Why Trump & his Cabinet’s Jihad against “Political Islam” will Fail

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Several members of Donald Trump’s new team, including National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and proposed Secretary of Defense Mike Mattis have expressed themselves troubled about “political Islam” (or in Flynn’s case, just “Islam”). Mattis seems to have confused Daesh’s (ISIS, ISIL) idea of a neo-Caliphate (bringing back a medieval papacy-like institution to Islam) with “political Islam” in general. He wants Americans to ask the question of whether political Islam is good for the US…

Gen. Mattis should grapple a little with whether his 2004 Fallujah campaign did not alienate the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, turn them off to the 2005 elections, and pave the way for them to ally with Daesh/ ISIL in 2014. That is, Mattis may have created the political Islam he now wants to name and ideologically combat.

The American right wing has substituted hysteria about socialism with hysteria about Islam and especially political Islam, equating both with terrorism. And its members appear to imagine that Islam is an ideology like Communism, and can be defeated by the United States just as Communism was (well, except in China, which, let’s face it, is a hell of an exception).

There is hopeless confusion on the American right wing about Islam in general and political Islam in particular. Let me suggest some distinctions:

Muslims are adherents of the religion of Islam. Some 85% of them in opinion polling are not fundamentalists.

Fundamentalist Muslims are those who take a literalist approach to Muslim law, ritual and doctrine and disallow any ambiguity. Fundamentalists can be quietist (uninterested in politics) or political.

Political Islam is the attempt to make Islam the basis for a political ideology that would dictate government policy. It is analogous to Zionism, which makes Jews the basis for a political ideology. It is also analogous to the Christian Right in the US, which makes Christianity a political ideology and pursues the Christianization of American law (e.g. striving to ban abortion, to outlaw sex outside Christian marriage, etc.)

Not all Muslims are fundamentalists. Many in e.g. West Africa or South Asia are Sufi mystics who have an allegorical interpretation of the religion. Others are secular-minded. Of the fundamentalists, not all are devotees of political Islam.

Terrorism is the tactic of a non-state actor harming non-combatants to achieve a political goal. Very, very few Muslims engage in terrorism, and very few fundamentalists do so, and very few devotees of political Islam do so. (People of Christian heritage also routinely deploy terrorism).

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Arguably, Daesh runs a terrorist state, not a political-Islamic one. The people fighting against Daesh at Mosul include a large contingent of Shiites who believe in political Islam and belong to the major parties in the Iraqi parliament that advocate this ideology, including the Da’wa Party of Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi and the Islamic Supreme Council of Ammar al-Hakim. If you denounce political Islam across the board, you’d have to denounce the Iraqi government, but Gen. Mattis construes it as a friend.

Regular readers will know that I don’t like the word “Islamism,” which was coined by French academics in reaction against the English-speaking world’s tendency to speak of Muslim fundamentalism. In English, fundamentalism is a perfectly good description of the phenomenon, and it has the advantage that we all recognize that fundamentalism exists in all religions.

Martin Marty’s “Fundamentalistm Project” at the University of Chicago resulted in several volumes that underline this point. Here are some common elements in fundamentalisms across the board as Marty’s project discovered them:

1. Patriarchy: women are to be subservient to their fathers and husbands and if possible to remain at home.
2. The rules of religion are self-evident and must be literally obeyed.
3. Children of believers should be segregated from non-believers (as incoming Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos holds).
4. Fundamentalists hold that their religious laws are binding on all, believer and unbeliever alike (thus, incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried to keep an LGBT meeting from happening on a state college campus; fundamentalism construes public space as belonging to fundamentalist believers).
5. Fundamentalist believers are the in-group. The out-group is rejected.
6. They are nostalgic for an imagined religious golden age of the past that they would like to reinstate.

So here is a question for Gen. Mattis and Gen. Flynn: If political Islam is so bad, why is political Christianity better?

And, then we have to ask, are governments ruled by believers in political Islam really inimical to the US?

The ideology of the ruling government of Morocco, a non-NATO ally of the United States, is political Islam.

The major opposition party in Tunisia, the only successful case of democratization coming out of the Arab Spring, is a party of political Islam.

Adherents of political Islam just won a majority in the Kuwaiti parliament. Kuwait is a key ally of the US which provides basing to the US military.

The major Shiite parties forming the government in Baghdad, Iraq, are all devotees of political Islam. The Baghdad government is a key ally of the US in taking down Daesh/ ISIL.

