Islamism—a totalitarian political manifestation of Islam, which holds among other tenets the gratuitous slaughter of infidels—is not yet fully discredited.
Only a small minority of Muslims subscribe to it, and only the more radical Leftists tend to ally with it. Yet it does command an enthusiastic constituency; and given the willingness of members to act on their beliefs, it will, for the foreseeable future, enjoy an influence beyond their mere number. A single “Islamist” on a commercial airliner, for instance, may have a greater influence on its flight plan than all the other passengers combined.
To say that Islam is a religion of peace is fair enough, according to many credible spokesman for mainstream Islam. Sheikh Tantawi of Al-Azhar in Egypt—the most authoritative Sunni Muslim I could find—went so far as to tell me Islam is “the religion of love,” and who am I to challenge such a scholar? I am no more qualified than President Bush was to make authoritative pronouncements about the nature of Islam, so I will let this pass with the more Clintonesque observation that, “it depends what you mean by ‘is’.”
Notwithstanding, when Sheikh Tantawi assured me (even before 9/11) that “Islamism is not Islam,” he was speaking with evident sincerity, while volubly expressing his distaste for the terrorists of the day. I have certainly met Muslims who seemed as spiritual and otherworldly in the practice of their faith as many Christians in the practice of theirs. That the religion is living, and can be a force for good, I am prepared to maintain; though of course, it is up to Muslims to make that argument effectively.
Yet I’m also aware that contemporary Islamism carries doctrinal and behavioural echoes from past Islamic “heresies,” such as the cult of the “Hashishiyyins” or “Assassins” whom the Crusaders encountered in the 11th and 12th centuries.
“Islamism” is thus to be taken not as religion, but as cult, or an assemblage of cults. There are other cults in Islam, as in Christianity, as in Hinduism and all major religions—each bearing some relation to the religion itself. “By their fruits ye will know them,” as the Founder of my own Church explained.
All such cults have living force, so long as they reside within living people. But I would maintain, further, that they survive, as legacy, long after the last true believer has died. Habits of mind, forged in religious experience—whether orthodox or heretical is not the issue here—pass down to subsequent generations.
For instance, oriental cults that flourished in the first Christian centuries, but had long since died to outward appearance, continued to sound echoes into the Middle Ages. And some of the great mediaeval outbursts of popular madness, such as the Albigensian heresy, or “Cathars,” carried clear marks of Gnostic and Manichaean historical antecedents.
Likewise, the Puritan cults implanted in America by some of her earliest colonists, which disappeared as active agents not long after, continue nevertheless to exert subtle influence upon our cultural behaviour today. One cannot look candidly at “political correctness” without being reminded of the witchcraft trials at Salem. Our post-modern “zero tolerances” have an American flavour, that makes them different from, say, those of the show trials in Stalin’s Russia, at least to connoisseurs. Yet one cannot look back on the ascetic aspects of Puritanism—with its implicit conflict between body and soul—without thinking back to the Cathars.
Indeed, the various religious heresies and fanaticisms of this world depend on a surprisingly limited repertory of core bad ideas, and that alone assures family resemblances between them.
Today, such superstitious, though outwardly secular beliefs as those in “progress” or the “Zeitgeist”; in redemption through technology or law or “experts”; in hygienic practices and dieting as a substitute for spiritual purification—persist even though the Enlightenment atheist cults which engendered them no longer command adherents.
And yet that “mystical materialism” persists as a habit of mind, and is now mixing again with new forms of more overtly “spiritual” fervour to produce new heresies from the old raw materials.
Al Gore’s visions of environmental apocalypse, spooky beliefs in redemption through “reducing our carbon footprint,” and the various other crackpot environmentalist ideas, have force because they draw on the same old schizophrenia: apprehension of a grand cosmic conflict between “dross matter” and “refined spirit.”
Militant Islam postulates some paradise in which the perpetrators of psychopathic violence will be rewarded with their 72 virgins, or whatever. In some respects this is closer to sanity than the Green postulate, in which the Earth becomes an Eden after the human presence has been, as much as possible, removed.
For at least under the Islamist system, someone stands to benefit.