When I sit in front of my TV to watch the world news and what is reported is strife and turmoil all over the world, mainly but not exclusively in Muslim countries, I sometimes wonder whether Muslims have gone mad. Looking at this whole matter in isolation, of course, this is what we may see. However, looking at it against the backdrop of what was started 2,000 years ago, maybe it is not so crazy after all.
The Muslims can complain and protest as much as they like but they cannot deny that Islam was ‘born’ from the teachings of the Jews and the anti-Rome Christians, the main monotheists in Mekah at the time of Muhammad. In fact, the Qur’an acknowledges this fact. And the struggle to set up the Kingdom of God or a Theocratic State started soon after Jesus was said to have left this world.
The Great Revolt of the 70s, the Kitos War about 40 years later, and the Bar Kokhba’s revolt 20 years on, were all attempts by the Zealots to expel the Romans from their land but Rome was at the peak of its power and had colonised lands as far away as Briton just a hundred years earlier. Hence Rome was invincible and easily put down these revolts. Nevertheless, that was when the idea of the Kingdom of God started.
In the previous article, The Ulama and the Sharia, I mentioned names such as Maulana Maududi, Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abdu, and so on. What we see in Pakistan, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, etc., today, is to some extent the product of what there people fought for.
But there was something not complete here. What they propagated was Pan-Arabism. And the Arabs are amongst the most difficult people to unite. In fact, many, such as the Africans, Egyptians, Turks and Persians, were not even Arabs and to unite them under the umbrella of Pan-Arabism is an impossible task. Instead, they would need to be united under the umbrella of Pan-Islamism if you want to succeed.
But then, just as there is more than one ‘Arab’, there is also more than one ‘Islam’. So the early experiments to replace Pan-Arabism with Pan-Islamism also failed. Until today, as we can see, not only is the Middle East at war with each other but Muslims kill Muslims over doctrinal differences as well. There is so much diversity not only amongst the people of the Middle East but also amongst the Muslims as well.
And this was why it was so easy to demolish the Ottoman Empire and break up the Middle East into many smaller republics, kingdoms and emirates soon after the First World War. A divided Middle East was good for Western interests, especially when they were sitting on the oil that the West needed so much to recover from the ravishes of the war.
Was it not the British who invented the divide and rule strategy and was it not also the British who devised the plan on how to break up the Middle East and divide and rule the Arabs, Egyptians, Persians, Turks, North Africans and so on?
Hasan al-Banna, who went to Cairo to further his education in 1923, was a believer in the teachings of al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu. And he, too, felt that the decline of the Islamic Empire was not due to Western Imperialism or Western Colonisation but due to the failure of Muslims themselves for not upholding the teachings and principles of Prophet Muhammad. Al-Banna saw the decadence and corruption of Secularism and Western Imperialism. Islamic ideals had been discarded and replaced with the greed and materialism of the political and religious elite.
Al-Banna felt that the only way forward was the Islamisation of society. “Islam is the answer,” preached al-Banna. And he won many converts amongst those who felt that their country had been taken over entirely by the westerners. “We are brothers in the service of Islam. Hence we are the Muslim Brothers,” said al-Banna.
The influence of the Muslim Brothers spread like wildfire to countries like Jordan, Syria, Algeria, Tunisia, Palestine, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen and so on. The most significant aspect of what the Muslim Brothers advocated was that Islam is not just a religion. It is a complete religious, political, social, economic and cultural system. And the only way to achieve this was under an Islamic government.
In 1949, al-Banna was assassinated but that did not end his struggle. While this may have silenced their leader, the Muslim Brothers grew in strength and within a year it became the most dominant voice of the opposition, especially in Egypt. Two years later, military leaders under the Free Officers Corps launched a coup in Egypt and installed a military regime headed by Colonel Gamal Abd al-Nasser.
Within two years of Nasser’s rule, he arrested and jailed all dissidents and outlawed the Muslim Brothers. Most of those detained were tortured and killed. And this taught the Muslim Brothers a very important lesson. And that lesson is you cannot change society just by preaching an ideology. You need an armed rebellion and a strong ‘army’ to back this rebellion.
It was now left to Sayyid Qutb to continue al-Banna’s struggle. In fact, some even refer to Sayyid Qutb as the Father of Islamic radicalism. Sayyid Qutb went to America for his education and on his return to Cairo in 1950, a year after al-Banna’s assassination, he joined the Muslim Brothers. Nasser invited Sayyid Qutb to join the government but he refused and, after the failed assassination attempt on Nasser, Sayyid Qutb was arrested and thrown into jail where he was brutally tortured.
It was in jail that Sayyid Qutb wrote his manifesto. “Preaching alone is not enough,” wrote Sayyid Qutb. “Those who have usurped the authority of Allah and who are oppressing Allah’s creatures are not going to give up their power merely through preaching.” Sayyid Qutb agreed with al-Banna that a complete religious, political, social, economic and cultural system could only be achieved though an Islamic State. “Setting up the Kingdom of God on earth and eliminating the kingdom of man means taking power from the hands of its human usurpers and restoring it to God alone.”
Sayyid Qutb’s radical version of political Islam would soon give birth to a new political ideology called Islamism.
Sayyid Qutb was released from prison in 1965 and soon after that was rearrested and hanged for treason. However, just like in the case of al-Banna after he was assassinated, Sayyid Qutb’s ideas lived on long after his death. And that is what we are seeing today throughout the Muslim world: Islamism, the new politics of political Islam.
And this is what non-Muslims cannot comprehend, those non-Muslims in Malaysia as well. What we are seeing is not Islam. What we are seeing is Islamism. Islamism is not a religion like Islam. Islamism is political Islam. And Islamism is opposed to secularism, democracy, and all those other western ideals that are viewed by radical or fundamentalist Muslims as a corruption of and deviation from God’s teachings.