The spread of attacks carried out by self-proclaimed jihadists is accompanied by a lot of confusion. Most Europeans are unaware of the complexity of the Muslim world. We may be forgiven of this ignorance when compared with the Americans, who set off to conquer Iraq in 2003 and hardly distinguished between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims. And these two branches are merely a fraction of an infinitely diverse religion. If we were to compare Islam to Christianity, in terms of its lack of organization it would be closer to Protestantism than Catholicism. Islam has no spiritual leader other than in Shi’itism, which is as much inherited from the Persian Empire as it is from Mohammed.
Referring to a general Islam is meaningless. To quote Jacques Berque, French translator of the Koran: “Islam is what Muslims do with it”. Each Muslim who recognizes themselves as such maintains a direct relationship with God through the Koran. The complexity of this book means there are therefore as many possible interpretations as there are worshippers. And each interpretation is of course influenced by their local culture, history and even their practices from before the prophetic revelation.
Islam is in fact experienced more as a civilization than a religion for certain Muslims. Many Turkish intellectuals claim to part of the Islamic civilization, but also atheists. A 2012 Gallup international survey found there were significant numbers of openly atheist people in countries often seen as absolutely devout, such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Egypt. Atheism does not just belong to the Christian world, as Christianity too is both a civilization and a religion.
Those who have been to Cairo, Dakar, Jakarta and even Jeddah will have observed that while the mosques are far fuller than European churches, the attendance figures at department stores and restaurants are on a par. Urbanization and modernity tend to break up faith and religion as much in the Muslim world as in the West. But I see diversity as first and foremost a question of culture.
The renowned Indonesian preacher – Indonesia being the world’s largest Muslim country – Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur (1940-2009), seduced the masses by telling lewd stories. He once said to me: “Poor Arabs! They live in the nostalgia of the past, in their Golden Age when they dominated the West. Their only wish is to return to this time by looking back. However, we Indonesians have a pagan, poverty-stricken past. We look forward!” Not all Arabs will agree, but the exchange and dialogue between Arabic and non-Arabic Islam is vital. The most absolutist Sunni branch of Islam coincides with the Arab people and the site of its conquest.
To the east of the Indus River where Arabs have failed to find a foothold, Islam has not been spread through armed combat but by preachers and merchants, and has often fused with local practices. Sufism – a mystical, internalized Islam accompanied by chants and dances – is the dominant form of Islam in India and Bangladesh. We in Europe know little of it. These Asian Muslims, such as Gus Dur, never miss a chance to poke fun at radical practices exported from the Arab world.
The poet Kabir who lived in Varanasi in the 15th century, wrote a famous verse: “Muezzin, why do you shout so loudly during prayer? Do you think Allah is deaf?” The Islamic phenomenon in Asia can also be observed in Sub-Saharan Africa. The further Islam travels away from the Arab sphere of influence, the more it blends in with local rites and rituals. Gus Dur’s words explain how the bomb-planting jihadists are as much Arabs as they are Muslims, and that, in fact, all their references are drawn from a largely imaginary past. We should therefore not look for explanations for this neo-jihadist violence in the Koran, but rather in the modern society that has created these “religious fanatics”. The colonization of the Arab world by the West, the despotic regimes that followed, supported by the West as well, economic failure – notwithstanding the manna of petrol – and the failure to integrate immigrants in Europe make up the objective context of a mostly Arab Islamic radicalism.
To contain this radicalism which kills far more so-called apostate Muslims than Westerners, we should not demonize Islam itself, which would be a meaningless course of action. We should rather develop our knowledge of Islam, before focusing on the breeding-ground of radicalism. Has the West not constantly erred by opening its doors to mass immigration only to fail to educate and integrate the new populations? Has it not supported despotism more than democracy in the Arab world? The eradication of terror can be achieved through immediate enforcement measures, but also through a long-term reflection on the objective, barely theological sources of this neo-jihadism.