While the Muslim League, the ruling party in that fantastic Pakistan over which Trump gushed in his phone call to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is not a fundamentalist party despite its name, many of its backbenchers do believe in aspects of political Islam. I.e., they believe in using the state to assert what they consider to be Islamic law. Pakistan is waging a long-term and important campaign against the Pakistani Taliban, from which the 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan benefit.

The US has been actively backing 30 Syrian rebel groups for years. Almost all of them have as their ideology political Islam. It is the regime of Bashar al-Assad, backed by the Baath Party, that is secular.

So Gen. Mattis apparently does not mean by “political Islam” what social scientists or people in the Middle East mean by it. Governments of political Islam, aside from Iran and a few others, appear to have perfectly good relations with the US.

On the other hand, secular governments like that of Syria, Algeria, and Uzbekistan have often had frosty relationships with the US.

In any case, neither Islam nor political Islam in any way resembles Communism. Islam is the religion of 1.6 billion people, over a fifth of humankind. Because of high birthrates in Muslim countries, moreover, the proportion of the world that is Muslim will probably go to 1/3.

If the United States, which is 5% of the world by population, tries to go against a third of humankind, it will lose. But the fact is that the US has no beef with most forms of Islam or even political Islam. And aggressive attempts to dictate to Muslims what they may believe will backfire, just as the whole Iraq War backfired.

The US can defeat individual terrorist organizations that appeal to Muslim themes. Counter-terrorism tactics can work. But it will need Muslim help, including the help of devotees of political Islam. If Daesh goes down in Iraq, it will have been defeated in large part by an alternative form of political Islam, to which the US gave air support. If what the Trump cabinet wants to say is only that the US plans to promote kinds of Islam that support the US and to fight those that stand in the way of the interests of the American Empire, well, the French and British empires used to plot out those schemes, too. Those empires aren’t around any more, but there are plenty of governments rooted in political Islam.

25 Responses

  1. The irony of the “Christian” US deploring political Islam is that Muhammad’s Islam was always a blueprint for society, whereas Jesus’ reform Judaism was actually just a plea for social justice & a suggestion that things would be better next time around!
    (& Shia Islam had similar one-down beginnings & in the mirror image of “angels on pinheads” developed a minutae of idiotic laws about praying with missing toes etc etc & preposterous ideas about women’s medical matters – which they were not allowed to examine 1st hand – again, in the hope things would be ok next time.
    Shia Islam, of course, has changed monumentally since the Iranian Revolution & could be starting to come right, given the opportunity. Which is likely why the US right doesn’t want to let it.)
    The illusion of control is doubly important to those who are basically insecure in their beliefs, financial situation, emotional situation, or “political” situation if you count war/pending war as that. Which is why they start with controlling women & brainwash children.
    In the US many fundies must actually HAVE some conflict with their beliefs & the realities they hit every day of their lives. The bottom would drop out of their world if they were admit it.
    You’ve no doubt noticed that the “fundies” of ISIS are very different belief-wise than those of the Iranian Revolution who had grown up with no other ideas mostly.
    You’ll have noticed that ISIS runs where Iran stood firm in martyrdom (cannon fodder in the Iraq/Iran war).

    The only good thing I see about Trump is that he is NOT really an ideologue. Which means he can change his mind (again & again, LOL).
    As an outsider, Juan, what I wonder is how set in stone are these appointments he keeps playing with? (He’s got to continue to keep his base happy given the active opposition still.) & how much personal control does he have over them once appointed officially?

  2. All of us old lefties who once vigorously imagined the end of the American empire are now going to get our wish … ironically under Trump, who is inimical to everything we ever believed in.

    And whether Trump proves to be a fool and blowhard who is played like a top by Russia, China and the rest of authoritarian governments, or whether he allows people like Flynn and Bolton to egg him into disastrous wars, it seems highly likely that American influence and prestige and ability to influence global outcomes will be significantly reduced … and in ways that will prove highly tragic and significantly destructive of liberty and opportunity for nearly all Americans, and a few billions of the rest of the world’s populations, too.

    I’m going to try to bang out a (relatively short) new article in my space. “Trump: The Suicide of Civilization?”

  3. Trump himself is displaying an autocratic bent with his challenge to change our 1st amendment rights. A position that would blend in with totalitarian fundamentalist zealots.

    Just last week Trump’s spokesperson went ballistic when he supported a NYTs editor being jailed for perceived anti Trump coverage. This is in keeping with his constant berating of journalist, other than Hannity and O’Reilly.

