme brand of Islam prevails. This movement in Sunni Islam, (the dominant form of Islam),  is called Wannabism or "Salafism," and it distinguishes itself by not only refusing Western values and ideologies, such as nationalism, socialism and capitalism, but also by rejecting the Western concepts of freedom, liberty, economics, constitutions, political parties, revolution, social justice and the very idea of a rationalist, secular culture. The other minority branch of Islam, Shia Islam can also be considered extremist, especially in contemporary Iran, in the sense that it reserves to the clergy a dominant political role in an Islamic country. It is mainly concentrated in Iran, although Shiites also live in Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

It can be argued that before Islam, which appeared in the early part of the 7th Century, Arab civilization was more advanced and more peaceful than after the imposition of the new faith through violence. It had participated fully in the rich Greek, Assyrian, Persian, Chaldean and Babylonian civilizations, to which we owe mathematical breakthroughs, such as the concept of zero found in the Greek and Hindu decimal systems  and the Pythagorean Theorem in Babylonian mathematics.

Regarding Islamic respect for science, it has to be said that one of Muhammad's successors, the Caliph Omar of Damascus, distinguished himself by having centuries-old literary treasures destroyed, besides setting afire the large Egyptian library of Alexandria, a wonder of the Ancient World. Caliph Omar is reported to have justified his order to destroy the books in the library of Alexandria by saying that "they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous."

Since many religions have theologies that stress so-called divine revelation over human reason, it is not surprising that religious extremists can be opposed to human intellectual progress, especially if such progress is perceived as a threat to their political power. Not surprisingly also, such a bias against the human intellect and against scientific achievements is bound to have a detrimental influence on the economic, social and political development of countries that embrace such an attitude. Indeed, the absence of intellectual freedom and censorship are the two biggest enemies of human progress.

During the 9th and 10th centuries, Islamic civilization redeemed itself somewhat by having many ancient scientific and philosophical tracts translated from ancient languages, especially Greek, into Arabic. It is these translations which were imported into Europe and which played such a central role in bringing about the European Renaissance, from which Western civilization still draws most of its inspiration.

Islam was born in war and grew the same way. From the time of Muhammad (c. 570�632), in the 7th century, the means of Muslim expansion was always the sword and military conquest. Islam, at least at the beginning, was not a "religion of peace," to mimic the expression used often by President George W. Bush. It was fundamentally a military movement that used forced conversion to Islam to expand its dominion. Muhammad began the first violent movement in Medina, after a declaration of a Jihad against so-called 'infidels'. There, for example, the Jews who refused to convert to Islam were driven from the land or beheaded. Approximately 15 years later he marched on Mecca with an army of about 20,000, and later against the Assyrians, the Armenians and the Coptics in Egypt. Those who converted to Islam were spared. Those who refused to convert were beheaded. So much for a compassionate Islam.

It has been argued convincingly that the imposition of Islam upon the Arabs was a regressive development. With Islam, the Arab civilization lost much of the scientific accomplishments and the tradition of intellectual vitality that it had inherited from the Greek and Assyrian civilizations.

The fundamental question of the religious foundation of violence and terrorism needs attention. It is the most pressing, because the world is not going to tolerate very long being subjected to blackmail and having its prosperity and freedom threatened this way.

It is no surprise that terrorist leaders use the mask of religion to diabolize their enemies and to cloak their cruelties and atrocities in a pious justification. The cover of religion to justify terrorism, especially suicide terrorism, and the killing of innocent people also has the advantage of making it easier to recruit so-called martyrs and fanatics, if not utterly deranged people, who would not be as easily mobilized for a purely political cause. That may be one reason why today's religious-based terrorism is more deadly than the nationalist-based terrorism of 40 or 50 years ago.

Extremists in any religion can find passages in their 'holy books' that condone violence against others.  Suffice it to say that they overlook the book's other teachings about "peace," "justice," "kindness," "courtesy," and "compassion" toward others, to concentrate on the admonitions which call for intolerance and aggression against so-called "infidels."

Some religious ideologues can reinforce the violent tendencies of the most exalted people by emphasizing the most violent religious teachings. For instance, an Egyptian scholar, Sayied Qutb, argued in the 1950s, in his book of Quranic interpretation, entitled "Fe-zelal-al-Qur'an," that a state of permanent war is normal between Muslims and non-Muslims, ignoring that the Qur'an (Koran) dictates that its teachings be understood in full, not in bits and pieces (Surah 20:114), as it relates mainly to individual morality, not to politics. The religious-based Al Qaeda terrorist movement takes its violent inspirations from such impractical subversive teachings. It is part of the Jihadist ideology of hatred and destruction.

Faced with the threat of Islamist terrorism, the important task for the rest of the world is to avoid antagonizing the moderate Muslims who are largely in the majority in their countries. Both for reasons of domestic support and for acceptance by the Muslim masses, governments anxious to fight and contain international terrorism should, now more than ever, retain the moral high ground and not be the aggressors. They should reject the negative, misleading and self-fulfilling propaganda rhetoric of "Islamo-Fascism," "war of civilizations" or even worse, of "war of religions," and concentrate on concretely assisting Muslim countries in acceding to modernity and prosperity, while supporting their efforts in combating anti-modernity religious-based terrorism.

Therefore, to pursue a policy of openness, assistance and fairness toward Muslim countries would seem to be the most just and the most constructive approach, while simultaneously maintaining a firm attitude against gratuitous international terrorism. Sad to say, this is not the kind of rational and sophisticated policy being followed by the current American administration, which seems bent on glorifying and multiplying the most extremist Islamist organizations, while alienating and silencing the most reform-minded people in the Muslim world.

On this score, the best thing the Bush-Cheney administration could do in fighting international Islamist terrorism would be to announce a phase out of its military occupation of Iraq, while persuading its close ally, Israel, to end its own military occupation of Palestine, and take concrete steps to solve once and for all the rotten Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the other hand, the worst thing the Bush-Cheney team could do would be to start bombing Iran. The latter would be a most counter-productive move and would feed both extremism and terrorism.

Rodrigue Tremblay is professor emeritus of economics at the University of Montreal and can be reached at rodrigue.tremblay@ He is the author of the book 'The New American Empire'. Visit his blog site at

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