I was recently speaking with a well-known “moderate” Islamist figure about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and how this terrorist group has managed to defame the true image of Sunni Islam within just a few short months—more than Al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups ever have. While this well-known preacher agreed with me about ISIS and its false brand of Sunni Islamism, he said this does not eliminate the dream of the return of the caliphate—the aspiration of every Muslim who wants to see Islam rise up and advance, as Islam cannot do so without its state.
This rejection of ISIS and terrorism while still wanting to see the return of the caliphate represents a major problem in Islamic discourse today. This is the result of a state of low self-esteem in the Islamic world that has existed since the fall of the last caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, and represents a response to the arrival of new Islamic discourse that not only frowned at the idea of caliphate, but viewed this as being inherently flawed.
The reality of the Muslim Ummah today is one of the absence of effective and influential religious leaders, with the return of popular Islamist discourse justifying violence. We have seen the rise of many groups and organizations based on this discourse, including ISIS, Ajnad Al-Sham, the Ahfad Al-Rasul Brigade, Fatah Al-Islam, Al-Qaeda and many others. It is just that ISIS has gone the furthest by announcing an Islamic State in parts of Iraq and Syria and paying allegiance to a caliph.
However, ultimately, the emergence of such groups has only contributed to further harming Islamic self-confidence and self-esteem. Who could believe that barbaric and brutal organizations such as these, whose fighters are proud to pose with the severed heads of defeated enemies, could turn into an alternative to true Islam? Those who follow and support these groups are doing so solely out of spite towards the ruling regimes in our region—not in support of Islam, which is suffering today more out of the ignorance of its supposed followers than the hatred of its enemies.
The future of the Islamic world looks bleak amid the political polarization that has beset the region and in light of the failures to make any advances on major issues. We have spent so much effort without making any gains on a number of issues and this effort, ultimately, could have been used to develop and invest in our own people.
We are facing a number of major issues, but perhaps the biggest is our inability to even diagnose the problems facing us. We lack the ability to gauge the sheer magnitude of the threat that these extremist groups represent, particularly as they are now present all over the world. There is a collective departure from reality among Muslims today in favor of daydreams of the caliphate and eschatological musings. Islamic discourse today reflects the worst parts of our heritage in terms of myths, lies, hypocrisy and the political exploitation of religion.
The collective conciseness of our Islamic society has turned diagnosing problems, the first step on the long road to finding solutions, into a problem in itself. The prevalent cultural discourse, which covers political, religious and economic visions in all their different trends, has completely eradicated our ability to make sense of crises. Our lack of self-esteem today, as well as the effect this is having on our decision-making, reminds us of the state of shock that accompanied the early days of the post-colonial era. We saw the rise of new slogans and visions during the last gasps of the Ottoman Caliphate, which eroded from within due to stagnation and corruption.
This issue of low Muslim self-esteem, which is something that we are constantly bleeding from as a result of the distortion of the image of Islam and the deteriorating situation facing Muslims today, does not allow us to even acknowledge the problem. We have delayed the search for a solution with the search of a “savior”—an “emir of the faithful,” or just somebody who blows themselves up in the hopes of change.
This delusion of the “savior” is the main reason for the current deteriorating situation. In fact, one could say that the issue of “diagnosing problems” is even worse because we have created a false awareness that attaches our problems to other causes. Many Muslims today view the issues facing us as being the natural results of complicated conspiracies, which in turn require the search for other “saviors,” with each group looking for different characteristics in their own personal “savior.”
In jihadist discourse, this “savior” represents an almost magical return to the past, represented in a single Islamic vision backed by popular support. For political Islamists and Islamic activists, they want to see the re-introduction of the idea of the utopian savior. Looking at it from a realistic point of view, this trend is an amalgamation of traditional Islamic culture and democratic pluralism, even though some Muslims have outright rejected this, even to the point of embracing tyranny and backwardness.
As for those who accepted the vision of civil society that seeks to address domestic issue, they are putting forward their own models in the hope of winning public support in the absence of competition and the preoccupation of ruling regimes with other issues.
However, these changes have always been superficial. The Gulf War, September 11 and the Arab Spring revealed that acceptance of tolerance, equality and multiculturalism were ultimately lacking in those who sought to take advantage of this new situation. It is clear to see how many of these groups sought to use this for their own ends.
True change has not reached the heart and soul of the Islamic world. Muslims actions have predominately been based on their own political interests, at one time allying with ruling regimes and the West and at other times opposing them. Now, we are seeing many Muslims resorting to and justifying violence. This is a phenomenon that will only serve to exacerbate the situation. We now find ourselves trapped between the real world and delusion.