The U.S. Army chief of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, appears to be out of sync with his commander-in-chief on the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The general says ISIS is a product of “radical Islam or militant Islam,” which endangers Western societies based on liberalism.
President Obama and his administration have been protesting the linking of Islam in any form to ISIS, or any other group of Muslim terrorists. “We are not at war with Islam,” Obama says. “We are at war with people who have perverted Islam,”
Milley argues that ISIS has emerged from an Islamic “movement out there going on for 100 years.” That movement is committed to building “an alternative way” of life to the one cherished by liberal Western societies. “And that’s the challenge of radicals within the Muslim Allamah, from Morocco all the way to Indonesia, from the Caucuses to the Blue Nile.” The general apparently meant “ulema,” Muslim clerics and scholars; instead of “allama,” which means a scholar in Islamic jurisprudence and philosophy.
I agree, partly, with both the president and the general. They reminded me of a debate on Islam that took place years go between two of the West’s best-known scholars on Islam: Bernard Lewis of Princeton University, and Mohammed Arkoun of Sorbonne University in Paris (who died in 2010). The colloquium was hosted by the Library of Congress in Washington in its Jefferson Building meeting hall.
Lewis, an Orientalist Jew, basically argued that Muslim societies were lagging behind most of the rest of the world in human development and economic progress because of their fetish with Islam’s anti-modern values and principles. Arkoun, a French Muslim of Algerian descent, countered that economic progress was only part of what Islam was about. Islam’s core mission was to pursue social justice, he said. Lewis retorted that Muslims had not “made much progress” in building just societies. Arkoun agreed, but reminded his interlocutor that Islamic principles were “adaptive” to Muslims’ evolving social environments. “The world,” he added, “isn’t done with Islam, I suppose.”
Lewis was right in saying that Muslims have been ignoring their faith’s prescription for pursuing social justice. Justice in Islam means not only adjudication of grievances and disputes, but also achieving or maintaining social equilibrium through fair treatment of people. Muslims have indeed been doing injustices to one another and destabilizing ordered societies since the early days of the faith. Not long after the death of Prophet Muhammad, his followers plunged into bloody succession struggles and internecine warfare. Sectarian, ethnic and tribal strife among Muslims continued, off and on, throughout Islamic history.
Yet Muslims’ struggle for justice, or against what they perceive be injustices, bursts forth in times of conflict with non-Muslim faith groups, hegemons and civilizations. Islam inherited the concept of justice from faith-based cultural patterns that evolved during the Axial Age in societies in between the Nile River in Egypt and Sudan and the Oxus River in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Axial Age spanned the 8th through the 3rd century B.C. Justice became the bedrock principle of those traditions, especially early Judaism and later early Christianity and Islam.
During the Axial Age, Middle Eastern peoples did not have a central authority or a judicial apparatus to administer justice among individuals and communities. Rules of justice administered by an omnipotent God, equipped with the tools of heaven and hell, became the most effective principle of organizing societies and maintaining peace and order. Western liberalism, Western Christianity and the Indic religions of Hinduism and Buddhism are focused on the individual – individual freedom, individual enlightenment, individual emancipation from birth cycles, etc. But monotheistic religions were founded on the principle of social justice.
While secular liberalism has replaced religion in the public spheres of the Judeo-Christian West, most Muslim societies remain anchored to principle of justice, however widely it may be flouted. The call of justice (more than that of freedom) shapes the moral standards, influences the choice of personal and social goals in most Muslims societies, and inspires Muslims into achieving those goals. Arkoun was obviously referring to this Islamic paradigm in his encounter with Lewis.
What makes the concept of justice potent in Muslims’ encounters with their non-Muslim adversaries is another seminal Islamic concept: the umma. As Milley has pointed out, the spirit of umma resonates among Muslims “from Morocco all the way to Indonesia, from the Caucasus to the … Nile.” Umma solidarity took hold among Muslims during the early phase of their faith, when they were involved in continual conflicts with non-Muslim communities, states and empires. It revived during the Crusades, anti-colonial struggles, and many local conflicts against non-Muslims. Today the spirit of umma is fueling Muslim resistance to non-Muslim invasions, occupation and hegemony, which many Muslims consider acts of injustice. Whether Muslim perception of these “injustices” is correct is debatable. But the sense of injustice that has fostered solidarity among swaths of the Muslim umma against American and Western hegemons is not.
In Western and many other non-Muslim societies such solidarity is evoked by people’s allegiance to their nations. The concept of nationalism is alien to Islam. It was imported into Muslim realms (many non-Muslim ones) during the last phase of European colonialism. Political elites in these countries have since been trying to work through the institutions of nations and nation-states. But many everyday Muslims’ attachment to their religious institutions and communities remains alive, and when the crunch comes, it tends override their loyalty to their “nation-states.” Today there are few Iraqis in Iraq: there are only Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds, Shiite Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen, and other ethnic and sectarian communities. Similarly, Syria has few Syrians, Lebanon, few Lebanese, and so on.
Of course you would not condone, let alone support, the killing and persecution that ISIS and other Muslim terrorist organizations have carried out against innocent people. I bet you are not prepared, either, to condone or justify the slaughter of nearly 1 million Iraqis, or the horrors of Abu Gharib, which followed the unjust and uncalled for American war in Iraq. You can, too, have legitimate debates over the causes that have pitted ISIS, the Taliban and other militant Muslim groups against their foreign and domestic adversaries. Yet their bitter enmity against these adversaries is a reality. So are the sources that this enmity is feeding on.
The American president and army chief of staff have sidestepped this reality, while trying to explain the danger posed by ISIS and other Muslim terrorist groups. They are preoccupied with military tools and strategies that Obama believes would “degrade and destroy” ISIS.
A recent editorial in the British newspaper The Independent appears to have reminded them of the folly behind this strategy. Citing the outcome of the 14-year-long multinational war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the editorial says that “the most reliable estimates indicate that the Taliban controls or heavily influences at least half of the country. As talk grows of putting ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria, we should remember where this got us in Afghanistan – nowhere.”
Islamic history and values would yield some productive ideas about dealing with ISIS or ‘radical Islam.’
- Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog Muslim Journey (https://muslimjourney.com).