Allan Massie: Struggle for soul of Islam

An Islamist ideology informed the recent terror attacks in Copenhagen. Picture: Getty

An Islamist ideology informed the recent terror attacks in Copenhagen. Picture: Getty

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Moderate Muslims, not the West, must ultimately beat groups such as IS, by driving radical versions of the faith into the shadows, writes Allan Massie

‘Islam is a religion of peace”. “Islamic State – is not true Islam but a perversion of the faith.” Both these statements, or something like then, are commonly made. Both are true. Equally both are untrue. It’s difficult to keep these opposed judgments clear in one’s head, but one should try to do so.

It helps one to do so if one thinks of Christianity and the history of the Christian religion. Christianity is a religion of peace. When the angels appeared to announce the birth of Christ to the shepherds, they proclaimed the Christmas message: “Peace on earth and good-will to all men.” That promise is at the heart of the Christian faith. But we all know that over the centuries wars have been fought in the name of Christ, and believers in one variety of Christianity have fought, persecuted and murdered followers of another version of the faith. “The Lord’s wark gangs merrily on,” said a minister of the Kirk as the army of the Covenant slaughtered prisoners and camp-followers of the Royalist army after the Battle of Philiphaugh.

The Inquisition condemned heretics to be burned at the stake in the name of true religion.

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Islamic State is faithful to its interpretation of Islam. That interpretation is – happily – rejected by most Muslims, Sunnis as well as the Shias whom IS condemns as heretics. But it is nevertheless a valid interpretation, faithful to a narrow and blinkered or partial reading of the Koran, just as in the 16th and 17th centuries both Catholics and Protestants found justification for war and persecution in the teaching of the Church or reading of the Bible.

It is natural and may be politic for us to say that Isis is not representative of true Islam. But it believes it is, and it believes that it is fighting a religious war, and that its acts of brutality – beheadings and enslavement of non-Muslims (Kafirs) – are justified by the Koran. This is its theological position, and, though other Muslims may reject it as a perversion of their faith, it is what is winning adherents and attracting recruits from all over the world.

IS differs from al-Qaeda in that it has fought to win and control territory and establish a state. The caliphate has been re-born. It is tempting for us to regard this as little more than an empty word or romantic dream.

But we are wrong to do so. The caliphate and the control of territory are an expression of its fundamentalist ideology. This gives IS it strength; it may, however, prove to be its weakness, for territory that has been conquered by military action, and then occupied, may be lost and re-taken by the same means. The Iraqi army is preparing for an assault on Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city which IS seized last year. The Iraqi prime minister has said he is confident Mosul will be liberated in months. This is important. Without territory the caliphate would indeed be an empty word; holding territory it is a reality.

There is a civil, or religious war, being fought within Islam. Whereas al-Qaeda directed its attacks against the West – the infidels – IS aims at control of the Islamic world. This is the purpose, and indeed the meaning, of the revived caliphate, for the caliph is the successor of the prophet Mohammed.

It is in our interest that IS should be defeated, for we believe, rightly, that this movement and this theology don’t belong in the modern world. But framing a policy is difficult. One thing is clear. The use of ground troops, whether American alone, or with the support of the US’s Nato allies, would be rash and undesirable. The Iraq war of 2003 brought military victory, political defeat. The emergence of IS is a direct result of the invasion of Iraq and the destruction of the Ba’athist regime. Saddam’s was a vile and brutal dictatorship, like Assad’s in Syria, but it was secular, intolerant of religious extremism, and even protective of minorities. Now we may get away with employing air power and providing weapons in support of the Iraqi government’s war on IS, and, even more importantly, in support of the Kurds who have hitherto proved the most effective opposition to IS, but this should be the limit of our military involvement. Another “infidel – crusading” invasion of the Muslim world is more likely to stimulate Islamism than to destroy it.

We must accept that our military adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, like our partial involvement in support of the Syrian opposition, have all been disastrous. Even American hawks should recognize this. There are places where western military intervention might succeed – in Nigeria, for instance, in support of the elected government against Boko Haram, just as the French seem successfully to have stabilised the situation in Mali. But the Arab world is different, and if IS is to be defeated the body of the work must be done by fellow Muslims.

There are no genuine democracies in the Islamic world and in Islam’s civil/religious wars we are likely to find ourselves collaborating with some unsavoury regimes, like the elected dictatorship of General Sisi in Egypt where the prisons are full of adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood – and others regarded as dissidents – and where torture of prisoners is an everyday event. But that’s how it is. This is the reality. The Arab Spring in which so many invested so much hope is dead.

Defeating IS is the first priority, and this requires that we help the Kurds, and the Iraqi and Syrian governments to re-conquer the territory it has seized.

Yet this won’t end the unrest in the Muslim world. It won’t be at peace till the intellectual and spiritual conflict between rival interpretations of Islam is resolved; and that is a struggle which we can do little to influence, and one in which any western attempt to exert influence is likely to be inflammatory. Religious wars in Europe, sparked off by the Lutheran Reformation, lasted for more than a century and a half. A peaceful conclusion of the wars within Islam is a very long way off.

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