The Importance of Muslim Reformers

The Importance of Muslim Reformers
(Stephen Ulph, September 6, 2013)

Transcript available below

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About the speaker

Stephen Ulph is a member of the board of the Westminster institute and Senior Fellow with The Jamestown Foundation. One of the preeminent analysts of the Islamic world, Mr. Ulph specializes in the analysis of jihadist and Islamist ideology and regularly lectures on aspects of Islamist and Jihadist ideology impacting on Western democracies and the course of the war on terrorism. He is the founder and former editor of Islamic Affairs Analyst and Terrorism Security Monitor for Jane’s Information Group.

His publications include an analysis on jihadism in Syria for the CTC, an ideological analysis of the ‘Virtual Border Conflict’ (the online arena for Islamist extremism) for The Borders of Islam, an in-depth examination of the relationship of Islamism to other totalitarian systems of thought in Fighting the Ideological War, and a 4-part reference work, Towards a Curriculum for the Teaching of Jihadist Ideology, available online at the Jamestown Foundation. He is also the Director of The Reform Project and its bi-lingual website Almuslih (‘The Reformer’ which supports Arab reformist writers and promotes their work to an English-language readership.

He also spoke at Westminster on the subject of Islamism and Totalitarianism.


Stephen Ulph:

…news for Arab and Muslim scholars… some time for Western analysts to grasp the importance of ideology in the broader applied sector of Islamic culture and the progress of Islamism. I can remember myself having to make the case for even doing this when I was working on jihadist violence. And the reason I had a great revelation in my past- simply because I was looking at Arab chat forums and noticing that over 50% of the traffic on these forums was on the fiqh of jihad, of the legal case for the priority and for the propriety of what they were doing.

So it was obviously a very important element of the struggle. Yet, this really hasn’t become part of the current analytical culture. For instance, how many political scientists do you know who would be able to understand for instance something quite basic in the Islamist universe of why religious pluralism is an example of paganism? I don’t think that would be an easy think for all of us to understand. How many would know, for instance, that the cost of the analysis of the Hadith of [unintelligible] is very important for justifying the killing of innocent civilians or the interpretation of that. It’s all [unintelligible]. How many understand the importance of a medieval scholar such as al-Ghazali in justifying suicide bombings? It would be probably quite a revelation to think of this but it has not been part of the, shall we say, the curriculum.

This [unintelligible] issues of motivation is not helped by the failure of the academic institutions to engage fully in the study of Islamic radicalism and yet, this crossover between the religious aspects of the debate – and what I mean by that is in terms of the textual nature of the argumentation – and the implications for security, few institutions are yet willing to fully address.

Meanwhile, references to any starting points which may be culturally divisive are less and less possible to make in public discourse and this point was emphasized by a number of Muslim reformers and intellectuals. [unintelligible] which is the late Algerian intellectual Muhammad al-Qud. He put it this way, “We know how political scientists portray fundamentalist movements, either legitimizing their political action against totalitarian, oppressive regimes or condemning them as violent, fanatical, opposed to Western, democratic values.”

The theological and spiritual background of religiously inspired movements is rarely mentioned. Now without this study, we’re going to find ourselves struggling in being able to determine how legitimate is the Islamist face for representing authenticity. Well, while authenticity is a very important watchword for this, the whole argument the Islamists are making, that they are the more authentic form of Islam, and if we don’t understand the dynamics of this discussion, then we would not be able to formulate any counter ideology programs.

Now, we could be forgiven to be honest for pleading ignorance on this complex issue. But we can’t be forgiven for ignoring those who are not so limited in their understanding and then people who are not hampered by a cultural cringe or by some form of post-colonial guilt.

Unlike some of our own spokesmen of the West, Muslim intellectuals can be less reticent to state the obvious. What’s the obvious thing they’re stating? This is a religious issue. It is about Islam. Perhaps not as many may perceive it but it’s very much about Islam, about its legacy in total intellectual infrastructure.

First and foremost, as Tawfik was explaining, it is an intellectual dilemma, an intellectual struggle. We recently got confirmation of this at a conference by which we organized in Rome under the aegis of Al Muslih where it was established that intellectual restructuring must precede meaning for reform on the ground.

One of our guests, a Syrian reformer, Hashim Saleh, put it this way, “A true future political spring must first be preceded by an intellectual enlightenment. We cannot fault our future with mentality of bygone eras. We have to criticize it to pull it apart.” The question is a cultural one. The battle is in the first the intellectual. If we do not win the intellectual battle, we will not on any day win the political battle. For this reason the Arab Spring will only turn into a Fundamentalist Autumn.

Now, naturally, this type of analysis presupposes a new concept of security response, one that recognizes that the war of ideas is a primary arena of conflict. Why is this so? Well, Islamists attempt to found their immunity on two broad categories. The first is a religious-cultural authenticity and in this particular area their skill for manipulation on what constitutes authentic Islam is what has afforded them strong ideological resilience.

Hashim Saleh explains how it is done. “We are asleep to history. Traditionalists have smothered Islamic history to make it appear something above history or superior to it or even without any relation to history altogether.” What does he mean? He is referring to the fact that the traditionalists’ view of history is that it is composed of eternal varieties and eternal truths applicable at all times and all places and not conditioned by events, not conditioned by human input. What this naturally ends up with is a form of very applied anachronism.

This is what we suffer from today. However, now, the perspective is adjusted by the use of the comparative method. One of the great features, the advantages of Muslim intellectuals is that unlike ourselves, they are culturally bilingual. They are very, very well-versed in our own cultural backgrounds in a way that we are not versed in theirs. They have access to the European experience of analysis of its own religious tradition, and this has enabled them to apply the same methodologies to their Islamic heritage.

