A Rage Against History
By Clive S. Kessler*
Tuesday, January 13th, 2015 @ 3:54AM
Left: Place de la République Paris – An Islamic State flag together with a Palestinian flag with ‘Hamas’ written on it, while an Israeli flag is set on fire during pro-Hamas riots on July 26, 2014 (Credit: EPA)
The Ottawa parliament, Café Lindt, Charlie Hebdo and so many others too: these are all separate incidents. But they are all part of the same global phenomenon.
They are all expressions of a rage against history that lurks within modern Islam and animates Muslim militants worldwide today.
It is a rage that has its source within the wounded soul of contemporary Islamic civilization, of the modern Muslim world generally.
The Islamic religion and its social world are an intensely political tradition.
It has always been so, going back to Muhammad’s dual role as both prophet and political leader in the original Islamic community in Madinah from 622 to 632 CE.
More, within a century of Muhammad’s death his small desert oasis polity had become a vast transcontinental empire.
And, in a succession of different forms or political frameworks (“caliphates”), the community of Muhammad’s faithful continued to live in the world on its own founding assumptions.
For a thousand years it was largely a continuing success story. Islamic civilization, as it evolved upon its foundational political template provided by Muhammad, was able to live in the world on its own terms.
The central Islamic societies in which Islamic civilization evolved were able to write and then “live out” the script of their own history.
Not only did Islam, and the Muslims of Islamic civilization, live in the world on their own preferred terms, according to their own faith-based socio-political and legal blueprint. They were able to set those terms to others who came within their orbit, under their influence and control. It was to be accepted by all, lovingly or in obligatory submission, induced or imposed.
How has the world of Islam always explained and justified this to itself?
Religiously, Islam sees itself as the successor to and the completion of the Abrahamic faith tradition of ethical and prophetic monotheism. To Judaism and then Christianity.
It sees itself as completing those two earlier faith communities: those of the “peoples of the book” or genuine scripture. Completing, but also repairing and then superseding, those earlier revelations, making good their limitations and deficiencies.
What deficiencies? First, those earlier revelations, so mainstream Islam holds, were incomplete, only partial. And second, in their human transmission, what God had revealed through them had been distorted and corrupted by its learned custodians, the rabbis and priests.
Islam sees itself as complete because it sees itself (or so its scholarly traditions assert), unlike Judaism and Christianity, as equipped with a fully developed social and political “blueprint”, a divinely prescribed plan for the organization and political management of society.
For this reason, its mainstream scholars have long held, Islam incorporates and carries forward all that is right and good in Judaism and Christianity. And what is not good or authentic Islam rejects —— and what it has rejected is simply wrong.
So Islam supersedes, and in a sense also negates, its two predecessor Abrahamic faiths. They, or the best in them, live on in Islam. Once Islam succeeded and incorporated them in this fashion, Judaism and Christianity became, in effect, obsolete and irrelevant. Religiously superseded, they lived on in world history merely as relics from an earlier, pre-Islamic era of human spiritual and social evolution. This was not just religious doctrine; these ideas informed and even defined the historical civilization founded upon that religious faith.
This attitude could continue, this faith-based civilizational outlook or worldview, could continue undisturbed so long as it was not evidently counterfactual. So long, that is, as Islam continued to live in the world on its own terms. So long as the worldly career of Islamic civilization remained a success story.
It was, for a thousand years. Islam survived the challenge of its great trans-Mediterranean civilizational rival, the world of Christendom, withstanding even the era of the Crusades. But eventually it succumbed to what we might call “post-Christian Christendom”, or Europe and the Western world.
The long crisis that the Islamic world, in the form of the Ottoman Empire or Caliphate, entered was dramatically signaled and symbolized at the end of the eighteenth century by Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt.
Over the following century, the world of Islam was overwhelmed.
The collapse and humiliation of the Islamic world was accomplished by what we now call “modernity” — social, economic, administrative, technical, military, intellectual and cultural. It was defeated and routed by the application of modern attitudes and techniques, born of the Enlightenment and the new scientific revolution, that the European powers commanded and developed and began to deploy ever more thoroughly, and which the world of Islam lacked. That is how Napoleon and those who followed him succeeded; that is what Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt powerfully demonstrated and announced.
By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, much of the Islamic world had fallen under European colonial domination. It was dismembered and parceled out among different Western powers –notably France, Britain, Italy, and the Netherlands (and also Russia).
