Fat’hi ash-Shiqaqi, a well-educated young Palestinian living in Damascus, recently boasted of his familiarity with European literature. He told an interviewer how he had read and enjoyed Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Sartre, and Eliot. He spoke of his particular passion for Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, a work he read ten times in English translation “and each time wept bitterly.” Such acquaintance with world literature and such exquisite sensibility would not be of note except for two points—that Shiqaqi was, until his assassination in Malta a few weeks ago, an Islamist (or what is frequently called a “fundamentalist” Muslim) and that he headed Islamic Jihad, the arch-terrorist organization that has murdered dozens of Israelis over the last two years.
Shiqaqi’s familiarity with things Western fits a common pattern. The brother of Eyad Ismail, one of the World Trade Center bombers recently extradited from Jordan, said of him, “He loved everything American from cowboy movies to hamburgers.” His sister recalled his love of U.S. television and his saying, “I want to live in America forever.” The family, she commented, “always considered him a son of America.” His mother confirmed that “he loves the United States.” Hasan at-Turabi, the effective ruler of Sudan, the man behind the notorious “ghost houses” and the brutal persecution of his country’s large Christian minority, often flaunts his knowledge of the West, telling a French interviewer that most militant Islamic leaders, like himself, are “from the Christian, Western culture. We speak your languages.” In a statement that sums up this whole outlook, an Islamist in Washington asserted, “I listen to Mozart; I read Shakespeare; I watch the Comedy Channel; and I also believe in the implementation of the Shari`a [Islamic sacred law].”
This pattern points to a paradox: the very intellectuals intent on marching the Muslim world back to the seventh century also excel in Western ways and seem very much to appreciate at least some of them. How does this happen? What does it indicate about their present strengths and future course?
Islamist leaders tend to be well acquainted with the West, having lived there, learned its languages, and studied its cultures. Turabi of the Sudan has advanced degrees from the University of London and the Sorbonne; he also spent a summer in the United States, touring the country on a U.S. taxpayer-financed program for foreign student leaders. Abbasi Madani, a leader of Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), received a doctorate in education from the University of London. His Tunisian counterpart, Rashid al-Ghannushi, spent a year in France and since 1993 makes his home in Great Britain. Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey’s leading militant politician, studied in Germany. Mousa Mohamed Abu Marzook, the head of Hamas’ political committee, has lived in the United States since 1980, has a doctorate in engineering from Louisiana State University, and has been classified as a permanent U.S. resident since 1990. Though for years he was able to elude law enforcement, Abu Marzook was recently arrested at a New York airport on his way into the country to register his son in an American school.
Indeed, the experience of living in the West often turns indifferent Muslims into Islamists. Discussing Mehdi Bazargan, an Iranian engineer who spent the years 1928-35 in France, Hamid Dabashi dissects the process many Muslim students undergo:
Beginning with the conscious or unconscious, articulated or mute, premise that they ought to remain firmly attached to their Islamic consciousness, they begin to admire “The Western” achievements . . . . They recognize a heightened state of ideological self-awareness on the part of “The West” that they identify as the source and cause of its achievements. They then look back at their own society where such technological achievements were lacking, a fact they attribute, in turn, to the absence of that heightened state of ideological self-awareness.
The key notion here, the French analyst Olivier Roy explains, is the rather surprising idea that ideologies are “the key to the West’s technical development.” This assumption leads Islamists “to develop a modern political ideology based on Islam, which they see as the only way to come to terms with the modern world and the best means of confronting foreign imperialism.”
Some of the leading figures fit this pattern. The Egyptian Sayyid Qutb went to the United States in 1948 as an admirer of things American, then “returned” to Islam during his two years resident there, becoming one of the most influential Islamist thinkers of our time. `Ali Shari`ati of Iran lived five years in Paris, 1960-65; from this experience came the key ideas of the Islamic Revolution. In other cases, Islamist thinkers do not actually live in the West but absorb its ways at a distance by learning a Western language and immersing themselves in Western ideas, as did the Indo-Pakistani journalist, thinker, and politician Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi (1903-79). In other cases, reading Western works in translation does the trick. Morteza Motahhari, a leading acolyte of the Ayatollah Khomeini, made as thorough a study of Marxism as possible in the Persian language.
