Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Where it all went wrong for Islam


Muslims at prayer

Actor Ben Affleck recently launched a very public take-down of conservative US pundits Bill Maher and Sam Harris for their perceived 'Islamaphobia' in a spray that went viral.

His main point was that it is ridiculous to talk about the global Islamic community of 1.5 billion followers as united on anything except their shared faith and perhaps the most basic tenets of the religion.

He is right to make this point and to use it to reject the notion that a religion can be held solely responsible for tragic events such as those which continue to unfold in the Middle East.

However, it is intellectually dishonest to completely divorce the religion of Islam from the despicable acts that are being carried out in its name by groups such as Islamic State, Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates.

Indeed, it is possible to agree with Affleck and still ask the question: where did it all go so wrong for this proud monotheistic faith? 

The reality, as with all the world’s major religions, is that Islam exists within a broader context that will inevitably influence how it is interpreted and practiced by its adherents. In the case of the Middle East, we are talking about a particularly troubled region where Islamic doctrine has been twisted by a seemingly endless cycle of violence, government repression and political instability.   

It is therefore unhelpful to characterise the global Muslim community (including those based in Australia) as somehow exceptional in terms of being uniquely prone to violence.  

Nevertheless, religion is central to understanding the conflicts that are playing out in the Middle East. 

The reality is that there is a battle for the heart and soul of Islam that has been playing out around the globe since the 60s and 70s.  The roots of this struggle are complex but principally revolve around issues of geopolitics and intra-state mismanagement rather than theology. 

Until the 60s and 70s, much of the Islamic world (outside of the Gulf) had been following a largely predictable and well-worn post-colonial path in which fledgling governments, some of them democratically elected, many of them secular and liberal, sought to guide their embryonic nations toward independence and prosperity.  

At this time, Islam was moderating at a rate of knots. This was certainly not the case in every corner of the Middle East and nor did it occur at the same pace across the Muslim world. Nevertheless, countries including Syria, Iraq and Lebanon used their post-colonial independence to busily incorporate key pillars of democratic society, such as the separation of powers, rule of law, and free and fair elections.    

This fragile state of affairs was destroyed by a perfect storm of events over the coming decades. These events included the explosion of oil prices, Arab wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973, Western intervention in favour of more pliable (and generally authoritarian) regimes, the Iranian revolution in 1979, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the same year.

In particular the Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, took advantage of the vastly increased power and wealth at their disposal (as a result of the rise in oil prices) to finance the spread of the uncompromising and austere brand of Islam that is loosely characterised as Salafism (which encapsulates the strict adherence to Islam as it was practised at the time of the Prophet Mohammed).

At the same time, the governments of Iraq and Syria were taken over by the despots Saddam Hussein and Hafiz al-Assad and Lebanon descended into civil war in 1975. These events sowed the seeds of instability that have been subsequently exploited by groups including IS, Hamas and the Al-Nusra Front.   

While the foregoing description is a necessary simplification, it encapsulates the origins of a struggle that has been playing out ever since: that between the severe Salafi brand of Islam that is embraced by jihadist groups and more moderate traditions such as Sufism that have been increasingly marginalised.  

For a long time, religion has been practically the only significant institution outside of government in a region in which civil society has been brutally suppressed. It is therefore only natural that an ideology that rejects the failed colonial paradigm of nation-states and instead promotes the grand vision of a resurrected caliphate is compelling to many amongst the general populace.

Radical Islam is therefore a symptom rather than a cause of the forces that are presently threatening to tear the Middle East apart.

Tim MayfieldTim Mayfield is a freelance writer with a Masters in Middle Eastern & Central Asian Studies from the ANU, who has previously worked as a Middle East analyst for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Islamic prayer image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Tim Mayfield, Islam, caliphate, Ben Affleck, Islamaphobia, Middle East



submit a comment

Existing comments

Bill Maher and Sam Harris are not "conservative US pundits". Bill Maher is a liberal who donated $1 million to an Obama Super PAC in 2012. Sam Harris is a liberal in favour of drug legalisation, higher taxes on the rich, better environmental regulation, etc. Who fact-checks these articles?!?

Benjamin O'Donnell | 14 October 2014  

Unfortunately, with Radical Islam, like the Ebola virus, once the symptoms appear there is a very high probability tat someone is going to die. As we see with ISIS thousands of fighters are from Western countries so it is not limited to an idelogical problem in the Middle East.

Michael Siddle | 14 October 2014  

The problem is you don't know the ground reality.. you are assuming, generalizing the things. Until and unless you go and research in Muslim dominated areas your article which you have written peacefully sitting in AC room is of no use...