As they were subjugated and broken apart, the lands of Islam lost their political sovereignty. No longer able to live in the world on their own terms according to their own blueprint, they fell under derivatively foreign legal systems. They ceased to live, wherever they once had, under Islamic law, the Shari’ah.
This defeat was a humiliating experience. The world of Islam was wounded at its core. This would have been a painful experience for any once proud but now enfeebled civilization.
But for Islam it was more, and worse, than that.
It was more and worse because of its own long history of worldly success, its experience of “living in the world on its own terms” — and because of the outlook and attitudes and defining forms of historical consciousness to which that experience had given rise. Notably, a conviction of entitlement, an assurance vouchsafed by God, that Islam would forever be in charge, a sovereign power able to write and live out the script of its own internally-generated history.
The disjunction, or sudden lack of congruence or “fit”, between this conviction of Islam’s civilizational primacy, with its assurance of enduring political ascendancy, and the abject, defeated condition of the Islamic lands under modern colonialism not only inflicted a deep wound within the heart of the modern Islamic world.
It also created a crisis of “cognitive dissonance”. It posed a conundrum: If Islam alone was the completed and perfected religion of God, and if its perfection consisted and was expressed in its political comprehensiveness, and if its political completeness (unlike the human worlds built by Judaism and Christianity) was the assured basis of its worldly success — and if the long-lasting worldly success of Islamic civilization had also been the proof and vindication of Islam’s religious superiority — then why was the world of Islam now so comprehensively defeated, divided, humiliated, and impotent?
What had gone wrong? Why had history “taken a wrong turn”, gone awry?
The history of the modern Islamic world has largely been the story of a succession of failed attempts to explain this conundrum and to overcome this painful historical subjugation and humiliation.
This attempt took many forms: first Islamic religious modernism and reform, and then, fitted with an Islamic face, all the main approaches and belief systems of the modern world. By the middle of the twentieth century all of the modern age’s great new ideologies were repackaged and trialed for Muslims in Islamic terms: liberal constitutionalism, nationalism, socialism, secularism, statism, and military authoritarianism.
All failed to deliver what was hoped of them: Success, the overcoming of humiliating displacement, a restoration of power and sovereignty and dignity.
Out of their failure came a new but old approach: A return to religion, to the belief that Islam is not the problem but the solution. That Islam has not failed the world’s Muslims but that they have failed Islam, failed to understand and live by it properly. So, back to Islam, properly understood and implemented! For some, back to the Shari’ah! For some, even, restore the Caliphate, a form of Islamic sovereignty capable of enforcing the Shari’ah!
This is the basis of the reaffirmation and religious resurgence of Islam over the last half-century — of a determination, taking a variety of forms, to restore Islam and the world of Muslims to their rightful historical place and standing.
Resurgent Islam, in both its benign and also its more activist and militant forms, is the latest attempt to solve the great historical conundrum: To overcome the “cognitive dissonance”, and to heal the painful wound, that lie at the heart and lurk deep within the soul of the modern Islamic world.
The dilemma born of this great historical disruption and cognitive dissonance affect — and frame the religious and historical consciousness of — most believing, loyal and sensitive modern Muslims, both moderates and radicals.
Though they may be only a minority, the radical Muslims, or militant Islamists, do not merely feel the pain of this deep wound within the soul Islam. They also seek to act, with violent means, forcibly to “set things right again”. They are possessed and driven by a conviction that “history has gone wrong” on them — that it has done so wrongly, and so has wronged them — in defiance of divine historical assurances and guarantees of political primacy, ascendancy, sovereignty and success.
It may be only a minority within the Islamic faith community who act upon, and act out violently, this deep-seated “rage against history”. But that rage is not peculiar or unique to them. It is fundamental to the historical experience of the world’s Muslims. It is a core part of the defining spiritual and existential dilemma of worldwide Islamic civilization today.
The violent restorationists of Islam’s dignity and glory may be marginal, even outsiders, to mainstream Islamic society.
But that fact is no basis for mainstream Islamic society and its leadership to reject, dismiss and disown them as “not us, and not our problem”.
What the violent jihadi militants do is done by them explicitly in the name of Islam. They find, and not capriciously, justification for what they choose to do within the sacred and historical traditions of Islam, within some authentic parts of that tradition at least. And they are responding to and acting upon a profound sense of crisis, grievance and resentment that is not theirs alone but which lies within the heart of modern Muslim historical experience.
