Islamic Revival and Its Implications for Christian-Muslim Dialogue

  Thomas Michel, S.J.

1. The roots of radical Islam

A. Distant roots (1800-1945)

When Muslims looked around the world at the beginning of the 19th Century, many asked, “What went wrong?” From having had, in previous centuries, the world’s most powerful, advanced, and prosperous states in the Ottoman, Safavid and Moghul empires, they had almost everywhere succumbed to the rule of others. A radical response was provided by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in Arabia, who held that it was because they deviated from the true Islamic path that Muslim peoples arrived at their low state. He felt that nothing less than a return to the pure, original Islam would permit Muslims to achieve their past glory.

Those who took up these views were called Wahhabis. They wanted not only to purify Islam of all accretions and novelties that had wrongly been accepted as Islamic in the course of time, but they held that the Sufi preoccupation with Islam as a personal, spiritual path to God was in itself a distortion of the original intent of the religion. They claimed that Islam was meant to be a program for building a human society whose every aspect was to be lived in accord with the will of God. Islam was not simply, or even primarily, to be seen as a set of pious practices leading to mystical union. Many hajjis making the pilgrimage to Mecca encountered Wahhabi ideas in Arabia and brought these views back with them to their homelands in Asia.

The Wahhabi understanding of Islam had political implications. If God intended the Islamization of society in all its social, economic, and political aspects, it was felt that this could only be done if Muslims themselves were in control of the political systems. Their political theory held that the state existed to permit Muslims to foster the Islamization process and to forbid and punish wrongdoing. They felt that the Sufis, with their spiritual programs, ignored political realities and held Muslims back from the task of reforming society according to God’s will.

The Muslim revival linked religious and political concerns. To pursue their societal ends, they sought to create a state that would favor and implement these goals. The first objective was to achieve liberation from non-Muslim rule. Revivalists began to work actively toward the overthrow of colonial regimes in order to create Islamic states that would support the Islamization of society.

Wahhabi ideas, although they developed in Arabia, spread quickly to other parts of the Muslim world. When the Wahhabis, with their political allies of the family of Ibn Saud, conquered the Holy Cities of Mecca and Madina in the early 1800s, Muslim pilgrims on the hajj from all parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East came into contact with the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and Islamic history. Many of these hajjis returned to their home countries convinced that it was the accommodation of Islam to local cultures that kept Islam weak and prevented Islam from being what it should: a program for society.

For example, in widely-spread parts of Asia, revolutionary Wahhabi views provoked both social reform movements and revolutions against colonial rule. In 1822-23, Sayyid Ahmed of Rae Bareli in northern India performed the Hajj. On his return, he launched a short-lived jihad against British influence in India. In 1803, hajjis returning to Western Sumatra in Indonesia founded the Padri movement, which between 1821 and 1833 carried on an active rebellion against Dutch rule. The Padri rebellion was directed not only against the colonial power, but also against the traditional aristocratic families, and against customs that combined Islamic practice with pre-Islamic traditional law. These are but two examples of a universal phenomenon in Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. One could cite as well the cases of Muslim pilgrims returning to southern Thailand and China with revolutionary views; the formation of the Muhammadiyah Movement in Yogyakarta, Central Java, in 1912 is another effect of Muslims returning from the pilgrimage with new ideas after their exposure to Wahhabi views in Arabia.

B. Islamic revival in the modern nation states (1945-1995)

In the years after World War II, when most Muslim regions achieved independence, two organizations emerged to articulate the concept of the Islamic state. In Egypt and other Arab countries, the Muslim Brotherhood, insisting that rule by Muslims did not ensure the creation of an Islamic state, worked to counter nationalist feelings that in their view divided rather than united the umma. The harsh repression of the Brotherhood in Egypt convinced many that the new Arab regimes were as opposed to the creation of an Islamic state as the colonial regimes had been.

On the Indian subcontinent, the writing and preaching of Abul Ala Maududi resulted in the formation of the Jamiati Islami organization, which held that Islam offered the world an Islamic solution to every modern problem. There was already an Islamic science, economics, politics, legal system, and educational program. Muslims had only to search in their own early tradition to rediscover the ingredients necessary to develop Islamic alternatives to these secular fields. It is interesting to note that Maududi opposed the creation of Pakistan, as he felt that the Muslim people were unprepared to set up an Islamic state.

As one predominately Muslim nation after another achieved independence after 1945, most revivalists hoped that Islamic states would be set up. The actual Muslim rule that replaced the colonial regimes was, however, far from their ideals of the Islamic state. The new ruling class throughout the Muslim world generally adopted the principles of nationalism and created nation states on a European model. Legal codes were based on those of Western nations and were usually mere revisions of colonial law. On the grounds that it was more egalitarian and would prevent the abuses of uncontrolled capitalism, many of the ruling elites adopted socialist policies of a one-party state, state ownership of industries, and centrally planned economies. Cultural mores as well as development concepts were taken from the West.

