The Islamic movement: between extremism and moderation

Developing Just Leadership

Iqbal Siddiqui

Jumada' al-Ula' 05, 1427 2006-06-01

Islamic Movement

by Iqbal Siddiqui (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 4, Jumada' al-Ula', 1427)

On April 23, the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) and Crescent International hosted a Kalim Siddiqui Memorial Conference in London. The theme of the conference was The Islamic movement: between extremism and moderation. Here we publish an abridged version of the keynote paper, presented by IQBAL SIDDIQUI, the editor of Crescent International.

First of all, I would like to thank you all for being here, both as editor of Crescent International, one of the two bodies co-hosting this conference along with the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT), and as the son of Dr Kalim Siddiqui, in whose memory this conference is being held. However, the object of this conference is not just to remember Dr Kalim Siddiqui, and to talk about his unique contribution to the contemporary Islamic movement, but also to do for ourselves today, in the context of the historical situation facing Muslims in 2006, ten years after the death of Dr Kalim Siddiqui, a little of the sort of work that he did, and which characterised his life and his unique contribution to the Islamic movement, for which he was known and recognised all over the world.

In the last years of his life Dr Kalim became a public figure as Leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, which he was instrumental in founding after the Rushdie affair highlighted the problems that Muslims faced living in this country. However, long before he became well known to the general public, he was known among Islamic activists around the world as an intellectual and analyst of the global Islamic movement, someone whose writings on contemporary history and politics were translated into many languages and influenced the thinking and understanding of Islamic movement leaders and and activists all over the world. Writing in the 1970s, he hypothesised the existence of a global Islamic movement — although he did not use that phrase until later — which was comprised of all the various movements and struggles by which Muslims had tried, and were still trying, to reassert the values and principles of Islam to address the problems that their societies had as a result of the interruption of their natural social evolution caused by Western colonial hegemony. He also recognised the need for an “intellectual revolution” in Muslim historical and political understanding as a prerequisite for the successful Islamic transformation of Muslim societies — although again he only coined and used that distinctive phrase later. It was to contribute to such an intellectual process that he founded the Muslim Institute for Research and Planning in the early 1970s, along with other like-minded Muslims, including Zafar Bangash, who is now Director of the Muslim Institute’s successor institution, the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought.

The fundamental principle underpinning all of Dr Kalim’s work was the belief that, in order to move forward, the Islamic movement needs to have an understanding and awareness of the historical process of which it is a part, and to have a broad understanding of the long-term objectives of the Islamic movement, rather than seeing only the immediate and local scenarios facing Muslims in some particular place at some particular time. All his work can be seen in this context, from the writing of the Draft Prospectus of the Muslim Institute in the mid-1970s, which appears so stunningly fresh and relevant to us today that we can only imagine how it must have appeared at that time, to his major writings on the issues of nationalism, colonialism, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the Islamic movement itself in the 1980s and early 1990s. It is also this principle that we have tried to maintain in the ICIT since Dr Kalim’s death, particularly in the writings of Zafar Bangash and Imam Muhammad al-Asi, both of whom will be speaking today, and through the Crescent International, which Dr Kalim himself transformed from a local community paper in Toronto to “newsmagazine of the global Islamic movement” more than 25 years ago.

The theme of this conference, and of my presentation, may be regarded by some as slightly provocative. “Moderation” and “extremism” are of course labels often used by Western commentators to differentiate between what they regard as “good” Muslims and “bad” Muslims: Muslims whom they can accept and tolerate, and Muslims who must be demonised and marginalised because they refuse to accept their allotted place in the West-dominated world order and threaten to overturn it. But the reality is that there are also echoes of this usage in the ways that we Muslims think of ourselves and other Muslims. This is what I want to focus on today.