It will simply not do to cut these violent people loose, allowing them to do as they please, by saying “what they do has nothing to do with Islam”.
It has everything to do with Islam. There is no other way to explain it. It makes no sense without reference to Islam. What the violent militants do may have little to do with “Islam as decent, progressive people choose to understand it”. But it exists within, feeds off, and is explicable only within Islam and Islamic terms, and with reference to the travails of modern Islamic history generally.
Those Muslims who wish to repudiate the action of the militants must assert themselves publicly and emphatically within Islam. And they must assert their control over how Islam is seen by their non-Muslim fellow citizens, over its “brand”.
Simply acting internally, with “behind closed doors” intra-community diplomacy, will not suffice. True, this is a problem within Islam. And there is no way that it will be solved without the action of Muslims, without Muslims showing a lead and playing the primary role. But it is not just an internal Muslim problem. What goes on in the world of Islam today, as recent gruesome events worldwide have repeatedly shown, is everybody’s business, not just a problem to be left to Muslims to solve alone, quietly and undisturbed, at their own pace.
An adequate Muslim response cannot rest solely upon issuing fatwa and similar religious condemnations of the militants and their atrocities as an offence against Islam. What they do is an offence, and much worse, against all of us, against everybody.
The Islamic community leaders and opinion-shapers must do more. They must constantly deepen their own and their community’s commitment — internally and more broadly in interactions within national and international society — to modern, liberal, democratic and pluralist values, principles and forms of action.
And others, their fellow citizens, have the right to expect and ask that of them.
The rage against history within Islam, and against history’s supposedly unique unkindness to Muslims, that motivates and drives militant Islamist action today among those who experience the cognitive dissonance of a dis-empowered Islam is now clearly everybody’s business.
After Café Lindt and now this last week’s terrible events in Paris the question must be posed, “And what do we need to do now?”
There are two parts to the answer to this question.
One part has to do with Muslims, with our Muslim fellow citizens. Nobody wants, or should want, to see our Muslim fellow citizens — as a group, or “picked off” as individuals on public transport or in the street — targeted, scapegoated, vilified, marginalized, isolated.
We don’t, or should not, want that to happen to them: For their sakes, and also for the sake of Australia, our national community, as a whole. Neither the society as a whole nor any part of it stands to benefit should that kind of division, antagonism, and scapegoating occur, or be condoned.
So, if people want to do the hashtag “I’ll ride with you”, wave pens or proclaim “Je suis Charlie”, fine. However sentimental and inadequate, it is a nice gesture of inclusion, of human fellow feeling, a good symbolic (and also practical!) affirmation of common citizenship and humanity.
But, alone, by themselves, such actions do not really answer our problem. Just because these paltry things may make some of us feel good should not persuade us that this is the core of the problem, its principal remedy in which we may and should trust.
It cannot, since it deals with only one of two aspects of our predicament.
The second part of the answer has to do with Islam. With Islam as a culture and civilization and, at their heart and core, as a religion and as faith-based community.
The community from within which — whether its leaders and many of its members agree to see things in this way — the kinds of Islamist violence to which we all and our world have recently been subjected has grown.
What this means practically is that, if we are to try to minimize the occurrence and recurrences of such episodes, we need to understand them, understand them better, to understand their origins and genesis, their nature.
To do that, the main task is not to follow the all too simplistic approach of the “counter-terrorism” and “de-radicalization” experts who, as social psychologists, treat the problem as basically one of individual psychology (perhaps in a “group context”).
Approaching the problem as if it might be treated in that way appeals to the politicians, because it suggests or holds out the hope that some uncomplicated and direct remedy or technical “fix” is available that does not involve looking into the heart and depths of the matter, into the deep historical sources of a very complex problem.
Ultimately, the problem here is not one of fragile, malleable — but remediable, reformable, reversible — individual psychology.
It has to do with the Islamic historical tradition: With its inherent tensions, its unfinished business, its unresolved problems, with what it finds difficult to acknowledge and resolve within itself.
Whether “legitimately” or not in the eyes of more decent folk, that is where the militant and violent activists look to, where they draw their support and inspiration and motivation and justification.
We must all ask, Muslims and non-Muslims alike and even (and better!) together, what it is there in the Islamic tradition that, rightly or wrongly, lends itself to, and hence is so readily made available for, such purposes, to this kind of abominable use.
It is from their reading (or misreading) and their use (or misuse) of that faith tradition and civilizational transcript that these monsters draw their inspiration, as well as the supposed justification and legitimation of their appalling actions.
