In the years since 9/11 the greater question of religion's social role has tended, in the discourse of pundits and politicos, to focus ever more narrowly on the subject of Islam, a trend that has accelerated as groups like Boko Haram and ISIS began seizing headlines with lurid acts of terror. Commentators such as Sam Harris have made a cottage industry of critiquing Islam as a political and historical force. The quality of such commentary has varied widely. As Kenan Malik observes in today's New York Times, "this debate remains trapped between bigotry and fear."
Malik insists, however, that the problem must be substantively addressed. As a cultural historian I agree with him on that score, though I depart from what I see as his implied conclusions. Malik rejects liberal apologists, declaring that each recent act of terror "tells us something about the character of contemporary Islam and of Islamism..." More specifically, Malik views groups like ISIS as the aberrant legates of earlier militants: "Anti-imperialists of the past saw themselves as part of a wider political project that sought to modernize the non-Western world, politically and economically. Today, however... it is radicals who often regard modernity as a Western product, and reject both it and the West as tainted goods....The consequence has been the transformation of anti-Western sentiment from a political challenge to imperialist policy to an inchoate rage against modernity...[I]t is radical Islam that has become the lightning rod for this fury."
Islam would thus appear culpable in Malik's analysis, either for turning its adherents against modernity, or at least for lacking the wherewithal to constructively confront modernity: "What jihadism does not possess is the moral and philosophical framework that guided anti-imperialist movements. Shorn of that framework, and reduced to raging at the world, jihadists have turned terror into an end in itself."
Malik is no doubt right that groups like ISIS "have turned terror into an end in itself," but one may still ask whether this malignancy expresses a particular flaw in the culture of Islam. In this regard (pace Godwin's Law) I would argue that the case of Nazi Germany is a relevant comparison. Nazism (and Fascism more generally) expressed pent-up anger against social and economic trends that had been building for decades or centuries and that continue today. Many of the discontents with modernity that Malik ascribes to modern jihadists ("from individualism to globalization, from the breakdown of traditional cultures to the fragmentation of societies, from the blurring of moral boundaries to the seeming soullessness of the contemporary world") were likewise complaints of Hitler and the Nazi party.
The question of whether modern jihadism embodies some deep structural flaw in Islam is thus exactly analogous to the question of whether Nazism embodied some deep structural flaw in German culture or religion. In both cases one is confronted with an obvious empirical conundrum. These flaws, if they exist, do not express themselves similarly in others partaking of the same traditions, such as the Muslims of New York and Kuala Lumpur or the Germans of 1850 and 2015.
Such questions, in the final analysis, misconstrue the way religion and culture more generally operate in human society. It is true that a religion like Islam shapes peoples' outlooks and influences their choices. But at the same time any tradition, especially one as venerable and diverse as Islam, presents the community that perpetuates and uses it with an exquisitely complex array of resources for the structuring of personal and collective life. The choices particular communities make in activating and mobilizing those resources completely transform the complexion of the tradition from era to era or from place to place, potentially making it a force for peace and prosperity in one instance, strife and despair in another. Any critique of a tradition like Islam must thus proceed with sensitivity to this dynamic process always at work: the community shaping the tradition even as the tradition influences the community.
In this respect, Malik's assertion that "jihadism does not possess...the moral and philosophical framework that guided anti-imperialist movements" is inaccurately intransitive, at least as "jihadism" relates to Islam more generally. If jihadism lacks such resources it is because leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have deliberately excised the ideas of Islamic reformers such as Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani and Mahmud Shaltut, in the same way Hitler disowned German liberals such as Dietrich Boenhoeffer and Martin Niemöller.
In understanding the political misuses of tradition, the comparison between modern jihadists and the twentieth-century's Nazis is instructive. In the same way that jihadists idealize terror as "an end unto itself," the Nazis treated industrial murder as an ultimate purpose, requiring no justification beyond mass extermination for its own sake. It is this similarity that intuitively upsets anti-religious polemicists at the suggestion that Hitler was an atheist. The commonality in the political programs of these groups, however, is not rooted in some basic affinity between Nazi and Muslim "faith," but in the ways in which Nazis and jihadists appropriate and utilize German and Islamic traditions.
Ironically, the most striking similarity between Nazis and jihadists (and other similarly malevolent historical actors) is their understanding of culture itself- what might be called a "meta-cultural affinity." Both groups attribute the origins of culture to forces beyond human agency, to God in the case of jihadists, to "race" in the case of the Nazis. This is why both groups make such a fetish of annihilation. It does not matter that great wonders like the Bamiyan Buddhas are blasted to smithereens or that whole civilizations are wiped out. Since we bear no ultimate responsibility for cultural works, our role here and now is only to destroy, God/racial forces can be trusted to replace whatever is lost.
This is the lesson that history affords. Since any tradition, religious or otherwise, is a vital process continually reshaped by our choices, any can become a malignant force, and none more so than when we choose to abdicate our responsibility for and ongoing role in its shape and growth. It is in this light that I find the perspective of Islam's current critics, even one as sophisticated as Malik, unproductively reductionist. A religious tradition arises through a negotiation, not only among its adherents, but also with those outsiders amidst whom they live and with whom they interact. If we non-Muslims rest complacent in propositions like "contemporary Islam lacks a framework for dealing with modernity," we minimize the human agency of Muslims in ways common in kind (if not degree) to the doctrines of ISIS and Boko Haram. Better to expose and condemn the philosophical errors of particular Muslims than to lend fuel to their delusions with a blanket condemnation of the entire tradition that they misuse.