Which Islam?

R. K. Kent
Emeritus Professor of history, University of California at Berkeley, USA


Analysis of the book:

Alija A Izetbegovic: Islam between East and West (1984)
Third edition 1993, reprinted in 1994.


(Dialogue Internationa Journal for Arts and Sciences, June 2012.)

(From: Dialogue, Paris, 26: 17-28, 1998)

Published first in 1984, eight years before the war in Bosnia and after some forty years of Communist rule in Yugoslavia, ‘Alija ‘A Izetbegovic’s Islam between East and West (1) reached its third edition in 1993 A reprint of 1994 confirms an ongoing interest in this text It grew out of the earlier Islamic Declaration for which he spent time in prison As a young and educated Bosnian Muslim he came to feel and believe that his local co-religionists had slipped the leash of Islam. Many ate pork, routinely drank alcoholic beverages, intermarried with Orthodox and Catholic Christians, and hardly observed the rituals which mark the devout Muslims, including the daily prayer (Salah) Given the atheistic nature of Communism with which Islam cannot be compatible (2), all of this converged to ignite the “Islamic Fire” in Izetbegovic and several other educated Bosnian Muslims. This reaction in a Federal Republic with almost one half of its population consisting of declared adherents to Islam alarmed the Communist rulers as a manifestation of extreme religious nationalism. What the Communist authorities did not know, as they used repression, revulsion against both secularism and distortions of Islam has many antecedents in history as a much wider reaction within Muslim societies to impositions of the West since the Crusades (3).

Western incursions into the House of Islam came in many ways, shapes and forms Still, the prevailing perception among the devout Muslims defined all of them as a continuous attempt to drive man from God and replace the submission to His will with sterile and self destructing individualism as well as materialism. A number of Muslim theologians, starting most rigorously with the Persian-born Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111 AD} sought to reconcile first the Greek Thought with the Islamic Teachings. Later, they tried to find avenues through which Muslim societies could come to incorporate the advances of Western Science without allowing to be dominated by materialism at the same time In the end, Al-Ghazzali abandoned his unusually interesting philosophical endeavours and became an active advocate for something radically different. He rejected reason as the path to God and decreed that the only way to communicate with Him is through personal experience of ecstasy A major subdivision ensued within Islam between those who subscribed to this conclusion and others who did not expurgate rationalism from devotion to God within Islam. This marks one of the major differences between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims although both know and understand their communality inside the House of Islam In his "Islam Between East and West" Izetbegovic and his colleagues at the time (1983-1984) declared themselves to be entirely within the Sunni chamber of the House of Islam “Rationalism that rejects mysticism,” writes Izetbegovic (xix), “and mysticism that excludes a rationalistic approach” are in full discord with the “balancing principle” through which the body and the soul unite during the Salah. In the same sense, the social order reflects the ideals of religion and ethics while both Christianity and materialism are clearly distinct from Islam because they lack both the principle of balance and the merger of body and soul. The problem of incorporation, however, remains unresolved, vexing but not equally acute in every corner of the Islamic world in respect to the relationship of Western science, materialism and their impact on Muslim societies. (2)

When the 1984 text first came out in print, Yugoslavia had not disintegrated and was still under the Comrnunist rule. At the outset, the volume provides a disclaimer that it has any connection, intended or inadvertent, with a political purpose. Just thirteen years later, Alija Izetbegovic happens to be the President of Bosnia. He led the local Muslims through four years of a bloody fratricidal war among the Bosnian Slaves who became rigidly subdivided into two branches of Christianity and a Muslim counterpart adhering to the Sunnite Islam with Izetbegovic as a pivotal and, at once, secular and sacerdotal person enveloped by a team of like-minded Bosnian Muslims.

