The Many Faces of Islam

Alexander Ignatenko, RIA Novosti, January 28, 2011


Discussion Club moderator Yevgeny Shestakov discusses [the role and influence of Islam in Europe] with Alexander Ignatenko, Ph.D in Philosophy, head of the Russian Institute of Religion and Politics and a member of the Presidential Council for Interaction with Religious Associations and the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, who specializes in Arab and Islamic studies and has written extensively on various aspects of Islam.

Shestakov: Why do you think Islam arouses so much controversy among non-Muslims in Europe and the United States?

Ignatenko: It’s true that anti-Islamic sentiment is quite widespread in Europe these days. But there’re Islamophiles out there, too. For instance, 66% of France’s population have a negative attitude toward Islam whereas about a quarter (23%) feel positively and 11% have no opinion.

On the flip side of the coin, there’s the attitude of Europe’s Muslim communities toward their non-Muslim fellow citizens. In France, 41% of Muslim residents have a favorable attitude toward non-Muslims while 58% have an unfavorable attitude. In the UK, this gap is much wider: 23% and 62%, respectively. {snip} The important thing to realize is that the animosity in Europe between indigenous populations and immigrants from Muslim countries is on the rise.

According to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, this increasingly pronounced trend shows that multiculturalism has failed. She said recently that the “multicultural approach, saying that we simply live side by side, and live happily with each other, has failed, utterly failed.”

What we’re facing in reality is a clash of cultures rather than their harmonious and meaningful co-existence. As a result of globalization, a burka-clad girl from some backwater village in Afghanistan or Turkey and a female Sorbonne student in Paris with a bare midriff now often find themselves living side by side. The culture clash has nothing to do with one set of values being right and the other wrong; it arises because the two girls were shaped by different cultural milieus.

There are several reasons why sociologists and politicians are so concerned by European attitudes toward Islam and Muslims’ attitudes toward European culture. First of all, the percentage of Muslims–both immigrants and native born converted to Islam–has increased sharply in recent years and they have gained prominence in the European landscape. Another reason, I think, is the emergence in Europe of anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant parties and movements, such as [Geert] Wilders’ Freedom Party.

Also, it seems that immigrants from across the Muslim world are more reluctant to integrate with the native population of their adopted countries, in comparison with representatives of other traditions, such as Judaism, Buddhism, Orthodox Christianity, or Confucianism. Which may have something to do with the circumstances in which Islam emerged on the Arabian Peninsula back in the 7th century. In its early years this religion had to compete with Christianity and Judaism, two traditions that had spread here before, but ultimately Islam prevailed. The record of Islam’s triumph can be found in its two main holy books, the Quran and the Sunna. Small wonder, then, that devout Muslims, educated in the Islamic tradition, should experience something of a culture shock upon their arrival in Europe, which is still dominated by Christian values.

Let me give you one example. Muslims believe that Jesus, known in Islam as Prophet Isa, a son of the Virgin Mary (or Marium), was carried up to Heaven by Allah when the Romans, led by Judas Iscariot, came to arrest him. Allah then made Judas look like Isa, and, as a result, the traitor ended up crucified instead of Jesus. So, according to Islam, it is Judas, not Jesus, who is actually worshiped in Christian churches. Sounds shocking, doesn’t it?

Shestakov: Indeed. And why is the term “militant” used these days mainly in reference to Islam, do you think?

Ignatenko: This term is a Western invention, as a matter of fact. In Russia, it isn’t used just as widely. In my view, this and other epithets–including “fundamentalist,” “radical,” “extremist,” “orthodox,” and “moderate”–all stem from a desire to see Islam as a multi-faceted religion divided by inner conflicts.

There’s little sense in talking about Islam in general terms because this religion is very region- and country-specific. Incidentally, the Prophet Muhammad predicted the Islamic schism by saying that after his death, Islam would split into 73 sects. He also said that only one of those sects would be saved while the rest would be committed to the fires of Hell as un-Islamic.

Islam has at least 73 facets. They cannot reconcile their many differences and often commit fierce acts of violence against one another. That’s especially true of Pakistan, which has recently seen a string of terrorist attacks by Sunni Taliban militants against mosques and shrines of the Shiite, Sufi and Ahmadi communities. I think it would be appropriate to describe Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as militants. Especially if they plot or attempt attacks against Shiites, Sufis, or Ahmadis in Europe. In Western Europe, these and other Islamic and non-Islamic sects enjoy freedom of worship, and London is home to the world’s largest Ahmadi mosque.

Also, it’s important to note that the term “militant” makes it possible for politically correct Europeans to avoid accusing Islam per se of extremism. So when speaking of recent terrorist attacks in Paris, London and Madrid, Europeans can make it clear that those acts of terror were committed by militants who had hijacked Islam to achieve their own political ends. Al-Qaeda, whose full name is the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders, is the most notorious militant movement.

Shestakov: Why, then, when talking about terrorism, people usually link it with Islam, while so little is known about terrorists who follow other religions?

