“Different men often see the same subject in different lights.” — Patrick Henry, 1775
Below is a fascinating exchange telling us not only about the contemporary state of Islam, Islamism, and the political issues involving them, but also about the debates and conflicts shaping Western civilization today. The exchange also taught me about the common theme between revolutionary Islamism and the revolutionary leftism that today masquerades as liberalism.
The interviewee is Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a leading Islamist presidential candidate in Egypt — the Salafists’ favorite. I’ll annotate his dialogue with my analysis. (Thanks to Raymond Ibrahim for the translation):
Host: You have already begun to try to impose a particular dress code for us.
Abu Ismail: I’ve begun to? It’s the Lord of the Worlds [Allah] who said so. I have nothing to do with it!
Salafists have been setting up vigilante groups to impose a dress code, especially on women. Though not much has happened so far, this is obviously a very dangerous implication for Egypt’s future.
What Abu Ismail is saying is that all sorts of extremist things (by Western standards and even — as we will shall see in a moment — the standards of many Muslims) are innate in Islam. In other words, by contemporary standards Abu Ismail is an Islamophobe.
But listen to how the host, who is also a Muslim, puts it. No, he says — this is not imposed by Allah, but by “you.” After all, the host could say, Egypt has been a pious Muslim country for a long time without such measures.
The host thus gives his interpretation of Islam:
Host: Allah left it for me to decide as a personal freedom.
Abu Ismail: Who said that? Where’d you get that from? See, that’s the whole point: If you claim that Allah considers it your personal freedom, show me your reference? Nobody has ever said that — except for people who have no understanding of Sharia.
Host: There is “no coercion in religion” [Koran 2:256].
Note that the host can come up with a key phrase and indeed one that is often used on Western audiences to prove the liberality of Islam. Some day — though it may be a century or two from now — an entire moderate Islamic theology could be built on that phrase. But that’s not going to happen in 2012.
When Abu Ismail says that only “people [who] have no understanding of Sharia” could disagree with him, he is simply asserting that his interpretation is the only valid one. This is the way of all totalitarian ideologies, true also for Communism, Nazism, fascism, and Arab nationalism:
Abu Ismail: This is concerning the creed. You don’t force someone to convert to Islam.
Host: So when Allah in the Koran mentions “religion”, it is synonymous with “creed”?
Abu Ismail: Exactly.
Host: So when He says, “Today I have perfected your religion for you” [Koran 5:3], He is only talking about the “creed.”
Abu Ismail: Yes …
Thus, Abu Ismail interprets Islam as a perfect dictatorship in which only one view is permitted, which happens to be his view. This is not how Islam has functioned historically, at least in modern history. There have been different schools of thought and variations in practice. Of course, there are limits that cannot be transcended, but that’s true of all religions.
Ah — but that brings us to a fascinating point, an understanding of the substructure of what’s going on here. Let me present a thesis:
Islamism, though quite different in its specific precepts, is parallel to Western leftism, and vice-versa. Each system claims to know what is the perfect society coinciding with the demands of God (Islamism) and that of logic and ecology (Western leftism).
The host proclaims freedom in parallel to, say, the U.S. Declaration of Independence:
Host: Allah left it for me to decide as a personal freedom.
The Declaration of Independence speaks of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” endowing individuals “with certain unalienable Rights … among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Patrick Henry said in 1775: “Different men often see the same subject in different lights.” Precisely. But what does it bring when one group has the ability to impose its view on every aspect of society on all others? Liberalism developed in the nineteenth century precisely to reject the ability of an overly strong conservative state, structure, and ideology to do so. Now the same basic problem has returned, albeit with the position of the two sides reversed.
The two top-down systems of our era — the far left in the West, Islamism in the “east” — say, respectively: God or logic and nature tell you what precisely what you must do. I am the proper interpreter of those sources of Correctness. I’m going to make you do these things — to obey Allah or save the planet or live a healthy life, etc. — or else.
And the opposing view is: No, God and the nature of the world have given us freedom within wide but reasonable boundaries.
This basic dichotomy is found in the West, among Muslims, and everywhere in the world. The problem is, however, how many people support each side in 2012. That’s where the difference between the West and the Muslim-majority lands today, but a few centuries ago the West and Christianity were where Muslims are today. And who knows, depending on future elections, perhaps there is some parallelism here, too.
Now listen to Abu Ismail’s superb summary of the system he envisions, with a built-in Catch-22:
Abu Ismail: For example, when you say “no coercion to join the Military Academy,” it means that you are free to join or not — but if you do join, then you are obliged to wear their uniform, to attend their classes, to attend the training with them, and to obey their leader.
In other words, Abu Ismail — again the master “Islamophobe” — insists that Islam is a disciplined army. You obey or get court-martialed and executed. This is not the way Islam has been practiced up to now.
I have no desire to romanticize traditional Islam as it has been practiced. But, to use one of many imperfect analogies, you could get along in Czarist society as long as you weren’t energetically rebellious, but once Stalin and Communism took over it was, “Off with their heads,” so to speak. Equally, President Hosni Mubarak and the shah were dictators, but they didn’t insist on regulating every bit of social, personal, and intellectual life. Islamism does.
Of course, there’s a huge issue Abu Ismail is concealing. You may join a military academy voluntarily, but you are born into Islam. And, as Abu Ismail well knows, the penalty for leaving it is death. His approach then is profoundly hypocritical, as the host understands:
Host: There is a problem here — shall I say to the unveiled woman who wants to avoid hijab that she should change her creed?
Abu Ismail: Exactly, bravo. If she is a Muslim. You see, this is the difficulty; this is Islam. Does she want to be a Muslim and not obey Allah’s rules? Let them say so; that’s all I ask; let them be honorable and just speak up.
But if they try to leave Islam they will be killed, or if they are lucky, have to escape to freer lands. And when Islamists hold power, if they “just speak up” they will be repressed, an effective way to intimidate others into silence as well.
Thus, despite their huge differences, there is a basic unity today within each of the two sides: the forces of top-down rule, on one hand, and the forces of liberty, on the other hand:
Is God or logic a dictator that has set down every detail of proper behavior which we must merely slavishly obey, or do human beings — as part of the great design, if you are taking a religious approach — have freedom to make their own choices?
As Patrick Henry explained in 1775:
I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.