Many of Islamism’s intellectual lights also share a background of technical accomplishment. Erbakan quickly rose to the top of the engineering profession in Turkey as a full professor at Istanbul Technical University, director at a factory producing diesel motors, and even head of the country’s Chamber of Commerce. Layth Shubaylat, a Jordanian firebrand, is also president of the Jordanian Engineers Association. These men take special pride in being able to challenge the West in the area of its greatest strength.
Actual terrorists also tend to be science-oriented, though less accomplished. Ramzi Yusuf, the accused mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing, is an electronics engineer and explosives expert with an advanced degree from Great Britain; Nidal Ayyad was an up-and-coming chemical engineer at Allied Signal; and Eyad Ismail studied computers and engineering at Wichita State University. This same pattern holds in the Middle East: Salah `Ali `Uthman, one of three terrorists who attacked a bus in Jerusalem in July 1993, was a student of computer science at the University in Gaza. The most notorious anti-Zionist terrorist of recent years is Yahya Ayyash, nicknamed “The Engineer.” Many Islamist Egyptians who engage in violence against the regime have science degrees. The Islamist leaders are not peasants living in the unchanging countryside but modern, thoroughly urbanized individuals, many of them university graduates. Notwithstanding all their talk about recreating the society of the Prophet Muhammad, Islamists are modern individuals at the forefront of coping with modern life.
In contrast to this familiarity with Western ways, the Islamists are distant from their own culture. Turabi admitted to a French interviewer, “I know the history of France better than the history of Sudan; I love your culture, your painters, your musicians.” Having found Islam on their own as adults, many Islamists are ignorant of their own history and traditions. Some of “the new generation,” Martin Kramer notes, “are born-again Muslims, ill-acquainted with Islamic tradition.” Tunisia’s Minister of Religion Ali Chebbi goes further, saying that they “ignore the fundamental facts of Islam.” Like Mawdudi, these autodidacts mix a bit of this and that, as Sayyed Vali Reza Nasr explains:
Mawdudi’s formulation was by no means rooted in traditional Islam. He adopted modern ideas and values, mechanisms, procedures, and idioms, weaving them into an Islamic fabric . . . . He sought not to resurrect an atavistic order but to modernize the traditional conception of Islamic thought and life. His vision represented a clear break with Islamic tradition and a fundamentally new reading of Islam which took its cue from modern thought.
On reflection, this lack of knowledge should not be surprising. Islamists are individuals educated in modern ways who seek solutions to modern problems. The Prophet may inspire them, but they approach him through the filter of the late twentieth century. In the process, they unintentionally substitute Western ways for those of traditional Islam.
Traditional Islam—the immensely rewarding faith of nearly a billion adherents—developed a civilization that for over a millennium provided order to the lives of young and old, rich and poor, sophisticate and ignorant, Moroccan and Malaysian. Alienated from this tradition, Islamists seem willing to abandon it in a chimerical effort to return to the pure and simple ways of Muhammad. To connect spiritually to the first years of Islam, when the Prophet was alive and the faith was new, they seek to skip back thirteen centuries. The most mundane issues inspire them to recall the Prophet’s times. Thus, an author portrays the “survival tactics” employed by Muslim students at American universities to retain their Islamic identity as “much like the early Muslims during the Hijra [Muhammad’s exile from Mecca to Medina].”
Islamists see themselves, however, not as tradition-bound but as engaged in a highly novel enterprise. According to Iran’s spiritual leader, `Ali Hoseyni Khamene’i, “The Islamic system that the imam [Khomeni] created . . . has not existed in the course of history, except at the beginning [of Islam].” Ghannushi similarly asserts that “Islam is ancient but the Islamist movement is recent.” In rejecting a whole millennium, the Islamists throw out a great deal of their own societies, from the great corpus of Qur’anic scholarship to the finely worked interpretations of law.
