Unthinking the roots of terrorismMuslims have become adept at claiming terrorists to be 'outside of Islam'. Muslim leaders even convinced one police chief in the UK of this truth, sufficient for him to denounce a journalist who foolishly associated the terms 'Islamic' and 'terrorist'. And why not? Most of the people who murder innocent human beings and claim Islam as their justification can surely be dismissed as being un-Islamic for having crossed the boundaries of normative theology and ethics. But the uncomfortable truth is, most were born or nurtured inside Muslim communities. So let's stop pretending the recent spate of murderous violence in London has nothing to do with us. There may be wider political and social imperatives which draws Muslims into criminal activities, and the religious justification for such acts are undoubtedly profane, but the starting point - and from the perspective of the terrorist, the endpoint - was in every instance Islam.
This is not to suggest, as the Islamophobes on The Telegraph and Spectator claim, that an essentialised Islam is somehow inherently barbaric or violent. These ill informed assaults on an imagined, monolithic 'other' are reformulations of old, racist bigotries, and they share an ignorance of Islam and a hatred of most Muslims not unlike those perpetuated by fascist groups such as the British National Party. Rather, the problem lies not with the ummah, nor with its intellectual body, the ulema, but at the interstice where celebrity figures within the ulema and the Muslim petit-intelligentsia meet.
Here, at the point of interpretation and representation, there is a resolute failure of intellectual engagement which is encapsulated in Arkoun's concept of "unthought". Arkoun's key thesis contrasts the intellectual perspective of reactionary Salafi Islam, a theology which has percolated deep into the Muslim consciousness over the past 30 years, with the understanding of Islam which comes from confronting contemporary knowledge systems, which for Arkoun means post-war social theory. These knowledge systems view Islam as only one attempt, among many others, to emancipate human beings from the natural limitations of their biological, historical and linguistic conditions. Arkoun thus differentiates between self-justifying ideological religious discourses from ones that take onboard contemporary understandings of society, history and language.
Applying Arkoun's thesis to the discourse of the Muslim petit-intelligentsia, the most notable and widely represented ideologue of Islam is probably Harun Yahya. I was saddened, and indeed angered, to read a claim in the Notes and Queries of Q-News (June 2005, UK Edition) that Harun Yahya had, in the eyes of most 'literate Muslims', effectively defeated the arguments of Darwin. There was a debate? Most of the arguments between Creationists and Evolutionary Scientists have, as far as I am aware, taken place in the USA, and despite attempts to reconfabulate creationism into 'intelligent design', the vast and overwhelming majority of scientists continue to stand rock solid firm by the evolutionary sciences.
The truth is, Harun Yahya is not a scientist, but a polemicist who appeals to a particular interpretation of revelation, conflating evolutionary science with materialism. His writings are often imbued with a lowbrow anti-Westernism, greased with considerable rhetorical skill onto a series of specious arguments borrowed almost entirely from the American Christian (Looney) right. How, then is it possible that so many Muslims swallow Yahya's dreadful, one-sided polemic so unthinkingly?
One reason may be that, instead of seeing Islam as a path that demands rigorous intellectual engagement, the petit-intelligentsia - bowed by a sense of cultural inferiority to an imagined 'West' - seek to legitimise a set of ideas and thinkers as crucial to Muslim identity. In becoming encultured within Islam, these ideas and thinkers are then excluded from the kind of critique which ideas outside of Islamic culture can be subjected to. Hence, the intelligentsia may offer pointed and insightful comments on issues of politics, society and a whole range of 'safe' issues where the boundaries of unthought have been pushed back in the name of Muslim interest. But Harun Yahya, a base polemicist, becomes canonical because he articulately encapsulates this notion of Islam as a culturally and intellectually distinct phenomenon.
The corpus of ideologues co-opted by the Muslim petit-intelligentsia to represent Islam is, I suspect, considerable fluid. Harun Yahya is perhaps an exemplar, but there are other similarly unconfronted scholars and intellectuals who are more or less absorbed into the new cultural melange of contemporary Muslim identity. Yusuf al-Qaradawi is one such scholar, whose ossifying codification of moderate, Shariah-based behaviours ignores the challenge of more 'difficult' thinkers such as Khaled Abou El Fadl, who proclaims the near-death of a dynamic fiqh that would once have seen Qaradawi not as a 'star', but as a part of a constellation of contesting and contested scholar-thinkers. Akbar Ahmad is another. Though rejected by some ideologues as being 'too Western', his Postmodernism and Islam is in many ways steeped in the same a priori assumptions as Yahya, that Islam and elements of post-war European thought are in some sense intrinsically antithetical.
The petit-intelligentsia appeal, of course, to postmodern ideas that suits their ideological purpose. The most convincing - intrinsic to Yahya and Akbar - is the notion that all knowledge systems are value-laden, and hence 'Western' and 'Islamic' knowledge systems can be differentiated by their fundamental values - one based on the Qur'an, the other on values which emerged during the European enlightenment. Thinkers such as Tariq Ramadan have emerged to reassure Muslims in Europe that some of these enlightenment values are reconcilable with Islam, sufficient for Muslims to live comfortably as law-abiding citizens in European nations.
The question remains, of course, as to why contemporary European thought is so antithetical to the Islamic endeavour, whereas Greek and Persian philosophy was to a great extent viewed quite differently by the intellectual-scholars of classical Islam. The answer, of course, is that the latter were adopted by Muslims in a position of political power over their intellectual challengers.
A senior police officer in the UK recently described Muslims as being 'in denial' when it comes to terrorism. But there is a deeper denial of the intellectual torpor within the ummah, one which I would suggest is bound up closely with an intellectual culture increasingly founded on victimhood. It's time thinking Muslims stepped beyond this false culture and found the vim to face the unthinkable. The debased theologies of terrorists are only possible because we share with them a lack of intellectual courage.