'Islam Has Been Militant From The Beginning'
Joining the debate, against the dogma of religion,
irrational beliefs, obscurantist laws and violent fanaticism.
Interview by SUNDEEP DOUGAL
[First appeared in the online version of The
Outlook on 13 October 2001 at the URL
Why do you think Islam has turned increasingly militant?
think Islam has been militant from the beginning. Later on, its degree of
militancy fluctuated with a number of factors, one of them being the power
equation with its rivals. Today, Islam lives in the shadow of Western (and
locally in South Asia, Hindu) economic and cultural supremacy, which gives
it an incentive for militant opposition to the West. At the same time, its
demographic strength and access to specific military (guerrilla)instruments
give it the self-confidence to transform its dissastisfaction into action.
Suppression of dissent is a tradition
instituted by the Prophet himself, who had a number of his critics
murdered or executed.
So, we are seeing a peak in Islamic
There is a view that many of the militant groups are a reaction to the
decay in their own societies and that this is because Muslims have turned
away from their religion.
disagree. There has been plenty of decadence in many periods and areas of
Muslim history, some of them provoking militant "purification" within the
community, others coinciding with aggression against non-Muslims, and
others not accompanied by a vigorous Islamic action in any sense. Also,
what Islamic militants call "decadence", and to which they would react
e.g. by killing "apostates", may be something entirely different from what
outsiders would call decadence, e.g. peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims
can already qualify as treason to Islam, witness the murder of Egyptian
president Anwar Sadat for making peace with Israel.
is the Quran invoked by the militants for their violent brand of politics?
Because the Quran does contain ample injunctions to hostility and war
against the unbelievers.
the violence also be attributed to suppression of dissent in large parts
of the Muslim world?
suppression of dissent is a tradition instituted by the Prophet himself,
who had a number of his critics murdered or executed. It is true that this
suppression of dissent often remained in force when Muslim regimes turned
secular and then turned against the Islamists themselves, witness Syria's
president Assad sr.'s bloody oppression of Islamic militancy, or Turkey's
outlawing the Islamist party.
is the Muslim ire directed particularly against the US? Is it because the
US has propped up authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world to secure its
is part of the reason. There is just no end to the brutality and stupidity
of American foreign policy. But note thatNATO's bombing of Serbia has not
led to any similar revenge operation by Serbs, only Islam was willing as
well as able to do it.
what extent has the Palestine Question added to the anti-US sentiment?
cannot blame the US for failing to impose the perfect solution on the
Middle East, for unfortunately, there is no solution which will be just
and satisfying to everyone concerned. But it is obvious that American
one-sided support to Israel is perhaps the biggest source of Muslim anger.
There is a popular perception that Islam is resistant to change? Do you
agree and why?
definition, Islam wants to perpetuate the policies and beliefs followed by
the Prophet and his companions. To be sure, all religions have deep
respect for their founder and their ancestral traditions, they all resist
change to some extent. But I must add that Christianity has come a long
way e.g. in shedding its anti-Semitism, and the Hinduism has made great
strides in diminishing gender and caste inequality. Islam is more
resistant to change because it is so closely linked to the literal Quran
and Hadith, like a self- described "seamless garment": change one rule and
the whole fabric of Islam will unravel.
this resistance to change stem from the immutability of Quran, as well as
because Islam makes no distinction between personal and public domain?
Well, Christianity and Hinduism are more broad-based, having a very
composite body of scripture. This allows reformers to play off one chapter
against another, to trump traditionalist injunctions with more progressive
ones without explicitly going against scripture.
Islam is also a political religion to a
far greater extent, explicitly aiming at the creation of an Islamic state
which should ultimately encompass the whole world.
do you think are the reasons why democracy is absent in large parts of
Muslim society? Why have most Muslim states been unable to separate the
Church from the State?
Democracy is not given in Quran and Hadith. Even where parliaments are set
up, they are allowed only to take decisions within the boundaries laid
down by scripture. Islam is intrinsically theocratic.
is the condition of women in Muslim societies subservient to men?
Considering Quranic injunctions -- and their very narrow
interpretations--about polygamy, divorce, dress code, etc., what are the
ways out for women?
royal way out is collective apostasy from Islam. Meanwhile, in practical
terms, efforts to emancipate women all while paying lip service to Islam
should be encouraged. We cannot expectwomen to wait until the final
religious revolution flushes out Islam itself from people's minds. So, in
the meantime, I don't mind if they try to get their way by means of white
lies such as: "if read properly, the Quran is against polygamy". But
ultimately, there is no reason why people should go on believing in the
prophetic claims of Mohammed. To be sure, I am convinced that religion
will remain relevant. But it cannot remain a dogmatic religion based on
irrational beliefs. It is time for a religiosity that is in tune with
science and mental freedom. That will take care of current problems of
obscurantist laws and violent fanaticism.
(Dr. Koenraad Elst, 42,is a Belgian Indologist. His
latest contributions to the communalism debate are The Saffron Swastika
(Voice of India, 2001) and Decolonizing the Hindu Mind (Rupa 2001)