Ignatenko: In an editorial published September 2004 in the liberal Arabic-language newspaper

Asharq Al-Awsat, Al Arabiya Managing Director Abdul Rahman al-Rashed admitted that, although not all Muslims are terrorists, the majority of terrorists in the world are, indeed, Muslims. He went even further in the headline, which reads “All terrorists are Muslim.” This editorial was quickly translated into all major languages, including Russian, and has been widely quoted ever since, so it’s no problem finding it on the Internet.

As for this authoritative Arab essayist, I think his main ambition was to shake up the paper’s Arab and Muslim readers. Indeed, he was writing his editorial with the memory of the atrocious September 11 terrorist attacks still fresh in people’s minds. Most importantly, terrorism then came, or rather returned to Islamic countries in and outside the Arab world. In 2004, Saudi mujahedin sent on jihadist missions to places such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya came back to Saudi Arabia and staged a series of terrorist attacks in that country.

A case in point is Yosif Saleh Fahd al-Uyayri (Ayyri), the first operational leader of the Arabian Peninsula’s Al-Qaeda network, based in Saudi Arabia. He assumed the role after returning from fighting Russians in Chechnya, where he had planned and perpetrated a number of terrorist attacks under the pseudonym Abu Qatada al-Makki, eventually becoming a founder of the shaheedism (or martyrdom) movement.

The problem is that almost all Islamic countries tend to use Islam–or rather its country-specific forms practiced in Muslim communities across Europe–as a means of influencing the domestic and foreign policies of European states. All major Muslim countries employ these tactics, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Libya, Algeria, and Morocco.

No Islamic state can resist the temptation of using that kind of leverage in its European policy. They all extensively employ pan-Muslim rhetoric, too, although in most cases it conveys the ideas and interests of some specific Islamic centers of power rather than of Islam as a whole. And they try to exert their influence in various ways, ranging from rallies to suicide attacks. Perhaps the most graphic example so far is the bombing in Madrid on March 11, 2004, which killed 191 people and injured 1,900 others. This terrorist attack brought the Spanish Socialist Party into power in a landslide victory in the March 14 vote. Shortly after the election, the party’s leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, announced the withdrawal of Spanish forces from Iraq. It was determined with absolute certainty that the perpetrators of the Madrid attack were Arab Muslims. One shouldn’t be surprised therefore that 83% of the Spaniards now identify Islam with radicalism and terrorism.

Shestakov: Would you agree that radical Islam has turned into a social, rather than religious, phenomenon?

Ignatenko: We, Russians, just love splitting hairs. We can spend hours on end debating heatedly over definitions. I’m not sure, though, that within the scope of our conversation, we would be able to draw a clear-cut line between the social and the religious.

There’s one more thing we shouldn’t lose sight of. Activities of that sort, both in the political arena and in society, have led to transformations and even distortions of Islam in its various country-specific incarnations.

Simplifying a bit, we could assert that the traditional, or pre-globalization, form of Islam, once predominant among Europe’s Muslim communities, was integrated into European culture or coexisted with it peacefully.

Later on, due to globalization and as a result of targeted operations by Islamic centers of power, other forms of Islam were introduced into Europe, with Wahhabism being the most proactive, or the most aggressive, I should say. It began to squeeze out traditional Islam while at the same time trying to reinterpret its teachings. As a result, both among traditional Muslims and new converts, extremists have emerged who are ready to commit acts of terror against non-Muslim fellow countrymen. So, perhaps, [al-Rashed’s] formula should now be modified to read as follows: “Not all Wahhabis are terrorists, but all terrorists are Wahhabis.”

Shestakov: Can a secular, democratic state resist radicalism? Or this is a threat that only a totalitarian state can handle?

Ignatenko: That’s a good question. It also comes to mind if we contrast Iraq under Saddam to post-Saddam Iraq. There was almost no radicalism in the country under his watch, neither among the Shiite nor the Sunni communities. But the introduction of “democracy” there triggered a fierce sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as an anti-Christian genocide.

Pakistan is another revealing example. Under the heavy-handed General Musharraf, the military was able to keep local Islamic extremists at bay. But the Taliban resurged after a democratic leader, Asif Ali Zardari, was elected president of Pakistan a few years ago, and there have been almost routine suicide bombings ever since.

Luckily, Europe today is free of dictatorships, and there’re no signs of a totalitarian regime emerging on the continent in the near future.

Shestakov: How can we deal with the problem?

Ignatenko: Europe is now involved in a painstaking search for solutions to the many problems it faces. Admittedly, not all the solutions proposed have proved workable, and we’ve seen expressions of Islamophobic sentiments. Having said that, I believe the European Muslims have a big role to play in resolving the existing conflicts. Many of them hold that Islam and terrorism are incompatible because Islam is a religion of peace. To quote the Holy Quran, “Produce your proof if ye are truthful” (Surah 2 (al-Baqarah), Ayah 111).

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