By Mustafa Akyol
Since the brutal jihadist group calling itself the “Islamic State” of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) became a global hit, debates about the nature Islam have soared. In the United States, Islamo-skeptic pundits such as Bill Maher, once again, made remarks arguing that Islam is violent by nature. More sensible voices such as Ben Affleck have, in return, noted that such views reflect nothing but prejudice.
To help the debate, I wanted to give a basic view of what ISIL means for Islam and Muslims. It is as follows.
There are more 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, and the overwhelming majority of them would fit into the Western definition of “moderate.” (But not necessarily “liberal,” because the majority of Muslims are “illiberal moderates,” as scholar Amitai Etzioni once rightly described. They are, in other words, against terrorism and political violence, but they are not super-open-minded when it comes to social issues such as gender roles or free speech.)
Among these 1.3 billion Muslims, there is a chunk of secular or nominal Muslims, for whom Islam is the culture in which they have grown up with but not the definitive basis of their lives. (For people like Bill Maher, apparently only these are the “good guys,” while the rest are dangerous, which is nonsense.)
Then there is the largest category: Those who are observant, but for whom Islam is only a matter of personal practice, family and community. They do their prayers, keep their fasts, and also move on with their mundane lives as parents, workers, professionals, etc. They are hardly any different from the typical church-going Christian in the West.
Among these observant Muslims, there is a sub-category of “activists.” They, in other words, not only practice Islam, but also want to deploy it for some social action. A considerable part of these observant-activists are non-political and work on the level of civil society. They publish books and periodicals, open schools and dormitories and establish charities. Turkey’s traditional Sufi orders and the “Nur” movement would typically fall into this category. And they certainly have a place in any open society.
Yet among these observant-activist Muslims, there is a sub-category, whose activism is not on the level of civil society but politics. These are the Islamists. Their typical goal is an “Islamic state,” a utopia that will supposedly solve all Muslim problems but also impose what they see as Islamic norms. Therefore, for them Islam is not just religion but also an authoritarian ideology. They make up some 20-30 percent of all Muslims worldwide.
Now, here is my suggestion to you: To understand Islamism, compare it Marxism. The latter, too, was a utopia. It aimed at grabbing power and transforming society. In this sense, all Marxists had something in common.
However, some Marxists (especially in Europe) wanted to come to power without any violence and only through elections. They were “democratic Marxists,” just like the mainstream Islamists in the Arab world, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are. But some more radical Marxists opted for armed struggle and violent rebellion, just like today’s “jihadists” do. And the most crazy, fanatic, brutal version of militant Marxists, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, murdered millions for its utopia.
Today’s ISIL is the Khmer Rouge of Islamism. It is so violent that even almost all other Islamists condemn it. Meanwhile, non-Islamist Muslims, at least a billion people, can’t even understand how such a savage group might have anything to do with their faith. Lumping them all into the same basket would be one of the grossest mistakes that could ever be made.