By Ammar Anwer
January 23, 2017
I grew up in Rawalpindi, a city in the Punjab province of Pakistan, in a family that had links with both the Deoband school of thought (a sub-sect of Sunni Islam) and Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist Party on the sub-continent. In my youth, I was inspired by the influential Islamist scholar of the 20th century, Maulana Syed Abul Ala Maududi.
Maududi thought that a state could either be religious or irreligious. Therefore, he did not agree with the view that secularism was just the separation of religion from a state’s affairs, but strongly argued that secularism gives rise to atheism, or a lack of belief, in society. He saw religion as the ultimate source of morality, and, so, when people became un-Islamic, society would also become unethical.
I liked the way that Maududi tried to counter Western thought, how he presented Islam as an alternative to Western democracy and secularism. This was rare, as most Islamic scholars are not very familiar with Western ideologies. His arguments intrigued me.
As an Islamist, I also believed that Islam was a complete code of life, and that it was our prime duty to establish its influence all across the globe. I regarded politics as a vital and fundamental part of Islam and concurred with Maududi’s view that without politics, Islam becomes incomprehensible and utterly empty.
In this view, politics is the dominant component in Islam. If we disregarded politics, then it would be like disregarding most of Islam. I advocated severe punishments for apostasy and blasphemy, believing that violators of either rule deserved the death penalty. But I also believed that non-Muslims should have full rights to practice their faith and be allowed to build their own places of worship.
My views on women and the LGBT community were appalling, and I feel only disgust when I recall them. I regarded homosexuality as an unnatural act and against the directives of God, and believed women should not serve as heads of state.
My thinking changed a few years later, when I came across the great religious scholar, statesman and poet, Maulana Abul Kalam Aza, while reading about Islamic scholars who had opposed the partition of the Indian sub-continent.
Aza was trained as a journalist and started his career as a pan-Islamist, but his ideas changed dramatically after his association with Mahatma Gandhi during the 1920s and witnessing the campaign of non-violence. Azad gave up pan-Islamism and embraced Indian secular nationalism. He provided Islamic arguments to support his stance on a united secular India. He believed that composite nationalism was the teaching of Islam.
“I am a Muslim, and this fills me with pride,” he proclaimed in his party’s presidential address in 1940. “But in addition to these feelings, I am also the possessor of another, which has been created by the stark realities of my external life. The soul of Islam is not a barrier to this belief: in fact, it guides me in this path. I am proud to be an Indian. I am an integral part of this unified and impartible nation.”
Azad considered it impractical to suggest that Muslims could be unified under a single state, known as a Caliphate, simply by being of the same faith.
“It is one of the greatest frauds on the people to suggest that religious affinity can unite areas which are geographically, economically, linguistically and culturally different,” Azad wrote in his autobiography, India Wins Freedom.
Azad sought a political alliance with the Indian National Congress on the basis of the Charter of Medina, in which the Prophet Muhammad declared Medina’s Jews and Muslims a single nation, notwithstanding their religious differences. Both group would enjoy equal rights, including full religious freedom, and they were to work jointly for the protection of Medina from external enemies.
I already had doubts regarding pan-Islamism — Muslims are not monolithic, and it seemed almost impossible to unite all sects and cultural differences into a single state — and Azad’s comments was the push I needed to give up on Islamism altogether.
As a former Islamist, I believe that the radical Islam we see today is based on a certain interpretation of my faith.
Islam is a religion and Muslims are the people who follow it; Islamism is the political and totalitarian interpretation of Islam. Unlike most Muslims, an Islamist believes that his faith assigns him political and social responsibilities. Not all Muslims are Islamists, but every Islamist is a Muslim. Islamism presents Islam as a Deen (way of life) and not just a Madhab (religion). It does not just apply only to an individual, but is a set of guidelines that must be implemented all over the world.
Jihad is central to this interpretation. The very purpose of jihad, according to this school of thought, is to spread Islam’s dominance over the world.
“It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its laws on all nations and to extend its power to the entire world,” Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna famously said.
Similarly, Sayyid Qutb, another famous Muslim Brotherhood ideologue, wrote in his book, Milestones:
The abolition of man-made laws cannot be achieved only through preaching. Those who have usurped the authority of God and are oppressing God’s creatures are not going to give up their power merely through preaching. [Pointing towards an armed struggle]
Many Muslims, along with the political far-left, are in denial about radical Islam. They reject reality. Anyone who dares to use the term “radical Islam” is immediately labelled as an “Islamophobe.”
When ISIS beheads innocent people or attacks Paris and Brussels, it believes that such acts are a religious obligation. When Islamist terrorists mistreat and enslave women and persecute homosexuals, they interpret Quranic verses, such as 4:24 and 7:80-84, as justification. These are theological issues that I have discussed on various media outlets, and these matters are why I support reformist scholars, like Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, who are highly critical of radical Islam.
Ghamidi is a modernist Islamic scholar who has vehemently criticized religious fundamentalism. He also spoke out against the Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which is often used to harm and mistreat religious minorities. His modern views almost cost him his life, as well as that of his closest associate, Muhammad Farooq Khan.
Reform seems to be the only long-term solution to the ever-increasing menace of radical Islam. Therefore, when the far-left and many Islamic organizations label Muslim reformists and the critics of radical Islam as “anti-Muslim,” they aid and comfort the Islamists. Islamists do not want to see people from within the Muslim community challenging their religious authority.
Not long ago, the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) smeared the liberal and reformist Muslim Maajid Nawaz as an “Anti-Muslim extremist.” Ironically, SPLC claims to stand against hate, intolerance and discrimination, but through its acts, it collaborates with Islamic extremists. This discourages the brave, progressive voices that are coming out from within the Muslim community.
I am happy that I walked away from Islamism. Today, instead of being dogmatic, I advocate secularism, democracy, freedom and equality. It is always difficult to leave your roots. Many people find themselves in a battle against their own souls. I fought that battle and won.
We need to address the ideological roots of radical Islam. Without doing this — and without supporting the Muslims who are confronting this ideology — we will never be able to counter it.
Ammar Anwer is an ex-Islamist who writes for The Nation, Pakistan Today and other media outlets. He believes in secularism and democracy and aspires to see Pakistan become a pluralistic state.