    You will remember Trump pleased his rabid Wrestlemania supporters by vowing to jail his former opponent, Hillary,….Putin style. A frightening comment was made by a member of Trump’s transition team when he said protesters marching against Trump’s policies should be investigated by the FBI and potentially jailed for their activity.

    The list of intimidating statements is a daily occurrence in Trump World. I do not think this will end well.

    • I’m thinking about how long strongmen can rule before their paranoia catches up with them and they really roll out the tyranny. With Trump I assume the worst because my greatest fear is that his followers want him to be the worst right now. But Putin and Erdogan had many twists and turns in their rule before their willingness to throw out all restraint was proven. Marcos was president of the Philippines for 7 years before declaring martial law. Of course, the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt blew their game very quickly. And I would rather Trump did the same, and take my chances with the brawl for power that would follow. It’s not like we can ever really trust election results again.

      • Hey super – what’s that about the Muslim Bros. blowing it? They won a fair election! Yeah, they started to put in some Islamic legislation but it was el Sisi & co. who shot them, & brought in martial law… Egypt is right back to Mubarak square one.
        Amazing how the US wouldn’t utter the word “coup” tho. So selective about elections, aren’t they! (Not a question, ho ho.) You’ve sure got that bit right!

        • Marcos and Erdogan also won fair elections, at first. Read the articles at this site and you will see the growing concern among the young Egyptians at the methods of the new Moslem Brotherhood government that sent them out into the streets again. The problem was that the Egyptian army positioned itself to be the only alternative regime, because it was not properly stripped of its political and economic power after General Mubarak was overthrown. This danger was recognized well in advance by people at this site.

          And you must admit, Lois, that those young people went out into the streets because they had good reason to be concerned, based on the actions of other Islamist parties in power. Exactly the way that young people in this country are alarmed by Christian fundamentalists in control in Washington.

  4. In connection with General Mattis’s 2004 campaign against Fallujah, according to a recent article by Marjorie Cohn in Truthout, after four Blackwater Security Consulting mercenaries were killed and their bodies mutilated, General Mattis ordered massive retaliation against the village where that vile act had occurred. She wrote: ‘In retaliation, US forces attacked the village and killed 736 people. At least 60 percent of them were women and children, according to independent journalist Dahr Jamail, who interviewed doctors at Fallujah General Hospital and at other small clinics inside the city both during and after the April siege.

    In November 2004 NBC News correspondent Kevin Sites, embedded with the US Marines, heard Staff Sgt. Sam Mortimer radio that “everything to the west is weapons free.” Weapons Free, explained Sites, “means the Marines can shoot whatever they see — it’s all considered hostile.” The rules of engagement come from the top, and Mattis was in charge.

    Collective punishment against an occupied population constitutes a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Yet, according to the Study Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, the US attack on Fallujah in November 2004 killed between 4,000 and 6,000 civilians. Targeting civilians is a war crime.’
    link to truth-out.org

  5. The greater question is how much damage the Trump Gang causes along the way – here at home AND across the Muslim world.

    • Half of the country is still in a state of disbelief. Could this really be happening? In January will our new leader actually be an arrogant, bigot, blundering buffoon? The largest embarrassment the United States has ever produced in front of the entire world?

  6. Mr. Cole writes confused. The basic issue is whether there are states in which Islam is the established national religion and the constitution demands that at least their president must be a Muslim. That is the essence of “political Islam” and not what people hold. A better expression is “Islamic theocracy”.
    Some Islamic theocracies are still a kind of prison for women and some are hell for openly homosexuals. Such states conduct internal, official terrorism in my book.

    • Uganda is a Christian-majority country were to be gay is a capital crime.

      There are few Christian-majority countries where a non-Christian president would be elected. In Greece, Poland and many other countries the Church is given a public and often semi-governmental role in some spheres. Most Christian countries have religious education in state schools.

      • The British monarch is the head of the Church of England. Interestingly, Australia, although one of the British monarch’s realms, insisted on the appointment of Sir Isaac Isaacs, a Jew, as its first Australian born Governor General in 1931 thus negating the exclusively Christian character of the monarchy and making a firm stand for Australian secularism. By the way, Isaacs regarded himself as spiritually Zionist but took a strong stand against political Zionism.

      • But in France children are not allowed to sing Christmas Carols in school because they are Christian-based. France is trying hard to keep religious education separate from public schooling. Unfortunately, this is not appreciated by fundamentalists of any type, who, as you say, perceive public space should belong to them and their creed. But even this fairly non-sectarian Unitarian-Universalists feels sad when the Christmas Carols have to be left out at my daughter’s French-run school in San Francisco.

