Religion, modernity and violence


By Ejaz Haider

In his article Disrupting the journey from normalcy to terror, friend Mosharraf Zaidi anguishes over two important questions: why would highly-educated Muslims turn to violence, and what are the nodes through which modernity is processed or, as I would add, unpacked by Muslims in this age.

Zaidi argues that since 9/11, “Muslims all over the world had a moral, operational and I would argue, even a spiritual responsibility to clearly distinguish Islam and Muslims from the insanity of slamming planes into buildings and killing innocent people”.

He believes, extending his argument, that “Muslims had to construct an identity that was distinct from [the] ugliness of the atrocities [the] terrorists had already committed, and would in the future commit. The distinction had to be total, and utter – aesthetically, narratively and functionally. We needed to be able to self-identify as Muslim, while retaining our origins, our connections, our roots and our future stakes in modernity”.

Zaidi’s article prompted eminent lawyer and friend Feisal Naqvi to argue that the problem can be situated in the dominant thought that “the Quran is not just divine in origin but divine in essence. The Quran was thus not ‘created’ at any moment in time. Instead, the Quran is ‘uncreated,’ existing like Allah outside space and time”.

In other words, this constrains not only the interpretation of the Quran like one would a constitution but because the Quran is unlike a constitution — a covenant by the governed — it cannot be amended. What was true yesterday is also true today and will be true in the future.

The corollary: since human history flows along the river of constant change, one must change and adapt. But if the source of the law lies outside of spatio-temporal limitations, change must be rejected in favor of some ahistorical purity. In other words, those that Zaidi is anguishing about, once bitten by the bug, can only process modernity ahistorically regardless of any modern education. [NB: Naqvi’s long article from four years ago can be read in full at 3Quarksdaily.]

Both gentlemen, incisive thinkers, have done well to begin this debate. Given the battles raging within Islam and also some perceived armageddon between Islam and the West, it’s important to try and find some answers. But doing that requires positing the right questions.

Take, for instance, Zaidi’s use of the term ‘modern’ and ‘modernity’. What do these terms mean? The killers in some ways are as modern as those who don’t kill. They use and create technology in which they are often better than those of us who want this violence to end.

As Zaidi pointed out, the Safoora attackers, planners, and financiers are all highly-educated. So, what accounts for their being ‘pre-modern’? I use ‘pre-modern’ because Zaidi’s argument implies that despite a modern education, their resort to violence somehow makes them pre-modern. This implied proposition can be challenged at many levels and the history of ideas — for instance the violence that emerged from the ideas of Enlightenment — is a rejection of this.

Could then this be what Naqvi argued: the inertia at the center of Islamic legalism?

While that is a valid debate, how does one account for the violence of Sendero Luminoso in Peru or FARC in Colombia or ETA, the Red Brigade, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the IRA et cetera?

Further, the inertia that Naqvi has so eloquently spoken about, and which is decidedly a problem that must be intellectually and practically tackled, has existed for centuries. Yet, it is only now that we see it come into play. Naqvi speaks about the democratization and new communication technologies that has pulled it down from the ivory tower and made it relevant to the masses. That to me tells us more about the democratization processes and the autocratic rules that preceded them in post-colonial states than the inertia itself being a cause of what we are witnessing today.

I’d say the same about Zaidi’s argument. The violence we are witnessing today is not about Islam per se, though that is now the most important marker. It is also not about processing modernity. It is essentially political and geopolitical. Could it be a coincidence that most ‘terror group’ texts begin with a reference to the infamous Sykes-Picot Pact and the Balfour Declaration. Equally, these texts talk about corrupt leaderships, poor governance and a system borrowed from the West that doesn’t work for predominantly Muslim states. These are propaganda pamphlets for sure; they also conflate arguments, use straw men, non sequiturs etc. But everything they say also has a kernel of truth and that appeals to the people.

As Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth: “In its bare reality, decolonisation reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives. For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists.”

Today’s confrontation is unfolding in a world where some are far more powerful and others can barely survive. Where post-colonialism is also neocolonialism. And this argument is not just an Islamist argument. As Zaidi put it brilliantly, there are many nodes to this journey. Some make it; others don’t. But the journey is always modern in the sense of this drama unfolding today, not yesterday, even as yesterday informs our today and will our tomorrow.

Zaidi and Naqvi both have made important points. Those points need to be debated. But where I differ with them is the issue of modernity and whether the violence can be determined as pre-modern and Islamic. Yes, the inertia becomes important. Yes, the Utopia it offers in propaganda terms is a central marker of this discourse but the struggle itself and its objectives are neither just Islamic nor pre-modern. They are here and now.

The violence, no matter how abominable and gut-wrenching, is part of a calculated strategy, just like the violence by states, the only difference being that the statist framework is for us the legal-constitutional one and therefore legitimate. It is about taking control of one’s destiny, being sovereign, to use Georges Bataille’s term where “sovereignty …has many forms. But ultimately it is the refusal to accept the limits that the fear of death would have the subject respect.”

This is by no means an exhaustive review or a final word. Far from it. There is still no real understanding of how and when an individual can decide to kill and get killed. It is just an attempt, like that by my two dear friends, to add my feeble voice to the concerns they have raised and the importance we all attach to this discussion in terms of the context in which this is unfolding.

Ejaz Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider

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