Differences of understanding, approach and methodology are inevitable in a global Ummah of more than 1 billion people, living in very different circumstances and confronting very different challenges in various places around the world. Dr Kalim always regarded this diversity as a strength of the movement, while warning also that debate and differences of opinion must not be allowed to become the basis for disunity and discord that would weaken the Islamic movement and play into the hands of our enemies. It is also inevitable that, in an Ummah of 1 billion people, confronting some of the most difficult challenges that Muslims have ever had to face in history, a few Muslims will respond in ways that are wholly inimical to the spirit and principles of Islam, resulting in behaviour that is abhorrent to all right-thinking people, and discredits the Islamic movement as a whole. What we must ensure, however, is that our response to this phenomenon is one that is constructive and avoids damaging the common cause of the Islamic movement as a whole, rather than one that echoes the understandings that the enemies of the Islamic movement want to impose on us for their own purposes and in pursuit of their own agendas.

It seems to me that we are now going through a period of some confusion and uncertainty in the Islamic movement, in contrast to the clarity of vision and understanding of the 1980s for example. This analysis is coloured, no doubt, by my personal place and experience in the Islamic movement; others may well see things differently, but it does seem to be true of the movement as a whole. In order to understand this change in perspective, the first point to note is that there is nothing unusual about the situation in which we find ourselves. Confusion and uncertainty have been the dominant moods in the Ummah for much of our recent history; it was the remarkable clarity of the years following the Islamic Revolution in Iran that was unusual, not the subsequent gradual re-emergence of doubts and questions. The reasons for this are not difficult to see. There was a feeling in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution that history had turned a corner; that the momentum was with the Islamic movement and that the tide of history would flow in our favour from now on. That, of course, has not happened. A quarter of a century after the Islamic Revolution, Iran remains the only Islamic State, and Islamic movements elsewhere appear no closer to emulating the success of the Muslims in Iran. If anything, many fear that Iran is regressing rather than the rest of the Ummah progressing.

At the same time, where once the progressive, forward-looking outlook of Revolutionary Iran appeared to define the Islamic movement to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, today the Islamic movement is associated, for many people, first and foremost with al-Qa’ida, Usama bin Laden and similar elements within the movement. The difference between these two elements within the movement is far more profound than simply of understandings and methods of jihad; at its broadest, it is perhaps one of fundamental outlook. Where the Islamic Revolution inIran was a positive and constructive force for the rebuilding of Iranian society on the fundamental principles of Islam (understood, of course, in terms of the Shi’i school of thought that is followed by most Iranian Muslims). The outlook of the salafi-jihadi movements that seems to dominate the Islamic movement today appears, by contrast, essentially reactionary, in terms of both the aggression of the enemies of Islam and the processes of change in Muslim societies in the period during which our fortunes have been determined more by our enemies than by ourselves. These processes need far greater understanding than simply being rejected out-of-hand, as too many of this trend in the Islamic movement tend to do. This lack of historical understanding, reflected also in the sectarianism of many of these trends, is yet another reason why many in the broader Islamic movement, even those who may sympathise with this trend’s determined commitment to fighting back against Western political and military aggression, have reservations about the validity of its broader approach.

In order to be able to ride these changes of fortune, without the moodswings that characterise so many Muslims, we need to view them in terms of an understanding of the Islamic movement as a historical phenomenon that operates on a timescale far longer than our own lives or those of our generation. This is the only way of understanding the Islamic movement in terms that can incorporate different elements of Muslim activism and outlook. The fact is that the challenges facing Muslims today are by no means unique. The Muslim world has always faced challenges from within and without, and there have always been Muslims who have striven to guide their fellow Muslims, and the Ummah as a whole, along the correct path, warning them of the errors they were making, and striving to apply the timeless principles of Islam to the times and societies in which they lived. Dr Kalim argued that the original Islamic movement was that of the Prophet (saw) himself, starting from Makkah, and struggling to establish the Islamic state in Madinah and to develop Muslim society thereafter. We can extrapolate from that to argue that the Islamic movement has been a constant element in Muslim history from that time onwards, although the forms it has taken have varied, depending on the situations it faced. Dr Kalim also argued that at its broadest the Islamic movement is identical with the Ummah as a whole, as the basic principles of the movement are the very beliefs that define Muslims. All Muslims who believe are part of a struggle to establish Islam on earth, however they may understand the process, from one of personal conduct to one of da’wah, social reform or political transformation.

