A Debate With Khaled Abou El Fadl on Liberal Salafism and Daesh

Abou El Fadl on Liberal Salafism and Daesh

Mojtaba Mousavi 1395/02/16 12:49:00 عصر

I see no substantial difference between the fundamentalism of Bin Laden and the fundamentalism of George Bush.

While people and intellectuals expect the democratic regimes to save them from the domination of imperialism, the global developments are constantly going on in way that cause the imperialists to take control of them; and the outcome of the events represents the increasing domination of liberal capitalism over other schools, in so far as the French Socialists have begun to have recourse to the conservative and right-wing Liberals in Europe and America to maintain their own security. We are perhaps faced with an anarchic situation in which most of the structures have collapsed, leading to two kinds of fundamentalism: the liberal fundamentalism and Takfiri (pertaining to excommunication) fundamentalism. What mistakes in the past have led to such a situation? Can the originally European, American and/or Muslim intellectuals not afford to deal with this situation? Is it possible to present a "liberal Salafism", emerging nowadays in a complicated structure, living on by misusing the democratic values and structures of formal democracy, and consequently having great impact on the public opinion and intellectuals?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: It ought to be freely and plainly recognized that all systems of thought rely on normative assumptions. Methodologically, these normative assumptions are of the same nature. Whether they come as a result of revelation, belief, or a belief in the necessities of reason, or they rely on some imagined original condition or social contract, human beings create systems founded in normative convictions that are answerable to no higher authority than the normative conviction itself. In other words, they are convictions that are not deferential and are right because they are considered and treated to be right in and of themselves. Having stated this, it doesn’t mean that all normative convictions are of equal moral worth or that they produce indifferent results. All this means is that as a matter of process and epistemology they are animals of the same kind.

In my view, before getting to the question of democracy—which ultimately is a system that tries to concede as much power as possible to those who run the democratic system on its behalf, through some act of delegation of decision-making authority—we must look at some of the fundamental existing modern prevailing normative systems. Although in my view it is not an historical inevitability, much of what became of the ideological normative systems of the West, and especially in the United States, have ostensibly rejected life through design or life unfolding according to the will of an ultimate and all-knowing, all-powerful Designer and accepted the inevitability of an epistemology of chance. Either we believe that we live our lives entrusted on behalf of a Designer who is the ultimate Owner of things and that we are delegates on behalf of that Designer, or we believe that there is no Designer and that we only represent ourselves and we delegate our authority to others but that ultimately the course and purpose of our life is guided by the prevailing paradigm of chance.

In the West it is fair to say that having rejected the idea of a Designer and elevated the idea of existence through chance, the very serious and compelling question has become, on what basis can we justify normative values of any kind? On what basis can we say that an individual is bound to do good, whatever the meaning of this good is? Ultimately, the source of obligation in Western thought became a delegated authority so individuals delegate representatives and these representatives in theory are going to act upon the choices of wellbeing, goodness, and utility espoused by the delegators. When sociologically it is impossible to give equal weight and concern to the preferences of all delegators in equal measure, some authors like Rawls came up with theories such as overlapping consensus to say it is what the majority agrees upon as desirable and good that becomes also what is normative and binding upon a particular community.  

However, in what we can call the chance model, confronted by a vast array of conflicting tastes, preferences, and utility choices, representatives adopt a purely pragmatic, functional, or realpolitik model of governance. They consider themselves successful if they can maximize profits for themselves as delegates and for those within their community of delegators who are the most powerful and the most influential. In other words, the mythology in the system is that all delegators are given equal weight and consideration when it comes to their demands and preferences. In reality, it is only the preferences of the richest, the most powerful, and perhaps even the most persistent and active that manage to prosper from this utilitarian model, where since the premise of the order is that life is based on chance, and is to obtain sufficient profits to place themselves in the best bargaining position vis-à-vis other participants the system so as to negotiate chance in a way that further enriches themselves.

A critical point here is that while the whole system was built on the assumption that God or the Designer has no role to play, what we have observed in recent years, especially in countries such as the United States and England, is that the rich, after having negotiated their chances to maximize their advantageous positions,  declare that this financial windfall was God’s will all along and try to convince the poor that if they play their chances correctly, God might allow them to share in the wealth in some form or another. In other words, the irony of secularism to put it bluntly, is that having excluded God from its normative system of good and bad, after it has confronted a social crisis and huge disparities in wealth and power, it restored God but not as an effective Designer but only to rubberstamp and bless and legitimate what they have already achieved.

