Sam GhandchiIs Islamic Extremism the Problem?

Sam Ghandchi



Before I start my discussion, let me quickly point out two issues in passing:


1.  Questioning the view to see the problem as *Islamic Extremism*,  my point in this article is *not* to say that the problem is Islam either.  I will discuss that the issue is more complex than it first meets the eye.  In other words to come come up with a viable solution,  it is necessary to examine this complexity.


2. There is a lot of talk these days about Ahmadinejad's call to destroy Israel.  What Ahmadinejad is doing is an attempt to create a split among the opponents of IRI, both internally and externally, in face of being challenged for an open society internally, and for nuclear disarmament externally. Contrary to the days of hostage-taking of U.S. Embassy 25 years ago, no significant opposition group of Iran will rally behind this call.  But externally, the split both in the Arab world and within EU is possible, unless Israel and Palestine resume full partnership. The Arab-Israeli rapprochement was taking shape two months ago, and was being followed by recognition of Israel by Arab states and even by Pakistan, before it was all damaged by those firing rockets from inside free Gaza to Israel.  Now let me return to the topic of this paper.





Many Western analysts think that there is an Islamic Extremism which is *fundamentalist* and *terrorist*, and they see this cultish mindset responsible for all the atrocities committed by the Islamists, from Sept 11th attacks in New York to the beheadings in Iraq and elsewhere, and they even view the states like Taliban of Afghanistan and Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) as the state version of such extremism.


And on the other hand, they think there is an Islam which is mostly a peaceful religion of a billion people on Earth,  including the people of Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan .  Therefore they try to make sure to separate the Islamic Extremism from the Islam as a religion of the people, and this way to isolate the extremists from other people.


The above approach is failing in Iraq and elsewhere.  Some see the failure of this analysis as a proof to conclude that the whole religion of Islam is the culprit, and try to make a case that Islam is very different from other religions, because of having specific political goals, and they believe the result is that political Islam, in their view, *is* the Islam, and thus they see Islam as a whole, responsible for all the atrocities that have happened.


I disagree with this latter analysis too, and have explained in many writings that there is hardly much of a difference between Islam and Christianity in this respect, to assume *uniqueness* for Islam, and therefore, my answer to the failure of the former analysis which is focused on Islamic Extremism., is *not* to opt for the latter model of blaming the whole Islam for the mishaps, a view which has equally failed to offer solutions.


I will try to discuss my analysis below, to offer a different perspective to view the problem, a problem that has proved not to be solved by either models, although the former model has been prevalent among most of the Western political and military strategists, when dealing with the Middle East in the last three decades, and especially in the last four years since the Sept 11th tragedy




Let me reiterate the former view.  It sees Islamic Extremists as if they are cults such as Jesus Freaks.  As I have explained before, those cults have three basic characteristics []


The first is secretive beliefs, that a cult's belief system is not announced openly for critics to refute it, whereas in a religion, all beliefs are stated openly.  Lot of times the cults even tell their believers that only believers can understand the belief system and not the outsiders.  This may well apply to Al-Qaeda when they justify to their followers, the murdering of innocent people for their cause.  The second characteristic of a cult, in contrast to a normal religion, is mind control.  Some cults, as part of their initiation ritual, degrade their new recruits so much that later the new member feels so lucky to be accepted by the cult, because their mind has already been set to think of themselves as unworthy "defective" individuals that no one wants, and this is how the mind control of the "sinner" starts.  Again this may well be true about the Al-Qaeda recruits and other suicide bombers, that although being "unworthy sinners," they feel so privileged to be accepted as martyrs, a mind-set established thanks to mind control.  The third characteristic of a cult is that it feeds on false non-verifiable information.  So this is how all promises of God wanting these murders and blood, are justified, and those questioning such non-verifiable words of God, are called the heretics deserving to be killed. 


Thus, it seems like all the three characteristics of a cult are applicable to the Islamic Extremists, then why did I write that I do not believe in this model of explanation of the problem that we are facing?


