July 12, 2004

Western Roots of Islamism (more)

Now Athena of Terrorism Unveiled is weighing in on the question of whether there are Western roots of Islamist doctrine. She refers to the article linked in the Samizdata post to which I referred last night, and writes,

Not only do I find the article baseless from Islamist doctrine, I also think it is a cheap attempt at placing more blame on the Left when the culpability ultimately lies with the Islamist perpetrators of these horrendous acts. This is no better than an apologist tactic by the Left to blame America as the root of terrorism.

Islamists have not completely distorted the religion of Islam as we'd like to imagine (that would certainly make ourselves feel more PC and more armed to fight this threat), but are actually traditionalists in nature.

I'm not sure where to begin with this, so I'll fall back on an old standby. This is from an interview, cited by the magisterial Robert Conquest in his excellent work Reflections on a Ravaged Century:

For a useful, almost classical demonstration of the revolutionary mind-warp, the motivation behind the totalitarian Idea, we turn to an interview given by the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm on "The Late Show," 24 October 1994 (see TLS, 28 October 1994). When Michael Ignatieff asked him to justify his long membership in the Communist Party, he replied: "You didn't have the option. You see, either there was going to be a future or there wasn't going to be a future and this was the only thing that offered an acceptable future."

Ignatieff then asked: "In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?"

Hobsbawm answered: "This is a sort of academic question to which an answer is simply not possible. Erm ... I don't actually know that it has any bearing on the history that I have written. If I were to give you a retrospective answer which is not the answer of a historian, I would have to say, 'Probably not.'"

Ignatieff asked: "Why?"

Hobsbawm explained: "Because in a period in which, as you might say, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing. Now the point is, looking back as a historian, I would say that the sacrifices made by the Russian people were probably only marginally worthwhile. The sacrifices were enormous, they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I'm looking back at it now and I'm saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I'm not sure."

Ignatieff then said: "What that comes down to saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?"

Hobsbawm immediately said: "Yes."

It will be seen that, first, Hobsbawm acccepted the Soviet project not merely on the emotional ground of "hope" but on the transcendantal one of its being the "only" hope. Then, that he was justified because, although it turned out wrong, it might have turned out right (and it was not only a matter of deaths, but also of mass torture, falsification, slave labor). Finally, that the believes this style of chiliastic, absolutist approach to reality is valid in principle.

I believe this is the sort of left referred to in the article to which Athena objects, and it should be added that Hobsbawm is an eminently respected fellow, having earned academic, journalistic and even governmental accolades for his histories -- written in the service of the monstrous ideal that would sacrifice 20 million people to create its paradise.

I for one could easily imagine, some thirty or forty years hence, an interview with an eminently respectable Islamist historian with an endowed chair at a U.S. university, explaining that while the nuclear warhead launched from Iran that wiped Tel Aviv off the map, or the one detonated in downtown Washington, failed to usher in the golden age of the Ummah, had it done so, it would have been well worth the lives of those who were killed. It all comes down to whether the only possible acceptable future could be realized or not, after all.

Athena suggests,

Osama writes and speaks from the same fundamental viewpoint as Mawdudi, Taymiyyah and ultimately Qutb.

...as if these three are, in fact, the mainstream of Islam, as if Averroes and Ataturk and Izetbegovic are not also Islamic. The fact that Qutb argues that Islam as he conceives of it does not exist does not seem to register with Athena. For those curious, here is the quote:

From this point of view, we can say that the Muslim community has been extinct for a few centuries, for this Muslim community does not denote the name of a land in which Islam resides, nor is it a people whose forefathers lived under the Islamic system at some earlier time. It is the name of a group of people whose manners, ideas and concepts, rules and regulations, values and criteria, are all derived from the Islamic source. The Muslim community with these characteristics vanished at the moment the laws of God became suspended on earth.

I'm not persuaded that Qutb speaks for Islam, but if Athena is right, and I'm wrong, and the Islamism of Qutb is demanded by Islam, then we have a much bigger problem on our hands. But my own reading and experience suggests that Qutbism is an aberration; tracing its intellectual roots (and finding that some of them come from outside of Islam) is not an act of appeasement, but rather a worthwhile endeavor in the context of the broader war that was joined on September 11.