Systems by design, which if one is to be historically accurate, were the predominant systems in human affairs, experience a severe trauma in the age of colonialism. While in these systems they were allowed to continue believing that there was a design and that normative and moral values are not simply manmade but are decreed by the Designer of the universe, in their colonial and post-colonial status their institutions—religious, educational, and otherwise— were sufficiently dominated by the colonizer so that the only conclusion that was tolerated by the colonizer or the colonizer’s native agents was that it is God’s design for the colonial powers (the proponents of chance) to dominate and control the disempowered (the believers in design). Therefore, it was often argued, as we saw for instance in Napoleon’s infamous invasion of Egypt, that the faithful should accept the inevitability of their servitude and disenfranchisement. 

With the end of colonialism, Muslim rulers had a very limited opportunity to restore any system of life that existed in the pre-colonial setting because colonial powers departed only in the most crass and physical sense but continued to perpetuate a system of colonial government through proxy institutions, whether these proxy institutions were blatant like the World Bank or imposed little despots that had extremely and abnormally close ties to the original colonizer, and we see this in numerous examples in African states but we also see this in the way that Western powers reacted to the principles of self-determination and national liberation and insisted on engineering a proxy state ruling over the Hijaz in Mecca and Medina and ruling over practically every Muslim country that we are aware of.

Among the if I might say ugly masquerades of secular colonialism was that while again ostensibly claiming that it is godless and without any religious affinity, one unchanging factor of colonial powers wherever they went was not just the destruction of native languages and their replacement of these languages with their own, but the destruction of native institutions that protected, preserved, and perpetuated communities of inherited meaning and also opening the doors wide open to evangelical activities to ensure the conversion of the local population from what they consider false gods to gods that they can live with. Witness the spread of Christianity under French and Dutch colonial rule, the spread of Christianity under American rule in the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea and the active evangelism under British rule in Egypt, and the robust evangelical movement that had taken shape in Iraq and Afghanistan right after they fell to American forces.

On the Islamic side, realizing the evisceration of their native cultural, social, and epistemological institutions a number of movements arose hoping to restore the purity of Islam in some fashion and also in many cases to seek an alternative to simply becoming a proxy instrument for colonial powers and colonialism. The problem with many of these movements is that instead of attempting to rebuild by looking inwards and search the philosophical implications of a life led by design or a life subject to the ultimate designer they most often defined themselves as simply the negation of others. So they often tried in the most superficial way to appear different in the most tangential and marginal aspects than their colonizers but had not attempted to rebuild and restructure the institutions that had been dismantled or substantially weakened by the colonizer.

In so many ways we can say that these Islamic proto-movements that sought to negate the impact of colonialism did not remove God the Designer altogether but they allowed for the construction of a very limited and indeed impotent and ineffectual god.  They secularized the Islamic faith in the name of standing up to secularism. Hence, while they could tolerate extreme cases of substantial moral injustice, lack of equity, mercy, compassion, or social conditions that resembled jāhiliyya and great inequity between neighbors, they satisfied themselves with the instrumentalities of law such as whether to chop off the hand of a thief but without looking at the fairness of the economic system and system of social justice and fairness in distribution of wealth and so on. Especially in the Sunni world, institutions that used to produce juristic luminaries, masters of the language and epistemology of their age, never regained their status. Instead the role of religious institutions became simply to rubberstamp whatever the local ruler wished or desired even if these wishes and desires represented no more than the discharge of his proxy obligations on behalf of colonial powers. One can even say that in the West, progress was made in the name of the exclusion of the Divine only for religious symbols to be coopted at the end to legitimate the outcome. While in the colonized Muslim world, Islamic movements made claims to speaking and acting in the name of the Divine only to discover that in the most fundamental and basic sense that their epistemology and ontological universes remained thoroughly secular (such as the Wahhābīs). Therefore, decisions were justified on the basis of maṣlaḥa, ḍarūra, or sadd al-dharāʾiʿ, instead of engaging in a serious normative exploration of what life in the shadow of a Designer of the universe and of existence truly means.   

