Earlier I had written an article critiquing Ali A. Rizvi’s thoughts on Islamic radicalism in the Huffington post. I would like to return to that article since I left certain matters unaddressed. Ali A. Rizvi thinks that those who label thinkers like Sam Harris as “Islamophobes” are simply avoiding debate about certain uncomfortable truths about Islam. Not only is he wrong it makes his declarations of the awareness that most Muslims are peaceful seem rather hollow, even if this is not what he intended. And certainly the man has more day-to-day interaction with practicing Muslims than I do.
However, in his desire to claim that there are certain fundamental things about Islam that lead to it terror and authoritarian violence he makes a mess of the facts. His article begins by looking at the First Barbary War that was conducted between the United States and then Vilayet of Tripolitania,1 or Kingdom of Tripoli. In the article he quotes Thomas Jefferson’s conversation with the envoy of Tripoli in 1786 who claimed that the Kingdom’s piracy activities were happening because, “all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners.” The language and reasoning is remarkably similar to radicals like Osama Bin Laden. Mr. Rizvi then asks: “So where did Abdul Rahman Adja’s bin Laden-esque words come from?”
“They couldn’t have been a response to American imperialism (the start of the conflict precedes the presidency of George Washington), U.S. foreign policy, globalization, AIPAC or Islamophobia. Yet his words are virtually identical to those spouted ad nauseum by jihadists today who justify their bellicosity as a reaction to these U.S.-centric factors, which were nonexistent in Adja’s time.
How do we make sense of this? Well, the common denominator here just happens to be the elephant in the room.”
The common denominator, Mr. Rizvi makes clear in his article, is Islam, something that many people are reluctant to acknowledge.
Yet the further you go into history of the war the less the comparison seems to work. The ruler of Tripoli at the time, Yusuf Karamanli, was jealous of the monies Algiers was receiving from the United States to ensure safe passage of their ships. When a larger payment was not forthcoming, he declared war on May 10, 1801 by cutting down the flagstaffs in front of the U.S. consulate.
The background of the war provided in Wikipeida 2 notes that piracy had previously been committed against U.S. ships by Algeria and hefty sum was paid to put an end to this. Prior to that, the U.S. had offered Algiers a treaty similar to the one it signed with Morrocco to avoid piracy. Algiers rebuffed this offer because, “Algiers was much more dependent than Morocco on the fruits of corsairing — captured goods, slaves, the ransoms they brought, and tribute.” For all of the professions of religious devotion by the envoy it is clear that the primary purpose for such aggression was to make money through coercion and black-mail. In that sense the pirates of Tripoli had less in common with Al Qaeda, than modern organized crime (or the explorers of the age of Discovery who were willing to kill and line their pockets in the name of Christendom).
And therein lies the problem with Mr. Rizvi’s argument. The Barbary Pirates of the 18th and 19th centuries were not that era’s equivalent to Osama Bin Laden, since their motivations were not politics tied up with religion. They were simply getting wealthy off of thuggery. The problem with this approach is that it sets aside any deeper examination of events to pin everything on Islam, as though there was something essential to it that led to such violence.3 Even the present-day examples he gives of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh prove problematic in this regard. I had discussed, Saudi Arabia at length in the previous piece I wrote, pointing out it is an authoritarian state whose existence is tied to its allegiance with clerics of the Hanabli school of Sunni Islam.4 Similarly, in Pakistan we are given an example of leprous blasphemy laws at work and mob burning down a school over “blasphemy”. The proceedings have a tragicomic feel to them when we learn that it was the result of a teacher, herself a devout Muslim, incorrectly copying down certain passages of the Q’uran which led to misinterpretations of the text and allegations of blasphemy. Yet the article that Mr. Rizvi posted points out that the religious issues merely provided kindling for a conflict over by class divisions within the country with the school being targeted by the lower class as a symbol of their resentments. As it stands Pakistan is a country hobbled by poor education and huge economic inequality due to never having a proper land reform in the post-colonial era. Again the role of Islam as somehow being fundamental to this all is brought into question as the underlying issues of poverty and lack of education remind me of the rise of Communism in the third world during the Cold War due to poverty and the lack of reform in places like Guatemala and Vietnam.
As for Bangladesh the article Mr. Rizvi cites mentions that secularists organized strikes against hardliners, but still leaves out much information. Professor Juan Cole points out that the protest in question were organized by Jama’at-i Islami and:
…the Jama’at-i Islami in Bangladesh opposed the 1971 secession of that country from Pakistan. In that bloody struggle, Pakistani troops committed atrocities and some Jama’at leaders were accused of aiding them. A vital youth movement of critics of the Jama’at has been demonstrating for months demanding trials for those accused. The sentencing this week of leading Jama’at figure Delwar Hossein Seyedee for his role in 1971 atrocities satisfied the critics of the Muslim religious Right in that country, but provoked Jama’at riots that left dozens dead.
More detail is provided by the Christian Science Monitor which gives evidence of a conflict between rising younger generation who is seeking more religious freedom and to turn back the influence of Jama’at-i Islami on Bangladeshi life.
It is profoundly mistaken, and I would argue irresponsible, to argue in all of these cases that Islam is simply the underlying cause. As they make clear, even when it’s a rallying cry for a particular group or act, how people practice that religion is clearly shaped by the political, social, and economic events surrounding it. The problem is that men like Harris and Dawkins excise these factors from their understanding of the religious factors and end up merely misdiagnosing the problem while promoting a bigoted view of Muslims. In contrast, people like Glenn Greenwald argue that extremism, be it religious or not, must be understood in the political reality around it. I would also argue that any proper understanding of religion should do likewise. Otherwise, attempts to address matters in places like Pakistan and Bangladesh will simply fail.
1 The Kingdom of Tripoli, as well as Algiers and Tunis, in that period all constituted separate political entities that were provinces of the Ottoman Empire, but effectively operated as separate states all on their own. Morocco, which was entirely separate from the Empire, was also involved in piracy.
3 And if he’s not explicitly arguing this, it’s certainly the conclusion that his argument is implicitly asking us to draw.
4 And the symbiotic relationship between the Ruling House of Saud and Hanbali clerics who provide it with a certain amount of legitimacy.