Imperial Islam

`I was ordered to fight all men until they say, `There is no god but Allah.”’ — Prophet Mohammed.Islam is radically distinguished from its sister religions, Christianity and Judaism, by the political circumstances of its origin. Judaism and Christianity were at various times persecuted religions. In one of the key narratives of Judaism, Hebrews were slaves to the Pharaoh in Egypt before they were delivered by God. In the defining narrative of Christianity, Christ is put to death by the Romans. Although His Resurrection represented a triumph over death, it did not represent a political victory. By contrast, the rise of Islam, under the leadership of Mohammed, combined religious conversion with military triumph. Even decades after Christ, Christians remained a minority sect subject to the rule of the Romans. While within a couple of decades, Islam had spread, largely by force of arms from Iraq to Egypt. Within a century, the Islamic Empire had spread to India, North Africa and Spain. In its largest extent, the Islam Empire sandwiched Europe between Spain and Constantinople.

To be sure there were times when Christianity and Judaism claimed both religious and political power. The Pope at times has exercised both political and religious authority and to this day rules the small sovereign principality of Vatican City. Judaism’s kings are chronicled in the Bible, perhaps the most well known being David. In modern Israel, rabbis still do exercise some authority with respect to some civil matters like weddings, but religious freedom is institutionalized. Despite the occasional overlap between religion and state, in the ethos of Judaism and Christianity the two remain different spheres.

Until perhaps the death of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, there was no real separation between religious and civilian authority in the Islamic world. Certainly, there is little indigenous Islamic philosophy and theology to support such a separation.

Such a separation, or at least a distinction, had long been recognized in Judaism and Chrisitianity. Since its Diaspora, Judaism has largely remained a modest-size religion with limited or no direct political power. With the rise of the Enlightenment, Christians in particular created a philosophy and theology that not only recognized the different roles of state and religion, but also the necessity of religious freedom. Authentic faith cannot be reached by force, but only by persuasion and personal witness.

Modern Muslims, many who have migrated to the West (formally Christendom) have internalized this same perspective. However, in much of the Middle East, there has been less reconciliation between political and religious authority.  Although freedom of religion is ostensibly codified in the Afghan Constitution, the current case of the forty-one-year-old Abdul Rahman, who faced death in Afghanistan for converting to Christianity is a sad reflection of the intensity of a medieval perspective on religious freedom.

In the current issue Commentary Magazine, Efraim Karsh’s “Islam’s Imperial Dreams” explains how the ideology of Imperial Islam animates much of Islamic terrorism. Dreams of conquest both religious and political motivate Islamofacism that seeks the restoration the Islamic Empire and the imposition of Sharia Law.

Perhaps these grandiose ambitions are partially fueled by the conspicuous disparity between the fortunes of many Islamic nations and their self-image. It could once be reasonably claimed that the Islamic Empire represented one of wealthiest and most technologically advanced civilizations in the world.  Now, many such nations are dependent upon the West for technology and most of what wealth there is relies on the depleting good fortune of sitting upon oil reserves. The modern lands of the former Islamic Empire are not an important the source of art, literature, science or technology. If one ties worldly success and religious righteousness, Islam is not fairing particularly well.

Karsh notes that this sort of tension has been a continuing source of violence:

“In the long history of Islamic empire, the wide gap between delusions of grandeur and the centrifugal forces of localism would be bridged time and again by force of arms, making violence a key element of Islamic political culture.”

Here in lies Karsh’s key warning. The West cannot hope to cope with Islamic terrorism until it recognizes how tightly coupled are visions of an Islamic Empire and violence.

Islamofascism and its attendant terrorism may be suppressed and isolated, but it will continue until there is a widespread acceptance in the Muslim world of key tenets of modernity: a separation of religion and civil law and religious tolerance.

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