Islam or Islamist?
Is our trouble with a religion or an ideology?


Andrew C. McCarthy

Still, it is presumptuous to imply that Muslims who don’t adhere to classical Islam are not really following Islam. In the aforementioned “Islam and Islamists,” Robert insists that Islam is inherently and necessarily political, and that its political program has always been the “union of religion and the state.” The denial that this is and must be so, he contends, is “the wishful thinking of Western analysts who do not wish to face the implications of the fact that these ideas represent mainstream Islamic thinking.” I think that is wrong, and I say this as someone who has been about as adamant as one can be that we must face the implications of the fact that Islamism is a mainstream interpretation of Islam — in many places, the mainstream interpretation.

To be sure, there is a good deal of wishful thinking going on. As Robert says, too many Western analysts turn a blind eye to the palpable nexus between Islamic doctrine and supremacist, political Islam. But to say a set of ideas represents “mainstream” thinking is not the same as saying it is the only conceivable way of understanding a doctrine.

To take a fairly obvious example, the U.S. Constitution is a social compact in a single document — its four corners making it infinitely more easily knowable than Islamic doctrine, which comes to us from a variety of different sources (the Koran, hadiths, biographies of Mohammed, etc.). Yet, there are several different schools of constitutional interpretation, and a few of them (e.g., originalism and the “organic Constitution”) have enough of a following to be called “mainstream” even though they are quite different from — you might even say diametrically opposed to — one another.

While Robert is correct to point out that the classic schools of Sunni and Shiite jurisprudence promote supremacist, political Islam, that does not mean other understandings do not exist and cannot be developed. As noted above, Nadlahtul Ulama has tens of millions of members and pointedly rejects supremacist, political Islam. Whether one finds NU’s theology persuasive is beside the point. These people are Muslims, and they sincerely believe Islam does not require a political dimension — indeed, they say politics disserves the spirituality they see as Islam’s core. I don’t believe it is our place to tell them they are wrong.

This is steeply uphill. The classical schools are the most influential, and their authoritarian sharia has a built-in fortification: It holds both that departures from consensus constitute apostasy and that apostasy is a capital offense — with the death penalty having been meted out enough times, with enough Islamic approbation, to put reformers and their followers on notice that their work is very risky indeed. Still, modification happens, and has happened, all the time with all manner of doctrines. Can it really be that Islam is the only doctrine in the history of the world that is immune from even the possibility of alteration and evolution? There is nothing I am more skeptical of than that proposition.

Robert coined the marvelous phrase “stealth jihad.” Well, the reason the Muslim Brotherhood must be stealthy in conducting its sharia campaign in the West is its awareness that there would be widespread rejection, including by Muslims, if it were completely open about its supremacist designs. Even in Islamic countries, sharia regimes often back down when Islamic law’s most noxious features surface. Afghanistan quietly reversed course when the West expressed outrage over its efforts to put two apostates to death. The Iranians are still threatening to stone a woman for alleged fornication, but they haven’t done it yet — public opinion has brushed them back. When King Abdullah was embarrassed several weeks ago by the revelation that a woman had been sentenced to scourging for driving a car, the sentenced was quietly vacated. The Saudis, it is worth noting, outlawed slavery in 1962 even though (as Robert observes) the practice is explicitly approved in the Koran. Yes, slavery is still quietly practiced, but the formal ban in a country where sharia is the law of the land demonstrates that sharia can be changed, just as it can be (and has historically been) mitigated or suppressed by factors like culture and law.

We do not have to be delirious optimists to grasp these things. After all, change is not a one-way street — it can be regressive, too. As I argued in The Grand Jihad, President Wahid grossly underrated the numbers and influence of Muslims who subscribe to supremacist, political Islam. He also ceded significant ground in arguing that the “virulent” ideology of the Wahhabists and Salafists is “literal” and “simplistic.” It is hard to discredit something as a perversion of Islam when you are conceding its basis in written scripture, even if you add, as Wahid did, the caveat that its rendering of scripture is “selective.”