The cult model thinks that we are facing cults such as the Jesus Freaks and to deprogram the followers of the cult, on one hand we should show the cult members that the real religion like Christianity is different from what for example the Jesus Freak cult preaches, and on the other hand we should take action against the criminal actions of the cult, if any.  So in Iraq, we see the U.S. and Iraq on one hand try to explain to the people that these cultish beliefs to murder non-believers are not Islam, and at the same time the armed forces have been fighting the criminal Al-Qaeda and other criminal cults for years.   Yet, despite all these efforts, the growth of Al-Qaeda has neither stopped nor have the people become so convinced by this deprogramming that the Al-Qaeda's beliefs are against Islam.  In other words, we are not seeing ordinary people to come forward and speak out against Al-Qaeda calling them anti-Islam, etc,  and one cannot say all this is just because of their fear of Al-Qaeda.  Then why is this the case?


I think the reason is that this is not a correct model to view the whole problem, and this is why we are failing to find a solution.  Before I get into my proposed model, let's also take a look at the Islamist States like Taliban and Islamic Republic of Iran and the way this same model has viewed the case of Islamist Extremists in power.




Again according to this model, the Taliban or Islamic Republic are Islamic Extremists who have taken control of the state power and their ideologies are different from the people's religion, the citizens largely all in all Muslims in Afghanistan and Iran, the former with Sunnis as majority and the latter with over 95% Shi'a.


Let's ask ourselves a question.  If in Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, the people of Germany overwhelmingly adhered to a religion of Fascism, and the people of Russia had adhered to a religion of Communism, would it have been correct to tell the people that Hitler is an Extremist Fascist and Stalin is an Extremist Communist, and to try to separate religions of Fascism and Communism as being fine.  Actually in Russia, the Communists tried to make Communism an ideology to replace religions with equal import, but were not successful, and only were able to create a very small group of people adhering to Communism as a religion, but that is beside the point.  I am assuming even if the reality of the Russian society had been to have Communism as its religion, then what would be the right approach of pro-democracy forces in viewing the situation?


Why wouldn't the former view work for the above hypothetical situation?  The answer is that people believing in Communism as a religion, would believe that they need the state to be socialist for a while, to transition to Communism later.  They may have disagreed with the degree of cruelty of Stalin, but they basically would not look at his faith as being anything different from their own faith, and even regarding their differences with Stalin, they would think it as up to themselves to decide how far who is deviating from the right religion of Communism, and would not see it as something the ones who did not believe in that religion, namely the followers of Western democracy, to tell them what to believe.


This is exactly the way Muslims view the Islamic Extremist groups or Islamist states.  They may think an Islamic state is needed for Muslims to finally get to the Islamic ideals, but they may differ with the cruelty of Al-Qaeda or Jihadist, Taliban or Islamic Republic of Iran.  But they would say this is their business to decide the differences between the Muslims, rather than accepting the Western view of the Islamic Extremists, as untrue Muslims, etc.  Again let me emphasize that I do not mean that all Muslims believe in, for example, stoning as an Islamic practice.  But they believe, it is their business, to decide that, and not the business of non-Muslims to tell them.


Thus if the ordinary Muslim also thinks of Islam as *political* Islam, it does not mean that their ideal state will be a moderate one.  But who says they will want to actually live in under an Islamic state now, whether extremist or moderate.  In fact, let me emphasize that ordinary individual's understanding of Islam to be *political* Islam, does *not* mean that they will want the state they live in, to be an Islamic state, whether extremist or moderate.  The best example are the Muslims from Islamic countries who have chosen to live and raise their kids in the Western democracies, rather than choosing an extremist or even a moderate Islamic country.  In fact, most of the Christians living in secular countries think of Christianity as some kind of political Christianity too, but have opted for a secular state.


A person may believe in any Islamic political system as an ideal, but not see any reason to want it or even to see it possible today, the same way that thousands of religious groups in early U.S. history when each had their own model of ideal Christian state, but for their day-to-day life what they wanted was to live under a state that would not force the ideals of any other religious group on them, namely a secular democratic state.


What I am trying to demonstrate is that opting to live in a secular state, or even building a secular state, has nothing to do with one's view of Islam or Christianity to be *political* Islam or Christianity, whether extremist or moderate.  It has more to do with the way the society and its political and social structure has developed, than having to do with the people's religion, whether being extremist or moderate.  Let me take a look at two countries Iran and Iraq, and see the way the social institutions have developed.




