Islam and clericalism in the Greater Middle East
It is fashionable in the West to talk about the « compatibility of Islam and democracy » or « Islam and secularism ».
These issues suggest that by nature Islam is clerical, and therefore not a religion, but a political current.
Consequently, the most « radical » Muslims are terrorists and vice versa. And yet, for the last month, the Greater Middle East, with its mostly Muslim population, is dividing between the faithful followers of this religion and the partisans of a political system which is manipulating them.
Some of our our readers misunderstood a previous chronicle concerning the evolution of the Muslim world. I shall therefore clear up the questions concerning Islam before describing as precisely as possible its current situation.
In the first place, if you have a clear-cut idea about Islam, this means that you know only one of its forms, since the religion differs widely between Morocco and Xinjiang. Whether on the liturgical or the legal level, there is hardly any resemblance between the Islam of Sharjah and the Islam of Java.
This religion may be approached by a literal reading of the Quran, or by a contextualised reading, or even by an appraisal of the authenticity of the current Quranic text.
During the first four centuries of Islam, all Muslims agreed on the necessity of interpreting the Quran, which led to the elaboration of four distinct legal systems (Hanafite, Malekite, Shafiite and Hanbalite), depending on the local culture. But at the end of the 10th century, noting the expansion of this religion and fearing that it would lead to division, the Sunni caliph forbade further interpretation. Only the Chiites continued their investigations. Since then, Islam has adapted as best it could to the demands of its time.
Despite appearences, if one refuses to interpret the text, it cannot be understood as it was first written, but only through the prism of one’s own culture. Aware that Mahommet had lived in Arabia, the Saudis considered as given that they would spontaneously be able to understand the meaning of the Quran, as if their society and their language had not evolved for 1,400 years. For them, as in the 18th century for Mohammed ben Abdel Wahhab, Mahommet had consolidated the values of nomadic tribalism. These are the « Wahhabites ». For example, the Quran condemns idols – thus the Wahhabites destroy statues of the antique gods, which Mahommet never did, but which corresponds to their Bedouin culture. Similarly, in the 8th century, the Byzantine Christians had to deal with the Saudi « iconoclasts » who destroyed, in the name of Christ, the decorations of the churches.
Nomadic tribalism does not even recognise the notion of History. The Wahhabites destroyed the house of the prophet in Mecca, because it had become a site of pilgrimage, and thus, according to them, a place of idolatry. But they did not stop there. Over the last few years, they have destroyed all of the magnificent ancient city of Mecca, since they recognise no cultural interest in what they see as heaps of old stones.
If one refers to the literal reading, one is a « fundamentalist », and so, generally, tries to live like the companions of the prophet. In that case, one is known as a « Salafist », because one is trying to live like the holy ancestors (the « Salafs »). This movement, born in 19th century Egypt, was developed in reaction to Wahhabism, and was extremely liberal. However it has since become very repressive.
For example, most of today’s Salafists forbid the consumption of alcohol, but some cheikhs, on the contrary, affirm that it is lawful to drink in moderation. All of them draw their arguments from the Quran, which contains three apparently contradictory passages on the subject.
All religions are confronted with this impossibility of reproducing a passage that no-one can reconstitute. For example, in the 20th century, the Christian charismatic movement gave rise to conflicting understanding of sexuality, according to whether they based their case directly on the Gospels, or on the morality of Paul’s epistles.
Over the last few years, under the influence of the work done by the European exegetes concerning the writing of the biblical texts, a few authors question the authenticity of the Quranic texts.
In the first place, in order to affirm his authority, the caliph of Damascus demanded the collation of the texts attributed to Mahommet, from which he constituted the Quran, and then ordered the burning of all the other anthologies. However, the word « Mahommet » does not indicate a specific person, it is a title awarded to wise men. It is therefore possible that the Quran reproduces the words of several prophets, which seems to be corroborated by the presence of different literary styles in the canonical texts. Archeologists have discovered Quranic texts which are anterior to the canonical version. There are differences, sometimes significative, between these texts written with distinct alphabets. Indeed, the canonical Quran was written with a simplified alphabet which was only completed later, during the 8th century. This transcription is in itself an interpretation, and it is possible that it was sometimes mistaken.
Evidently, certain suras of the Quran reproduce older texts used by the Christians of the region. They were not written in Arabic, but in Aramean, and certain original words have been conserved in the definitive text. Their contemporary reading is the object of numerous misunderstandings. Thus – with apologies to the kamikazes of Daesh, who hope for their reward in Paradise – the word « houri » means « white grapes », and not « wide-eyed virgins ».
So far, things seem simple enough – Islam is the religion of the Quran. However, the tradition gives almost equal importance to the golden legend of the prophet, the Hadiths. These are works written often hundreds of years later by people who could not have witnessed the facts they present. These assertions are far more numerous than could occur in the space of a single lifetime. They illustrate very diverse and opposing opinions. Some of them display an appalling level of intellect and could serve to justify anything at all. The unwarranted credit accorded to these fantastical writings has profoundly deformed the transmission of the Quranic message.
In pratice, all these discussions mask another, essential – if religion is what attempts to link mankind to God, it is obviously the source of all chicanery. Indeed, how can we pretend to know God if He is of a radically different and superior nature than our own? And, even supposing that He actually expressed Himself through the prophets, how can we pretend to understand what He told us? We should note that from this perspective, the question of the existence of God – that is to say a conscience superior to our own – has no meaning. This is, for example, the idea supported by the Christian saints Gregory of Nazianzus or Francis of Assisi.
