February 12, 2006 -- 'GOD? What about him?" the sheik asked with a frown.
We were in a London mosque, discussing the sermons the sheik delivers at Friday congregations. I had asked why God almost never featured in (or, at best, got a cameo role) in sermons that focused almost exclusively on political issues.
For the sheik, what mattered was "the sufferings of our brethren under occupation." In other words: In our Islam, we don't do God — we do Palestine, Kashmir and Iraq!
Here we have a religion without a theology, a secular wolf disguised as a religious lamb.
How did this neo-Islam — a political movement masquerading as religion — come into being, and how can those who know little about Islam distinguish it from the mainstream of the faith?
USING Islam as a vehicle for political ambitions is not new. The Umayyads used it after the Prophet's death to set up a dynastic rule. Three of the four caliphs who succeeded Muhammad were assassinated in the context of political power games presented as religious disputes.
Fast forward to the 19th century, and the Persian adventurer Jamaleddin Assadabadi, who disguised himself as an Afghan to hide his Shiite origin and set out to build a career in the mostly Sunni land of Egypt. Although a Freemason, Jamal (who dubbed himself Sayyed Gamal) concluded that the only way to win power among Muslims was by appealing to their religious sentiments. So he transformed himself into an Islamic scholar, grew an impressive beard and donned a huge black turban to underline his claim of being a descendant of the Prophet.
His partner was Mirza Malkam Khan, an Armenian who claimed to have converted to Islam. Together, they launched the idea of an "Islamic Renaissance" (An-Nahda) and promoted the concept of a "perfect Islamic government" under an "enlightened despot."
Malkam had a slogan of unrivaled cynicism: "Tell the Muslims something is in the Koran, and they will die for you."
The trick worked, because the overwhelming majority of Muslims didn't know Arabic, and those who did had as much difficulty reading the Koran as an English speaker has with Chaucer.
LATER in the century, the campaigns of Sayyed Gamal and Mirza Malkam produce the Salafi movement. The term comes from the phrase aslaf al-salehin ("the worthy ancestors") and evokes the hope of reviving "the pure Islam of the early days under Muhammad."
The Salafi movement gave birth to the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Moslemeen) led by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt (1928), and to an Iranian Shiite version, the Fedayeen of Islam, led by Muhammad Navab-Safavi (1941).
In the '40s the movement produced two other children. The first was a hybrid of Marxism and Islam concocted by a Pakistani journalist Abul-Ala al-Maudoodi, who saw himself as "the Lenin of Islam." The other was a hybrid of Nazism and Islam promoted by the Palestinian Mufti Haj Amin al-Hussaini and Rashid Ali al- Gilani, an Iraqi firebrand of Iranian origin.
From the 1930s through the 1960s, the offspring of Salafism organized terrorist operations killing hundreds of people, but failed to win power anywhere. Instead, most Muslim nations were seduced by Western ideologies such as nationalism, socialism and communism. Yet most of those ideologies lost their luster by the 1970s — and various versions of the Salafi movement began to fill the vaccuum.
In 1979, it won power in Iran under a semi-literate mullah named Ruhallah Khomeini. In the 1980s, it dominated Pakistan through a group of army officers known as "the Koran Generals." In 1992 it came close to seizing power in Algeria through the Front for Islamic Salvation (FIS). In 1995, it seized power in Kabul under the banner of the Taliban. Most recently, it won the election in the West Bank and Gaza under the label of Hamas.
SALAFISM'S biggest successes, how ever, have come in the West — where the emergence of large communities of Muslims has created a space in which neo-Islam can thrive.
This new space is of crucial importance for two reasons.
* It allows Salafism to promote its ideas and recruit militants in freedom — something not possible in most Muslim countries, where local despots won't tolerate any breach of their control of the public space.
* Muslims living in the West have no first-hand experience of the intolerance and terror that neo-Islam has practiced in Muslim countries for decades. Instead, they see Islam as an element of their identity and, although seldom going to the mosque, consider neo-Islamist militants as "lobbyists" for themselves.