Rajesh Kamble | 14 October 2014  

The roots of Wahabism are to be found in imperial politics, particularly post-World War I. The British Empire promoted this sect from the 1780s and brought them to prominence to take charge of the Hejaz in the 1920s to prevent a caliphate under Sharif Hussein. As John Andrew Morrow points out in The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with Christians of the World: If the imperialists used Islamic extremists for their own ends during the colonialist period, spreading Salafism and concocting Arab nationalism in order to undermine the Ottoman Empire, it would be naïve to believe that neo-imperialists of the 20th and 21st century are not doing the same. While most of their rank and file are unaware of the reality, many if not most of the world’s militant Muslim movements were created and remain under the control of US, British, French and Israeli secret services.”

Bilal | 15 October 2014  

A perceptive and informal analysis. The debate, using different suras from the Quran, the earlier, more spiritually concerned from Medina, when Islam was first establishing itself, compared to the later Meccan ones, when the Prophet was the head of the Muslim state, which dealt more with governance and law, as to whether Islam is a religion of peace, or a religion of war, has been going on for a long time. The material itself would not, on its own, allow you to come down either way. You need to look at the actions of Muslim states, from the earliest in Medina to the present day to make an informed judgement. I would be more concerned with what modern Muslims think about the Islam and its place in society.

Edward Fido | 15 October 2014  

An informative piece in a very general way. As an armchair expert routinely solving most global strategic and economic issues from my lounge chair I think a fundamental point missed is the oppression of Palestine. Until Palestine is granted State Status no headway will be made in securing a stable system of sovereign States in the middle east. The West might have to concede that under Islam this region will be totally foreign and Leberal Democracy is not the universal, inevitable, panacea it supposes.

Harry Spratt | 15 October 2014  

" where did it all go so wrong for this proud monotheistic faith? " I suggest it all went wrong in the same way that it went wrong earlier with Christianity. Both religions began with a glimpse of high ideals built on a base that was deficient in the knowledge of the complexities of the universe, of human nature, and most of all of the providence of God. Both religions assumed they had the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth. But as Science progressed, its findings revealed the many false assumptions and superstitions incorporated in their traditions. Islam was once the most enlightened empire the world had seen, when Christianity was still to emerge from the Dark Ages. But rather than evolve from its initial base, Islam decided to cling to its outdated traditions and abandon its science, which was adopted- initially grudgingly- by Christian nations, who then used it to oppose and subjugate Muslim Nations. Only when both parties learn to cooperate in mutual respect and harmony will there be any lasting peace and mutual prosperity.

Robert Liddy | 15 October 2014  

Where it all went wrong with Islam?? - You have conveniently omitted the fact of Palestine which is the mother of all issues for Arabs. - How about Oil that Americans covet and the corrupted Saudi Royals being held in place by the West? - How about Al Qaeda, Isis, Nusra whatever else name you call it, all have their roots to Washington D.C You have written an article based on generalisation and without proper knowledge of what is Islam :(

Maximus | 15 October 2014  

great read, don't stop now! i love goats that is all :}

fong | 15 October 2014  

This is a regurgitation of the uninformed argument that it's all politics. I would suggest some more research of the Koran and other Islamic texts, particularly the many prescriptive verses that describe exactly what is happening to the non believers at the moment. Also note, this killing of non-believers in the way commanded has been consistent for the last 1400 years or so - nothing new. The only thing new is these new theories of explaining it...

Michael | 17 October 2014  

I disagree with Robert Liddy. Sadly, atheist propaganda keeps portraying Christianity as a backwards institution intent on suppressing scientific research. The fact is such propaganda couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is the leading scholars throughout the Early Middle Ages were clergymen. Beginning with the recovery of ancient learning in the twelfth century and continuing through the Copernican Revolution and extending into the era of Enlightenment, the Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy than did any other institution. Pierre Duhem, a historian of science credits medieval Catholic mathematicians and philosophers such as John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Roger Bacon as the founders of modern science. Catholic scientists, both religious and lay, have consistently led scientific discovery in many fields. From ancient times, Christian emphasis on practical charity gave rise to the development of systematic nursing and hospitals and the Church remains the single greatest private provider of medical care and research facilities in the world. Friar Gregor Mendel (1822–84) pioneered genetics and Fr Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966) proposed the Big Bang cosmological model. The Jesuits have been particularly active, notably in astronomy. Church patronage of science continues through elite institutions like the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Vatican Observatory.” -Pierre Duhem. See: How Christianity has been at the cutting edge of scientific inquiry and discovery (and where there has been no “dark age.” http://witscience.org/catholic-church-cutting-edge-scientific-discovery-1000-years/#sthash.F4cOirCi.dpuf www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/fathers-of-science How the Catholic Church built Western Civilization: http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/history/world/wh0101.html” target=”_blank”>http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/history/world/wh0101.html

Researcher | 05 February 2015