Still from this perspective, people who attempt to approach God – that is, not to apply His Law, but to help the evolution of human nature to make it more conscious – have a tendency to share their experience and thus to found churches.In order to function, these churches have a tendency to form permanent staff, priests or imams. In Christianity, this function only appeared as from the 3rd century – several generations after the death of Jesus. In all religions, these clerics wind up enjoying an intermediary status between the lay community and God. But none of the founders of the great religions ever created a church or formed a clergy.
Just as Europe experienced a massive step backward with the great invasions which destroyed the Roman Empire (the Huns and the Goths), so the Muslim world also experienced a step backward with the Mongol invasions (Genghis Khan and Timur). While this traumatism lasted only three centuries in Europe, it was artificially prolonged in the Arab world by the Ottoman and European colonisations. Although that had nothing to do with the history of Christianity, nor that of Islam, there are enough clerics who pretend that these steps backward are the consequences of a state of sin which has become generalised. In order to reclaim the golden age, we only have to follow their teaching, and not to rebuild.
Inexorably, the clerics became involved in politics, and aspired to impose their vision of things in the name of God. The result is a rivalry between the clergy and the lay community. So, in France, once the traumatism of the great invasion was over, and although it existed by « divine right », the secular royalty entered into conflict with the clerical papacy. In the Arab world, which is a minority within the Muslim world, this conflict blew up with decolonisation and the independence movements. The nationalist leaders (Nasser, Ben Barka) found themselves in conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood. During the Cold War, the former were supported by the Soviets and the latter by NATO. The dissolution of the USSR weakened the nationalist camp and led to a wave of Islamism. Furthermore, the « Arab Spring » was a NATO operation intended to definitively eradicate the nationalists to the profit of the Muslim Brotherhood. The crowds who supported these movements were in no way attempting to install democracies. On the contrary, they were persuaded that by putting the Muslim Brotherhood in power, they would be creating an ideal society and a new Islamic golden age. They have changed their minds since then.
- The political party of the Muslim Brotherhood was reconstituted in 1951 by the British secret services on the ruins of Hassan el-Banna’s organisation of the same name. It is the matrix of terrorism in the Muslim world, having formed every one of the heads of the terrorist organisations, from Oussama Ben Laden to Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi. The political party and its armed organisations work in collaboration with the imperialist powers. There is nothing religious about it.
It is important to understand that the Muslim Brotherhood and their jihadist organisations, Al-Qaïda and Daesh, are not radicalised Muslims as the West pretends. These are political and not religious movements. The fact that they quote passages from the Quran all day long does not make them religious. They are no more than clerics.
The reaction against the « Arab Spring » began in June 2013 in Egypt, where 33 million citizens demonstrated for five days against the dictatorship of Brother Mohamed Morsi and for the re-establishment of constitutional order by the army. Every political party – without exception – and all the religious organisations united around the army against the Muslim Brotherhood, in other words for secularism and against clericalism. In the months that followed, the head of the armies, General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who harboured the ambition of being elected President, transmitted to Saudi Arabia documents which had been seized at the headquarters of the Brotherhood. They attested to the fact that certain members of the Brotherhood were preparing the overthrow of the Seouds, from Qatar. Riyadh’s reaction was immediate – the arrest of several members of the Brotherhood in Arabia, attacks in Qatar and unconditional support for the election of General al-Sissi.
The situation of the Seouds was all the more complicated in that:
not all of the Brotherhood was implicated in the plot;
since 1961, they have been the sponsors of the Brotherhood via the Muslim World League;
and that their régime was based on Wahhabism, and therefore clerical, like the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Seouds gave the Nayefs free reign to repress the putschists and re-establish order. They acted as they had in 1990 during the Sururist revolt. At the time, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Surur, had managed to convince the Saudi Wahhabists to take power. It took five years to put down the rebellion .
This was the situation which blew up again when, in May 2017, President Donald Trump came to Riyadh to demand that the Muslim powers end their association with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Seouds decided this time not only to split with the Brotherhood, but also to abandon political Islam. This must be understood – the fact of adopting a secular position in no way changes the fact of being fundamentalist, Salafist. The monarchy of King Salman found itself in the same position as the French monarchy of Philippe le Bel. In order to accompany this decisive evolution, the Seoud family council accepted, by 31 voices to 4, to prepare the abdication of King Salman, to put an end to the Adelphic rule for succession to the throne, to skip two generations and designate Prince Mohammed ben Salman as their next king.
From their side, Qatar and the Brotherhood immediately contacted Turkey and Pakistan. Above all , they allied themselves with Iran, despite the fact that they are still fighting the Revolutionary Guard on the battlefields of Syria and Yemen, and the government of Cheikh Rohani shares their clerical conception of Islam.
This about-face by Iran demonstrates the opposition between its political power and its military power. It is based on the pact concluded between Hassan el-Banna, the founder of the original Muslim Brotherhood, and the young Ayatollah Khomeiny. This was an agreement according to which the Brotherhood would not start a religious war between the Sunnis and the Chiites, an agreement which was smashed by Daesh. Above all, it was based on the ambiguities of the Revolution of 1979, at once an anti-imperialist secular movement and a search for clerical identity, and on the evolution of the function of the Guide Ali Khamenei, at once leader of the world Revolution and local politician charged with maintaining the balance between the factions.
Considering the thirteen stipulations transmitted by Saudi Arabia and Egypt to Qatar, it is unlikely that the conflict between the lay community and the clerics will be resolved quickly. The question is whether the Western powers will understand what is actually playing out in the « Greater Middle East ». They are the ones who presented President Ahmadinejad as a cleric; they according to whom Brother Morsi did not rig his election and was overthrown by a coup d’etat; they who pretend that Libya and Syria were not attacked from the exterior but were the theatre of a democratic revolution. If you keep lying to yourself, you lose contact with reality.