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University of Basel

What does Islam stand for?

Text: Maurus Reinkowski

Many non-Muslims have been asking themselves this question in light of the series of alarming developments in the Islamic world. Here is my attempt at an answer.

Moscow Cathedral Mosque
Magnificent buildings versus acts of violence. Islam is difficult to grasp for many non-Muslims. (Image: Pexels)

Non-Muslims always tend to be most aware of Islam when extremists are making headlines. One need only think of the short-lived expansion of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) in Iraq and Syria during the mid-2010s. Or the swift collapse of the Afghan military, built up over two decades with funding running into the billions, in summer 2021 under assault from the Taliban, the “(religious) students”. Also, 9/11, the 20th anniversary of which was marked this September, is linked to Islam.

There are a few points to be noted here. Most of the victims of IS, which at the end of the day was primarily a nihilistic organisation, were Muslims in Iraq and Syria themselves. The Taliban’s swift victories were the result of a flawed policy of nation building pursued by the West in Afghanistan since 2001. Although the USA vowed revenge following the attacks of September 11th 2001, its politicians, including the then President, George W. Bush, also made clear that the Islamist-minded terrorists responsible for 9/11 were in no way to be equated with Islam and Muslims.

Yet, these points are themselves in need of qualification. There is good reason to doubt that the “Islamic State” has been finished off completely. It is entirely possible that the Taliban will again turn Afghanistan into a haven for jihadists from around the world. The fact that several of the 9/11 hijackers were able to live together in Hamburg for years undisturbed was taken as an invitation to expand massively the security agencies tasked with monitoring militant Islamists across Europe – and, at the same time, to keep a close eye on a large number of Muslim activities and institutions. After all, didn’t the 9/11 hijackers appeal to their religion, and were they not convinced that they would be rewarded for their deed with admission to Paradise?

Religion as a source of identity

So what does Islam stand for? None of the many books about Islam and its political interpretations that have been written over recent decades provides a single, clear answer to this question. Neither does the Koran. The Koran, like the Old Testament, is a huge treasure chest in which it is easy to find passages that evoke both a peaceful and a warlike ethos.

Islam therefore stands for many things. Along with Judaism and Christianity, it stands for one of the three “Abrahamic” religions, all of which – from their own particular perspectives – look to Abraham as their progenitor. Islam stands for a religious culture with an extremely rich and diverse set of traditions that has grown up over the past 1,500 years and has shaped, and continues to shape, large parts of Asia, Africa and Europe.

It also stands for the only political resource that the Islamic world has developed entirely on its own during the age of modern ideologies: Islamism, the belief that political activity should be governed by the laws of the religion of Islam. Over the past fifty years, this belief has become dominant within the Islamic public.

In light of the failure of so many imported western ideologies (liberalism, Marxism, capitalism), many Muslims have come to view Islamism as an incomparably powerful source of identity – and indeed it is.

Problems with Islam, problems with migration

For western society, on the other hand, Islam also stands for demographic fears. One of the reasons why Samuel Huntington’s thesis of a “clash of civilizations” had such a powerful impact was that he linked it to demographic trends. Whereas the share of the world’s population living in the West will fall from almost 45 percent in 1900 to one-tenth in 2025, the population of the Islamic world will rise from less than 5 percent to one-fifth of the global total over the same period.

It is easy to relate these figures to trends within our own country. In 1970, Muslims accounted for only 0.25 percent of the population of Switzerland, but by about the year 2000 this figure had risen to 4.26 percent – a more than fifteen-fold increase.

It is therefore necessary to take issue to some extent with both the scaremongers and the Pollyannas. The vast majority of the problems that European societies have with Islam are problems experienced by all societies receiving an influx of migrants. At the same time, however, it is undeniable that the Islamic world is going through a phase of particularly violent self-discovery, the end of which is not yet in sight.

Question one's own religiosity

This anxiety has yet another aspect of which we are generally unaware. When we ask, “What does Islam stand for?” we should really add “for us”, as in western societies our response to this question reveals a curious combination of superiority and inferiority complexes.

I often hear the argument that Muslims have yet to experience their own age of “enlightenment” – as if there were time in today’s world to replay the film of the 17th and 18th centuries at our leisure. This assertion of intellectual superiority masks a feeling of insecurity. For if we as non-Muslims show an inability to understand Islam, ultimately we are also expressing a sense of alienation from ourselves. We are familiar with the sense of detachment from religion that has become prevalent in Europe, but when compared with the vibrant piety (at least, that is how it is perceived by most people) of Muslims, the garment of everyday secularism that we normally take for granted and are happy to wear suddenly seems rather drab.

The question of what Islam stands for will continue to be a subject of debate. However, before we embark on a futile quest to identify the “true” essence of “Islam”, it may not be a bad idea for us to spend some time thinking about ourselves and our own relationship with religion. What I am advocating here is not a new religiosity that could serve as a counterweight to Islam, but rather that we take a short pause, perhaps over the quiet period between Christmas and the new year, to reflect on ourselves, God, the world and, yes, Islam.

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