It has become axiomatic in the West to associate Islam with violent political movements whose principal expression is the act of a suicide bomber. What is often ignored by westerners, however, is that a struggle is being waged in the Muslim world over the role Islam is to play in politics and that the Muslim world is far from monolithic on this issue.
For example, it is evident among Shiite Muslims (some 10 percent of all Muslims worldwide) that the dominant role that religion has thus far played in the political sphere, most notably in Iran since the revolution in 1979, is today being seriously challenged. No less a figure than Sayyid Husayn Khomeini, the grandson of the late Ayatollah, has publicly criticized the regime in Iran and argued that Shiite Islam, as properly understood, advocates a total separation of religion and state. What is noteworthy in Sayyid Husayn’s stance is that it is not anchored in a secular worldview but rather a religious one that sees in the admixture of religion and politics an inevitable corruption of the former, leading to disastrous consequences for the role the ulama (religious scholars) can play in society.
In addition, Sayyid Husayn is not a lone voice in this regard but is joined by a multitude of like-minded scholars and jurists who see in the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran the seeds of their own destruction as the cohorts bearing the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. Shiites in Iraq (some 60 percent of the population) thus far appear to agree with this apolitical view of religion and have not insisted on duplicating the Iranian theocracy in their country; no doubt because they are well aware of the shortcomings of this model (some like Iraqi cleric Muhammad Baqir al Hakim having experienced it firsthand) and realize that such a system would be little tolerated in multi-ethnic and multi-religious Iraq.
This conclusion was reached earlier still by the Shiites of Lebanon, whose dominant religiously-inspired political party, the Hezbollah, has publicly and repeatedly acknowledged that an Islamic state cannot be established here. The Shiites, in short, have a dynamic and highly critical religious and political culture and appear to have reached a mature consensus on the limited role religion should play in the functioning of a modern state.
For Sunni Muslims (some 90 percent of all believers worldwide), the relationship between politics and religion is for a number of reasons more vexed than it is for the Shiites. First among these is that Sunnis, in the Arab world at least, have now lived under brutal, authoritarian, and venal regimes for at least half a century. In each of these countries there exists an Islamic political movement that promises to bring about a virtuous order once it assumes power. Second, Sunnis do not have the benefit of a theocratic model, such as Iran, from which to draw positive, or negative, conclusions about the limitations of the relationship between religion and power. Sunni Arabs simply do not consider Shiite and Farsi-speaking Iran an example of a legitimate Islamic state.
More important perhaps is the fact that among the various Sunni Islamist movements, a radical hardcore has formed, exemplified by al Qaeda, which argues that only through violence can change come about. Al Qaeda’s position is that the Muslim world is facing an ideological and military onslaught from the West and all Jews, and as such, Muslims are individually duty-bound to defend Islam by all means possible and at any cost to human life, including that of fellow Muslims who refuse to join this defensive jihad. The discourse is muscular and borders on the nihilistic and apocalyptic, a fact which alienates many Muslims. Its robust quality, however, and particularly when the United States is engaged in military adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere–each of which provide al Qaeda’s rendering of world affairs certain credibility–mean that dissenting Muslims (i.e. moderates and/or quietists) find it difficult to rebut its claims.
Thankfully, one feature that limits al Qaeda’s appeal and effectiveness at winning the biblically proverbial battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims is its seeming limitless capacity to inflict violence on innocent people. The recent attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco have led al Qaeda to reconsider its tactics, in the Arab world at least, because such attacks have transgressed the moral sensibilities of ordinary folk in each of these countries. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, it seems that only targeted assassinations of high-ranking princes of the Al Saud will be envisaged in future by Bin Laden’s organization.
In their public relations campaign to win Sunni Muslims to their way of thinking, the radical Islamists claim to represent all the historical grievances the Arabs have with the West, namely the exploitation associated with European colonialism and imperialism and which today are summed up by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, the US-led embargo and now occupation of Iraq and the West’s control over the oil resources in the Gulf states. It remains to be seen whether the radical Islamists will be successful at co-opting these causes for their own ends. But clearly their chances of accomplishing this in the short-term remain very high as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan remain unresolved and Muslims are perceived to be persecuted.
In the longer term, the appeal of radical Islamist views will only wane if radical change occurs in the entire Arab world: greater political enfranchisement, social and educational reform, and clear limits on the rapacious exploitation of the region’s natural resources by a few members of the ruling cliques who seem to reign in perpetuity with the West’s overt complicity and collusion.