The Bosnian war stopped at Dayton. All the niceties aside, the peace was imposed by the Clinton Administration some two years after it had torpedoed a non-imposed peace accord at Lisbon, brokered by Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance as well as accepted by the Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats.(4) The overriding but not exclusive purpose of this cynical (read “strategic”} act was to rescue NATO from coming to an end as a useless fossil of the Cold War years. It now had a “regional” armed conflict su misura without any major risks at 35,000 feet and with medium-range missiles launched from the Adriatic. As the Arnerican soldiers came to the post-Dayton Bosnia without a shot fired an ever more intense debate began within the United States in particular. Should there be an internationally guaranteed Bosnian “unitary” State dominated de facto by its Muslims or should an already existing partition of Bosnia be allowed to take hold along the ethno-religious lines? Fears are being expressed, on the one hand, that failure to support and solidify the “unitary” Bosnia will open the door to its annexation by Serbia and Croatia. This would force the Bosnian Muslims to go under either the Croat or Serb Administration or yet both, in a denial of self-determination. On the other hand, it is believed that the withdrawal of the U. S. ground forces will encourage the U. S. -trained and equipped Bosnian Muslim army to “cleanse” Bosnia of its Serbs through extermination and expulsion. In turn, this could lead to a wider conflict, dragging Serbia and Croatia into it and escalating even beyond the Balkans. While Western Europeans are hardly eager to see a Muslim state in the Balkans its Christians are even less prone to put up with it. An imposed “unitary” Bosnia could become a prescription for another civil war. An all-Muslim Bosnian state, endowed with a large and U. S. trained army, using the latest weapons systems, could start a Balkan war. What really matters in this situation is the role of Islam in determining if the exertion in the path of God (jihadd, from the noun juhd) is to take a violent or pacific form (5). This has been sensed by those in the West who are taking the Clinton Administration to task for failing to interdict the entry of Shiit Iran into Bosnia and there is no longer any doubt that Iran’s presence in matters of faith, money and arms is having a major impact on the Bosnian Muslims, both high and low. In bits and pieces, the Western press has reported already some tensions between the Bosnian army commanders and the civilian authorities. Similar tensions are known to be around within the Bosnian government as a whole. There is thus a very real and little known or understood debate internal to the Bosnian Muslims. Its outcome could turn to be even more important than the decision in the West what to do in and with Bosnia. Apart from the primacy of passion and regard for the Imam as the supreme authority on Islam, there is another basic difference between the Shiites and Sunnis. It consists of an established missionary tradition which came out of the earliest struggles within Islam. With the cultivation of secrecy to avoid detection by opponents, the Shi’a missionaries work by developing social contacts within all the social classes. Their true calling and mission are shielded through secular professions as merchants, military instructors, craftsmen and, even, as pilgrims when no other cover can work. In predominantly Muslim areas which are not under turmoil the missionaries have usually resorted to the highly moralistic interpretations of carefully selected suras of the Kuran. As such places have not been too attractive the Shi’a missionaries were most likely to be found in those Muslim or Muslim-dominated areas where discontent is widespread. To the angry and the disaffected the preaching invariably turns to the need for armed conflict which alone can purify a subverted Islam and terminate the unbearable social stress (6). With their ardent local supporters in Bosnia, the Iranian Mujahadeen are already “re-Islamizing” a war-torn, traumatized society which merges the strong desire for revenge with an Islamic “gap” as it had drifted long ago from its Medieval Islamic roots. If the Islamic Declaration (7) needs to be assessed within the context of a Bosnia still under the Yugoslav Communist over-rule. Islam between East and West finds itself in a post-Dayton Bosnia with a strong international support for the “unitary” state. While it overtly occupies a moral ground, this support reflects the fact that most of Europe does not wish to see a Muslim State in the Balkans. The Clinton Administration sees in the “drowning” of local Muslims in the Bosnian Christian sea a way to remove its “Iranian caper” from the status of a major issue of a flawed foreign policy during the coming Congressional elections. Under the circumstances of such international support and the increasing influence of Iran in Bosnia an important question imposes itself. Can the “unitary” state exist without Muslim domination in government, economy, the courts and in the educational system? Here, one must turn to Islam between East and West in search of a possible, perhaps even probable answer,