Posted by Ideofact at July 12, 2004 11:55 PM | TrackBack

Why Eric Hobsbawm isn't treated with the same contempt as David Irving is a mystery to me. On the other hand, given the nature of our 'politically committed' academia in the last century, it's no great surprise. As E.E.Cummings put it (way back in 1932!):

and I mightn't think (and you mightn't too)
that a Five Year Plan's worth a Gay Pay Oo [=GPU]
and both of us might irretrievably pause
ere believing that Stalin was Santa Clause:
which happily proves that neither of us
is really an intellectual cus.

Posted by: J.Cassian at July 14, 2004 04:06 AM


You are right that not all Muslims and perhaps only a minority of Muslims identify completely with the thought of Sayyid Qutb or Maulana Maududi (May God have Mercy on Both of them).

Of course there is a difference between individuals agreeing with Qutb and Maududi broadly and whether that perspective has been actually achieved in a practical way on the ground in any society, which is what Qutb is referring to in his quote.

At the same time, one should not underestimate the extent to which Qutb and Maududi do represent if not traditional in every way, certainly mainstream Islamic thought amongst Muslims who are serious about practicing their religion and especially those who are 'activist' in regards to their engagement with society. Qutb and Maududi are undoubtedly two of the most published and most read authors on Islamic topics in the Muslim world (I'm almost sure they would be the two most popular in terms of books sold but of course I don't have any numbers to back that up). Their works, especially their commentaries on the Qur'an are standard reference works in Muslim homes at a broad level (for the Muslim world which is for the most part less literary than the Western developed world for reasons of post colonialism and north-south socio-economic divide, as far as I can tell).

The most important point I'd like to make, however, and this has been the basis of my ongoing attempt (sadly for me clearly a failed one on my part) to engage you in discussion about these issues, is that of course it would be tremendously disturbing if such a wide number of people or the mainstream of Islamic thought were represented by Qutb and Maududi as you or Athena understand and present their thought.

However the vast majority of the Muslims who do love, respect and learn from the works of Maududi and Qutb do not perceive them in the way that you do.

This is not to say that if you understood Qutb and Maududi as I do you would agree with them. These were people who believed the most fundamental truth about the world upon which all subsequent thought, study and thinking must be based is the acknowledgement that there is nothing worthy of worship except God and that Muhammad is the last Messenger of God for all humanity.

For those who do not share this commitment, it would be fairly bizarre to think they would somehow come to a similar view of most issues.

In any event, sorry for the long comment. I really do hope I am adding to the discussion. If it is not clear in my comments, obviously I do find something in your writing that I like or at the least that intrigues me or makes me think you are a sincere person, or I wouldn't spend so much time commenting here.

Calling Ataturk 'Islamic' however makes about as much sense as calling Hitler Jewish. Ataturk is a man who tried his best to completely wipe out the religion of Islam from the lives of an entire people and physically set to work accomplishing this with the force of government. May God give him what he deserves.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at July 14, 2004 03:28 PM

J. Cassian --

Good to hear from you again. I hope your hiatus won't last much longer.

I share your puzzlement over Hobsbawm. Some years ago, Ron Rosenbaum published an excellent book called Explaining Hitler. I think we need a companion volume, Explaining Stalin, or perhaps Justifying Stalin, or even Worshipping Stalin, to shed light on this phenomenon.

Posted by: Bill at July 15, 2004 12:02 AM

There was a programme on the BBC a few years back which analysed the devotion of various Western "true believers" to Stalin, contrasting interviews from mostly unrepentant fanatics with comments from people who had suffered under the regime. As the programme pointed out, disillusion generally set in when the Soviet Union became less bloodthirsty after the great man's death. Many then moved on to worshipping Mao, who merely copied his Soviet counterpart by following a mass famine (Great Leap Forward) with a mass purge (Cultural Revolution). The inevitable conclusion to be drawn was that they liked these regimes because (not in spite) of their genocidal nature. There was one particularly telling interview with another "distinguished Marxist historian", Christopher Hill, famous for rebranding the English Civil War as "The English Revolution", who still denied that the Ukrainian murder famine had taken place, claiming that the documentary sources were biased and we only had people's word for it. He couldn't say what the truth was since he hadn't been there himself. The interviewer then pointed out that Hill had based his whole career on writing the history of events which took place over three centuries ago using documentary evidence from the time. Interviewer: "Did you see the seventeenth century for yourself?" Hill: long, awkward silence, no answer forthcoming.