On the contrary, they admire efficient factories and armies. The Muslim world seems backward to them and they urgently seek its overhaul through the application of modern means. When this process goes slowly, they blame the West for withholding its technology. Thus, `Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, the Iranian arch-radical, plaintively bemoans that “the United States and the West will never give us the technology” to pursue what he quaintly calls “the science of industrialization.”
The Islamists’ goal turns out to be not a genuinely Islamic order but an Islamic-flavored version of Western reality. This is particularly apparent in four areas: religion, daily life, politics, and the law. It’s certainly not their intent, but militant Muslims have introduced some distinctly Christian notions into their Islam. Traditional Islam was characterized by informal organizations. Virtually every major decision-establishing a canonical text of the Qur’an, excluding philosophical inquiry, or choosing which religious scholars to heed—was reached in an unstructured and consensual way. This has been the genius of the religion, and it meant that rulers who tried to control the religious institution usually failed.
Islamists, ignorant of this legacy, have set up church-like structures. The trend began in Saudi Arabia, where the authorities built a raft of new institutions. Already in 1979, Khalid Duren wrote about the emergence of a “priestly hierarchy with all its churchly paraphernalia”:
A number of religious functionaries have come into being whose posts were previously unheard of, for example: the Secretary of the Muslim World League, the Secretary General of the Islamic Conference, the Rector of the Islamic University in Medina, and so [on] and so forth. For the first time in history the imam of the Ka’ba has been sent on tour of foreign countries as if he were an Apostolic nuncio.
The Islamic Republic of Iran soon followed the Saudi model and went beyond it, Shahrough Akhavi explains, to institute a Catholic-style control of the clergy:
The centralization that has occurred in the religious institution in Iran is unprecedented, and actions have been taken that resemble patterns in the ecclesiastical church tradition familiar in the West. For example, in 1982, Khomeini encouraged the “defrocking” and “excommunication” of his chief rival, Ayatollah Muhammad Kazim Shari`atmadari (d. 1986), although no machinery for this has ever existed in Islam. Other trends, such as centralized control over budgets, appointments to the professoriate, curricula in the seminaries, the creation of religious militias, monopolizing the representation of interests, and mounting a Kulturkampf in the realm of the arts, the family, and other social issues tell of the growing tendency to create an “Islamic episcopacy” in Iran.
Even more striking, Akhavi notes, is how Khomeini made himself pope:
Khomeini’s practice of issuing authoritative fatwas, obedience to which is made compulsory, comes close to endowing the top jurist with powers not dissimilar to those of the pope in the Catholic Church. After all, compliance with a particular cleric’s fatwas in the past had not been mandatory.
In creating this faux Christian hierarchy, Islamists invented something more Western than Islamic. In similar fashion, Islamists have turned Friday into a Sabbath, something it had not previously been. Traditionally, Friday was a day of congregating for prayer, not a day of rest. Indeed, the whole idea of the Sabbath is alien to the vehemently monotheistic spirit of Islam, which deems the notion of God needing a day of rest falsely anthropomorphic. Instead, the Qur’an instructs Muslims to “leave off business” only while praying; once finished, they should “disperse through the land and seek God’s bounty”—in other words, engage in commerce. A day of rest so smacks of Jewish and Christian practice that some traditional Islamic authorities actually discouraged taking Friday off. In most places and times, Muslims did work on Fridays, interrupted only by the communal service.
In modern times, Muslim states imitated Europe and adopted a day of rest. The Ottoman Empire began closing government offices on Thursdays, a religiously neutral day, in 1829. Christian imperialists imposed Sunday as the weekly day of rest throughout their colonies, a practice many Muslim rulers adopted as well. Upon independence, virtually every Muslim government inherited the Sunday rest and maintained it. S. D. Goitein, the foremost scholar of this subject, notes that Muslim states did so “in response to the exigencies of modern life and in imitation of Western precedent.”
