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by Amir Taheri
Benador Associates
February 17, 2006

" God ? What about him?" the sheikh asked with a frown. We were in a mosque in London, discussing sermons the sheikh delivers at Friday congregations. I had asked why God almost never featured in, or, at best, was assigned a cameo role, in sermons that focused almost exclusively on political issues.

For the sheikh 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 had 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 could 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 more recent times:

In the 19th century a Persian adventurer named Jamaleddin Assadabadi, disguised himself as an Afghan, so as to hide his Shiite origin, and set out to build a career in the mostly Sunni Ottoman province 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.

Jamal and his friend and business partner Mirza Malkam Khan, an Armenian who claimed to have converted to Islam, launched the idea of an " Islamic Renaissance" (An-Nahda) and promoted the concept of a " perfect Islamic government" under " an enlightened despot". They used parts of the proceeds of the monopoly they had won to organise the lottery business in Persia for publishing a newspaper to promote their ideas.

Malkam had a slogan of unrivaled cynicism: "Tell the Muslims something is in the Koran and they will die for you!"

The trick would work because the overwhelming majority of Muslims did not know Arabic and those who did had at least as much difficulty understanding the Koran as an English speaker reading Chaucer or Macaulay.

Fast forward: the campaigns of Sayyed Gamal and Mirza Malkam produce the Salafi movement in the latter part of the 19th century with the Syrian Rashid Rada as its best-known advocate. The term is taken from the phrase " aslaf al-salehin" (the worthy ancestors) and evokes the hope of reviving " the pure Islam of the early days under Muhammad."

Fast forward again: the Salafi movement gives birth to the Muslim Brotherhood ( Ikhwan al-Moslemeen) led by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt (1928) and its Iranian Shiite version the Fedayeen of Islam led by Muhammad Navab-Safavi (1941). In the 1940s the movement also produced two other illegitimate 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 an Iraqi firebrand of Iranian origin Rashid ‘Ali al-Gilani.

All these movements appeared at a time that Islamic theology had ceased to exist in any meaningful way. The last Islamic theologian of note had been Muhammad-Hussein Khashif al-Ghitaa in Iraq in the 19th century. At the same time Islamic philosophy had also died and buried under successive despotic regimes, the last Muslim philosopher of note being Mulla Sadra of Shiraz.

The offspring of Salafism, both in Arab countries and Iran, organised terrorist operations killing hundreds of people, mostly politicians, academics, judges, and journalists between the 1930s and the 1960s but failed to win power anywhere. The reason for their failure was that most Muslim nations at the time were seduced by Western ideologies such as nationalism, socialism, and communism.

By the 1970s most of those Western ideologies had lost their luster. The bankruptcy of Communism was manifest in the Soviet Union. Nationalism had led several Muslim nations, notably Egypt under Gamal Abdul-Nasser, to humiliating defeats. The liberal ideologies were being mocked inside the West itself as the gangrene of multiculturalism and its claim of equality for all cultures spread.

The ideological vacuum thus created in the Muslim world was partly filled by the Salafi movement in its different versions.

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.

The biggest successes of salafism, however, have been scored in Western democracies where the emergence of large communities of Muslims in recent decades has created a space in which neo-Islam, or Ta'aslum (Islamism) as a new Arab term has it, can thrive.

This new space is of crucial importance for two reasons.

First, it allows Salafism to promote its ideas and recruit militants in freedom, something not possible in most Muslim countries where local despots would not tolerate any breach of their control of the public space. The Muslim Brotherhood in Britain or the United States, for example, can say and do things that it cannot in its birthplace of Egypt. This is why the bulk of the propaganda of neo-Islam, including books, journals , videos and DVDs, is produced not in any Muslim country but in Western Europe the United States and Canada. The money, together with the pseudo-religious veneer, comes from oil-rich Arab states, Iran, Pakistan and Egypt.

Secondly, Muslims living in the West have no fist hand experience of the intolerance and terror that neo-Islam has practiced in Muslim countries for decades. Muslims in the West 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.

The prop used are, for men, beards, a refusal to wear neckties, the "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 shoelaces. The garments must never come in bright colours as 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 favoured by the Prophet.

A semiological study of the types of beards grown by neo-Islam is impossible in a short essay. Suffice it to note that every version of neo-Islam grows its own specific type of beard and regards other types of facial hair as "deviations".

When it comes to women the choice of clothes is even more limited. Women are obliged to cover their hair because, so the neo-Islamists claim, it emanates an invisible radiation that drives men wild. Women must also avoid bright colours, although green was the colour of Muhammad's clan, the Bani-Hashim. The ideal neo-Islamist woman is draped all in black, although pro-Taliban groups prefer the all-white headgear. The more radical neo-Islamists promote the burqaa, a drape that covers the woman head to toe, allowing only two holes for the eyes. Other neo-Islamist schools want women to wear masks that makes them look like female versions of Batman.

Needless to say a small minority of the world's estimated 1.2 billion Muslims follow the visual apartheid promoted by neo-Islam. Some of the most outrageous disguises of neo-Islam can be seen only in the West, never in any Muslim country. In New York and Paris you see neo-Islamist disguises that you will never find in Cairo or Tehran.

Once visual apartheid is achieved, in the same way that Lenin, Hitler and Mao wanted their followers to wear specific uniforms, the neo-Islamist moves to the second phase of his project which is to make his followers brain-dead.

This is done by persuading them that there is a unique Islamic answer to all questions ever asked or to be asked in the future.

And where does the answer come from? It comes from " fatwa" factories set up by often semi-literate sheikhs in some Muslim countries.

The largest such factory operates in Qatar, the smallest of Arab states, where a group funded by the European Union produces an annual brochure under the heading " Allowed and Forbidden" (Yajuz wa La-Yajuz). The most complex issues of life, ranging from charging interests by banks to euthanasia, are answered often with a simple "yes" or " no."

The idea is that, as Maudoodi believed, Islam was sent by God to turn men into robots obeying divine rules as spelled out by the sheikhs.

Maudoodi claims that when God created man he made his creature's biological existence subject to " unquestionable laws." For example, if a man is thirsty the divine law forces him to drink. The mistake that God made, according to Maudoodi, was not to apply the same rule to man's spiritual, political and cultural existence. Realising His mistake, God sent Muhammad 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) with the rest of the world seen as 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. But this is not how Muhammad taught Islam. His biography is full of instances in which 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. In other words 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 the shariah, not to mention self-appointed sheikhs, offer are relative matters, open to infinite interpretations.

Because Islam does not have a church structure and clergy it is exceptionally vulnerable to being hijacked for fraudulent purposes. In Egypt and Pakistan so-called "Islamic investment funds" have defrauded millions of people, often the poorest, of their meager savings in the name of bogus Koranic interpretations. In the West, neo-Islamic charlatans have persuaded thousands of men and women to use their bodies as advertising spaces for a sick ideology in the name of religion.

Neo-Islam's attempt at destroying individual freedoms is as much a threat to Islam as the Inquisition was to Christianity.

By preaching martyrdom as the highest goal for Muslims, and beating the drums of "the clash of civilisations", neo-Islam is also a threat to world peace and international law.

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 not be concerned about Palestine, Iraq, and Kashmir or any other political cause they might be interested in.

What it means is that they should recognise that those and other 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 part of the media, government, and academia into treating it not as a political movement, which it is, but as the expression of Islam as a religion.

It is time to end that deception and recognise 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. What it does not have the right to do is to pretend to be a religion, which it is not.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the New York Post on February 12, 2006


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