In Iran of the time of the Shah, non-religious organizations, such as secular associations of nationalists or the leftists were all banned and the only place for the community to gather was the mosque.  Shah thought this way he can prevent the formation of organizations that can overthrow him, but in reality his strategy only helped to make the overthrow and the post-Shah regime to be more Islamic.  Could things have developed differently?  Of course.  Imagine of Shah had made the election of mayors of all cities and governors of all provinces to be elected officials.  That would have helped the growth of non-religious organizations supporting such a structure.  Imagine if every province had its own elected legislature.  That also would have helped the growth of non-religious political institutions, regardless of whether the people had an extremist view of Islam or a moderate one.  All these would simply have nothing to do with religion and its structure.  Imagine if high level judicial officials of each state were also elected positions. All these would help the growth of secular institutions.


Let's remember, that just the existence of majles shorayeh melli since mashrootiat, with all the influences of the executive branch and foreign states, still created some secular social and political structure, that even has been continued by the religious state of Islamic Republic of Iran.  In fact, the existence of a wide network of secular schools, from elementary to universities, before coming to power of the Islamic Republic,  was the reason that Islamic Republic was never able to rule Iran like the way Taliban ruled in Afghanistan.  The reason was neither because of the reformists nor was it due to the niceties or nationalist tendencies of IRI.  If IRI could, it would have turned Iran into a Shi'a version of Taliban's Afghanistan from the first year after the revolution.  It was the pre-existence of secular institutions such as the school system that restrained IRI.


Let's look at Iraq today.  So much money and efforts are being spent on military assistance to Iraq. And there is so much work on constitution and elections of central parliament and president.  But very little effort is being done to get every city to have its own elected mayors.  The same for elections of governors of provinces.  In fact, contrary to the common belief among the Sunnis of Iraq, the people of Sunni provinces such as Salahuddin, Anbar, and Nineveh would be the real beneficiaries of a real federal system and even localism, because they can work for laws and regulations suitable for the growth of their areas. 


More importantly, such elected structures will develop non-religious institutions of society to support them and that will reduce the chances of any version of a Islamic Republic in the future, to usurp power in Iraq, because of Islamic institutions to be the main social institutions of society.  Spending time, efforts and money to get more promises and assurances from the Islamic leaders during the last three years in Iraq, has ended up in giving concessions even to Islamic Republic of Iran, to keep stability in Iraq, because of continuing to rely on religious socio-political structures in Iraq, rather than to help advance secular institutions by encouraging *elections* at every level of society.


The problem in Iran of the Shah and Iraq of today is not that the religion of people is political Islam or not, the problem is that religious structures, such as the mosques, are being kept as the central social structure of society.  Iran from the time of mashrootiat had the opportunity to develop non-religious structures, from Mozafgaredin Shah to Mohammad Reza Shah, but Iranian monarchs mistakenly thought of the religious structures, to be their allies, and not only did not help develop secular institutions, they even destroyed some of those secular institutions that were developed by people's initiatives.


In fact, in Iraq of the last three years, when US military went there to train Iraqi personnel, and build a modern democratic army structure, the US Republican Party and Democratic Party could also have gone to Iraq, to show people the ways they know of developing non-religious political organizations.  Those would have been a lot less costly efforts, and would get the *grassroots* involved in building a secular democracy in Iraq, and such secular structures would be the best way to neutralize the terrorist organizations, rather then trying to find bad Islam or good Islam.


Islam and any other religion is the business of those who adhere to a religion, and respecting them or not, is fine, but to play bad cop good cop, only antagonizes the religious people.  The moderates and extremists and all shades of religious thinking will continue to exist, like it still does in the United States after centuries of secularism.  This is not the issue to be resolved to end the catastrophe of terrorism and Islamist states in the Middle East.




