The anxiousness of Western non-Muslims to establish that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam continues, with ever more farfetched explanations of how they came about. Kevin McDonald, a professor of sociology and head of the department of criminology and sociology at Middlesex University, is not the first to ascribe the evils of the Islamic State to Christianity, as you can see from this cartoon that ran in the Hamilton Spectator and was later taken down, but his attempt may be the most imaginative.
“Isis jihadis aren’t medieval – they are shaped by modern western philosophy,” by Kevin McDonald, the Guardian, September 9, 2014 (thanks to all who sent this in):
Over recent weeks there has been a constant background noise suggesting that Islamic State (Isis) and its ideology are some sort of throwback to a distant past. It is often framed in language such as that used last week by the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, who said Isis was “medieval”. In fact, the terrorist group’s thinking is very much in a more modern, western tradition.
Clegg’s intervention is not surprising. Given the extreme violence of Isis fighters and the frequent images of decapitated bodies, it is understandable that we attempt to make sense of these acts as somehow radically “other”.
But this does not necessarily help us understand what is at stake. In particular, it tends to accept one of the core assertions of contemporary jihadism, namely that it reaches back to the origins of Islam. As one Isis supporter I follow on Twitter is fond of saying: “The world changes; Islam doesn’t”.
This is not just a question for academic debate. It has real impact. One of the attractions of jihadist ideology to many young people is that it shifts generational power in their communities. Jihadists, and more broadly Islamists, present themselves as true to their religion, while their parents, so they argue, are mired in tradition or “culture”.
But they’re wrong, asserts McDonald:
It needs to be said very clearly: contemporary jihadism is not a return to the past. It is a modern, anti-traditional ideology with a very significant debt to western political history and culture.
When he made his speech in July at Mosul’s Great Mosque declaring the creation of an Islamic state with himself as its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi quoted at length from the Indian/Pakistani thinker Abul A’la Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami party in 1941 and originator of the contemporary term Islamic state.
Maududi’s Islamic state is profoundly shaped by western ideas and concepts. He takes a belief shared between Islam and other religious traditions, namely that God alone is the ultimate judge of a person, and transforms this – reframing God’s possession of judgment into possession of, and ultimately monopoly of, “sovereignty”. Maududi also draws upon understandings of the natural world governed by laws that are expressions of the power of God – ideas at the heart of the 17th-century scientific revolution. He combines these in a vision of the sovereignty of God, then goes on to define this sovereignty in political terms, affirming that “God alone is the sovereign” (The Islamic Way of Life). The state and the divine thus fuse together, so that as God becomes political, and politics becomes sacred.
In that paragraph, McDonald betrays his profound ignorance of Islam and the historical caliphates. He seems to think that Maududi invented the idea of the Islamic state, when in fact that concept is as old as the Umayyad caliphate. Another British professor, David Thomas, who shares McDonald’s view that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam, was closer to the mark when he noted that in restoring the caliphate, the Islamic State “reverted to a model that has been the reality in parts of the Islamic world for most of its history. For nearly 1,400 years the caliph was head of the entire Islamic state. He often wielded unimaginable power, and always great influence.”
Such sovereignty is completely absent in medieval culture, with its fragmented world and multiple sources of power. Its origins lie instead in the Westphalian system of states and the modern scientific revolution.
Nonsense. Such sovereignty existed in the Middle Ages in the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates, and later in the Ottoman caliphate. McDonald shows no sign of knowing that those Islamic states existed, or of how, in them, “the state and the divine” fused together.
But Maududi’s debt to European political history extends beyond his understanding of sovereignty. Central to his thought is his understanding of the French revolution, which he believed offered the promise of a “state founded on a set of principles” as opposed to one based upon a nation or a people. For Maududi this potential withered in France; its achievement would have to await an Islamic state.
Maududi was very canny at using modern Western political thought as a vehicle for dawah. He tried to sell Islam to twentieth-century Westerners by appropriating the language of Communism and other contemporary political movements. McDonald is basing his analysis of Maududi’s thought on this essay, which does indeed say that the French Revolution offered the promise of a “state founded on a set of principles,” but does not say what McDonald assumes — that Maududi thought the French originated that concept. In reality, Maududi wrote about the caliphate as the legitimate form of government for the Islamic umma not in terms of concepts borrowed from the French Revolution, but in terms of traditional Islamic understandings of the nature and source of political sovereignty.
In revolutionary France, it is the state that creates its citizens and nothing should be allowed to stand between the citizen and the state. That is why today French government agencies are still prevented by law from collecting data about ethnicity, considered a potential intermediary community between state and citizen.
This universal citizen, separated from community, nation or history, lies at the heart of Maududi’s vision of “citizenship in Islam”. Just as the revolutionary French state created its citizens, with the citizen unthinkable outside the state, so too the Islamic state creates its citizens. This is at the basis of Maududi’s otherwise unintelligible argument that one can only be a Muslim in an Islamic state.
Maududi didn’t originate the concept of the supranational umma, either. The ideas of the Muslims of the world forming a global community and of the faith as a whole only being fully realized in an Islamic state are as old as Islam itself.
Don’t look to the Qur’an to understand this – look to the French revolution and ultimately to the secularisation of an idea that finds its origins in European Christianity: extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation), an idea that became transformed with the birth of modern European states into extra stato nulla persona (outside the state there is no legal personhood). This idea still demonstrates extraordinary power today: it is the source of what it means to be a refugee.
Maududi’s “otherwise unintelligible argument that one can only be a Muslim in an Islamic state” is actually based on the idea that Islamic law is Allah’s law, is indispensable to Islam, and therefore one can only live the full Muslim life in an Islamic state in which Sharia is implemented. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the Christian concept of extra ecclesiam nulla salus or any other Christian idea.
If Isis’s state is profoundly modern, so too is its violence. Isis fighters do not simply kill; they seek to humiliate, as we saw last week as they herded Syrian reservists wearing only their underpants to their death. And they seek to dishonour the bodies of their victims, in particular through postmortem manipulations.
“For the disbelievers is a humiliating punishment” — Qur’an 2:90
Such manipulations aim at destroying the body as a singularity. The body becomes a manifestation of a collectivity to be obliterated, its manipulation rendering what was once a human person into an “abominable stranger”. Such practices are increasingly evident in war today.
Central to Isis’s programme is its claim to Muslim heritage – witness al-Baghdadi’s dress. Part of countering this requires understanding the contemporary sources of its ideology and its violence. In no way can it be understood as a return to the origins of Islam. This is a core thesis of its supporters, one that should not be given any credence at all.
Why not? Why the anxiety to dissociate the Islamic State from Islam? Ultimately McDonald’s piece here is designed to reassure Britons about the growing number of Muslims in their midst, and to shore up the British establishment’s disastrous policies on immigration and the appeasement of Islamic supremacists. Don’t worry about the Islamic State, folks. The Muslims in the U.K. will never behave like they’re behaving, since the Islamic State fellows aren’t even Islamic, they’re just imitating European Christians. There. Feel better?