It is hardly a secret in the present-day world that power, money and sex (not invariably in this order} predominate as an Unholy Trinity refilled by the audio-visual media and the scribal press, each in its own style and never-ending maze of manipulations. No profession or calling is seen any longer as devoid of its easily corruptible, morally bankrupt and often venal members whose real calling is opportunism pure and transparent. Inner insecurity, general distrust and the simple longing for kindness and decency impel men and women to search for spiritual antidotes. These can end in Suicide Cults or ad hoc terrorism on the grounds of moral indignation but they cannot be provided and sustained by the Churches with Bingo games and other ”attendance enhancements.“ The malaise of modern times is unlike any other before it because of almost instant communications which insure, vampire-like, an undead and widely felt torment and feeling of helplessness to change anything for the better. The general malaise, localized through its global manifestations and, again, re-localized from much wider phenomena and noumena, hardly escaped ‘Alija Izetbegovic. On the contrary, an examination of the malaise’s origins in his volume’s first part becomes the platform from which to launch an advocacy for the great religion of Islam as the only possible universal panacea without the shedding of blood on a massive scale. Essentially, "Islam between East and West" is a piece of writing designed to convince that Islam is not only superior to Atheism but also that it leaves Christianity far behind in the quality of human existence under God. Izetbegovic reserves the surprise of his text for the concluding section of the volume to be brought in below.

First, the philosophical underpinnings, reported as closely as possible to the text on hand without lengthy reproductions. Accordingly, religion (Islam excluded by implication and contrast) denies man's biological needs while materialism, whether posing as Socialism or Capitalism, plays havoc with man's spiritual desires. It emerges that evolution, civilization, science and utopia "are parallel to atheism" while creation, culture, art and morals "are parallel to religion." Atheism thrives on science and material progress thus going squarely against man as first and foremost a "spiritual and not a biological or social factor." As man does not live by bread alone, Atheism _in denying man_ does away with what should be the centerpiece of human existence, namely "humanism, freedom and human rights. " The contradiction between culture and civilization is the "same as between religion and science' Socialism has been sired by the materialistic creed. It does not really deal with man but with the methods of organizing the "life of the social animal. " In what almost amounts to a tour de force. "anti-Christian Socialism" is the "inverse of Christianity" because Socialist values turn the Christian ones upside-down: instead of religion, science; instead of individuality, society, instead of humanism material progress, instead of creating man through upbringing, drill, instead of love, violence, instead of freedom, social security, instead of the City of God (civitas dei), the utopia of civitas solis. At this point comes the fundamental questiion: cannot science serve religion, hygiene (including moral hygiene), piety and material progress combined with humanism? Cannot utopia be populated with real human beings instead of anonymous and faceless individuals in order to merge with the City of God {"Kingdom of God") on earth? The answer "is yes. " It is to be found, with one exception, only in Islam.

One could offer numerous criticisms of the proposed philosophical edifice but here is not the place to enter into the purely philosophical argument to find points of agreement and disagreement. The purpose of this review is to come to understand the mentalite’ as a harbinger of the future. It is most important to find out whether the concepts advanced by the Bosnian Muslim elite of the 1980’s are likely to prevail in the near future of Bosnia’s Muslims and, by proxy and contact, affect the fate of the Bosnian non-Muslims as well. It should be obvious that humanism in its multiple aspects, including freedom to and freedom from, runs like a thread through much that comes most immediately into view. In siding within Islam through inner peace with oneself, by elevating love as the conqueror of violence, by rejecting the notion that Islam should submit to the “tyranny of history,” by desiring and using the material progress of science to benefit man without depriving man of spirituality, the clear message is that the Bosnian Muslim elite of the 1980’s wanted a rebirth of Islamic humanism in Bosnia. Unless its manifesto of 1984 is made obsolete by the civil war in Bosnia and its successful exploitation by the Shi’ite missionaries, there might come about an arrangement within Bosnia that will surprise everyone. Islam between East and West is the book to read.