As to the matter of Salafiyya, it is critical that we define precisely what we are talking about. If Salafiyya means a reliance on cumulative historical experiences as an authoritative source for meaning and normative values, then it is a critical concept in the world of epistemology. All human beings must and do rely on some historical allegorical figures or historical allegorical events for the construction of values, meaning, and aspirations. As a critical part of the construction of an acceptable epistemology is to negotiate between the symbols of the past with the demands of the present in the construction of reasonableness in confronting the possibilities of the future. In other words, if we rely on the past and derive authoritative meaning solely from the past, and refuse to negotiate with the present and the demands of the present it is impossible to achieve reasonableness in thinking about the future. On the other hand, if we rely solely on the present as a source of meaning and values while ignoring the lessons and constructs of the past, we produce an epistemology that lacks wisdom and it in my view will also lack reasonableness in dealing with the demands of the future. So in that sense, it is imperative that all Muslims be Salafīs to one extent or another. Whether these Muslims are Salafīs because they rely on the Prophet, the early generations, or the wisdom of founding fathers, the critical and challenging step is to negotiate this past with the epistemological demands of the present in order to produce what I call reasonableness or what we can refer to as meaning anchored in the mīzān, anchored in balance, or meaning anchored in iʿitidāl, or even possibly meaning anchored in wasaṭiyya, all of which connotes meaning anchored in reasonable moderation that enables us to take on the challenges of the future. The problem with Salafī thought is when it takes the past as the definition of reasonableness and refuses to allow the present with its demands to negotiate with it, and this is how we end up with an organization like Dāʿish as an extreme example, for instance.

Now, the notion of the past as an essential frame of reference is different from what in the West is referred to as fundamentalism. What normally the West means by the concept of fundamentalism is the reliance on basic unwavering ideological truths that are stated in an absolute sense and that become the tools for defining meaning, value, and ethics, but in that sense, fundamentalism can exist in a religious context or a secular context or in any context in which people rely on absolute concepts which are stated dogmatically and are never subject to rethinking, redefinition, or development. I must say that in order to have ethics, morality, meaning, indeed in order to have humanity itself and humanness, a degree of fundamentalism is always necessary in every context. So for instance, I must believe that the dignity of a human being is sacred and I take that as a basic and fundamental idea, which I am not willing to question or renegotiate.

The problem becomes serious when the stated fundamentals that define the values, norms, morals, and customs of a society become so numerous and burdensome to the point that they also become unreasonable and oppressive. In this context, I see no substantial difference between the fundamentalism of Bin Laden and the fundamentalism of George Bush. The fundamentalism of Bin Laden allowed him to kill innocent people going about their business in New York City. The fundamentalism of George Bush allowed him to invade a country and massacre an entire population. The fundamentalism of Dāʿish allows it to massacre the Shīʿa and everyone who disagrees with them, without conscience. The fundamentalism of Donald Trump would allow him to massacre all Muslims, and all those who are not white and Christian or Jewish, also without a conscience. While a degree of fundamentalism is a necessary for the rootedness of human beings and the anchoring of social character and social institutions, the danger is when fundamentalism becomes a tool to dehumanize the other and exclude or prevent one from giving the other a sense of worth or dignity.


Some intellectuals believe that liberal fundamentalism began when the fundamental pragmatism went hand in hand with the extreme capitalism; and even the American philosophers thought that liberalism is prior to democracy and philosophy. The essence of pragmatism and a sense of obligation to the ideology "all's fair in love and war" are seen in the Islamic Salafī (proponents of the classic and traditional teachings) and Takfiri (excommunicated) groups, and both the liberal and religious fundamentalists would overlook the capabilities of rational thinking in the world; they are totally dependent upon the "traditional sources (coming down from one generation to another)", that is why they are considered as "anti-intellectualism". It seems irrational capitalism which verifies rationality only to the extent that it proves liberalism, and the Salafī Takfīrīs give a credit to intellectuality to the extent that verify their traditional ideologies, are now conquering the world; the world that is going swiftly against the intellectuality. Do you agree with such an analysis? What solutions are there in order to raise public awareness in such a situation, and what is the duty of the independent intellectuals regarding the situation?     

First, overall I do agree with this analysis. The problem with both liberalism and what is referred to as Takfīrī Salafism is that both have a set of core assumptions that they hold sacred and unwavering. But both ultimately rely on a stark form of pragmatism in order to perpetuate their own self-interest. So in the case of Saudi Arabia, for instance, while there are constant claims that nothing can prevail or trump the Qurʾān and the Sunna as they understand them, consistently the Qurʾān and Sunna are cast aside under the rubric of maṣlaḥa, siyāsa sharʿiyya, or ḍarūra. And in the case of the liberal West, there are consistent declarations as to democracy and human rights as ultimate values but in reality the only time democracy and human rights are upheld and propagated is when upholding these institutions furthers their own interests. Democracy and human rights as principles are consistently cast aside when it comes to pragmatic self-interest. So both systems seem to set a prototype of what they believe is ideal but then use pragmatism and realism as a prevailing value in preserving these prototypes, which in effect becomes exclusive to them and shared by no one else. Thus, true Islam is treated as if it can only exist with the Saudis and any pragmatic act is permissible in order to preserve the so-called true Islam, while in the West we see true democracy and human rights are limited to the West and any pragmatic immoralism is justifiable in order to preserve the so-called democracy and human rights, which in effect is limited to them and no one else.

