ISIS: A phenomenon of religious hegemony
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
It is sound for religious scholars to denounce an Islamic cluster of armed groups gone wild, ISIS, but the real challenge for reformers and other civic activists is to confront societal institutions of indoctrination.
The emergence of ISIS, the so called Islamic State, in Syria and Iraq, brings to the fore questions about the obsessive role of religion in Mideast politics. The Chief Mufti of Egypt and many other prestigious Islamic authorities have denounced ISIS. But ISIS remains powerful, threatens the entire region and gains immense global attention; it is a grave sign that the Middle East is still fertile ground for terrorism in the name of God.
If we think of the mind as precious personal territory, then subjecting this territory to systematic indoctrination is tantamount to an occupation. Could we not view religious authorities which control societal freedoms a form of hegemony? Such hegemony and its powerful socializing institutions are hard to identify, or address with courage, in highly pious cultures such as those of the Middle East.
Regrettably, the violent Islamic State, ISIS, gives Muslims and Islam a negative image, particularly in the West; it is clear that this rebel group violates Islam’s basic tenants. In contrast to human rights-based uprisings of the Arab Spring the ISIS movement is medieval and militant; it is an alliance of local, regional and international elements of alienation. Its members come from Syria, Iraq, other Arab countries and non-Arab Islamic militants. The alienation of millions of Muslim youth is both in the Muslim world and among emigrants abroad. The grandiose dream of this militia is the establishment of a global Islamic empire (Caliphate).
Strong hatred of other religious sects is both a symptom and a mobilizing drive of this rebellion; its rapid expansion is perhaps due to its seductive, simplistic crisis analyses and its swift remedies: divine intervention shall revive (Sunni) Islamic power. Demographic and economic factors are also involved in alienating displaced communities living in cultural ghettos.
The anger felt and hostility expressed by ISIS are not utterly groundless. The suppression of the [Sunni] Muslim Brothers in Egypt, the negligence to rectify Sunni grievances in Iraq, and Damascus’s oppression of its Sunni majority have given ISIS an exploitative pretext to “save” the Arab and Muslim worlds.
In a commentary for the (Lebanon) Daily Star in 2006 this writer proposed “a four-category analysis of the current predicament of the Arab world”. Arab societies “are occupied four ways: Rulers occupy freedoms, religious authorities occupy the mind, colonialists occupy territory, and local militias occupy the street”. Rulers personify the state, religion dictates regressive norms, foreign intervention offers short term protection for illegitimate regimes and armed groups undermine state authority. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Opinion/Commentary/2006/Nov-10/112753-the-four-occupations-smothering-the-middle-east.ashx#axzz3BdxuTAUa
This four-dimensional suffering fueled the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring has demonstrated that people’s tolerance for autocratic rulers has run out, but Arab society has not yet tackled the other three threats which smother the region: institutional religious hold on people’s personal lives; root cause of foreign occupation; and the widespread presence of lawless militias.
ISIS is an unintended consequence of the currently depressed momentum of the Arab Spring. The first phase of the Arab Spring was about the significance of the public square, the second was the ascendance of moderate political Islam, the third was the return of state power through the military and the fourth phase was the birth of ISIS: re-asserting the power of the Islamic militia with a broader geographic base.
What are the implications for action? For the short term, it is imperative for the Arab states to collaborate in defeating ISIS, and to use foreign support cautiously in combating ISIS. But the sober reality is that if and when ISIS is gone from Iraq and Syria another armed group will most likely appear with a new Jihadi message in another corner of the region. Long term solutions are required, such as civic empowerment, curricular reform and expanding economic opportunities.
As long as the people of the Middle East remain largely unaware that they live too comfortably under a social order of religious hegemony, they will stay divided, intellectually dulled, susceptible to sectarian politics and mobilized against imaginary sources of danger.
ISIS may have foreign recruits and foreign leadership, but Arab societies seem too often to turn to political religious liberation, unaware that religion cannot be an appropriate foundation for comprehensive liberation and state building.
Arabs will recognize one day that an occupation of the mind is as important as the occupation of land and resources. As the power of the public square has been recognized throughout the region there is ground for some hope in the future.
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