Ten chapters of the volume deal with the details of creation and evolution, the phenomenon of art, morality, culture and history, drama and utopia, the Islamic nature of Law, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, and ideas and reality in which there is a discussion of Marx and Marxism. Curiously, in a chapter which discovers “superstitions” even in Science (ideas and reality), there is not a word about the discrepancies between Islamic theory and practice in the documented past affecting non-Muslims in Muslim dominated states. Given that Bosnian Muslims are likely to dominate the “unitary” state it is surely a sub-topic of crucial importance. As an example, one could mention that Islamic theory allows for unimpeded self-rule for the Dhimmi communities which consist of the Peoples of the Book (Ahl al-Khitab) or Jews with the Talmud and Christians with the Bible living under Muslim overrule. Yet, the historical record reveals numerous instances of violence against them. In the “medieval” North Africa Jews had a rather bad time, especially under the Almohads. What is not generally known, the yellow markings used by the Nazis to identify Jews visually were first invented and applied by the Almohad authorities centuries ago. According to Islamic law, the Jewish Dhimrnis paid their annual tax (the jizya) in order to retain internal autonomy but neither this law nor the theory itself guaranteed protection in real life. Equally, in World War II, the Bosnian Muslim extremists joined the Nazis from Germany and Croatia, aided the Nazi war effort and slaughtered thousands of Serb civilians. They were certainly not taxed by the Kuran where no sura condones such behaviour. There is no doubt that what happened to the Serbs in Bosnia (and Croatia) between 1941-1944 is a direct prelude to the period in Bosnia between April 1992 and the signing of Dayton Accords. At the end of World War II there were no apologies for the systematic extermination of the Serbs in Bosnia. The leaders of this accurately defined genocide were never tried in any court. Intellectual discussions which eliminate empirical phenomena in favour of some goal perceived as “lofty” or politically “astute,” tend to lose much of their luster.

There is also a “Third Way,” outside Islam, in something of a surprise package toward the end of Islam Between East and West. .This is one of the most sophisticated segments of the book. It provides the heading for chapter 11 (pp.271-285) and it applies mainly to England and, by extension to North America, the twin side of the Anglo-Saxon world. There is no known association between Izetbegovic and English society and thought but he does walk with ability through a host of English thinkers, He finds concordances between Islamic and English thought and practice. This is the result of the “historical” fact that England has escaped the rigid Christianity of Continental Europe, marked by the Inquisition. It is not clear whether the Continental Europe’s Protestant Churches that also evaded the Inquisition “fit” here but Izetbegovic sticks to England alone

Just as Al-Ghazzali became the most rigorous formulator of the Shi’a Islam, Roger Bacon (d. 1294) and his writings underscore the “duality” of the English life and thought in a lasting way. He was thus the forerunner and founder of England’s “later spiritual progress.” Bacon held that “inward experience induced invariably a “mystical illumination” while true science was rooted in observation (empiricism). It was John Locke who placed the “concept of God” in the very “centre of his ethical theory. “ Even Thomas Hobbes, an unabashed “positivist and materialist” thinker held that the laws of nature are in actual “harmony with the Bible.” One could object here that Hobbes died in 1679 while the system of positivism was developed in France by August Compte who died in 1857, around the age of sixty. Assigning the biblical duality to Hobbes whose entire philosophical legacy (especially through the Leviathan) hardly devotes any “centrality” to the Bible in comparison with the laws of nature (“nasty, brutish and short” in the lives of some humans) seems like trait-chasing to prove a less than fully tenable thesis. Still, this problem is reduced by the introduction of an entire “Cambridge School, with wide influence in England There is a philosophy, states the author, which “satisfies religious needs and a “religion which corresponds with reason and permeates us with the warm and bracing feeling” (this is a very English-English phraseology). Indeed, the English “mind has surpassed itself ‘ in creating a “utilitarian morality” which finds its echo in the American pragrnatism. It is also noted that David Hume (who, by the way, was not an Englishman but a Scottish philosopher and historian) as well as Adam Smith “had an aversion to clericalism and religious organization.“ Similar attitudes can be found among the Muslims. To sum it up, Izetbegovic stresses that the Anglo-Saxon version of Democracy, as practised in England and America, in its style and content, is entirely compatible with Islam. This is in contrast to the rigidity of the Continental European Christianity and its political derivatives which do not allow for the “balancing principle.“ In emitting the argument that an absence of experience with the Inquisition is a major reason for the absence of rigidity, Izetbegovic does not take the Orthodox Christianity out of the sclerotic mode. Yet, Inquisition did not affect the Orthodox Christians and one could also find a number of philosophico-religious concordances between Islam and the Orthodox Christianity. For some reason, this avenue of intellectual exploration is virtually shut. One could go further in that all religions share a basic moral code consisting of five areas of behaviour: that which must not be done (say, Apostasy in Islam), that which must be done (to periodically confess one’s sins in Catholicism)/ that which should not be done (failure to observe one’s patron saint day in Orthodox Christianity underlined by the Slava among the Serbs), that which should be done (wearing of the yarmulka at the Synagogue), and a “neutral” but rather vast area of permissible behaviour, more or less “moral” in texture.


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