Barak Mendelsohn on Jihadis
I've not posted much on Islamism lately, having gotten busy with other blog issues, but I continue to pay attention and to read articles, for Islamist radicalism isn't disappearing anytime soon. I've therefore read with interest a recent article at FPRI by Barak Mendelsohn entitled "Teaching about Jihadism and the War on Terror" (The Newsletter of FPRI's Wachman Center, Vol 15, No 7, October 2010), especially given that I've offered courses that touch on this topic. In his article, Mendelsohn makes an interesting because non-pc remark concerning his method of teaching about jihadis:
As a first step, I clarify that I do not presuppose that jihadis represent a distortion of Islam. My approach is guided by my understanding of religion as being interpreted and mutually constituted with the people and groups who claim to adhere to it. With an extensive debate raging within Islamic circles on what "true Islam" really is, it would be pretentious for me to announce who truly represents the religion and who does not. I prefer to avoid questions of right and wrong [interpretation] and instead locate the jihadi movement in the broader battle for the shape of Islam and the leadership of the Islamic umma, while making sure that students are aware that comparatively few Muslims support jihadis.There's a downside to this position, I think, in that it cannot recognize when a religion has reinterpreted itself so thoroughly that it has effectively become a different religion. Suppose -- as a thought experiment -- that Islam were to draw upon certain Qur'anic verses identifying Jesus as the Word of God (Suras 3:40 and 4:169) and develop a high christology that placed Jesus far above Muhammad and equivalent to the Qur'an, effectively divinizing him. Would this still be Islam even if it became the dominant view among Muslims? And what if it remained a minority view? What of those Muslims who have been evangelized by Christians and have come to believe in Jesus as divine but have elected to remain within the Muslim community and still attend mosque? Such individuals do exist. Are they still Muslim?
The upside to Mendelsohn's position is that it allows the scholar studying jihadis to take seriously the Islamic sources that the jihadis themselves draw upon, and when one does so, one sees that these sources are not marginal texts. For that reason, I maintain that Islamism is radicalism at the core rather than at the margins of Islam.
Whether or not Islamism distorts those sources is the pressing question, but would Mendelsohn's view encompass this question?