The Counter-Hegemonic History of Islam

This post was written by Guest Post on January 4, 2010
Posted Under: Islamophobia,Philosophy

Guest post by Carl Packman

Islam is enemy No. 1 of much contemporary criticism, either by the angry EDL men on the street, to new atheists asserting that Islam is incompatible with Enlightenment societies, to critics such as Nick Cohen and David Aaranovitch’s’ with their claims to present Islamic bad boys (and girls) as the real threat to leftist sentimentalities.

But many of the targets taken by the above miss the mark, leaving the perception that Islam itself is the enemy. But this shortfall does not render left wing opposition to Islamism impossible.

It seems at first an odd place to start but our solution here can be found with Freud. At a time of massive vulnerability for European Jews, it would have been easy for many to resign themselves to victimhood and group together under the pretext of their hitherto shared history. However in 1939, between being robbed and forced to emigrate from occupied Vienna by the Nazi’s for being Jewish and partaking in one of the disciplines they referred to as ‘Jewish science’ (psychoanalysis), Freud decided to pursue the subject of the historical arrival of monotheism (which he attributes to Moses’ being an Egyptian priest of Akhenaten, and not, as is commonly assumed, his being originally Hebrew). As such, in a letter he told Arnold Zweig “Moses created the Jews” and, in his last substantial book Moses and Monotheism stated that “it was not God who chose the Jews … but Moses”. Matthew Sharpe, author of the book Slavoj Žižek: a little piece of the real noted that ‘Freud did not attempt to restore or reassert the ‘purity’ of Judaism against its detractors. He offered a demonstration that Moses, Judaism’s law-giving Father, was already impure: an Egyptian stranger’ (p. 246). By doing this, Freud observed that everything we thought we knew about Jewish history grounded inaccurately. Freud enjoyed the benefit of achieving two things, firstly producing a philosophically adept justification for the mental utility and historical genesis of monotheism (for Freud, monotheism revealed the end of object worship, and the beginning in belief in the absent, an astonishing mental accomplishment), and secondly undercutting everything the Nazi’s thought they knew about Judaism, even if this was to undercut the knowledge of the Jews themselves. And after all there is no better tool for defeating critics than to show that everything they know is wrong.

The way in which to utilise this tool for Islam is clear. In order to undercut criticism of Islam from the unpalatable voices, while maintaining an opposition to Islamic fascism, one must champion Islam’s alternative, forgotten or disavowed history, and then ask questions as to why this has been disavowed, and by whom.

Professor Ali A. Allawi in his LSE seminar In Search of Islam’s Civilisation noted that political Islam post-1976 (a time of relative freedom in Iraq he states) disavowed its ethical dimension, preferring to appease the status-quo by being rules based and not ethics based. A compulsion for corruption soon crept in to fill the gap, attempting to predicate itself on purely Islamic measures. The relationship between Islam and capitalism, for example, had to overcome some treacherous boundaries with regards to what was ethically sound in the religious system. The result being that Islam dressed elements usually frowned upon – the banking system for example – into palatable products (halal banking). Ironic, really, that what Allawi situates as the genesis of Islamism – rules based Islam and not an ethics based Islam – was the attempt to forge an Islamic version of a model many would attribute to US-styled capitalism. Strange to think that the Middle Eastern anti-Imperialist movement might have been grounded by a sly attempt to create capitalism with an Islamic face.

The events of the 1970’s in the Middle East changed Islam in a way that has not been significantly altered ever since (which is rather hard to accept given the severity of events that have since taken place, but what I mean is simply Islam has continuously been on the defensive since the seventies – after Iraq/Afghanistan nothing has changed, only maintained), and it is worth remembering this point when promoting a counter-hegemonic version of Islam, though this merely satisfies the political body of Islam. Where are we to address Koranic issues? Crucial information should be sought from Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, Sudanese liberal reform figure and believer in a version of progressive Islam, expressed in his book “The Second Message of Islam”. For Taha, we should be reminded that the Koran had been revealed in two locations, firstly in Mecca where Muhammad and his followers were minorities, and in Medina where the city was brimming with Jews and Pagans. During his verses in Mecca, Muhammad promulgated a “peaceful persuasion,” whereas in Medina the verses are filled with rules and intimidations. The Medinan verses, the first message(s) of Islam, were directed to a whole community of early believers and not Muhammad alone, according to Taha. These messages were a sort of ‘historical postponement’ as George Packer puts it in his New Yorker article on Taha. It was the Meccan verses, the second message of Islam that would represent, for Taha in his revisionism, the perfect religion, an acceptance of equality and freedom that, in seventh-century Arabia, Muslims were ready for. This provided his grounds for a progressive Islam, or at least a return to Islam in its truest form, since disavowed in its Medinian emphasis on rules based Islam.

Examples of Taha’s revisionist spirit can be found in today’s Iran; one particular person held in high regard is Grand Ayatollah Sanei who recently called Ahmadinejad’s presidency ‘illegitimate’ and ‘against Islam’. He is outspoken on matters such as the prohibition of nuclear weaponry in Islam, equal status for women (which, surely, must include not banning them for being too good at motor car racing), equality for non-Muslims and well known for issuing a fatwa against suicide bombing. Another well known example is Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montarezi, recently described in the New York Times as ‘an adversary the state has been unable to silence or jail because of his religious credentials and seminal role in the founding of the republic.’ He too questions use of the term Islamic government when it is referred to the one in his homeland.

What might initially be problematic about this counter-hegemonic revision is that it seeks to find the best in Islam and disavow the bad bits. The question remains; are the bad bits Islam’s problem? The answer is of course yes, but the way around it is not to simply bracket what is good and bad Islam, but, rather, what is and is not Islam. What has been said about Freud’s work on Moses is that it is largely speculative. Where the Islamic counter-hegemonic history does not fall short to this problem is that it has legitimacy both in its textual revision, and in its ethical methodology (that is to say both historically and practically).

Why might this be helpful for critics of Islamism? Simple, what Freud did show with his work on Moses is that the enemy cannot have reasonable grounds of criticism without a reasonable understanding of their enemy. By restoring a lost history for the Jews, Freud was able to throw off course Nazi criticism of Judaism. Equally, the way in which we are legitimately allowed to criticise Islamism is by taking a fuller understanding of what Islam actually is. This is where cohorts of New Atheism, particularly Sam Harris in his book The End of Faith, fall short. His arguments tend to perceive the true expression of Islam to be in Islamism, and very often purposefully conflates the two, describing good Muslims as not practising their religion to its proper end. Another example in Michel Onfray’s book The Atheist Manifesto, he waxes that ‘Islam is fundamentally incompatible with societies that arose from the Enlightenment’. How do these criticisms stand up with the ideas printed above? They describe an Islam that is rules based, which itself has erroneous groundwork, and so are by no means prepared for the counter-hegemonic history of Islam, which is not merely equal in its legitimacy to fundamentalist Islam, but rather destroys any legitimacy fundamentalist Islam claims to hold.

Carefully applied, the counter-hegemonic history of Islam may well be the vital tool needed for the left to maintain their opposition to Islamic fundamentalism, enemies of Islam who conflate Islam with Islamism, and portions of the left who sing about moral relativism with their fingers in their ears.

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