Recently I wrote an article about the need for a United Front for a Secular Government in Iran []. As usual I got some insults from some of the Islamist faithful, and got carrots from some other Islamist faithful asking me to opt for the failed Islamic Democracy.  But most Muslims, who want to see a real democratic state in Iran, were happy to hear of my proposal.  The real government of Islamic Democracy, namely the government of Khatami after 8 years, showed that it was not even able to get the rights of Iranian women not to wear hijab [] and still if a girl does not wear a veil or a scarf, is risking to have acid thrown to her face on the streets of Tehran, and this is a right that Iranian women already had, for over half a century, before Islamic Republic coming to power in Iran. 


The above shows that not only we did not achieve new rights under the Islamist reformists, we could not even get back what we already had in the pre-IRI Iran.  The Islamist reformists, at best, want democracy among the Islamists, and not a pluralist democracy for everyone, with all ideologies and political shades and social diversity.  I have written extensively before as to why Islamic Democracy is not a real pluralist democracy [] and here will only repeat that after 8 years being in power, they were not even able to return to people what we already had before IRI, a simple right  for the women not being forced to wear veil or scarf, let alone to gain new rights for the Iranian people.


In fact, the proponents of Islamic democracy did not even condemn the fatwa of Khomeini against Salman Rusdie at that time, and some of them even still write about forming a government with the leading ideas of Khomeini as if they do not remember the fatwa or the massacre of prisoners by Khomeini in 1989.  These are serious matters and they cannot say they are using Khomeini flag as a unifying flag and do not really mean it. 


Times have long passed for these games when millions of Iranians lost their lives in these Medieval adventures like hostage-taking, that gave bad name to all Iranians, and those leftist organizations that supported such cruel tactics of IRI, owe apology to Iranian pro-democracy movement, not just because of one bad appraisal of the situation, but because of following an ideology which is basically against democratic structures.  The issue is not just the belief in a leader, albeit Khomeini, that some of them now criticize themselves for it.  American Revolution also had powerful leaders.  Making leadership shorAii (Soviet Style) is not the solution.  The problem of Iran was not just cult of Khomeini, as the same problems continued after his death, the same way that the problem of Soviet Union was not just the cult of Stalin, as the same problems continued after his death. 


The problem was their whole system of thought.  Such organizations not only were against open society at that time, but are still against it, and this is what they share with IRI, although speaking a lot about democracy these days, which is the fashion today, as if democracy means to speak soft and diplomatically.  If that was the criteria, Tariq Aziz of Iraq should be considered the most democratic of all leaders.  These leftist organizations are actually keeping their unity as a cult, by not taking clear positions on these issues, and their unity is not a unity of people with new thinking, and is unity by their shared past, and they are more of a block to the formation of modern organizations among Iranian intellectuals, than being the harbinger of future.  I got distracted, let me return to the topic.


The Islamic Democracy leaders were either silent about Khomeini's fatwa to murder Salman Rushdie, or like Aghajari, supported it at the time, but later, they themselves were attacked by the Islamist Extremists when they got death fatwa for their own beliefs, although they still maintained their postion on Rushdie to be right.  In fact after the Sept 11th [] attacks, and also after the attack on these Islamic Reformists themselves, it has not been easy to maintain positions such as the support of Khomeini's fatwa to kill Rushdie anymore, the position these Islamic reformists still continued to hold more than ten years after the Iranian Revolution.  Today someone like Kadivar takes a position against Rushdie fatwa, but in general the Islamic reformers still try to be silent about such issues, to minimize critic of Islamism in general, whether moderate or extremist.  I hope to see the adherents of Islamic democracy as allies of a united front to establish a secular state in Iran, rather than see them helping to keep the Islamic Republic in power.  They can see the experiences of religious people in the West, when secularism helped them to keep their religion with less political corruption, which as I will note later in this paper, was extensively shown by Alexis de Tocqueville.




Some of those who have tried for years to make Iranian intellectuals the launch pad of Islamism argue that Iranian people want an Islamic state because they are Muslims.  Or they say that the 1979 Revolution happened because people of Iran wanted the Islamic rule.  This is a total misconception of the event.  I have explained extensively why 1979 Revolution ended up in an Islamic state and do not need to repeat here [].  The truth is that Iranian people were more Islamic at the time of Constitutional Movement (mashrootiat) 150 years ago and even then they did not ask for an Islamic state, and created a constitution which was mostly secular. 


