Citizens International

The Islamic State’s reformist apologists

By Nafeez Ahmed



We need a transformation, and it needs to cut across the Muslim and Western worlds, together

Islam needs a reformation. This conclusion can only follow logically from a preceding assumption: that Islam is a problem.

This has become an increasingly fashionable mantra in the post-9/11 era, especially since the rise of the “Islamic State” (IS). If terrorism, or violent extremism, is seen as somehow inherent to Islam, then it is only reasonable to conclude that therefore the problem of terrorism and violent extremism can only really be solved through a fundamental reformation of Islam.

There are a few revealing fault lines, however, in this logic.


Consider the very term, “reformation”. As Mehdi Hasan pointed out in his recent Guardian op-ed, the very notion of a “reformation” is transplanted straight from the history of European Christianity, but largely ignored is the fact that the path to secularism, liberalism and democracy opened up by the Protestant Reformation was paved with blood spilled from religious wars across Europe.

Also missing from the conventional invocation of the “reformation” mythology is its inherent connection to European imperialism. The Protestant Reformation ushered in by Martin Luther began as an exercise in puritanism. Even when that puritanism apparently blossomed into an effective demand to end religious theocracy, it was tied to capitalist expansion through violent English settler colonialism.

The cozy alignment between English Puritanism and early capitalism was not an accident, but was due to Protestantism’s religious-inspired obsession with worldly work and wealth accumulation as a mark of spiritual salvation. The pioneers of this movement were city merchants and colonial traders.

This, in turn, cohered remarkably with capitalism’s need to operate in a secular framework in which individual entrepreneurship, commercial transactions and property rights were protected from interference from a religious theocracy.

When the Puritans’ successors a century or so after Luther began calling for secular capitalist democracy, their vision was tied to the sanitisation of systematic genocidal violence against indigenous societies in American colonies, to pave the way for the expansion of proto-capitalist English settler-colonial enterprises.

Terminology is not trivial. Those who call specifically for an Islamic “reformation” are not talking generically of “reform”, but are evoking a specific historical Eurocentric process within Christianity, indelibly tied to Europe’s imperial expansion. Why demand a repeat of this process for Islam, despite the fundamental distinctions in the histories of the two faiths and the regions in which they have flourished?

Whose reformation?

Hasan’s point is not that reform isn’t needed in the Muslim world, but that the way in which reform is called for and pursued is significant. Should outsiders demand ‘reform’ of Islam through a tortured process of violent self-purification like that of Europe? Or can meaningful reform only be achieved from within?

There are countless activists across the Muslim world struggling, very often under fear for their own lives, for reform – for democracy, civil rights, women’s rights, for interpretations of scripture that delegitimise violence and tyranny, and which encourage diversity and inclusivity. Countless numbers of these activists see no conflict between their activism and their faith-orientation as Muslims, and many are inspired by their own faith in what they do.

But whose exactly are the most vocal calls for a “reformation”? Overwhelmingly, notes Hasan, they are “non-Muslims” or “ex-Muslims”.

As US commentator Rula Jubreal observed in Salon earlier this month, Islam’s most ardent “reformation” proponents are an odd panoply of neoconservative extremists who have, through their own actions, completely alienated themselves from any semblance of meaningful affinity with the vast majority of Muslims: Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz, to name just a few.

What the latter have in common is an inability to recognise that “bad policies” like the US invasion of Iraq have been a key catalyst in the rise of militant Islamism. “These people not only don’t see the connection, they are endorsing these kinds of policies,” she said. “Invasions, occupations, torture. Sam Harris said he doesn’t mind that the West would torture in order to extract information.”

More bizarre is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the people who follow Maher, Harris, Hirsi Ali and Nawaz “don’t belong to the community of those who want to reform” but are often “non-Muslim or anti-Muslim”, and endorse “invasions and occupations and torture and dictators. They are in the same mindset that the only way to reform Islam is to crush it. You lost the debate even before you started.”

Consider, for instance, the fact that self-styled liberal activist Maajid Nawaz, founding chairman of the London-based counter-extremism think-tank the Quilliam Foundation, is embedded in a distinctly illiberal network of far-right Republicans.

Nawaz’s US directors of Quilliam have not just actively promoted mass surveillance, the rise of the police state and the very policies of regime change that turned Iraq into a safe haven for extremists, they have also promoted anti-Muslim bigotry, racism and homophobia, and even have direct ties with brutal Middle East dictators – all while on the Quilliam board.

Excommunicating moderates

Why would such a curious illiberal nexus of necon power want to co-opt the mantra of a liberal “reformation” of Islam?

