The burden on Muslim intellectuals today is heavy indeed. There ought to be no question that Islam inspired one of the most humanistic, tolerant and intellectually rich civilizations, but it would be a serious error to rely on any historical inevitabilities – just because Muslims achieved moral greatness once does not necessarily mean that they will do so again. From a Muslim perspective, it is arrogant to assume that regardless of the efforts and behaviour of Muslims, God is somehow obligated to save Muslims from the follies of their own deeds.
Classical jurists used to repeat that political power is necessary to safeguard the interests of religion, but they also warned that political power is fundamentally corrupting of the human conscience and the mandates of justice. Political power, some argued, thrusts human beings into contexts in which they are tempted to partake in the functions and authority of God. But human beings are ill equipped to perform this role because humans tend to trump principle in the name of public good and expedience. But, eventually, human beings will be tempted to trump public good and expedience in order to guard against personal insecurities that arise from their ambiguous relationship with authority.
Because human beings do not have the equanimity and wisdom of the Divine, it is inevitable that they will confuse between the public good and personal gain, and thus the powerful will always imagine that whatever is good for them is also good for everyone else. By failing to differentiate between the cravings of the personal ego and the public good, human beings will, inevitably, commit injustice.
According to some classical scholars, over time power becomes as addictive as an intoxicant, and it is pursued for its own sake, despite its delusions and false promises. Those who are intoxicated and corrupted by power become imbalanced as they lose the ability to differentiate between the rights of God (huquq Allah), the rights of people (huquq al-‘ibad) and their own personal interests (al-masalih al-fardiyya or al-masalih shakhsiyya). The solution, for the classical jurists, was simple enough: compel the powerful to abide by the rule of shari’a, and this cycle will be broken. If Muslims live according to the Shari’a, the classical jurists argued, principle will constrain personal interests and expedience, and the balance, which is needed in order to achieve justice, will be maintained.
This classical warning about the corrupting influence of power is particularly applicable to the current Muslim reality. However, in the current reality, it is not so much the presence, or the actuality, of realized power that is corrupting. Rather, the source of many problems is obsessive preoccupation with power that followed the extreme sense of disempowerment experienced during the age of colonialism.
The preoccupation with the desire to compensate for the aggravated sense of social insecurity and instability that followed the age of colonialism has generated a state of imbalance and disorientation in modern Muslim consciousness. This imbalance has manifested itself in a series of events of extreme ugliness, the primary victims of which, of course, were Muslims themselves. Extreme acts of ugliness, perpetrated in the name of Islam, were stark manifestations of a way of thinking that has come to value a superficial sense of independence, control, security and power, regardless of their moral antecedents or consequences.
Doctrinally, what I call Salafabism became the main vehicle for rationalizing – and often, institutionalizing – such extreme ugliness in Islam. Socially, Salafabism found fertile grounds in the culture of alienation and anxiety that seemed to prevail in the Muslim world in general, and more particularly in the Arabic speaking world.
Moral disengagement and the essentialisation of the victim: Features of Islam’s modern malaise
The relationship between Salafabism, colonialism and power, or the lack thereof, is particularly visible in two distinct aspects of the modern historical experience: the moral disengagement of the perpetrators of acts of cruelty and what might be called the social death of the victim.
Colonialism, as an extreme form of external dominance, and authoritarianism – which in the post-colonial era became the prevailing form of government in the Muslim world – had distinctive legacies that fed into the Salafabist phenomenon and that were, in turn, sustained and legitimated by Salafabism.
Colonialism and authoritarianism, as systems of dominance, are destructive towards any sense of collective or individual moral agency. In such systems, moral responsibility is consistently shifted to those who hold the reins of power, and to those who are able to establish a hegemonic system of control. Autonomous or semi-autonomous moral agents are considered dangerous both from the point of view of the holders of power, and also those subjugated by this power. Those living under such systems are promptly socialized into realizing that exhibiting moral agency or independence could be very costly because it is likely to lead to persecution.