In fact, the success of the Islamists in the 1979 Revolution to gain power has become a reason that futuristic thinking is so critical when going beyond IRI [] and Iranian futurists are the leading thinkers as we go forward beyond IRI.  Thus although Islamic reformers want us to believe that even when going beyond IRI, we still need to keep Islamism, the reverse is true, that the only way to be able to effectively go beyond IRI is by dropping Islamism, as I noted in an interview I had about the 1979 Revolution [].


Moreover as far as Muslims creating political organizations, some Muslims were the founding members of Iran National Front (Jebhe Melli) which was and is basically a secular organization.  Others even being in a nationalist organization like Jebhe Melli left it, and created an Islamic nationalist organization which was called Nehzat Azadi headed by Mohandes Bazargan, who two decades later became the first prime minister of Islamic Republic. 


Still some other Muslims went and created Islamist extremist types of organizations like groups around Ayatollah Khomeini, Hojatieh, Mojahedin, and the Islamic Republic Party after the 1979 Revolution, all with their own shades of Islamic ideas.  Even the Islamic faction of Mojahedin, later had splits which ended in groups like Mojahedine Enghelab (the group that Aghajari and Behzad Nabavi belong to) and  Meysami group, that sided with Khomeini, when Rajavi and Khomeini parted. 


Thus the argument that people are Islamic and want the state or their political organizations to be Muslim is not always true, as can best be seen by the Muslims who founded, stayed for over half a century, and are still in Jebhe Melli, without ever giving up on their personal religion being Islam.


In fact Tocqueville who cared more for the best interest of Catholic religion, after visiting the United States about 150 years ago, demonstrates well that the secular state is the best for the religious people, when it comes to [] political structure, and there is not much I can add to his analysis:


“On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things.  In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions.  But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country.  My desire to discover the causes of this phenomena increased from day to day.  In order to satisfy it I questioned the members of all the different sects; I sought especially the society of the clergy, who are the depositaries of the different creeds and are especially interested in their duration.  As a member of the Roman Catholic Church, I was more particularly brought into contact with several of its priests, with whom I became intimately acquainted.  To each of these men I expressed my astonishment and explained my doubts.  I found out that they differed upon matters of details alone, and that they all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state.  I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet a single individual of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point….


The short space of threescore years can never content the imagination of man; nor can the imperfect joys of this world satisfy his heart.  Man alone, of all created beings, displays a natural contempt of existence, and yet a boundless desire to exist; he scorns life, but he dreads annihilation.  These different feelings incessantly urge his soul to the contemplation of a future state, and religion directs his musings thither.  Religion, then is simply another form of hope itself.  Men cannot abandon their religious faith without a kind of aberration of intellect and a sort of violent distortion of their true nature; they are invincibly brought back to more pious sentiments.  Unbelief is an accident and faith is the only permanent state of mankind.  …When a religion founds its empire only upon the desire of immortality that lives in every human heart, it may aspire to universal dominion; but when it connects itself with a government, it must adopt maxims which are applicable only to a certain nations.  Thus, in forming an alliance with a political power, religion augments its authority over a few and forfeits the hope of reigning over all.”  [Page 319-321 Democracy in America, Vol 1, Vintage Books]


Another argument of apologists of Islamism is that the basis of law has to be in religion and since majority of Iranians are Muslims, the law should be based on Islam.  It has been a long time since the utilitarian philosophers in the West showed that the law does not need to be based on any religion.  There has been so much written on this subject that I really cannot understand how anybody can still use such arguments against secularism. Just a simple reading of the works of John Stuart Mill can show that all such arguments to keep the law based on a religion are so retrogressive.  I actually wrote extensively about pluralism to show that the best approach is not even to base the law on atheism or agnosticism but the achievements of all schools of thought should be used, including the religious schools, when developing the law for the future [].  In fact, new theoreticians of philosophy of law, such as John Rawls, do not even think a comprehensive system of liberalism is necessary to arrive at the secular law, which makes the work of law more scientific and free from ideological or religious assumptions [].




