Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Helfont on Islam vs. Islamism

Samuel Helfont

Samuel Helfont has recently published an article for the think tank FPRI (Foreign Policy Research Institute) on "Islam and Islamism: A Primer for Teachers and Students" (FootNotes, Vol. 20, No. 9, August 2015).

He distinguishes between Islam as practiced in various parts of the world versus Islam as enjoined by the Quran and other early Muslim texts, and he notes the multiplicity of interpretations, which is all well and good, as always.

But when he comes to the distinction between Islam and Islamism, he recognizes a problem:
Islamists often refer to themselves simply as Muslims and they claim that those who oppose their ideas also necessarily oppose Islam. They root their ideas in a particular reading of history. If Muhammad combined political and religious authority, then how could Muslims disavow the role of politics in Islam? This is a powerful argument.
Indeed, it is powerful. We must also add that since Muhammad combined military and religious authority, then Muslims can also hardly disavow the role of the military in Islam, especially since war is politics by another name, at least if one means foreign policy. This is also a strong argument. But Helfont again takes refuge in multiple interpretations:
Yet, the Islamist reading of the past has been selective. No consensus has ever existed on what Islam is, let alone on its relationship to politics . . . . Islamism had its genesis in modern debates about political identity. And despite the fact that Islamists have used classical Islamic texts to make arguments, their ideas sometimes had no precedent in Islamic history.
But he acknowledges still another problem:
This does not imply that Islamists are wrong or that their logic is invalid. If it is difficult to know what Islam is, it is also hard to determine what it is not . . . . Islamist claims about Islam are just as legitimate as any other.
Yet, he again takes refuge in Islamism's lack of consensus:
Nevertheless, it should be recognized that, despite Islamist assertions, no consensus among those who identify as Muslims exists with regard to the relationship between Islam and politics. Nor is it possible to read the classical Islamic texts and come away with an unambiguous understanding of Islamic politics.
Nevertheless, Helfont sees Islamism as a large problem:
As such, Islamists remain a subset of the larger Islamic community. How large a subset is not easy to determine. Partly, this is due to the difficulty in demarcating the lines between Islam and Islamism. Islamists claim that they are simply Muslims who recognize the essential role of politics in their religion . . . . Islamists appear to be either a minority, or a slight majority in most Arab countries.
That's a lot of Islamists. We have reason to be concerned as states in the Middle East collapse and Islamists are drawn into the power vacuum and take advantage of the chaos to send jihadists hidden among the refugees headed for Europe.

Bad times ahead . . .

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