Posted by: J.Cassian at July 15, 2004 02:37 PM

Abu Noor,

Forgive the lateness of my response. I am considering the points you've raised, and wil write more a bit later.

One question though -- why the animus toward Ataturk? What precisely, in your view, was it that he did that makes him something less than Muslim?

Posted by: Bill at July 19, 2004 01:38 AM


I don't know how much you know about Ataturk. I actually don't claim to be an expert and have never seriously studied him, so my first inclination would be that you might know more about him. So I am surprised by your question. Surely its not that you find it surprising that I (or any believing Muslim) would find much to dislike about Ataturk. Perhaps you just wish to know what specifically most bothers me? Incidentally, I never specifically stated that Ataturk was not a Muslim because such a charge is not lightly made, even against the most objectionable of characters as long as the person claims to be a Muslim. (I am unsure if Ataturk actually claimed to be a Muslim, but I don't believe he ever explicitly stated that he was not one.)

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at July 19, 2004 01:38 PM

To give you a little taste of how I would respond to your question:

It goes without saying that Ataturk's actions of abolishing the khilafah (caliphate) and scrapping the Islamically based legal systems of the Uthmaani Khilafah (Ottoman Caliphate) for imported legal codes from various European countries would be enough to be worthy of my attitude towards him. From a scholarly point of view such actions in themself would qualify one to be termed a disbeliever in Islam (note here again I am talking about the action and not the person).

Now, to be honest, I don't expect you to be sympathetic to those concerns and obviously it was these actions that many in the West admire about Ataturk. And no doubt, in these cases Ataturk really just issued the final death blow to these insitutions. The lessening influence of the Khalifah and the "reform" (secularization/Europeanization) of the legal systems had both been occurring for decades if not centuries in some ways before Ataturk. This was due both to external forces and even to actions of many of the Caliphs themselves in misguided attempts to save the institutions by 'halfway' reforms and secularization.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at July 19, 2004 01:45 PM

What I find most interesting about the discussion however is that Ataturk's thought in fact shares many characteristics of the fascist/communist totalitarian rulers that you obviously (and rightfully) have so much distate for and constantly want to link 'Islamists' with.

Ataturk was a fanatical nationalist who literally used physical force to change people from thinking of themselves primarily as Muslims to thinking of themselves as "Turks." This identity of being a Turk now became the highest identity one had and became basically the purpose of existence.

Ataturk then created an obscene personality cult about himself, gave himself the name Ataturk (Father of the Turks), and proceeded to smash as much of Islamic practice or even cultural practices linked by the people to Islam as he could.

He literally forbade the wearing of the fez because he (and many who wore it) linked it with tradtional Islamic culture and piety. When I say he forbade it, you may think I mean that he publically encouraged people to wear Western hats and made it an example of himself to wear Western hats. NO, he actually passed legislation making it illegal to wear a fez and those who attempted to protest against this legislation and fight for the right to wear the fez if they wished were executed by the state. Not only did Ataturk engage in this obsence fascistic ploy but the government of Turkey lists this openly on its website without any shame or condemnation.

He also barred the calling of the adhan (call to prayer) in Arabic and forced it to be called in Turkish. As almost anyone knows this call to prayer has been issuing unchanged and in Arabic wherever Muslims have been since the time of the Prophet (saw) to today. Again, while it is enough for me to condemn him for doing this, it should be enough for you to condemn him for doing it forcibly. He did not propose it or advise it, but he forced all those who did not wish to do it to do it.

Then of course he continued with his fascistic reeducation plan by declaring that he was changing the Turkish alphabet. All people (I think up to the age of 40) were forced to attend classes so that they could learn the new alphabet which he created in his unceasing attempts to mimic and ape the Europeans of which it seems his life goal was to become one and to force every other person under his rule to become one as well.

