Sunday, May 18, 2014

Islam: moderates versus extremists. Why are the extremists winning?

In a recent article about Islam, I discussed what drew some Westerners to become Muslim. Indirectly, I also posed the question "what is "wrong" with Islam?".

The main "problem" within modern Islam is the ideological battle between moderates and extremists. With the rise of "Islamo-fascism" in recent times, and the increasing influence that extremists have over the direction of Islam, it is clear that the extremists are "winning".

Silenced into submission

The extremists are winning within Muslim society mostly because of the passivity of the (far more numerous) moderates. To use a famous quote, evil,wins when good men do nothing. The same can be said of religious extremism: extremism wins when moderates do nothing.

To talk of "Muslim society" is a simplification. But broadly-speaking, most Muslim societies, whether they are a majority of society (such as in the Middle East, Pakistan, Indonesia and North Africa), or a minority (such as in Britain and Europe), are roughly divided into "moderates" and "extremists".

Apologists for Islam's poor image in the world argue that it is not a problem with the religion in itself, but with the misuse of the religion by people (almost always men) who use Islam as a weapon to attack anyone who displeases or defies their will.
This is a poor argument, because it simply shows how easy it is to manipulate Islam for evil intent. The same inane defence could be made for any ideology or religion; it excuses the responsibility of those in positions of ideological/religious authority to properly guide their flock into moral behaviour. It is the "a few bad apples" argument" that resolves nothing.
That in itself is a poor reflection on the ease that its teachings can be abused; due to the attitude of "playing to the gallery" by those in authority, or those in authority choosing the easy path and simply turning the other way in the face of inhumanity.

From the "Trojan Horse" conspiracy in the UK, to the expansion of "sharia" law to places like Brunei, moderation in Muslim society is on the wane. There may be a number of factors (and arguments used by the radicals) that explain the "passivity" of the moderates:

Islam is under attack: since the "war on terror", Islam around the world has been identified by various governments, directly or implicitly, as an "enemy". As a result, Muslims should be seen to clearly unite. As the radicals present the most forceful and "pure" interpretation of Islam, the onus is on the "moderates" to fall into line.
It's time to rediscover our faith: The radicals, following from the previous point, may well argue that, as Islam is "under attack", it's an opportune moment for moderates to put down their beer and start reading the Koran again, properly. And that means listening to the "purest" interpretation of the writings.
Simplicity is easy to follow: The easiest way to follow Islam, as the radicals would explain, is to simply do what the Prophet said in his writings and in the "hadiths". The fuzzy and ambiguous "liberalism" and "modernism" of the moderates means they would find it more difficult to explain how they interpret their faith. Radicals therefore win arguments simply from quoting the Koran.
Cultural differentiation: Relating to the second point, the "renaissance" of radical Islam can also be justified as a way to, in the multi-cultural, "Godless" world of globalisation, have a clear identity. This is also true of what I said previously about Western converts to Islam: it's the easiest way to give yourself a definitive identity, separate from the crowd. It's a form of cultural rebellion against globalisation.
If in doubt, bully: if the above tactics don't work, use aggression instead. This seems to be how many Islamic moderates have been cowed into submission. From Britain to Brunei, radicals have seized control of the agenda by threatening unpleasant consequences. This is how unpleasant people have always used religion as a weapon of control and fear.

In the contemporary world, Islamic fundamentalism is just the most potent and visible form of religious intolerance and control. There are others, such as Hindu radicals, Christians and Orthodox Jews, but they seem to pale in comparison in terms of their effect on the world at large.

A history of violence

Islamic radicalism only really came to the world's attention with the fall of the Shah in Iran. While the Gulf States had been ruled by extremely conservative Islamic governments (ruling dynasties), the influence of Islam as a radicalising agent was seen as almost microscopic, and no-one took it seriously.

The fall of the Shah changed all that in 1979, as well as the attack on the holy sites in Mecca by Islamic fundamentalists. The Islamic revolution in Iran led to a horrific, US-backed war by its neighbour, Iraq. Yet conversely, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 led to the US covertly financing and supplying military hardware to Islamic radicals (later known as "Al-Qaeda") to fight against them. A few years later in Syria, there was the attempted Sunni uprising against the secular (Alawite-led) government. Also in the early eighties, there was the creation of (Iranian-backed) Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the creation of Hamas, a radical Islamist group, that countered the secular power of Fatah in Palestine. So by the end of the Eighties, Islamic fundamentalism had become far more overt in its presence compared to ten years previously.

The end of Communism brought about further "opportunities" for radical Islam. The break-up of Yugoslavia led to radicals gaining a foothold during the war in Bosnia, while over in the Caucasus, wars were raging in Karabakh and the Northern Caucasus (Chechnya and Dagestan); in the latter, radical Islamists had gained a very visible presence, while in the Karabakh war, Islamic radicals used the bitter war between Azerbaijan and Armenia as another "playground".
In the last years of the twentieth century saw "Al-Qaeda" become a household name with the East Africa terror attacks of 1998. Since the turn of the century, radical Islam has spread at an ever greater rate across the Middle East and North Africa, especially since the aftermath of the "Arab Spring".

Put into this context, it is beyond reasonable doubt that radical Islamists are "winning" the war within Islam itself.
Apart from the Arab states of the Middle East, Turkey's own form of Islamism (in government since 2002) has been seen to be becoming increasingly uncompromising and polarising over time. With Turkey's Islamist government being so clearly allied to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, it looks ever more so that Erdogan was simply playing a cunning waiting game, until it was too late for the secular moderates in Turkey to turn back the clock. The "mask of moderation" that Turkey's government had used effectively for some years, has now well and truly been discarded.

As things stand, the future of Islam belongs to those who are prepared to fight for it. The moderates look to have long given up the fight.

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