Islam is not a religion. Australian Senator Pauline Hanson says this. Australian newspaper commentator Andrew Bolt says this. Donald Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn says this. Islam is not a religion but rather it is a “political ideology”. Therefore suppressing and excluding its followers cannot be religious discrimination. Rather it is a rational response to an external political threat. Those people in the Mosque on Fridays? They are not praying, no matter what they may think. They are engaging in political subversion.
This claim strikes me as patently false. A religion provides a framework (often based on beliefs that include the supernatural) to understand why I am here, what I should do when I am alive, who I should do it with, and then what happens to me after death. It offers purpose, consolation and release. To quote a noted theologian:
Religion is the general theory of this world… It is the fantastic realization of the human… Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.
Islam is clearly a religion. It has supernatural beliefs, moral frameworks, a community of believers and a set of rituals to follow. So why claim that it is not?
There is a nuanced, intellectual response to this. That would be to say that the line between “religion” and “ideology” is blurred – always and everywhere. They both make descriptive and normative claims about the world – this is how it is and how it should be. They both urge appropriate action (e.g. a proletarian revolution, the dismantling of all government regulation, free milk in schools). They both offer a community of fellow believers (which may be the primary pay-off you get for joining in). They both provide rituals. Both tend to rely on canonical texts and figures, enforce orthodoxy, and spawn heretical sects. Religions and ideological intellectuals pen impenetrable works for their peers. The rank and file make do with slogans, camaraderie and, maybe, free milk. Religion may prefer supernatural justifications while ideologies appeal to the authority of science (or something that looks like science in a darkened room with a bright light behind it). But “religion” and “ideology” are more than just good friends.
However I do not think that this is argument of those who claim that “Islam is an ideology” because, for them, Christianity is obviously NOT an ideology. It is a proper religion. Islam is a political project fomented by foreigners that threatens to destabilize our very society. To these anti-Islamists, it looks very like a political ideology against which Europe, North America, and Western Europe struggled. Islamic terrorists and extremists have been referred to as “Islamofascists”. But fascism is not the model in mind for the “Islam = Ideology” crowd. Instead the model is communism (capitalism, like Christianity, does not count as an ideology). To understand why this is the case, you have to understand how our views of the world and who we are have been shaped by our recent past.
World War 2 was relatively short and it made strange bedfellows of the USA, the UK, and the Soviet Union (Australia had a walk-on part). It was a total war that had massive ramifications for all the nations involved. But it was short. The Cold War went on for over four decades. It created institutions and movements and shaped how those involved saw their place in the world. It was also a war fought within Western societies. World War 2 accelerated the development of welfare states within Western countries. It accelerated civil rights movements that came to fruition in the 60s. It was time of paranoia but also a time of growing material wealth and growing hope. And also the creation of the Right as the movement that we know today. The Right consists of two groups with very different goals.
The first group are Conservatives who want to prevent change – and often actively want to return to a previous golden age. The world is full of moral decay and society is on the verge of collapse. The decade that conservatives talk of with most fondness is the 1950s. Although the thing about nostalgia is that memory can play tricks. Yes, the 50s were a time of strong economic growth and relative social order – and they were also the time when the welfare state was at its strongest. Conservatives are obsessed with order (the touchstone of Conservative philosophy is Burke). They commit to democracy only in so much as the system can guard against change.
The second group are (and I am now going to confuse any US readers) Liberals. And by “Liberals”, I mean those who hew to a “classical liberal” view of the world that focuses on the rights of the individual – esp. the economic rights of the individual. Liberals view the government as inherently predatory and bad. Freedom can be found in reducing laws and cutting red tape. The formative writers of Liberalism (Locke, Mill) were writing in a time where the primary threat to freedom came from either governments or the Church (Liberals tend to have a very narrow understanding of power).
It’s not obvious what these two groups have in common. Conservatives want order and hate change. Liberals want individual autonomy and hate government. The only thing that could bring them together would be an activist government trying to implement social change. Governments like the Soviet Union. Governments like the civil rights driven welfare states of the 1960s. The Right that we see now was as much a product of the 60s as Jimi Hendrix. It was not until the late 70s that they had the opportunity to take power in the US and the UK.
The 80s were the glory years. Rolling back welfare provisions. Smashing organized labour. Blocking civil rights legislation. Denouncing the Evil Empire. And then something unexpected happened. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact collapsed. Quickly. Relatively bloodlessly. Within the space of a few short years, there was no Evil Empire. The 90s were a mixed time for Conservatism. Sure there were gays and brown people to be suspicious of. There was the “Left-Wing Lying Media” But where were the real enemies? The battles of the 80s had all been won. China was still lurking under the radar, having dealt with their 1989 dissidents more ruthlessly and effectively than the Soviets. But nothing brings people together like a common enemy and the tensions between Conservatives and Liberals keep bubbling up (Brexit can be seen as one such argument).
All was not lost. Enter Islamic terrorism. Spectacular acts of horrific violence committed (mostly) by people who don’t look like you. There is a problem with Islamic terrorism though. There isn’t enough of it. There are were 1.5 billion Communists in 1989. The threat from Islamic terrorists is real but they are small and localized. The threat they pose is not existential. So you need something bigger. How about Islam itself? That’s over a 1 billion people. It can be the new ideology. Islamic immigrants within Western societies are just like the Communist infiltrators of the 1950s. We must stand strong against these Islamist nations. Unless we buy oil from them and they only kill their own people rather than ours. In which case, they are fine.
Now this model of Islam-as-Communism is all well and good as a story. But the Sheik-as-Commissar analogy is very shaky. Communism as a belief system was shallowly held within its host nations. Islam is woven into the fabric of many nations. Do the “Islam-as-Ideology” folks really believe that all need to do is topple a couple of governments and everyone will throw away their prayer rugs and headscarves? Communism brooked no competitors. It very possible for a country to be both majority Muslim and secular. Political Islam (which is not the same as Islamic terrorism) is a force but suppressing it does not seem to be working. What it offers (identity, pride, order) must be taken seriously much as what communism and socialism offer (justice, equity, material development for all) must be taken seriously. As George Box famously almost said: All models are wrong, some are useful. This model is not useful.
- Are you a communist? A. No.
- Are you a leftie? A. Yip.
- Are you a Muslim? A. Nope. I am an atheist.
- Do you think all criticisms of Islam are invalid? A. No. I think many criticisms of it are valid. I am suspicious of the particular point of view I outline above.
- You constantly bug people to provide data – where is the data here? A. This is a rant. I needed to get it off my chest. I may pull together some data later.
- Is all of this true? A. Some of it is probably bollocks. That doesn’t seem to stop anyone else so I don’t see why it should stop me.