by Edward Pentin | May 21, 2012
(Rome) - Islamism is on the rise and appears to be consolidating – a trend most evident in some post-Arab Spring nations where parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood, banned under previous regimes, are gaining popularity. And as the divisive ideology spreads, displacing indigenous Christians and other minorities as it does so, Muslims are increasingly seeing Sharia Law – the moral code and religious law of Islam – not only as the hallmark of what it means to be Muslim, but as integral to the constitution of the Islamic state. This is the disconcerting observation of Professor David Forte, an expert in Islamic Law at Cleveland Law School. He explained more in this May 7th interview to Terrasanta.net. This is first of two parts.
Islamism and the practice of Sharia law are said to be increasing, also in Western countries such as Britain where parliamentarians are seeking to introduce regulations to curb the use of the religious law within Muslim communities. How concerned are you about this trend and should we be alert to it?
The short answer is yes. The question contains two parts: Islamism as a growing movement, and the relationship of Sharia to it and to Europe. Islamism is a growing movement and is a disappointment to observers of Islam like me and reform-minded Muslims because for the last 100 years since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and before, Islam was undergoing a kind of identity contest as to what its civilisation would be like. Among the elements were Salafists who spawned the Muslim Brotherhood and other movements. The disappointment is that with the democratic forms that are coming about, Islam as an identity for the civilisation seems to be consolidating, and this is an historic moment of some weight.
In certain parts of the world or generally all over?
Generally all over, it’s consolidated obviously in the Arab part of the world, but it’s also growing in the Far East and Indonesia, as well. It’s not as serious there. It is serious in West Africa as well. So as a civilizational element it is worrisome that this theme is coming to the forefront, rather than Sufism or a liberal humanistic view of the Sharia as a civilisation or a revivification of the philosophical traditions Islam once had. But this view of Islam, a sort of narrowly practiced-oriented view of Islam, seems to be consolidating. The second part of the question is, what’s its relation to the Sharia? Well Islamism has made the Sharia its banner, as the identity of what it is to be a Muslim. That’s what’s so serious. What is the content of the Sharia? Well the content of the Sharia is, if you look at it in classical terms, liberal and reformist in its initial era and then as it became solidified, archaic in some ways. Its applications vary from place to place but essentially there were three permanently inferior classes in the Sharia: women, slaves and unbelievers. We should note however that slavery has gone out of Islam, and that’s a chapter we should look at, as something that was essentially part of the Sharia but which was gotten rid of. I don’t think enough of us have looked at that as a possible example of reform. The other two inequalities, however, remain.
But was the abolition of slavery a reform from outside of Islam?
What’s interesting in the Islamist’s ideology, when their ideologues speak about what it is to be Muslim, they keep many of the archaic elements that we human-rights people would find objectionable: physically chastising wives, disfiguring people for theft. They keep most of these, but I’ve yet to come across any of the often hatefully-rabid mullahs calling for a return to slavery. I find that curious, and it may be revealing, and it’s a wedge that needs to be explored.
This could be a glimmer of hope?
It could be. What seems to be common among them all Islamists is that they want the Sharia to become the constitution of the Islamic state. That’s never been true before. The Islamic state has always been separate from Sharia, though it would be enormously influenced by it and would enforce all kinds of parts of it, but it would also enforce all kinds of parts of the law that were contrary to it. And the mullahs, the ulama, would agree to that. That’s off the table now, the mixed state is off the table now. The Islamists are moving towards an implementation of the Sharia as the legal system for the state.
What’s the cause of that?
The cause seems to be merging the tradition of ulama with the modern nation state monopoly of force, which is a Western development. Under the imperial regimes of Islam, the rulers were always limited by customs, other forces within the empire, and the rulers would in turn limit the Sharia and in turn be limited by the Sharia. It was a very mixed and complex, political structure. But with the coming of the nation state and the rise of the Islamists in the 20th century, they now want to make the Sharia superior, but also to tie it to the monopoly of force of the positivistic modern state. The two of those together are very worrisome.
(end of part one)