Anxious to control its constituency within Western democracies, neo-Islam, in its different versions, uses tactics developed by other totalitarian ideologies, notably fascism and communism.
ITS first move was to promote a visual apartheid to distinguish its adherents from the rest of society — in the same way that Lenin, Hitler and Mao wanted their followers to wear specific uniforms.
For men, the props are beards, khaksari (earthly) garments such as shirts falling down to the knees, baggy shalwar (pantaloons), an araqchin (cloth cap), a checkered Palestinian neck-scarf and sandals or shoes without laces. The garments must never come in bright colors (although green was the color of Mohammed's clan, the Bani-Hashim); black and white are the preferred shades of neo-Islam. The neo-Islamist will also always carry a worry bead plus a miswak (a wooden tooth pick), which is supposed to have been favored by the Prophet.
When it comes to women, the choice of clothes is even more limited. Women are obliged to cover their hair, and also avoid bright colors. The more radical neo-Islamists promote the burqa, a head-to-toe drape with two holes for the eyes.
Only a small minority of the world's Muslims follow this visual apartheid. Some of the most outrageous neo-Islam outfits can be seen only in the West, never in any Muslim country.
Once visual apartheid is achieved, the neo-Islamist moves to Phase Two: making his followers brain-dead. This is done by persuading them that there is a unique Islamic answer to all questions ever asked or ever to be asked.
And where does the answer come from? From "fatwa factories" set up by (often semi-literate) sheiks in some Muslim countries. The most complex issues of life, from banks charging interest to euthanasia, are often answered with a simple "yes" or "no."
The idea is that, as Maudoodi (the "Lenin of Islam") believed, Islam was sent by God to turn men into robots obeying divine rules as spelled out by the sheiks.
Maudoodi claimed that, when God created man, He made His creature's biological existence subject to "unquestionable laws." Yet God failed to to apply the same rule to man's spiritual, political and cultural existence. Realizing His mistake, God sent Mohammed to preach Islam, which provides the "unquestionable laws" needed for the non-material aspects of man's existence.
NEO-ISLAM pursues its culture of apartheid by dividing the world into "Islam" and "un-Islam."
Wherever Muslims are a majority is designated as Dar al-Islam (House of Peace); the rest of the world is Dar al-Harb (House of War) or, at best, Dar al-Da'awah (House of Propagation). The claim is that it is enough to be a Muslim to be always right against non-Muslims.
This is not how Muhammad taught Islam. His biography is full of instances where he ruled against a Muslim in a dispute with a non-Muslim. For him, the world was divided between "right" and "wrong," and "good" and "evil," not Islam and non-Islam. It is possible to be a Muslim and do evil things, while a non-Muslim could also be an agent of good.
That neo-Islam is uncomfortable with the idea of religion as something to do with God is not surprising. In Islam, the only absolute and immutable truth is the Oneness of God. Thus what the Koran or shariah (not to mention self-appointed sheiks) offer are relative matters, open to infinite interpretations.
Neo-Islam's attempt at destroying individual freedoms is as much a threat to Islam as the Inquisition was to Christianity.
To protect itself, Islam needs to revive its theology with emphasis on divinity (marefat al-ilahiyah). In other words, Islam must re-become a religion.
THIS does not mean that Muslims should stay out of politics or ignore Palestine, Iraq, Kashmir or any other cause. What it means is that they should recognize that these and similar causes are political, not religious, ones. Nobody prevents Muslims from practicing their faith in Palestine or Kashmir. These disputes are about territory, borders and statehood, not about faith.
Neo-Islam is a form of fascism, hence the term Islamofascism. Its primary victims are Muslims, both in Muslim majority countries and in the West.
In many Muslim countries, neo-Islam has been exposed as a political movement and can no longer deceive the masses. In the West, however, it is has managed to dupe parts of the media, government and academia into treating it not as the political movement it is, but as the expression of Islam as a religion.
It is time to end that deception and recognize neo-Islam in its many manifestations as a political phenomenon.
Neo-Islam has as much right to operate in the political field as any other party in a democracy. But it does not have the right to pretend to be a religion — it is not.
Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.
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