C. Proximate roots: the growth of radical Islam

a. The creation of Pakistan

In the first decades after World War II, many Muslims were enthusiastic about the creation of Pakistan, which they saw as a model for the modern Islamic democracy. However, as the years passed, it became clear that Pakistan’s Islamic identity did not enable the country to overcome ethnic clashes, economic mismanagement and corruption, military takeovers, and equitable distribution of wealth. Many Muslims claimed that the Pakistan model was a failed experiment and that a truly Islamic state would have to undergo a more revolutionary societal restructuring.
b. The Palestinian struggle

Shortly after the creation of Pakistan, in 1949, the emergence of the state of Israel had great influence on the thinking of militant Muslims. Seen as a state for European Jews created in the Arab heartland by the Western powers to assuage their guilt for Europe’s treatment of its Jews, Israel was felt to be a continuation of colonial policies of forced implantation and ruthless land-grabbing. The Palestinian struggle became the symbol of oppressed Muslims striving to achieve, against all odds, liberation through armed rebellion . The Palestinian cause engendered a conviction that the West, despite its professed concern for the development of Muslim nations, was in fact opposed to Islam and that Muslims were victims of injustice perpetrated by Western powers. The Palestinian people in their struggle for justice symbolized for many Muslims in Asia the oppression and injustice to which Muslims were being subjected in the post-colonial world.

The disastrous defeat of the Arab alliance by Israel in 1967 was a watershed. Egypt, the most populous and powerful Arab nation and its cultural capital, led by the charismatic Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser, with the financial support of other Arab countries, went down to quick and humiliating defeat by tiny Israel. It was not only Nasser and the rhetoric of pan-Arab nationalism that was discredited. The military, on which millions of dollars had been spent, showed itself inept and corrupt. Ineffective in its role of defending the nation, the military was often seen as existing primarily to preserve the internal status quo, enabling the ruling elites to govern by force, often against the will of the people. Hopes that the Western powers would provide necessary assistance were dashed when those states supported Israel both financially and in international diplomatic fora such as the United Nations.

Many Muslims began to question the efficacy of nationalist thought and turned to religion to furnish a more effective platform to govern Muslim regions. But as yet, their programs existed only at the theoretical level. Nowhere in the world was there a truly Islamic state which could provide a concrete model for realizing the hopes of the activists. Muslim revivalists were thus primed for the establishment of a polity on Islamic bases. These expectations would be fulfilled by events occurring in a surprising part of the Muslim world.

c. The Iranian revolution

The 1979 Iranian revolution gave concrete shape to the grievances and hopes of revivalists. The world was amazed when religious solidarity enabled Iranian Muslims to overthrow with apparent ease a wealthy but unpopular Muslim regime, one which had been presumed to be the model of strength and stability. The fact that the Shah’s regime strongly promoted secularization in the name of modernization and was closely allied to the West was not lost on revivalist Muslims. The Islamic Republic of Iran replaced, in the minds of many, the failed Pakistan model of an Islamic state. All observers, whether sympathetic or not, agree that the government of Ayatollah Khomeini was truly revolutionary in rethinking and reorganizing every aspect of social life according to Islamic principles.

d. The Gulf War

Later events in the Muslim world encouraged the growth and spread of revivalist ideals. The 1991 Gulf War and the continuing blockade against Iraq, along with economic and diplomatic measures taken against other outspoken Muslim nations, confirmed for many that the West, particularly the U.S.A., intended to isolate Muslim countries much as communist states had previously been isolated. If “a picture is worth a thousand words,” the worldwide media coverage of the bombing of the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Basra by incomparably superior American technology convinced many Muslims glued to their television sets that America was indeed a formidable enemy out to destroy Islam. The massive military presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, the “Holy Land” of Islam, convinced radical Muslims of the hypocrisy of their traditional rulers. Many accused the leadership of nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Tunisia of having sold out to international business interests and the Realpolitik of American domination.

e. The demise of F.I.S. and the Algerian civil war

The electoral victory of the Front Islamique du Salut in Algeria in 1992 showed that a grass-roots Islamic political movement could succeed through democratic processes. The uncritical welcome granted by Western powers to the establishment of a repressive military dictatorship in Algeria, confirmed to many Muslims the shallowness of European rhetoric about democracy as well as its implacable enmity towards Islam. The brutal repression of F.I.S. by the Algerian military elicited an equally violent response on the part of the Islamic opposition and resulted in a decade of bloody reprisals and societal polarization.

f. The formation of radical organizations

It was in the climate of anger and disillusion, after the Gulf War and the Algerian coup, that organizations such as Al-Qa’ida were formed and exerted an attraction for young, activist Muslims. Their primary goal was the overthrow of the autocratic rule of traditional royal families and the “managed democracies” such as those of Sadat and Mubarrak in Egypt or the Suharto and Mahathir regimes in Southeast Asia. Their anger was mainly directed at the U.S.A. policies, both for supporting the aforementioned Muslim “puppet regimes” and the Israeli oppressor, and for the American cultural invasion which they saw taking place throughout the Islamic world. Some of the revivalists saw no hope for change by means of the political process and turned instead to revolution and violence.