Recently, as the Sunday Sabbath came to be seen as too Western, Muslim rulers asserted their Islamic identities by instituting Friday as the day off. Little did they realize that, in so doing, they perpetuated a specifically Judeo-Christian custom. And as Fridays have turned into a holiday (for family excursions, spectator sports, etc.), Muslims have imitated the Western weekend.
Perhaps the most striking Westernisms Islamists have introduced are associated with women. Islamists actually espouse an outlook more akin to Western-style feminism than anything in traditional Islam. Traditional Muslim men certainly did not take pride in the freedom and independence of their women, but Islamists do. Ahmad al-Banna, the leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brethren, adopts a feminist outlook that leads him to reinterpret Muslim history according to Western standards. “Muslim women have been free and independent for fifteen centuries. Why should we follow the example of Western women, so dependent on their husbands in material matters?”
Traditional Muslim men took pride in their women staying home; in well-to-do households, they almost never left its confines. Hasan at-Turabi has something quite different in mind: “Today in Sudan, women are in the army, in the police, in the ministries, everywhere, on the same footing as men.” Turabi proudly speaks of the Islamic movement having helped “liberate women.” Following the adage that “the best mosque for women is the inner part of the house,” traditional women prayed at home, and female quarters in mosques were slighted; but Islamist women regularly attend public services and new mosques consequently allot far more space to women’s sections.
For centuries, a woman’s veil served primarily to help her retain her virtue; today, it serves the feminist goal of facilitating a career. Muslim women who wear “Islamic dress,” writes a Western analyst,
are usually well educated, often in the most prestigious university faculties of medicine, engineering, and the sciences, and their dress signifies that although they pursue an education and career in the public sphere, they are religious, moral women. Whereas other women are frequently harassed in the public sphere, such women are honored and even feared. By the late 1980s, Islamic dress had become the norm for middle-class women who do not want to compromise their reputation by their public activities. Boutiques offer Parisian-style fashions adopted to Islamic modesty standards.
The establishment of an Islamic order in Iran has, ironically perhaps, opened many opportunities outside the house for pious women. They work in the labor force and famously serve in the military. A parliamentary leader boasts, not without reason, about Iran having the best feminist record in the Middle East, and points to the numbers of women in higher education. In keeping with this spirit, one of Khomeini’s granddaughters attended law school and then lived in London with her husband, a cardiac surgeon in training; another organizes women’s sporting events.
If the veil once symbolized a woman’s uncontrollable (and therefore destructive) sexuality, militants see it as the sign of her competence. Turabi declares, “I am for equality between the sexes,” and explains: “A woman who is not veiled is not the equal of men. She is not looked on as one would look on a man. She is looked at to see if she is beautiful, if she is desirable. When she is veiled, she is considered a human being, not an object of pleasure, not an erotic image.”
Curiously, some Islamists see the veil representing not careers and equality, but something quite different: positive sexuality. Shabbir Akhtar, a British writer, sees the veil serving “to create a truly erotic culture in which one dispenses with the need for the artificial excitement that pornography provides.” Traditional Muslims, it hardly needs emphasizing, did not see veils as a substitute for pornography.
Traditional Islam emphasized man’s relations with God while playing down his relations to the state. Law loomed very large, politics small. Over the centuries, pious Muslims avoided the government, which meant almost nothing to them but trouble (taxes, conscription, corvee labor). On the other hand, they made great efforts to live by the Shari`a.
Islamists, however, make politics the heart of their program. They see Islam less as the structure in which individuals make their lives and more as an ideology for running whole societies. Declaring “Islam is the solution,” they hold with Khamene’i of Iran that Islam “is rich with instructions for ruling a state, running an economy, establishing social links and relationships among the people, and instructions for running a family.” For Islamists, Islam represents the path to power. As a very high Egyptian official observes, to them “Islam is not precepts or worship, but a system of government.” Olivier Roy finds the inspiration to be far more mundane than spiritual: “For many of them, the return to religion has been brought about through their experience in politics, and not as a result of their religious belief.”
