VIEW: How Islam became synonymous with violence —Arifa Noor
The greater the legitimacy crisis of the state, the greater will be its tendency to use repressive means to deal with the challenges and sustain itself. This will inevitably swell the numbers of those who see violence, legitimised as jihad, as their only means to confront the state
Is violence inherent in Islam? The question has been debated extensively since 9/11 with particular reference to jihad. The indictment of the religion has led a number of Muslim modernists to argue that Islam is a religion of peace, highlighting that jihad can and should be interpreted as a struggle primarily internal to the Muslim society rather than one directed against external enemies. The latter, they claim, is the lesser jihad. Others, however, have challenged the diplomatic efforts at damage control on behalf of the religion and insist that jihad cannot and should not be seen merely as an inner struggle.
That such a debate appears to be taking place is a positive sign, but does it really add anything to our understanding of the religion and the present political context? Not really. While the ‘apologists’ and their critics appear to be taking conflicting positions, their approach to the issue is identical: focus on a particular interpretation of religion, discounting all contending and conflicting interpretations and discourses.
Not only is the approach unfruitful, it also enhances the perception that the discourse is unchanging and static, as is religion and the role it plays in politics and society. This perpetuates the image of a monolithic Islam — ‘timeless and eternal’. It ignores the fact that political practises and opinions within Islam — or any other religion — are not only diverse and complex but also changing with time.
Take Christianity in Europe. During the religious wars there were innumerable instances of violence perpetrated in the name of religion. And the role played by the church and its head was very different from present-day Christianity and its pontiff who was a contender last year for the Nobel peace prize. In India, the RSS-BJP ideology, which many find fascist and militarist, originates from Hinduism as does the non-violent philosophy of Gandhi. Obviously Islam is not the only religion that can and has lent itself to an extremist interpretation, justifying violence. However, this is not the only interpretation.
But it is not enough to recognise the diversity in interpretation and the different discourses within Islam. As long as one is arguing within the paradigm of religion, it is virtually impossible to legitimise one interpretation and reject the other. It is but inevitable that all the contending discourses will seek legitimacy; and if religion and divine text are going to provide guidance, one interpretation cannot be accepted as the ‘truth’ and the rest declared false. This proved impossible in Christianity with a recognised central religious authority, the Vatican. It would be extremely naïve to hope that a religion like Islam with no central religious authority could realise this. However, the debate cannot end there. We need to realise from the European/Christian and the Islamic experiences that factors other than the ‘religion’ itself give rise to particular interpretations and discourses.
Hence we need to focus attention elsewhere and understand why Islam itself is being viewed as a militant religion. Why has a particular religious discourse and a specific religious practice (jihad) come to dominate the image of the Islam? This is the question that needs to be addressed rather than passing judgments about the inherent violence or pacifism in Islam or for that matter any religion.
An adequate answer can be found only if we are willing to recognise the close relationship between religion and power, understanding that power constructs religious ideology, religious practices and religiously defined knowledge.
We need to begin our enquiry from this point; looking at the socio-political conditions in history which create particular religious discourses and specific religious practices. In the context of Islam and jihad, looking at how Islamic states and societies have produced and authorised religious knowledge, distributed it and the context in which individuals within societies respond to the knowledge will be far more helpful in explaining the present apparent nexus between Islam and violence than a debate about what is or is not an authentic and representative discourse of Islam. Consider jihad.
The concept of jihad was historically associated primarily with the Islamic state. Scholars writing in the middle of the last century described jihad as fard al-kifaya binding on the Muslims not as individuals but as a collective entity. The Islamists shared this view. Soon after the first Indo-Pak war, Moudoudi argued that support for vigilante groups fighting a covert war in Kashmir could not be called jihad. (An opinion his party might not share today.)
Fifty years later, however, jihad is widely seen as struggle by individuals and small groups, within and outside the Islamic state, with or without the approval of the state. In fact, the state itself is often one of the primary targets. The change in discourse, came about with the Egyptian dissident Syed Qutb. Qutb argued that Islam had reverted to a state of jahiliyya that existed in pre-Muslim Arabia and those responsible for this state of affairs were guilty of apostasy. This indictment obviously included present day rulers. Initially Qutb had argued that jihad needed to be carried out against this state of jahiliyya; ‘a jihad by word’ to educate society and get rid of jahiliyya. However, in direct relation to the state’s crackdown on and repression of Islamic opposition groups, Qutb’s diagnosis of the malaise became more pessimistic leading to the conclusion that violence (directed against fellow Muslims) was the only possible option.
If this particular discourse has gained ascendancy the development is directly related to the dominance of the repressive and authoritarian regimes in Muslim societies and the state’s loss of legitimacy. The state’s inability to allow political space to dissident groups has left the latter with no option but to confront it violently, lending authenticity to the modern concept of jihad. Their rage is not limited to their own governments but also the Western states that are seen as helping the former. The greater the legitimacy crisis of the state, the greater will be its tendency to use repressive means to deal with the challenges and sustain itself. This will inevitably swell the numbers of those who see violence, legitimised as jihad, as their only means to confront the state. Of course the picture will be complete only if one also examines the cultural policies of the states that have encouraged political discourse in religious terms.
It is in this political and social context that one can find explanations for the present nexus between violence and Islam rather than ahistorical declamations about ‘meanings’ of religion. The inquiry needs to begin with the question: how does power create religion? In this particular case, it needs to answer why the struggle carried out by groups challenging the authority of Muslim states has become so violent that the dominant image of Islam is now the one synonymous with violence. *