The problem with liberalism in particular is that it has become like many ideological concepts emptied of substantive meaning. Is liberalism the complete freedom of the individual? Is liberalism tolerance of the other? Or, is liberalism to see the world through the eyes of the former colonial powers or to see the world through the eyes of the white Western man? In reality, we find that in the name of liberalism freedom of individuals is often not allowed, intolerance is often perpetuated, and censorship is often practiced when these so-called liberal principles result in a truth that offends the sense of justice or the sense of truth adhered to by the privileged white races of America and Europe. It then becomes easy when liberalism is claimed by individuals with different agendas anywhere from George Bush to Donald Trump to Barack Obama to even Oprah Winfrey, or even bigoted public figures such as Sarah Palin or Pamela Geller and then we are told by these individuals that Muslims cannot be trusted with democracy because they are not liberals. Then we do not know what liberalism means any more other than it is a kind of trope used by the privileged postcolonial white races to deny other societies their freedom of choice and their right to exist ruled by people that serve the interests of their own citizens rather than act as proxies for the West.

In my view, since in the post-communist world, the world after the crumbling of the Soviet Union, the concept of liberalism has become as elusive and as diluted and indeed nonsensical as the concept of communism. We live in a world in which intolerant and bigoted people camouflage themselves in thin intellectual veils, abusing ideas that once held true value and then using these ideas to perpetuate atrocities that are against fiṭra. So in the name of upholding liberalism we see the United States ally itself with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to destroy a budding democracy in Egypt and to murder thousands in the streets and send thousands of others to be tortured and imprisoned. And in the name of Islam, we see hoodlums going around raping, pillaging, and murdering, and murdering even the most esteemed and learned scholars, in the name of upholding the khilāfa. We live in an age in which there has been a true deprecation and dilution of philosophical concepts. We live in an age of barbarism clashing with barbarism. In my view, the role of the true intellectual is to speak the truth to these barbarisms, to expose them for what they are: that they represent nothing but sheer barbarism, and to invite people back to the world of rationality and reasonableness, to the world of moderation and samāḥa.

Some would claim, on the basis on this analysis, that the ISIS is a product of modernity, or at least an outcome of the performance of modern trends, and then they present "ISIS modernity". (The ISIS makes use of the modern tools and structures more than any other Takfiri groups, and is much interested in the state capitalism.) What affinities are there between the ISIS and modernity or the moderns?

Dāʿish reminds me of the provincial rebellions of the barbarians against the Roman Empire. Dāʿish is not anchored in any vast learning of the Islamic tradition and only those who have the most superficial knowledge of the Islamic civilization would be fooled into thinking that Dāʿish represents any kind of genuine Islamic authenticity. Yes, Dāʿish can comb through Bukhārī or Muslim to find a ḥadīth here or there to cite in justification of its barbarity but fundamentally, Dāʿish is a movement that is the byproduct of the failure of Arab nationalism, the degradation and humiliations of the invasion of Iraq and the collapse of Iraqi institutions, and the day-to-day humiliations inflicted upon Iraqi and Afghani society. This is why many members of Dāʿish are former Iraqi military who after having lived all their lives as secular nationalists now raise an Islamic banner and are engaged in a case of rebellion against their own societies in effect. Ultimately, if Dāʿish holds power, its elite will do what the elite of the Takfiri movements have done all along and that is to seek trade partners that can make cash available so that they can buy expensive weapons and recruit fighters. They do not offer a civilizational alternative in any sense of the word, or a moral or ethical alternative in any sense of the word. They are the monster created by Western militancy and the type of illness that befalls societies that watch their elites drinking their own blood with the elites of the supposed enemy. These societies at some point dream of vengeance but ultimately after much blood is shed, we remain locked into a world of pragmatism, realism, and lack of moral and ethical alternatives.

As it stands, Dāʿish serves a very important function for the West and that is the demonization of Islam because before 9/11 and before Dāʿish, Islam as a set of moral and ethical values was winning many converts in the West and was making advancements in the West, which scared the Western elite. This Western elite needs Dāʿish as much as Dāʿish needs to have the West as an enemy. Dāʿish strengthens the causes and claims of the Islamophobes. With Dāʿish, imperialism has succeeded in further dividing the Muslim world, further wasting the resources of the Muslim world, distracting attention away from the occupation of Jerusalem and the plight of the long-suffering Palestinians, further destroying any of the democracy dreams that the Arab Muslim world may have held. So in a nutshell, the western elite needs Dāʿish as much as the leaders of Dāʿish need the Western elite.