The recommendations of these self-styled “reformers” happen to cohere well with neocon notions that reformation must be enforced from outside. And in that sense, the term “reformation” evokes precisely the sordid history of imperialist violence with which it was associated in the bloody history of European capitalist expansion.

It is therefore not a surprise that these calls for “reformation” have no traction whatsoever in the Muslim world. Instead, they are constantly appropriated by governments, policymakers and security agencies in a way that vindicates the expansion of state power, the militarisation of foreign policy in the Muslim world, and essentially the continuation of business as usual – all on the lovely feel-good pretext of defending liberalism.

But it’s not simply that these faux “reformers” fail, therefore, to be capable of generating meaningful reform. They actively obstruct real reform by claiming from the outset that the problem of extremism is primarily a problem of Islam – or a vaguely defined concept of “Islamism” that basically equates to any form of Muslim political mobilisation justified within an ostensibly Islamic framework.

A particularly egregious example of this was an article by Graeme Wood in a widely read essay for The Atlantic last February. His basic thesis was that the “Islamic State” is Islamic.

Ironically, this is an argument that puts Wood in direct agreement with IS, and in opposition to the majority of Muslims. As he says in a reflective follow-up, his piece was “tweeted out multiple times” by IS supporters who “were delighted that I had taken their ideology seriously and concluded that ISIS is an Islamic group”.

Wood appears to have expected this response. “I was unsurprised to see it shared online by Islamic State fans, at least somewhat positively.” Although he felt “uncomfortable” at such praise, he admitted: “Their delight pleases me only because my intention was to describe the group in terms it recognised and considered fair.”

But by intending from the outset to describe IS “in terms it recognised and considered fair”, Wood skewed the integrity of his “investigation” into the “ideological roots” of IS. His goal was to explore its ideology only to the extent that IS itself would consider such an excavation acceptable and “fair”.

Why adopt such a constrained approach to investigating the purported “ideological roots” of a terrorist group?

Throughout, he approaches his adopted task with the bizarre subliminal assumption, as Haroon Moghul noted so eloquently, that IS and its supporters basically cannot lie, and cannot even be wrong.

So far down the rabbit hole does Wood venture in his effort to “go native” with IS, he even agrees with IS supporters that Muslims who reject the legitimacy of IS’s existence and actions are, effectively, apostasising from Islam.

Muslims, he asserts, “cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet … That really would be an act of apostasy.”

That’s a lot of Muslim apostates.

No wonder IS were “delighted” with his article – he endorses the Islamic State’s unique ultra-literalist and anti-scholarly reading of Islam.

Wood’s article in effect damns Muslims who do not recognise such Islamic legitimacy as being outside the fold of what is truly Islamic (which is most Muslims).

How is this supposed to promote genuine reform? It won’t, and can’t.

Reform or transform?

Those who recognise the need for not simply “reform”, but fundamental transformation across the Muslim world – encompassing politics, economics, culture and religion – understand that Islam already has its own reformers, who are inspired in their reform efforts by Islam.

It is those grassroots Muslim activists who require support, empowerment and amplification – not ignorant bigots who call for liberal reform on the one hand, while urging indiscriminate, illiberal violence against Muslims with the other.

But perhaps the biggest problem of the “reformation” mantra is its use to conveniently conceal the complicity of the Western world in empowering and facilitating the very extremist ideologies that are now supposed to be subjected to a “reformation” – to pretend that the complex politics of the region is not political at all, just “religious”.

That is not to deny the obvious religious component to Islamist extremism – whose proponents do, after all, justify their atrocities with reference to Islam.

It is to recognise that an obsessive focus on ideology as the primary battleground serves the interests of a nexus of powerful interests coalescing around the defence, energy, banking and corporate sectors. These interests would very much like to continue business as usual: profiting from dubious alliances with terror-sponsoring tyrannies like the Gulf states, intensifying the counter-democratic noose of police-state militarisation, all the while obscuring how their own policies have aggravated the very threat they are fighting.

In other words, reform in the Muslim world is certainly not going to be possible without parallel reform in the Western world and its exploitative, repressive relationship with the region.

The bitter irony here is that in the name of “reformation”, these faux liberals are lending terrorists the religious legitimacy they crave, while obscuring the real material factors behind their proliferation.

We don’t need a “reformation”. We need a transformation: and it needs to cut across the Muslim and Western worlds, together.

 Nafeez Ahmed PhD is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the ‘crisis of civilization.’ He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Bill Maher arrives to the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscar Party on March 2, 2014 in West Hollywood, California (AFP)