Muslims are experiencing persecution and cultural genocide in China and being wiped out in Yemen; yet the Muslim world is largely silent. Why? Probably because, despite claims to the contrary, there is no single “Islam.”
Before 9/11, the term “Islam” was rarely used in the West. Instead, we spoke of Muslims in their diversity, or we designated Muslims by their culture of origin: Moroccan, Pakistani, Mauritanian, or Bengali. In the early 1950s, when I was growing up in a Paris suburb where half the population came from North Africa, we called these migrants “Arabs” because this is how they described themselves—by their language, ethnicity, and culture, not by their religion. The fact that all Muslims are now grouped together under a single term is, in fact, Osama bin Laden’s greatest victory. It is he who convinced Westerners—but not Muslims—that he was making war on the Christian and Zionist West in the name of Islam and that all his fighters and associates should be considered Islamists.
Al-Qaida’s accomplices and successors insist on the unity of Islam and have tried to create, as in the time of Muhammad and his followers, a caliphate that commands the temporal and spiritual allegiance of all adherents. So far, they have failed. As the Algerian sociologist Mohammed Arkoun explains, a unitary Islam does not exist; there are only Muslims. Each individual Muslim enters into direct relation with God by the intermediary of the Koran. Islam, says Arkoun, is thus what Muslims make of it.
Naturally, every Muslim practices his or her religion within the cultural context in which he or she lives. This explains the striking diversity of Islam observed when one travels in Muslim countries—say, from Morocco to Indonesia. Some venerate local saints, while others do not; some are organized into a community around a religious leader, while others are more individualist. The diversity of the Muslim world goes well beyond the distinction between the two main branches, Sunnis and Shias. This reality largely explains the absence of solidarity among Muslims from one region to another, despite the Koranic imperative that Muslims are supposed to belong to a single community—the Ummah, which is like a body or family.
The lack of solidarity is sometimes explained in economic terms. Turkey, in this case, which practices a similar form of Islam as the Uighurs, and whose languages are mutually intelligible, needs Chinese funding. Similarly, Saudi Arabia depends on Chinese capital to finance the privatization of its oil industry. If we accept this financial determinism, we should observe that while the plight of the Uighurs does not weigh heavily on the consciences of Islam’s political leaders, neither does it seem to trouble its religious leaders. It must be understood that a Saudi Muslim practices a different Islam from that of the Uighurs; and Saudis consider, moreover, that their Islam is the true one and that the others verge on heresy. I was myself almost expelled from Saudi Arabia for having used the term “Wahhabi Islam” (which is how we in the West designate Saudi Islam) in Riyadh, since, according to the Saudis, there is only one Islam—theirs. To qualify it as “Wahhabi” (from the name of an eighteenth-century scholar) implies that there are multiple versions. This view is what authorizes the Saudis to massacre Shiite Yemenis: they are heretics and, what’s more, supported by Iran, in the name of an alternative Islam. At the other end of the Muslim world, in Indonesia, religious leaders readily declare that Arabs practice an archaic Islam—one more Arab than Muslim.
If a comparison with the Christian world may be ventured, Islam is closer to Protestantism in its lack of organization and its diversity than to Catholicism, unified by the Church and the pope. “Muslims are Protestants,” said Arkoun. Indeed, there is as much distance between a Swedish Lutheran community and a Brazilian evangelical temple as between a Javanese mosque and a Senegalese community.
Against this diversity, the call for a universal Islam, divorced from all cultural origins and innovation, has struck a chord among the disaffected, especially among uprooted migrants. It is propagated less by traditional Koranic culture, in which a master instructs a disciple in the fine points of Islamic jurisprudence, than through the Internet. Sometimes called “the Islam of the (immigrant) suburbs,” this new global Islam insists on a fundamentalist approach to religion, rejecting centuries of careful, scrupulous interpretation of the Hadith, the source of actual Islamic practice. This literalistic Islam can be violent, and it serves as the recruitment base of jihadist fighters.
This new, uprooted Islam is a threat to the West, as witnessed by the terrorist attacks on Europe and the United States, but Muslims themselves are even more threatened by it. They are the main victims, and the most numerous ones, of local wars carried out in the name of Islam. Countless Muslim believers die in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, while alleged heretics face political repression. In the end, the true resistance to jihadist Islam should come not from Westerners of Christian background but from Muslims themselves.
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