Yet few Muslims see either the Ummah or the Islamic movement in these terms. Although we pay lip-service to the concept of unity, our effective understandings are more limited. We all tend to take partial views of the Islamic movement, views that we may characterise as “groupist”, in the same way that some Muslims overlay their faith in the unity of the Ummah with sectarian or nationalist attitudes. We have our own understanding of Islam and the Islamic movement, which we share with certain other Muslims, whom we may identify by our common membership of or support for particular groups, such as the Jama’at-e Islami or the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen; or by our reverence for prominent Muslims, such as Kalim Siddiqui, Yusuf al-Qardawi or Hamza Yusuf; or even by our sympathy for the views expressed in certain publications, such as Crescent International. And then we make these understandings and perceived sub-sections of the Ummah into rigid and exclusive domains that we regard as the “real” Islamic movement, implicitly or explicitly dismissing others as misguided or worse. Such “groupism” must be recognised as being as great a threat to the unity of the Ummah as sectarian and nationalism: divisive trends with which it often overlaps. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that in many cases groupism has become an acceptable version of sectarianism (and to a lesser extent of nationalism).

Such groupism is perhaps a natural development in an Ummah that is as diverse as it is, and one in which there are important and strident debates between different understandings even of some of the fundamentals of Islam. Such debates are inevitable, even essential, for they are part of the intellectual processes by which we identify and eliminate errors of understanding, and develop common positions for the Ummah as a whole, on which the unity of Muslims can be translated from ideal to reality. What is important, however, is the spirit in which we approach and engage in these debates. They must always be treated as debates within the Islamic movement, with brothers and sisters in Islam, and thus very different from the debates in which many of us are also engaged with non-Muslims: those who do not share our faith and worldview. The worst and most damaging problems arise when some Muslims -- those who promote “democratic” understandings of politics in Islam, for example -- make common purpose with non-Muslims who share similar attitudes in some respects, but whose fundamental beliefs are completely different. This is understandable to some extent, considering the rigid stupidity and appalling behaviour of some of our Muslim brothers and sisters; the simple fact of being Muslim does not automatically raise them above the normal failings and weaknesses of the human condition. Nonetheless, they are members of the Ummah who have strayed, rather than outsiders with whom we have only superficial commonalities.

As an aside, it may be pointed out that the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims who share some common understandings in particular areas may be compared to those of two people who happen to meet in a hotel somewhere. If both speak the same language, be it English, Arabic or any other, they may find it convenient and comfortable to make small-talk over breakfast, or even go shopping together if both are interested in similar souvenirs. But if one happens to be a physicist and the other an archaeologist, each is bound to have more intellectual ground in common with other physicists and archaeologists respectively, even if they do not speak the same language, than with each other. The problems arise when some Muslims confuse such superficial commonalities with non-Muslims with something more profound, and raise them above the bonds of brotherhood they share with other Muslims, however different their outlooks may be.

How, then, can we counter this tendency towards groupism when we engage in debate with Muslims whose outlooks may appear completely different from our own? In broad terms, in precisely the same way that we counter sectarianism in the Ummah: by bearing always in mind the greater cause we are all pursuing, over and above the differences between us, even as we strive to correct each others’ errors, as we must always do, especially when the errors are so deep, and lead our brother and sisters into such appalling sins as we have seen, for example, in the treatment of women and Shi’is by the Taliban in Afghanistan. In other words, by focusing on what we have in common, even as we disagree on areas of interpretation, understanding and detail, and bearing in mind always that what we have in common is far greater than the things that divide us, and it is at the same time precisely those things that distinguish us from those that oppose us. This is the simple reality about the nature of the Ummah that is the key to unity, yet seems difficult for many Muslims to realise.

