David Yerushalmi

How to Bury the Threat from Shariah by Pretending It Doesn’t Exist

Maajid Nawaz’s oped in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal attempts to draw a distinction between Islam and Islamism.  While there may indeed be such an argument if “Islam” means any given Muslim’s personal, subjective approach to the divine and “Islamism” means Sharia-adherence and –advocacy, this is not the argument Nawaz presents.  In fact, Nawaz never really tells us what he means except to slide into an argument that Islamic “traditionalists,” impliedly devout and even Shariah-adherent, reject the political and hegemonic aims of the “Islamists.”

He writes:

Many commentators confuse traditionalist Muslims with Islamists. Like the Amish, Muslim traditionalists usually have few political ambitions. Their real cause is debating theology with their adversary, the Muslim modernist. Islamists, however, are not interested in the raging feud between traditionalists and modernists.

In other words, Nawaz wants us to believe that there is a good “traditionalist” Shariah and a bad, modern (20th century) “Islamism” that has perverted Shariah by its demand to control the political institutions of state power.

He goes on to say:

For instance, Muslims throughout history rarely codified any version of the Islamic religious code, or Shariah, as state law. The result was a Muslim history full of religious societies with very temporal and often debauched ruling dynasties. Indeed, these dynasties launched religiously justified wars, against themselves and others. But was that not the practice of all medieval kings seeking material glory while promising spiritual salvation to their men? The simple fact is that, as with all medieval states, religion was but a political convenience.

Nawaz seeks to prove that this “traditionalist” Shariah-adherence never sought political power by calling upon what he calls “the social sciences.” You know you’re in trouble when the answer lies in the “facts” of “social science,” notorious for its inability to discover any truth other than there is no truth.

So, Nawaz tells us that these social sciences demonstrate that throughout the more than millennium of a hegemonic Islamic empire known as the Caliphate, only rarely was Shariah imposed as state law and typically only used as a rationale for religious wars.  Even if this statement were entirely true, and it is not, it would simply mean that Muslim political leaders are as subject to debauchery and the exploitation of religious fervor as the next tyrant. It does not tell us what Shariah demands.

Indeed, even Nawaz concedes that there were times when Shariah was state law. The question of course is how could that be if Shariah demanded as a theoretical matter to be separated from the political sphere. Does the Islamic traditionalist’s Shariah adopt the extant Christian doctrine of “render unto Caesar” or does it not?  Anyone who would argue publicly that doctrinaire “traditionalist” Shariah demands anything other than political power in a hegemonic Caliphate either knows literally nothing of Shariah or is engaged in deception and propaganda. All one needs to do is open up the most authoritative text on Islamic law available in English today, Reliance of the Traveler. It has the imprimatur of Al-Azhar University in Egypt, the Harvard of Shariah. Turn to the ‘Book of Justice’—where else?  Once there, turn to the sections on Jihad. There you will learn the when, where and how of the law. It isn’t what Nawaz says it is by a quite lengthy stretch.

He continues:

In Muslim-majority societies that hold elections today, parties wanting to “rule in God’s name” have been roundly defeated time and again by their fellow Muslims. Take two of the world’s most populous Muslim-majority countries, Indonesia and Bangladesh. In recent years, the electorates of both these countries have decisively rejected Islamism in favor of secular, democratic values. In the Arab-speaking world, the situation is similar. For the last 20 years, whether seeking power through the gun or the ballot-box, Islamists have failed. Fortunately, Islamists do not speak on behalf of Islam.

Moreover, the argument can be made persuasively that only since Ataturk’s now failing Turkish experiment to secularize the remnants of a dismantled Ottoman Empire and the manifestly dismal autocracies created by the Muslim nationalists who took power after the end of colonial rule in the Near East and South Asia was there any hope of defanging Shariah and its lust for political, indeed, hegemonic political power.  That experiment in secularism is failing in Turkey as the Kemalists are on the run and it is also collapsing in the rest of the Muslim world as the “traditionalists” flex their muscles in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Gulf region, Gaza, Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, Egypt, North Africa, East Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bosnia, Chechnya, and even in Europe. It is no coincidence that when given a chance to really vote, whether at the polls or in surveys, Muslims in the Muslim world overwhelmingly embrace a very strict and very political Shariah.  (See World Public Opinion Poll as a PDF.)

This table speaks louder than Nawaz’s assertions:


If Nawaz wants to make an argument that there is an “Islam” residing in the hearts of hundreds of millions of individual pietistic Muslims embracing a kind of Islamic version of Protestantism, fine. But the “traditionalists” within the Islamic religion go back to Mohammed and the Four Righteous Caliphs and the Shariah law which developed out of a very political, very militaristic tradition. That political, imperialistic tradition was codified within the ijma (consensus) of all of the legal schools we know as Shariah.  “Traditionalist” Muslims know this quite well, which suggests a rather dubious motive behind Nawaz’s subterfuge.