Revealingly, militants compare Islam not to other religions but to other ideologies. “We are not socialist, we are not capitalist, we are Islamic,” says Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia. Egypt’s Muslim Brethren assert they are neither socialists nor capitalists, but “Muslims.” This comparison may seem overblown—socialism and capitalism are universal, militant Islam limited to Muslims—but it is not, for the militants purvey their ideology to non-Muslims too. In one striking instance, Khomeini in January 1989 sent a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev asserting the universality of Islam. Noting the collapse of Communist ideology, he implored the Soviet president not to turn westward for a replacement but to Islam.
I strongly urge that in breaking down the walls of Marxist fantasies you do not fall into the prison of the West and the Great Satan . . . . I call upon you seriously to study and conduct research into Islam . . . . I openly announce that the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the greatest and most powerful base of the Islamic world, can easily help fill up the ideological vacuum of your system.
As interpreted by a leading Iranian official, this letter “intended to put an end to . . . views that we are only speaking about the world of Islam. We are speaking for the world.” It may even be the case—Khomeini only hints at this—that Islam for him had become so disembodied from faith that he foresaw a non-Muslim like Gorbachev adopting Islamic ways without becoming a Muslim.
Even as the militants pay homage to Islam’s sacred law, they turn it into a Western-style code, and three age-old characteristics of the Shari`a disappear: its elaboration by independent scholars, its precedence over state interests, and its application to persons rather than territories.
Through the centuries, jurists wrote and interpreted the Islamic law on their own, with little control by governments. These jurists early on established that they were answerable to God, not to the prince. Joseph Schact, a leading scholar of this subject, explains: “The caliph, though otherwise the absolute chief of the community of Muslims, had not the right to legislate but only to make administrative regulations with the limits laid down by the sacred Law.” Rulers did try to dictate terms to jurists but failed—in the years 833-849, four successive caliphs imposed their understanding of the Qur’an’s nature (that it was created by God, as opposed to the religious scholars, who said it had always existed); despite energetic attempts by the caliphs (including the flogging of a very eminent religious authority), the effort failed, and with it the pretensions of politicians to define the contents of Islam.
The jurists retained full control of Islamic law until the nineteenth century, when the British, French, and other European rulers codified the Shari`a as a European-style body of state law. Independent Muslim states, such as the Ottoman Empire, followed the European lead and also codified the Shari`a. With independence, all the Muslim rulers maintained the European habit of keeping the law firmly under state control; by the 1960s, only in Saudi Arabia did it remain autonomous.
Starting in 1969, Mu`ammar al-Qadhdhafi of Libya started the new wave of expanding the Shar`i content of state laws (for example, in the criminal statutes). He did so as ruler, using the state apparatus to compel jurists to carry out his orders. Islamists in many countries then emulated Qadhdhafi, giving the state authority over the Shari`a even as they extended its purview. They made no effort to revert to the jurists’ law of old, but continued practices begun by the European powers.
When Islamists do on rare occasions protest this state domination of the law, it carries little conviction. Turabi remarks that “Islamic government is not total because it is Islam that is a total way of life, and if you reduce it to government, then government would be omnipotent, and that is not Islam.” Turabi’s enormous power in the Sudan makes it hard to take this critique seriously. Islamists accept Western ways because, first, they know the imperial system far better than the traditional Muslim one, and so perpetuate its customs. Second, reverting to the traditional Muslim way would, Ann Mayer of the Wharton School points out, “entail that governments relinquish the power that they had gained over legal systems when European-style codified law was originally adopted.”
The state takeover of law invariably causes problems. In the traditional arrangement, the jurists jealously maintained their independence in interpreting the law. They insisted on God’s imperatives taking absolute priority over those of the ruler. Such acts as prayer, the fast of Ramadan, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, they insisted, must never be subjected to the whims of despots. Jurists got their way, for hardly a single king or president, not even so ardent a secularist as Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk, had the temerity to interfere with the Lord’s commandments.