Another argument frequently used by some Islamists is that *secularism* is a foreign import.  They say the same about *federalism* which I have discussed elsewhere [].  It is sadly hilarious to hear such an argument from some of the educated folks in the spectrum of Islamist reformists.  I mean the word *jomhouri* (meaning republic) that Khomeini called the Islamic state in Iran, and the word *democracy* that has been used so far and wide by the reformists for so long, are all from the West.  Is it that once a foreign idea is accepted by the Islamists, then it is not a foreign import!  Is it like the imported chicken that was not OK in their view when Shah's regime imported them but it was fine when Islamists imported the chickens.  The same was what the Islamists did with using day light saving time, when they called it un-Islamic at the time of the Shah and do it now in their own regime.  And so many other examples that have been abundant if one compares the practice of Islamists under IRI and compare it to what they called as un-Islamic at the time of the Shah.  Of course, let's ignore the fact that the whole Islamic state that they preach, I mean Islam itself, is an import from the outside (i.e. Arabian Peninsula) to Iran.


These are all excuses and their subsequent arguments show that they do not really understand what *secularism* means.  I have written a detailed treatise about the meaning of secularism some time ago [].  I just hope some sincere Islamic reformers read the article, rather than acting like the IRI that has blindly banned any movies that have words *secularism*, *liberalism* or *feminism* in them.  As Iran's history showed banning the word jomhouri or democracy did not stop them from coming to Iran, one can be sure the same will happen with secularism, finding its way in Iran. 


The world is not going back to a Medieval structure to return to religious state in response to the crisis of industrial society.  For a post-industrial society to develop, a secular state will allow any ideology or school of thought or religion to bring to the new table what it has, rather than stopping others by the religious and ideological censor, the way the websites are filtered by IRI, and publications are censored because of their political thought.  In this new world of Internet these are just efforts that are in vane to stop the coming change, and the people will know of secularism regardless of all these obstacles.  The fact is that freedom of information is a requirement for the growth of post-industrial production, and not just a luxury, and this is why the model of separating state from ideology and religion is winning in the world, in one country after the other.




The situation of Iran today is more like that of shahrivar 1320 (August 1941), as I explained over two years ago [].  If the efforts of the West in Iraq and Afghanistan turns to building more of the democratic structures of electing city and provincial mayors and governors, electing local legislatures and local judicial bodies, the growth of democratic secular institutions in those countries will impact the growth of democracy and justice in Iran.  If on the contrary, religious state in south of Iraq grows, its impact on Iran will be the opposite.  It is the challenge of Iranian people to build Iran's secularism in the tough situation of being under a religious state.  As I noted before [] religious growth in the last century and going forward, has been mainly in charity work, and even metaphysics, but not in politics or science, and the situation in Iran is a retrogression, which nobody would understand better than those who have had to live under it in Iran of the last 26 years, and have been fighting it by civil disobedience all these years [].


Those Islamist reformists who view the call for a secular state in Iran as idealism, should know that the real "idealism," and in fact a dangerous kind of idealism has been none other than the call for religious state in the 21st Century, a call that has cost the world and especially the Middle East the rivers of blood in the last quarter century, and is still taking its toll on our people. An idealism that has put Iran and the rest of Middle East in a burning fire for 26 years, and wants to move the world backward.  Yes, today we know what Islamism wants and it is no longer a theoretical issue of guessing.  It wants to stop the development of the world beyond the industrial society, by forcing a retrogression on the society to go back [].


Wherever in the Middle East that the Western democracies have enough influence, the influence should be used to grow the *secular* democratic social and political institutions before it is too late, like the case of Shah's regime, where not only the secular institutions were not being helped to get created, they were even destroyed and thus paved the way for the success of Islamists.  I hope in Iraq, Saudi and other Middle Eastern countries the secular political organizations get strengthened and the experiences of American and European political parties be transferred to the Middle Eastern countries and the cost of transferring that knowledge, experience, and know-how, is a lot less than the UN military peace forces, although those are also needed to keep criminal retrogressive forces from taking over the region.



Sam Ghandchi, Editor/Publisher


November 5, 2005



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