This is the best article on Islamism I have read in recent years. As a warning, it is incredibly long. As an encouragement, it is worth every bit of the time it takes to read it. It is the story of three ex-Islamist jihadists and one radically loyal Islamist, all of whom were raised in Great Britain, educated in Western schools, and most of them raised as only marginally religious. The article’s author wanted to know how-and why- these kind of men could become violent jihadists, so he wanted to hear their stories.
The crisis of Islamism seems to me such a microcosm of many of our world’s most pressing matters, and certainly of our country’s. I just may spend a few posts unpacking some of these one by one. To start, there is such an incredible similarity between all forms of fundamentalism. I’m sure fundamentalist Christians would balk at a comparison between their firmly-held beliefs and that of an extremist jihadist, but listen to either of them for five minutes and they are giving the same speech, using the same arguments, drawing the same conclusions under gods of different names. If you’ve ever been in a room with a fundamentalist of any religion, listen for parallels in this article excerpt. This was in the section regarding Anjem Choudhary, the one Islamist profiled in the article:
Taking any part of the Koran as metaphor will, [Choudhary] warns, cause the text to turn to dust in their hands. “I can’t pick and choose what I like from the scripture. This is not strawberry season, where you can pick your own strawberries. You abide by whatever Allah brought in the final revelation with the example of the Prophet. And if there’s something that you don’t like, then you need to correct your own emotions and desires to make sure they’re in line with the sharia.”
If I had a nickel…
Fundamentalism in every religion has the potential to bring about unthinkable harm and to threaten the very essence of the religion it claims. When you put the word “holy” in the title of any book, you are asking its readers to supply some form of allegiance to its contents. How they see that allegiance- or more specifically, how they interpret its contents and make conclusions about the allegiances they infer- can either make the world a more beautiful place (“Love one another as I have loved you”) or a place of sheer terror. The minute those of us in any religion believes our holy book to be above this kind of terrifying misinterpretation is the minute the bell tolls with sinister foreshadowing.
I think the problem is that fundamentalism invariably stems from fear that leads quickly to hatred. If a religious person feels threatened, then out comes the witch hunt to demonize anyone who believes differently. It is a terrifyingly strange way to prove your position. I’m not sure how many events in world history one must learn before realizing that this kind of proactive-belligerent-defense only ends up killing people. And any sane person will tell you that none of the world’s religions consider killing people as a sign of spiritual maturity. At the very least, this kind of isolating, us vs. them rhetoric damages our ability to see God’s image in one another…and if you can’t recognize that, what’s to keep you from attacking that person? How can you honor the sanctity of that person’s life?
The tragic irony of fundamentalism is that those who claim to be fundamentalists also claim to care MOST about their religion (they can judge these things and you can’t), but their fundamentalist beliefs are often the least effective at embodying their religion’s core convictions. And this is to say nothing about the public relations debacle they are causing. There are no worse poster children for religion than fundamentalists.
The way we read our holy books matters. It absolutely matters, as it’s literally a matter of life and death.
From the story in section I of the article, subtitled “The Imam”:
(Usama Hassan) says the 7/7 bombings (in 2005 in London’s subway system) detonated a theological bomb in his mind: “How could this be justified? I began to wonder if parts of the Koran are actually metaphor, and parts of the Koran were actually just revealed for their time: seventh-century Arabia.”
Once the foundation stone of literalism was broken, he had to remake the concepts that had led him to Islamism one-by-one. “Jihad has many levels in Islam – you have the internal struggle to be the best person you can be. But all we had been taught is military jihad. Today I regard any kind of campaigning for truth, for justice, as a type of Jihad.” He signed up to the pacifist Movement for the Abolition of War. He redefined martyrdom as anybody who died in an honourable cause. “There were martyrs on 9/11,” he says. “They were the firefighters – not the hijackers.”
Seeing the reality of the destruction in London in 2005 is what made Usama Hassan begin to question the radicalized, militarized, totalizing version of his own religion. Renouncing the literalism of the Koran saved his faith (he’s now a moderate Muslim) and saved lives.
If we are people who read a holy book, we would be wise to listen to our harshest critics, and to look with open eyes at the reality of the kind of world our religion is creating. In so doing we may just save our faith, and we may just save the world from undue violence.