This process is particularly effective in the modern nation-state, where governments are capable of centralizing and exercising power in ways that would have been inconceivable in the pre-modern era. In such a context, moral disengagement often becomes a necessary tool of survival. Moral disengagement does not refer only to a general reluctance to make moral judgments, but, even more, to the diffusion of moral responsibility to anything or anyone but oneself. In this process, not only is moral responsibility diffused and diluted, but the moral imperative itself, or the very meaning of morality, is thoroughly undermined.
The other main feature of control and hegemony is the effective devaluation of the “other,” however that other is defined. In order to dominate and control a people sufficiently, it often becomes necessary to cause their social death by stereotyping, dehumanizing and reducing the dominated persons to essentialised constructs.
It becomes possible to inflict suffering and commit acts of extreme ugliness towards people who have become sufficiently demonized to the extent that they become as if socially dead. But the status of the socially dead need not be limited to those who have become demonized to the point of becoming as if the embodiment of evil. In fact, it is possible to render socially dead any segment of humanity that is seen as dangerous, threatening, or simply different.
Social death of a people could be the result of a process of stereotyping that transforms a people into artificial constructs and desensitizes would-be aggressors to the humanness and “realness” of the potential victims. This could be the result of hate, prejudice, bigotry, or ignorance, and could be the result of the adoption of socially and morally irresponsible language towards a group of people.
The status of social death makes the infliction of cruelty and suffering upon the bearers of this status far more palpable both to those inflicting the suffering, and to bystanders as well. But this status is an invented social construct, and therefore, it could be shifting, evolving and changing. For instance, in a society such as the one constructed by the Taliban, the status of the socially dead could include women, who are seen as the source of sexual enticement and danger, and who are often spoken about in deprecating and condescending language.
Various factors in the 1960s and 70s created a culture that strongly supported the processes of moral disengagement and social death in the Middle East. Among those factors were the cruel authoritarian regimes in power in Middle Eastern countries that consistently demonized their opponents and denied them the most basic human rights. In addition, the experience with colonialism and the disastrous Arab-Israeli conflict contributed to the sense of external danger, as well as to intensified feelings of political and social insecurity. The continuing suffering of the Palestinians, the relative impotence of the Arab governments in dealing with this problem, and the repeated defeats suffered by the Arab militaries only aggravated the problem.
All of this created fertile grounds that Salafabism, as a power-focused orientation, was able to exploit. Salafabism contributed to a process of moral disengagement by displacing moral responsibility from the individual to the text. As I have argued previously , the Salafabist creed eschewed notions of moral autonomy or individualized moral judgment by claiming to rely on the literal text. By replacing the need for moral inquiry with a strict adherence to legal rules, Salafabism ultimately placed moral responsibility with an infallible and irreproachable theoretical construct known as the Qur’an and sunna. In pretending that Salafabi determinations are anchored in these immutable sources, and that these determinations are themselves immutable, Salafabis insulated and immunized their determinations from the possibility of critical engagement, and denied any role to the human conscience in the construction of Islam. This process of diffusion of moral responsibility meant the rationalization of moral disengagement as necessary for a faithful and strict adherence to the will of God, as it is found in the religious texts of Islam.
Ideologically, Salafabism was perfectly equipped to further and invent the phenomenon of social death. By promoting a bipolar view of the world, and adopting an uncompromising belief in good versus evil, the saved versus the damned, and those on the straight and narrow path versus everyone else, Salafabism tended to relegate the “other” to a lowly status. Furthermore, Salafabism rejected the idea of universal standards, and also rejected any notions of an inherent equality between human beings, or even between the genders. In Salafabi thought, there is an idealistic, and near-perfectly constructed and even caricatured image of the pious and righteous. This is evident in their narratives recounting the glories of the Rightly Guided Companions of the Prophet, and also in their rejection of any narratives that complicate or challenge the caricature of the Islamic Golden Age.