Not only did this cut off Turkish people from their previous relationship with Islamic scriptures, (which Muslims believe was his real purpose) it cut off the Turkish people from their own history as from then on even educated Turkish people could not even read the historical documents of their own land unless they studied classical Turkish. They were forced to rely on government created official 'translations.'

He forbade public wearing of religious garb. Of course to this day, women cannot wear the Islamically required hijab in public buildings.

One can debate whether people who say they are Muslim should be forced to follow Islamic legal rulings. One cannot debate that when one force people to disobey Islamic legal ruling than that person is an enemy of Islam and a criminal by any standard of human rights.

As I would think you know Bill, it is the fascistic ideology of Ataturkism which directly led to the criminal actions of the Turkish government against the people and culture of the Kurds in Turkey.

I could go on but I hope the point is made. Again, I have not seriously studied the period so I am sure there is much I am missing. The role of the 'Young Turks' in the Armenian Genocide would bear paying attention to.

According to www.armenian-genocide.org Ataturk was "the consummator of the Armenian Genocide."

His ideology has resulted in a State in which to this day anti Islamic legislation is protected by a military check on democracy, one which the military has not been shy about using and threating to use.

And then some people who say they care about democracy and individual rights hold up Turkey and the reforms of Ataturk as an example of role model for the Muslim world. I hope you do not share that view Bill.

For anyone who does, while really knowing what Ataturk was about, it becomes clear that human rights is the least of their concerns and the extinction of Islam is their primary goal.

While Ataturk's personal life is not really the basis of my opinions about him, I will note based primarily on my extreme hatred of his actions and ideology, and to make sure that any sympathy for him and his program by a Muslim is stamped out, that Ataturk is quoted as having said that "Islam, this ideology of an immoral Arab, is a dead thing," this coming from a man who according to all biographical accounts of him was a womanizer and alcoholic who died of cirrhosis of the liver. Again, that statement is a statement of disbelief.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at July 19, 2004 02:21 PM

Oh by the way,

Thanks for your comment Bill. Of course I do not expect that you have to comment on every post I make, but since I was thinking you might have something to say about it I was wondering if I should take a hint that you weren't interested in my blather anymore.

Don't worry, I won't overestimate how interested you are in my comments either. I realize that our discussion can get a bit repetitive and I continually search for new aspects of the issues so that we may be able to break through to a greater understanding.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at July 19, 2004 02:40 PM

For the record, I'm not exactly an enthusiast of Ataturk, but I do think his effect on the caliphate is overstated. The Ottomans had some called the Qanun, which is a cognate of the word canon -- a code of laws that was adapted from the earlier Byzantine law codes.

As I recall, the title of "caliph" had lapsed long before the Ottomans came to power; in the late 19th century, it was claimed (largely in an attempt to secure the loyalty of the Arab population) that the title passed to the Ottoman conquerors in the early 16th century, but strictly speaking, this was untrue.

As an office, of course, it had lost much of its lustre long before the Ottomans, or even the Mongols. I seem to recall a story of a Baghdad caliph claiming supremacy over his Mamluk overlords, who responded along the lines that his job was to pray, theirs to rule.

Posted by: Bill at July 20, 2004 12:41 AM


I basically agree with your assessment although I think we understand the history a little differently.

As we might expect hundreds of years of history contain many complexities and the power/influence/importance of the Caliphs went up and down throughout that time.

Andrew Jackson ignored the Supreme Court's decision in Worcester v. Georgia and went ahead with the U.S. government's ethnic cleansing campaign against Native Americans saying "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!"

I don't think that that means one can say that the Supreme Court had no power or that it wouldn't have been a major step for President Jackson to abolish the Supreme Court for all time to come.

At the same time it is necessary to understand that and understand the limitations of the Caliph's power over time and the extent to which it had devolved in some ways into a religiously symbolic office without a great deal of practical power. I pointed this out in my response as well, that so called reforms like the Qanun had been instituted previously.

Still, the actual act of abolishing the Khilafah was an act felt and noticed in the Muslim world at the time and to this day. Organized movements to prevent this action sprang up around the world, the most notable one being in India.

So I don't think we so much disagree on the history but the actual act of abolishing is still a major event and the Muslims remember it.

No comment on the rest of Ataturk's dictatorial, fascist and criminal record?

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at July 20, 2004 10:58 AM