If such things happened only rarely, what we all face would be a different matter.
But it is not uncommon. It is not even some sort of “groundhog day” affliction, an annual cause of occasionally returning distress.
It has become constant and recurrent: non-stop in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East such as Yemen, and beyond as with Boko Haram in Nigeria and in Somalia and Kenya and with the mass slaughter of school children by the Taliban in Pakistan; and now all too frequently repeated closer to us, whether in a museum in Belgium, in the Ottawa parliament, in Sydney’s Café Lindt, or in now in Paris.
It floods in upon us, like USA basketball games or our one-day international cricket matches over the summer. You barely have the time to think about the one that has just happened than there is another one, scarcely distinguishable from its predecessor, demanding your attention.
It just goes on.
If we want to make the occurrence or recurrence of such events much rarer and perhaps a little more preventable, we must understand them, what motivates them and their perpetrators.
And there is no way of doing that unless one takes seriously and probes thoroughly the origins and salient “motivating power” of what these people say and claim and how they justify their actions.
That is, we have to weigh and consider carefully those things in and aspects of the Islamic tradition upon which these violent people — whether “legitimately” or not — are able to draw repeatedly, and to which they have constant recourse, to justify their violence.
The problem is historical and civilizational, within a faith-based civilization, not a matter of aberrant or fragile individual psychology.
To satisfy oneself with sentimental gestures or to focus and rely upon the “reprogramming and rescue” techniques of deradicalization is to miss the point.
What is needed now is not useless, since usefully banal and diversionary, symbolic gestures.
What must be faced is the basic problem.
The basic problem, in large parts of our society, is that of Islamic family failure and Muslim community failure — at its core, the failure to handle, and to provide the young with clear guidance about, and how to cope with, the burden of that faith community’s own historic legacy.
Parents and communities, including community schools and educators, that have not thought this problem through adequately themselves are in no position to guide and educate their children and younger generations how to manage this crisis within the Islamic world, mind and soul.
It is the problem of getting a faith community to acknowledge the equivocal and dubious, as well as the glorious and heroic, components of its own heritage.
The task is an intellectual and cultural one, and, collectively, an historical one — not one of individual psychological “reorientation”, rectification and “deradicalizing” rescue.
“Treatment” at the individual level will and can never succeed unless this deeper, even fundamental, problem of the Islamic faith community in Australia and globally is acknowledged — by Muslims, starting with their educational and moral and political leadership, and by others, notably our nation’s “opinion-leaders” and politicians.
We should and must be welcoming and inclusive towards all our citizens as part of, and who wish to share in, our processes of democratic sociability, including (no more or less than anybody else) our fellow citizens of Islamic religious, historical, cultural and civilizational background.
No more and no less…and with no special, uniquely reserved “Islamophobia” card to play.
Remember: a phobia is an ungrounded and unfounded, an irrational and an obsessive attitude, a pathology. People these days alas have genuine grounds to feel apprehensive, their fears are not unfounded and pathological.
As Café Lindt showed us here and this week’s events in Paris have reminded us all, they are, regrettably, all too realistic.
So, please, no more using — or putting up with — the catch-cry of “Islamophobia!” as a specially protected moral bludgeon to silence all serious, responsible discussion of the Islamic tradition and of Islamic history — of the evolution of the Islamic community and civilization worldwide — and the sources within it upon which some people draw to justify the unjustifiable.
We are all in this appalling situation together. The problem of many Muslims and of Islam has also become our problem, everybody’s problem.
So we are all part of exploring and discussing and seeking to find a solution to a problem that is no longer personal to Muslims alone, their reserved sacred property.
We must think and act accordingly, our national political life and debates must reflect that fact, and our national political leaders must face the matter squarely and not be content with unhelpful banalities and misleading platitudes.
We should no longer be admonished by a responsible minister that Islam is simply “a religion of peace…and anybody who suggests otherwise is talking arrant nonsense”.
We need far better than that if we are ever to face and overcome this national challenge.
* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He has been researching and writing about the politics of resurgent and militant Islam, in Southeast Asia and globally, for half a century. His first major investigation of these matters was based upon a two-year village-bases anthropological study of the sources of popular support for, and the political success of, the Islamist political party PAS in Kelantan, Malaysia, from 1967 to 1969. This research is summarized in his book Islam and Politics in a Malay State: Kelantan 1838-1969, Cornell U.P., Ithaca NY, 1978.