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By: Sonia Mansour Robaey *
If I were a faithful and pious Muslim and if I were to take a look at the state of the religion of Islam and Muslims today, I would be extremely worried. And even though I am not a Muslim faithful but an Arab secular Christian woman, I can still worry for my Muslim sisters and brothers and the religion of Islam. This is not a selfless concern. The future of minorities in the Middle East depends largely on the state of the Muslim religion, which is the religion of the majority. Also, the Muslim religion and its people are part and parcel of my cultural background, of who I am as an Arab Christian, as much as Muslims of the Middle East are culturally shaped by their presence as pieces in a mosaic of religions and sects, which the region never ceased to be, until al Qaeda and its most notorious branch, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, came to be.
Again, as an Arab Christian, I was educated not on the holy Qur’an, but on the religion of Islam and its History. I grew up seeing Islam as a religion of conquest and enlightenment in the Arts and Sciences. I grew up seeing Islam as a forward progressive religion. Of course, as in every religion, I could perceive some extremism here and there, some backwardness, but these seemed marginal, or so was my perception during the late seventies, early eighties, until al Qaeda and its most notorious branch, ISIS, came to be.
Since 911, I have been asking myself: what happened to Islam? More so since the emergence and mainstreaming of sectarian killings inside Iraq after the 2003 US invasion and the recent mass displacements of religious minorities by ISIS in the Middle East, the largest since the Ottoman Empire disintegrated.
To answer this question one must understand what happened between the late seventies and the early eighties and how the struggles born out of these years came to their conclusion as the iron curtain fell on the Soviet bloc ushering in a short era of revigorated and unchallenged American and western imperialism.
During these decisive years, we witnessed an Islamic revolution in Iran that rose against western imperialism while another Islamic movement in Afghanistan came to be subsumed, and consumed, by the goals of western imperialism. We also witnessed a war on Iran from the West, with Iraq as a proxy, meant to challenge to the nascent Islamic revolution of Iran. These events, which will lead to a profound misunderstanding inside Islam, took place after the strong anti-imperialist sentiment in the Middle East, in which Palestine was the main conduit, was sidelined through a partial peace between Israel and Egypt. The Palestine struggle was buried by partial peace and the Palestinian resistance lost the support of most Arab states. This was going to lead to the still-born Oslo peace process and the slow asphyxiation of the Palestinian struggle, while Israeli settlements flourished as they continue to do until today.
The eighties end with the triumph of western imperialism. But in the Middle East, the Islamic revolution of Iran stood in the way of this triumph, albeit weakened and its society profoundly wounded by the Iraq war. After the end of the Iraq-Iran war and Ayatollah’s Khomeini’s death, the Islamic revolution of Iran had survived but the country was going to spend the next decade rebuilding itself amid a climate of increasing hostility, unilateral and multilateral sanctions.
Iran’s Islamic revolution inspired many and in many ways in the region. Islamist groups and Islamist movements rose in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. Only few survived and those who did, like Hezbollah, did so because they understood the spirit of the Islamic revolution of Iran, as it stood, as an Islamist insurgency, first and foremost, against western imperialism. Hezbollah resonated with the populations of the Arab world because it revived the Palestinian struggle and the struggle against western imperialism. At the same time, Hamas was born to challenge the occupation of Palestine, based on a non-compromising attitude toward the occupation, but with a different spirit marked by the context of inter Palestinian rivalry heavily weighed by outside and competing regional influences.
This is why Hamas and Hezbollah, two groups moved by the same goal for many years, find themselves today at odds because the forces that have been pulling Muslims apart since the event of the Islamic revolution of Iran, not only are still at work today, but they are now aided by scores of terrorist Takfiri groups claiming to be working for Muslims and Islam.
The Islamic revolution of Iran had clearly designated the anti-imperialist struggle as the defining project of modern Islam. But the Islamic revolution of Iran was not the only Islamic movement renewing the search to redefine Islam in modern times. However, the Islamist groups who came before it and most of those who were inspired by it sought a return to an era of Islam before western imperialism to find the tools to challenge western imperialism. Thus, the nostalgic return to Islam resulted in ambiguity toward the West. I am thinking here specifically of the Muslim Brotherhood. The ambiguity is in confronting modern western imperialism with conceptual tools that existed before this imperialism. This is at best a flight strategy, at worst, a legitimization of Wahhabism, the gangrene that’s been eating at the heart of Islam. Ambiguity exists also in the fact that running away from modernity prevents these movements from ever understanding imperialism, replacing understanding with mystification, leaving modernity to exert a fascination on their entire ideological conceptual apparatus without ever being able to understand it.
This is a tragic misunderstanding, by the insurgent Sunni branch of Islam, of how to conduct the struggle for relevance against western imperialism and renew the search to redefine Islam in modern times. Western imperialism, in its essence, is about the superiority of science and technology. By choosing nostalgia and pre-imperialist conceptual tools, insurgent Sunni Islam could then only fight western technical superiority and the way of life it implies with increased barbarism. Hence, al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The Islamic revolution of Iran, on the other side, has sought to fight western imperialism with the elements of its alleged superiority; technology. But contrary to other Muslim countries that had sought nuclear technology as a way to achieve military superiority, like the West, Iran sought nuclear technology only for civilian purposes and as a right to achieve equal status, to oppose to western imperialism the right to dignity. Because western imperialism sees itself as superior in status, it refuses dignity to others, to subdued countries, and it does so mainly through technology.