You can imagine the effect of this. Understandably, this type of research has hit a raw nerve. Individuals have been targeted. They have been killed. They certainly have been threatened. And as Hashim Saleh pointed out, a level of caution has therefore been underlying their efforts. He notices that most if not all Arab intellectuals tremble in fear and remain on the back-foot when it comes to the most important issue occupying the world at present: the issue of the serious critical study of the Islamic religious heritage, the most important issue occupying the world.

The diagnosis of this intellectual historicity is that without challenging this non-historicity – it sounds a bit obtuse, but it does have very significant consequences – without challenging its eternal aestheticness, the Islamists will remain here to challenge.

Now, the second category constitutes perhaps the core armory, and that is textual authority. Islamists and militants, the jihadists, justify their positions with constant references to what we consider to be non-negotiable primary source material, the Qur’an, the hadiths, and Muhammad’s biography, the sira. They do this in order to establish that they are replacing a tainted Islamic pattern with a more authentic one.

Now, according to the former Mufti of Marseille, Sheikh Sahid bin Sheikh, any attempt to reform Islam, and Muslim jurisprudence in particular, must disregard its sanctity, re-read texts in light of modern thinking in quest of a new orientation. Now, by anyone that would be an extraordinary statement to make. It is particularly extraordinary if it is a Muslim cleric making this. It particularly highlights our own cowardice.

Advanced textual scholarship of the core texts of Islamic scripture, historically-documented editorial revisions of the Qur’anic text, the existence of manuscripts demonstrating variant readings – they are calling into question all of these, the immutability of the source’ foundations. They are calling into question by so doing, the justifications for the narrowest interpretations of Islamic belief and conduct.

The concept of the text is something sacralized, lying outside the bounds of investigation because the core foundation on which Islamism bases its starting point. Challenging this immutability restores the case for Muslim progressives by a creative approach. What has to be shaken up is the idea that there is a stasis, that there are no grounds for a reinterpretation.

Now, the impact of research even on the questions of the text is direct. A Tunisian scholar argues that the differences in the texts from the canonical version are enough to enlarge our thinking about women’s condition, religious tolerance, and what we call human rights, so it is a very crucial exercise which makes the near invisibility of these voices in our media world all the more surprising. It is not helped by the Western media. Hussein Haqqani underlined it this way, “For many Americans the Muslim Brotherhood’s version is now the official, mainstream version of Islam. If a news organization is looking for a spokesman for Muslims, they usually go to one of the Brotherhood-linked organizations, marginalizing the opinions of non-radical Muslims.”

The late Nafeef Lafuh highlighted how the European media presents the supporters of this Islamist tendency on any and every occasion. They present people like Tariq Ramadan, but rarely will they present people like Fatih bin Salah, Barak Shavel, Tahed bin Shalor, Khaled Sheikh or the Marseille Mufti Soheib Bencheikh.

The Arab media, like Al Jazeera, acts in the same manner. What is happening is that supporters of the secular tendency are blocked out of these media. The most significant [issue] is the lack of an effective coordination of their response. Lafeef lamented that, “there is no institution tasked with overseeing the implementation of the reform program and financing it,” as opposed to, of course, the other side. “All we have left are individual initiatives that are disorganized, and in the absence of this institution, the prevailing understanding of reform is fragmentary. Those who support the project need to stand together and cooperate with each other. It is exasperating,” he said, “to see antediluvian thinkers getting this right. It is high time for some collective work and effort.”

Now, a slightly controversial point it may appear to us, but it does not appear this way to Muslim reformers, so we, ourselves, should not be excluded from this collective work of Islamic reform. When I say ‘we,’ I mean the non-Muslims and Westerners. The new type of challenge that confronts us means that the study of political ideologies as Muhammad Hakum demonstrated, can no longer be considered intrinsically separated from the study of religious faith. Let me quote Soheib Bencheikh again, “Islam is a message for all humanity. Therefore, it is not the property of Muslims… Everyone has the right to be fascinated by this religion, to adhere to it, to be critical of it, and even to be hostile to it. To avoid criticizing Islam is a form of segregation.”

We have the full right as a matter of course to intervene with our own voices, concerning the way Islamic doctrine is being applied in the modern age. Of course, the question is how. Understandably, we all have a large learning curve ahead of us. I think a useful way to get up to speed is therefore to [read] the writings of these progressive Muslim thinkers, who have already carried out this very important bridging function because they have become culturally bilingual, and they are able to discourse with authority on what is shared and what is particular.

Of course, then the next question is where is this public access? Where do you find it? And of course, the reality of the situation is that the contest for authenticity in the Middle East is being fought out in Arabic, which means, of course, their contributions, their courage, the brilliance of their work is all but unnoticed. They need to be translated to a global readership and their profiles promoted here. More importantly, they need to be financially supported.

I will make a brief note on the Al Muslih website, which I mentioned. This constitutes an initial step in responding to Lafif’s quest for an institutionalization of the reform message. It aims to promote a two-way traffic through its publication in two languages, Arabic and English, and raise the profile of these voices for reform in the Anglosphere, in the English-speaking world by translating their articles, so I do think it is worth examining this type of initiative as a starting point for the institutionalization of this intellectual reform.

A final point: if non-Muslims and Westerners legitimately fear that we lack the cultural background and the credibility to judge. I think really that by observing how one constituency of individuals, again, as I mentioned culturally bilingual see how they negotiate the territory, courageously and untroubled by self-doubt, importantly, I think is a very good way to get up to speed to engage fully ourselves. At the very, very least we will be able to avoid undoing their good work by listening to the wrong people.