Meanwhile, there is an equally caricatured image of the “other,” who is considered the antithesis of the piety and righteousness. Because Salafabism is not interested in history or social experience, it became fairly easy to idealize itself, and deprecate or even demonize the “other.” In Salafabi thought, the deprecation of the “other” played a dual function, both of which became an essential part of the Salafabi historical experience. On the one hand, demeaning the “other” supported an egoism that in the Salafabi historical experience had become distinctly supremacist in nature. On the other hand, the demonizing of the “other” was essential to a process of scape-goating and projection of blame, which was clearly manifested in the rampant apologetics and the strong aversion to self-criticism that had become one of the earmarks of Salafabism.
But it is exactly the demonization of the “other” which is also at the heart of the phenomenon described as the social death of victims, a phenomenon that is at the heart of the construction of a culture of cruelty. In essence, the many victims of Salafabi abuses were thought of as socially dead before becoming clinically dead. It was the social death of these victims that made it possible to act with cruelty and disregard towards them, and ultimately to render many of them clinically dead as well.
Moral disengagement and social death are common ailments of an environment that perpetuates and justifies acts of ugliness and cruelty, but they are also the recurring ailments of abusive power. Both processes are inextricably related to an exercise of power that has become, as the classical Muslim jurists would have put it, seriously imbalanced.
Can Islam be reborn?
As I have already pointed out, the classical jurists believed that the application of Shari’a Law is fundamental for the restoration of the balance and for the just exercise of power. This might very well be the case, but, as the experience of modern Islam with Salafabism amply demonstrates, a legal system that relies on its own authoritative frame of reference and does away with the need for morality, history and critical insight, or that is incapable of valuing the integrity of the individual conscience, and that demonizes dissent, and degrades dissenters is also a legal system that is likely to be corrupted by these ailments.
As for Islam, it is clear that no set of laws can repair the damage done by Salafabism to its moral and ethical fabric. Mercy and compassion, for instance, are core values in the Islamic faith, but no possible application of Islamic law can by itself establish a merciful and compassionate social order. The founding of such an order needs an extensive intellectual tradition that critically identifies the current points of ugliness and cruelty, and engages in a re-thinking of the Muslim historical experience with the express purpose of promoting these core values.
But herein lay the whole problem. Since the spread of Salafabism, Muslim intellectual activities have been abysmal. In the recent past, when contemporary Muslim intellectuals have attempted a critical engagement with their tradition and a search for the moral and humanistic aspects of their intellectual heritage, invariably they have been confronted by the spectre of colonialism and post-colonialism; their efforts have been evaluated purely in terms of whether it appeases or displeases the West, and whether they politically and socially empower Muslims or not. Their efforts have been accordingly accepted or rejected by many Muslims.
Since the age of colonialism, Muslims have become politically hyperactive – a hyperactivity that has often led to much infighting, divisiveness and inter-Muslim persecution – but they have also remained morally lethargic. If Islam is to be reclaimed from colonialism, blind nationalism, political hyper-activism and Salafabism, this moral lethargy must be transformed. But in my view, this moral lethargy can only be transformed through an intellectual commitment and activism that honours the Islamic heritage by honestly and critically engaging with it, and that also honours Islam by honestly and critically confronting any extreme act of ugliness perpetrated in Islam’s name.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Islam is now living through its proverbial dark ages. In my view, the material issue is not whether one calls for an Islamic reformation, or for a return to an original moral and humanistic Islamic tradition. The point is that as Muslims confront acts of extreme ugliness committed in their religion’s name, they have no choice but to take a long pause, and to critically evaluate where things might have gone wrong. In essence, Muslims have no choice but to reengage morality in order to generate an effective social rebirth.
Credited: Khaled Abou El Fadl is the Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law where he teaches International Human Rights, Islamic Jurisprudence, National Security Law and Political Crimes and Legal Systems. He is the author of numerous books on Islam and Islamic law, including The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists and The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books.