Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Islamism: what's in a name?

At the back of my mind I've been thinking that all this talk about Wahhabism is most likely wrong. Why? Simply because it is now an accepted narrative across the media and when you have British politicians talking about it, it means they have picked it up from somewhere else - probably overheard - and have not bothered to fact check it. It is a near universal rule that if our politicians and media have agreed a line then it's probably drivel. Adding some clarity to this on Twitter we have Omair Ahmad setting the record straight. The following words are his, not mine.

A few historical details behind Arabic terms thrown around by people claiming to be experts on Islam and militancy, if of interest. Usual caveat that shouldn't be needed: militancy in the name of Islam is one of our biggest challenges, superficial diagnoses don't help. Let's begin with Wahhabism. There is no such school of thought. It doesn't exist. The Hanbali school, though, does. Abdul Wahhab was a prominent Hanbali scholar and jurist. This means either you have to look at the whole Hanbali school of thought for issues, or have to look at how Abdul Wahhab influenced some aspects of Hanbali thought. But calling it merely Wahhabism is very superficial.

Throughout 19th Century and early 20th Century British India you have British officials blaming any Muslim not of the comprador Muslims as "Wahhabi". It wasn't precise then, it isn't precise now. Bear in mind, the Saudis didn't have any oil wealth then, and British power was overwhelming. If you ascribe the spread of militancy and 'Wahhabism' to oil wealth alone, you need to explain why it existed before.

A second term used loosely is "Salafi", which is again not a school of thought. "Salaf" were the Prophet's companions, or pious ancestor. Salafis are, technically, fundamentalists in the classical sense, in that they wish to return to fundamentals of the faith. But, given that there isn't an exact or agreed upon definition of what that means, Salafis range from apolitical quietists to jihadists.

During the Egyptian uprising against Mubarak's regime, a group of Salafists used to meet at a Costa cafe to debate ideas, these guys were hipsters in their piety. They weren't militants. They called themselves the Costa Salafis (look it up if you don't believe me). You can accuse them of being fellow travellers, but that is about it. In fact Islam has a long tradition of such fierce back-to-roots movements, beginning with the Khajarites or Khawarij, who initially supported the Caliph Ali, but then turned against him when he agreed to negotiate with his rival Muaviyah, and a Kharij assassinated him for not sticking to the pure way. For all their moral purity, it was the Khwarij who came up with ideas of having a non-Arab Caliph, and (theoretically) a woman one, in the 10th Century, or not having one.

Fundamentalists can be complicated too. Maybe that is best illustrated by the 14th Century scholar jurist Ibn Tammiyah. He argued for a much more "modern" understanding of religion, rejecting saint worship and also instant triple talaq (yes, 700 years ago). He's also credited (?) with coming up with the idea of "takfir", an innovation that allowed a Muslim could declare another not a Muslim and allowed for the killing of the "apostate", something that came up in the context of Mongol invasions of the middle east. In his own lifetime he was imprisoned and managed to majorly piss off many ruling authorities, but his ideas have been given new life by today's militants, who again find themselves seeking justification to fight against rulers who are Muslim but who the militants think are not Muslim enough - refer to bin Laden's ideas of the "far enemy" i.e. US, supporting the "near enemy" i.e. Arab regimes.

People these days lightly throw around these terms "Wahhabi", "Salafi", "takfiri", as if these were discrete ideas, new and simple. They are not. They come from specific cultural and political histories, and while some of them are dangerous, and takfir is a pretty dangerous concept used by mad bastards to murder their own neighbours, they are not simple tags that uneducated petty criminals, which so many militants have been, simply "pick up". These are complex ideas embedded in cultures that have at times sidelined them or used them. If we want to sideline them, we might want to study the historical circumstances in which they were sidelined, and see if we can repeat some of that. Just mentioning the words themselves, and railing against them, isn't enough.

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