Some believe that the liberal fundamentalism, in the recent decades, has become the main partner of Salafism; it seems that the conflict of interests between these two fundamentals is now plunging the world into chaos. What indications from a critical point of view are there in the liberal capitalism, which have propelled it into a kind of militarist fundamentalism and made it a real threat against democracy? Don't you think that these indications have led to a performance in which there remains, genealogically, no difference between performance of the liberals or seculars and that of Salafists and Takfīrīs?

This question already identifies much of what I have addressed above. But it is critical that we understand that the type of liberalism, which I call vulgar liberalism, that is, the liberalism of Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged, the liberalism where you are free to make as much money as you want and let your neighbor starve to death, has become indistinguishable from the Islamism of the Takfīrīs. We notice that for both, other than the zakāt which is in our modern age, in Sunni Islam, a truly nominal amount and can do nothing to end poverty or hunger, the wealthy are free to do with their money as they please. And so we have seen a natural alliance between those who impose a police state only upon the poor and disenfranchised but the rich exist above the law, beyond the law. They live in a world without borders, traveling from one nation to another, owning property in Luxemburg or Dubai or New York. All are seen as their realm of justifiable influence.

There is a symbiotic and, if I dare say, also satanic alliance between these worlds. This Takfīrī Salafism, as we always notice, targets the poor man buying his bread in the market, or the poor man praying in a local mosque, while never touching the interests of the powerful and the rich. This is why once upon a time, the same Donald Trump that is today maligning Islam everywhere was financially bailed out by the so-called Islamic Saudis. And regardless of what they display in public, what bonds them together is their universe of financial interests, and the only true values to which they adhere. Unlike the true risāla of the Prophet (ʿalayhi al-ṣalāt wa-al-salām), which was a salvation to the disempowered and dispossessed with the empowering of the oppressed against the oppressor, the Islam of the Takfīrīs is an Islam that makes the life of the poor more miserable and leaves the powerful and wealthy free to enjoy their riches without molestation or harassment.

There are some documents showing that the economic and social partnerships of Salafīs and Takfīrīs are with the modern regimes. The relationship between Bin Laden and George Bush can be mentioned as an example.  It shows that there are common interests between these groups, which has led to such close associations. Do these interests originate from unique worldviews and epistemologies, or at least from unique epistemological propositions? Is there any theory justifying this way of pragmatism and practicality?

If you want to truly understand the ideological and philosophical underpinnings of this type of attitude, read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which has become the Bible of the right wing in the United States. It is simply a worldview where those who have become powerful only interest themselves in maintaining their power at all costs. This is well beyond Machiavelli and his realpolitik. The remarkable thing is that in the Untied States, politicians like Donald Trump and Jeb Bush are not ashamed of the praise that they heap on Ayn Rand and writings like Atlas Shrugged. Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, or the architects of Dubai, and Dick Cheney and the elite of Washington all come from the same elitist institutions, schools, salons, and clubs.   

It seems the militarist power of liberal capitalism along with the violence of Salafī Takfīrists will change the structure of the future world to a military fundamentalism. How will be the future world if, from a futurological viewpoint, we carefully consider the interaction and involvement areas of the fundamentalists?

What I find rather interesting about our historical period is that we are moving towards a paradigm reminiscent of imperial powers of the past in which dominant empires were in a virtual state of war with everyone and the world was practically in the hands of whoever could prevail in the battlefield. I don’t know that Muslims or the Takfīrīs are really in a position to pose much of a military challenge to Western countries, but what many of the Western elite seem to forget is in this imperial paradigm, the military eventually tires of the demands of the spoiled and self-indulgent elites of society and eventually overthrows them and rules directly. The impact upon the belief systems of a country like the United States about democracy and personal freedom will be seriously challenged if the military finds it far more efficient to do away with the civilian elite class and rule directly. What we are quickly realizing is that technology has not made war irrelevant. In other words, technology has not created the effect of deterrence which some liberals argued would exist when military technology becomes so advance and creates such a deterrence effect that no one would dare wage war any more. Technology has simply made war more expensive and draining on civilian economies and has returned us to historical models in which societies labored in order to furbish the huge expense of armies that would be used in barbaric imperial wars. I cannot speculate upon what the effect of the Takfīrīs will be but I clearly can see the risk upon civil society in the West that is posed by militaries that need a vast amount of resources and that are constantly being called to bear the costs of the spoliation of the elites. 


تاریخ :

1395/02/16 12:49:00 عصر

نویسنده :

Mojtaba Mousavi

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جمعه , 06 اردیبهشت 1398 , 17:26