But Ayatollah Khomeini did. In January 1988, he issued an edict flatly contravening this ancient Islamic assumption. In a remarkable but little-noted document, the ayatollah asserted that “the government is authorized unilaterally . . . to prevent any matter, be it spiritual or material, that poses a threat to its interests.” This means that, “for Islam, the requirements of government supersede every tenet, including even those of prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca.” Subordinating these acts to raison d’etat has the effect of diminishing the Shari`a beyond recognition.
Khomeini—a classically educated scholar, an authority on Islamic law, and an eminent religious figure—justified this edict on the grounds that the interests of the Islamic Republic were synonymous with the interests of Islam itself. But this hardly explains so radical and unprecedented a step. The real reason lies in the fact that, like countless other twentieth-century rulers, he sought control of his country’s spiritual life. Khomeini may have looked medieval but he was a man of his times, deeply affected by totalitarian ideas emanating from the West.
In traditional Islam (as in Judaism), laws apply to the individual, not (as in the West) to the territory. It matters not whether a Muslim lives here or there, in the homeland or in the diaspora; he must follow the Shari`a. Conversely, a non-Muslim living in a Muslim country need not follow its directives. For example, a Muslim may not drink whiskey whether he lives in Tehran or Los Angeles; and a non-Muslim may imbibe in either place. This leads to complex situations whereby one set of rules applies to a Muslim thief who robs a Muslim, another to a Christian who robs a Christian, and so forth. The key is who you are, not where you are.
In contrast, European notions of law are premised on jurisdictions. Commit a crime in this town or state and you get one punishment, another in the next town over. Even highways have their own rules. What counts is where you are, not who you are.
Ignorant of the spirit underlying the Shari`a, Islamists enforce it along territorial not personal lines; Turabi declares that Islam “accepts territory as the basis of jurisdiction.” As a result, national differences have emerged. The Libyan government lashes all adulterers. Pakistan lashes unmarried offenders and stones married ones. The Sudan imprisons some and hangs others. Iran has even more punishments, including head shaving and a year’s banishment. In the hands of Islamists, the Shari`a becomes just a variant of Western, territorial law.
This new understanding most dramatically affects non-Muslims, whose millennium-old exclusion from the Shari`a is over; now they must live as virtual Muslims. `Umar `Abd ar-Rahman, the Egyptian sheikh in the American jail, is adamant on this subject: “It is very well known that no minority in any country has its own laws.” `Abd al-`Aziz ibn Baz, the Saudi religious leader, calls on non-Muslims to fast during Ramadan. In Iran, foreign women may not wear nail polish—on the grounds that it leaves them unclean for (Islamic) prayer. Entering the country, female visitors are provided with gasoline-soaked rags to clean their varnished nails. An Islamist party in Malaysia wants to regulate how much time unrelated Chinese men and women may spend alone together.
This new interpretation of Islamic law creates enormous problems. Rather than for the most part leaving non-Muslims alone, as did traditional Islam, Islamism intrudes into their lives, fomenting enormous resentment and sometimes leading to violence. Palestinian Christians who raise pigs find their animals mysteriously poisoned. The million or two Christians living in the northern, predominantly Muslim, region of the Sudan must comply with virtually all the Shar`i regulations. In the southern Sudan, Islamic law prevails wherever the central government rules, although “certain” Shar`i provisions are not applied there; should the government conquer the whole South, all the provisions would probably go into effect, an expectation that does much to keep alive a forty-year civil war.
Despite themselves, the Islamists are Westernizers. Even in rejecting the West, they accept it. However reactionary in intent, Islamism imports not just modern but Western ideas and institutions. The Islamist dream of expunging the Western ways from Muslim life, in short, cannot succeed.
The resulting hybrid is more robust than it seems. Opponents of militant Islam often dismiss it as a regressive effort to avoid modern life and comfort themselves with the prediction that it is doomed to be left behind as modernization takes place. But this expectation seems mistaken; because it appeals most directly to Muslims contending with the challenges of modernity, Islamism’s potential grows as do its numbers. Current trends suggest that it will remain a force for some time to come.
Daniel Pipes is the Editor of the Middle East Quarterly.