        • France is an outlier on it laicite or strict separation of religion and state in the government sphere. Government schools in Britain and Germany have official Christmas celebrations. My point is precisely that if Muslim-world practices were compared to the mean of Christian countries they wouldn’t look so different; comparing them to the US first amendment or French laicite is setting a bar that Germany and Greece couldn’t reach either.

  7. Thank you for this detailed clarification;
    M. Marty’s element no. six is potus-elect’s battle-cry.
    usa feeds on fear with wa d.c. as chef & waiter.
    Keep writing the truth about the ME.

  8. From what I hear, Fundamentalism was a Christian phenomenon.

    In Islam, the word, Fundamentalism, should only refer to adherence of the fundamental tenets of Islam, which a Muslim knows as a child, and is encouraged to follow them.

    From “Sufism: Love and Wisdom (Perennial Philosophy)” (see link to amazon.ca):

    “The dominant theme of the Quranic Revelation, divine Unity, is expressed by the testimony of faith— shahada— which every Muslim repeats a number of times every day when performing the five canonical prayers and which he hopes to be able to utter at the moment of his death:

    “There is no god if not God; Muhammad is the Envoy of God.”

    The two formulas composing this testimony are strictly complementary: the first one proclaims the principle of absolute monotheism (tawhid) and concerns only the transcendent Principle, whereas the second one introduces the Envoy, bearer of the heavenly Message, a link between the Principle and manifestation.

    Proclaimed as the first of the five pillars of Islam, the shahada is comparable to the apex of a pyramid whose basis would rest upon the four other ritual obligations (i.e., the five daily prayers, the fast of Ramadan, required almsgiving, and the pilgrimage to Mecca).”

    Generally speaking, the Sufi Muslims do not derive any political ideologies from Islam’s earliest, primary and the most authentic source, the Quran, and the outer and inner realities of Muhammad (S).

    Rather, their main focus is self knowledge and development so that the self reflects the higher consciousness and is in unity with the Cosmic Consciousness.

    Political ideologies derived from the Quran and the Prophetic traditions are modernist phenomena. See “Islam in the Modern World: Challenged by the West, Threatened by Fundamentalism, Keeping Faith with Tradition”, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

  9. So Daesh is getting crap kicked out of it in Iraq. If the current trend on the battlefield continues, they will be even further reduced as a threat by the time the Trumpkins take office. They’re going to have to gin up another threat to rationalize their ridiculous rhetoric. Iran probably?

    Let’s see who Drumpf nominates as Sec. of State. If it’s Romney or Petraeus, perhaps they’ll dial it down. Maybe. If it’s a Giuliani or Bolton – heaven help us!

    The bigger question is how long they’ll be able to play the Muslim card to bamboozle the bozos in the flyby states who bought Drumpf’s BS. If the new administration does try to shred the social safety net and predictably cozies up to the plutocrats, all those resentful white folks, who opted to give an “F You” to the system and express their racial insecurities, may start to think long and hard about what’s really going on. At that point, screaming about Muslims may matter less to them than a nation run by a bigot with incoherent ideas about domestic and foreign policy. Then again, maybe I’m playing Pangloss here. Wouldn’t be surprised at all if they continue to let themselves get suckered.

    Frankly, we’re not a very intelligent or well informed nation.

  10. So here is a question for Gen. Mattis and Gen. Flynn: If political Islam is so bad, why is political Christianity better?

    Answer: Simple. Political Christianity is “our” faith. Political Islam is “theirs.”

  11. Pakistan only pretends to oppose the Taliban. Actually, I opine, a branch of the Pakistan government provides some support for the Taliban.

    • There was a PBS show on the Taliban a couple of years ago. They had a correspondent go into NW Afghanistan and cross the border into Pakistan. He was able to arrange on camera interviews (faces hidden) with top Taliban officials. One of them said that if Pakistan wanted to, they could round up all the top Taliban officials living in Pakistan in less than a day. He was saying by implication that they knew where all of them were and were giving them sanctuary. This is typical of the Pakistan intelligence agency, ISI, who wants to see a weak Afghanistan. Certainly the ISI knew where bin Laden was hiding, too.

  12. As usual, I find your thoughts informative and clarifying.

    Can I raise a point about the near-universal omission of Indonesia, a giant Muslim democracy, in discussions of Islam and politics.

    This omission is I suspect precisely because it goes so strongly against the preferred narrative of the warmongers, and it is these racist haters who tend to set the parameters for the debate, for all-too-human reasons

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