Let us return to the questions of “extremism” and “moderation”. What these mean for the West is clear enough, even at risk of over-simplifying somewhat for the sake of brevity. Extremists are, broadly speaking, those Muslims who are anti-Western, or whose understandings of Islam are perceived, by themselves or by Westerners, as being incompatible with the West. That has traditionally included anyone whose understanding of Islam includes any political element, although some “Islamic democrats” are now recognised as “moderate”. It also includes any Muslim whose understanding of jihad is militant rather than ‘peaceful’. It certainly includes anyone who is committed to elements of Islam that are regarded an backward and un-modern, such as khilafah and shari’ah. And such is the irrational centrality of zionism to modern Westernity that any Muslim who is anti-Israel is almost automatically an extremist, this being an example of an area in which Muslims are condemned even for things that they have in common with many non-Muslims. Moderates, on the other hand, are the opposite of all this: those whose Islam is apolitical and peaceful, willing to operate within Western norms and institutions without challenging them, and willing to reduce Islam to the status merely of a “religion”, rather than regarding it as a deen.

When Muslims use the same terminology, they often mean similar things, depending on where they themselves stand in the spectrum of understandings of Islam. These overlapping meanings make the use of the same terminology even more confusing than it would be if they were used in completely different ways. Yet the fact is that the same terminology is used, and so its meaning needs to be considered. Our perspective, however, is bound to be different. Western discourses tend to regard anything Islamic as being somewhat alien, and therefore extremist almost by definition; those who are moderate are merely those who are not as extremist as other Muslims. In other words, the more Muslim you are the more extremist you are. For Muslims, of course, this does not (or should not) apply. Being Muslim is the norm, not an extreme by any definition. At risk of seeming flippant, one might suggest from this perspective that being properly Muslim is moderate, while we have two extremes for each element of what it is to be Muslim, one at either end of the spectrum (however defined): those of being not Muslim enough, and of being “too Muslim”, so to speak.

In terms of a political understanding of the Islamic movement, therefore, extremists could be either those whose understanding of Islam is entirely apolitical, who have accepted the Western idea of a separation of religion and politics, and reduced Islam simply to a religion; or those whose understanding of Islam has become entirely political, focusing entirely on the “Islamic state” or the khilafah without a broader understanding of Islam as a personal, spiritual, communal, moral, social and cultural phenomenon. Similar dichotomies can be applied to other elements of Islam: we have extremists who are wholly Sufi in outlook, and extremists who entirely reject tasawwuf; extremists who have no concept of jihad, and extremists who have a limited understanding of jihad and make it the be-all and end-all of their Islam; extremists who regard the Shari’ah as irrelevant and out-of-date, and extremists whose understanding of Shari’ah is rigid and dogmatic, making it the focal point of their Islamic consciousness to the exclusion of anything else; and so on and so forth.

The Qur’anic ayah “We have willed you to be a community of the middle way...” (2:143) is often quoted to justify any and every understanding of Islam; perhaps it should be understood not as referring to any one understanding as to an approach to finding the correct path (or the best of possible correct paths) through the myriad of different understandings put forward, a path somewhere between the many possible extremes. This is possible only if we are humble enough to recognise ourselves as having only one understanding of Islam among many possible ones, in political terms as in fiqhi ones, and that while we strive to be as correct as possible in our understanding and conduct, and to correct others when they err, we should recognise also the possibility that we may be mistaken and that others may be more correct.

Dr Kalim Siddiqui’s unique vision of the contemporary Islamic movement, and of the tasks facing it, was based as much on this open, inclusive and “moderate” approach to the Ummah as on his understanding of the processes of history and his political insight. Ten years after his death, at a time when the Islamic movement appears to some to be shaken by the onslaught of our enemies, and in danger of fragmenting along its many potential faultlines, as Muslims seem to see only what divides us rather than what unites us, and as the errors that some of us make exacerbate the challenges we face, it is perhaps all the more important that we focus on what unites us despite the many areas about which we differ. This outlook on contemporary history and the Islamic movement may yet prove to be Dr Kalim’s most enduring legacy for the Ummah of Islam, over and above the work he did and the institutions he created.

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