How Politics Has Poisoned Islam
ISTANBUL — We Muslims like to believe that ours is “a religion of peace,” but today Islam looks more like a religion of conflict and bloodshed. From the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen to internal tensions in Lebanon and Bahrain, to the dangerous rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Middle East is plagued by intra-Muslim strife that seems to go back to the ancient Sunni-Shiite rivalry.
Religion is not actually at the heart of these conflicts — invariably, politics is to blame. But the misuse of Islam and its history makes these political conflicts much worse as parties, governments and militias claim that they are fighting not over power or territory but on behalf of God. And when enemies are viewed as heretics rather than just opponents, peace becomes much harder to achieve.
This conflation of religion and politics poisons Islam itself, too, by overshadowing all the religion’s theological and moral teachings. The Quran’s emphasis on humility and compassion is sidelined by the arrogance and aggressiveness of conflicting groups.
This is not a new problem in Islam. During the seventh-century leadership of the Prophet Muhammad, whose authority was accepted by all believers, Muslims were a united community. But soon after the prophet’s death, a tension arose that escalated to bloodshed. The issue was not how to interpret the Quran or how to understand the prophet’s lessons. It was about political power: Who — as the caliph, or successor to the prophet — had the right to rule?
This political question even pit the prophet’s widow Aisha against his son-in-law Ali. Their followers killed one another by the thousands in the infamous Battle of the Camel in 656. The next year, they fought the even bloodier Battle of Siffin, where followers of Ali and Muawiyah, the governor of Damascus, crossed swords, deepening the divisions that became the Sunni-Shiite split that persists today.
In other words, unlike the early Christians, who were divided into sects primarily through theological disputes about the nature of Christ, early Muslims were divided into sects over political disputes about who should rule them.
It is time to undo this conflation of religion and politics. Instead of seeing this politicization of religion as natural — or even, as some Muslims do, something to be proud of — we should see it as a problem that requires a solution.
This solution should start with a paradigm shift about the very concept of the “caliphate.” It’s not just that the savage Islamic State has hijacked this concept for its own brutal purposes. The problem goes deeper: Traditional Muslim thought regarded the caliphate as an inherent part of Islam, unintentionally politicizing the faith for centuries. But it was not mandated by either the Quran or the prophet, but instead was a product of the historical, political experience of the Muslim community.
Moreover, once Muslim thought viewed the caliphate as an integral part of the religion, political leaders and Islamic scholars built an authoritarian political tradition around it. As long as the caliph was virtuous and law-abiding, Islamic thinkers obliged Muslims to obey him. This tradition did not consider, however, that virtue was relative, power itself had a corrupting influence and even legitimate rulers could have legitimate opponents.
In the mid-19th century, the Ottoman Empire, then the seat of the caliphate, took a major step forward in the Muslim political tradition by importing Western liberal norms and institutions. The sultan’s powers were limited, an elected Parliament was established and political parties were allowed. This promising effort, which would make the caliph the head of a British-style democratic monarchy, was only half-successful. It ended when republican Turkey abolished the very institution of the caliphate after World War I.
The birth of the modern-day Islamist movement was a reaction to this post-caliphate vacuum. The overly politicized Islamists not only kept the traditional view that religion and state are inseparable, they even recast religion as state. “True religion is no more than the system which God had decreed to govern the affairs of human life,” Sayyid Qutb, a prominent Islamist ideologue, wrote in the 1960s. And since God would never actually come down to govern human affairs, Islamists would do it in his name.
Not all Islamic thinkers took this line. The 20th-century scholar Said Nursi saw politics not as a sacred realm, but rather a devilish zone of strife. “I seek refuge in God from Satan and politics,” he wrote. His followers built an Islamic civil society movement in Turkey, asking only religious freedom from the state. Contemporary Muslim academics such as Abdelwahab El-Affendi and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im have articulated powerful Islamic arguments for embracing a liberal secularism that respects religion. They rightly point out that Muslims need secularism to be able to practice their religion as they see fit. I would add that Muslims also need secularism to save religion from serving as handmaiden to unholy wars of domination.
None of this means that Islam, with core values of justice, should be totally blind to politics. Religion can play a constructive role in political life, as when it inspires people to speak truth to power. But when Islam merges with power, or becomes a rallying cry in power struggles, its values begin to fade.
Mustafa Akyol is the author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” and a contributing opinion writer.