Militant Muslims in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines formed regional groups such as Islamic Jihad and Jemaah Islamiyah to struggle against Western, particularly American, hegemony. The Philippine government has sought assistance from the American military in an effort to forcibly put down MILF and Abu Sayyaf dissidents. The bombing of the discotheque in Bali on 12 October 2002 mobilized Southeast Asian governments to crack down on violence-prone organizations. As a result, networks have been exposed, arrests have been made, and militant leaders and their followers are being closely monitored.

g. 11 September and its aftermath

The attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 and the “war on terrorism” launched by the American government and its coalition allies has further polarized relations between Muslims in Asia and Western nations. Even the vast majority of Muslims who do not condone violence or terrorism identify strongly with the sufferings of Afghan and Iraqi peoples, whom they regard as helpless victims of a power struggle in which their voices and views have been disregarded.

2. Revivalist critique of modernity

A. Criticism of traditional Islam

There are many factors underlying Muslim revival movements today. There is a criticism of the Sufi roots and a desire to reorient the inner-directed thrust of Sufism towards an activist program of social reform. Muslim revivalists propose a political philosophy that holds that the state should be an instrument to promote Islamic values and way of life. In many countries, revivalist Islam is an attractive alternative that promises to resolve the crises in existing institutions: the lack of effective and representative government, the wasteful yet ambiguous role of the military, the failure of socialist central planning and management of the economy, and the institutionalization of the traditional ulama which turned them into government servants rather than being spokespersons for the people.

This is accompanied by a harsh critique of modernity. By modernity is not meant technological advances in communications, transportation and consumer goods. Radical Muslims are ready to accept and use all these to promote their cause. What they object to are the philosophical presuppositions of the modern way of life, its understanding of humankind and its place in the universe, and the values that derive from this philosophy of life.

B. A conflict of values

Muslims see a fundamental conflict of values in today’s world. The liberal value system is anthropocentric, with the individual at the center of the universe. This philosophy of life exalts human dignity, freedom, and rights. Fulfilling to the utmost one’s potential, capabilities, and legitimate desires is considered the highest human goal, and modern people must be free to achieve these aspirations. The only limitation on human freedom is that in pursuing one’s objectives, the individual must not violate the rights of others to pursue and achieve their own goals.

While liberalism does not deny the existence of God or reject religion, it is skeptical of the ability of any religious system to attain truth and is opposed to the role of religion in public life. Religion is admissible as the personal choice of some individuals who feel they need to give moral direction to their private and familial lives, but it has no place in public affairs. The marketplace, social interaction and, above all, government, are spheres that must exist and operate outside the influence of religious thought.

Against liberal values, Muslim revivalists propose a theocentric system. For them, God has revealed how humans should live and has laid down the principles on which society is to be built. They feel that Western values lay so much stress on the individual person that the rights of society are ignored or denied. They hold that the humanistic approach to morality espoused by Western modernity leads to dehumanization, where the person is viewed primarily as a consumer of goods, a prospective buyer to be reached by effective advertising, rather than as a creature of God called to live a simple, God-fearing, non-materialist life.

The emphasis on the individual divides the world into winners and losers. The winners are those who obtain the best university education, achieve good, steady jobs, and the privileges that come with wealth and status. The losers are driven to destructive activities such as crime, or self-destructive activities related to drugs, alcohol, gambling and sexual promiscuity. What people need, critics claim, are not new and better consumer goods, but rather a clear sense that human life finds meaning in the context of an obedient and joyful response to the demands of God.

3. Christian-Muslim dialogue in the critique of modernity

One of the most important arenas for Christian-Muslim dialogue at the present time is a critical evaluation of modernity to distinguish the obvious benefits that modernization brings to humanity from the anti-religious and ultimately destructive attitudes that often accompany it. In the period after the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the whole question of the use of violence against innocent non-combatants as a tool for change has been reopened. Ethical questions connected with the U.S. government’s “war on terrorism,” such as the bombing of civilian populations (Afghanistan and Iraq) and the proper treatment of prisoners of war need examination on both sides.

The concrete cooperation between Christians and Muslims seeking to persuade the Western powers from launching a war against Iraq have brought leaders and activists together to an extent not equaled in recent decades. Tensions will continue to be part of the pattern of Christian-Muslim relations, but the awareness of the need to work together to address the real societal and political issues has grown. The real commitment to peace shown by rank-and-file Muslims and Christians gives real grounds for a cautious hope for the future.


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