Understanding the “Heartland”

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has a brief discussion of the recent Spanish elections and the impact the bombings may have had on the results. I have a great deal of respect for his analysis in general, although I do occasionally have reservations about his discourse with respect to Islam. Since I’ve now got a soapbox, I wanted to talk a little about his interpretation of the meaning of events in Iraq from a religious perspective.

He, Josh Marshall, begins with a discussion of the religious understanding of Al-Qaida and then Muslims in general.

Let’s fall back for a moment and think about what this whole fight is about. Al Qaida (and militant Islam generally) sees itself as the inheritor of a world-historical religious movement which, according to their view of cosmology and eschatology, is supposed to be at the vanguard of history. In the orthodox Muslim view of history, the ‘lands of Islam’ expand but they never recede. The Islamic world should be the most powerful, the most advanced by various measures, probably the wealthiest.

I agree with his first sentence concerning Al-Qaida’s self-perception of being at the vanguard of history. [I’m using Al-Qaida to refer to the group that swears allegiance to Osama bin Laden, not as a catch all phrase for those claim him as a hero. It may seem like an academic distinction, but that’s where distinctions are made, often for a reason.] Whether they have developed a cosmology or eschatology is highly debatable. Any attempt at theology is an attempt at understanding the Divine message, and many of these militant “Islamic” groups are not positivist thinkers. They believe they know the Divine message do not see it being carried out, so their thought is clearly to the “why not.” However, that negative approach is not theology, but is justification. There is no actual engagement with proof texts to come to a decision. Rather a decision is made and the proof-text is found. I will admit though that my critique is an esoteric one and does not diminish his point.

His next sentence concerning orthodox belief of history is far more troubling. Orthodox, meaning correct belief, Muslims are those who believe in God, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and the Qur’an. The rest is up for grabs, and there are a multitude of schools of thought. The physical expansion of the Muslim world, à la Manifest Destiny, does not exist. The early expansion of the empire was an Arab expansion, not a Muslim one; no one was forced to convert, and in fact were discouraged from doing so, in order to fund further Arab expansion. To give religious meaning to a political act means Muslims cannot live in the US as Muslims, otherwise they would be required to make this an “Islamic” country. I consider myself to be an orthodox Muslim and I’m quite happy with both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. In fact, I’m willing to bet if you polled a random set of 10 Muslims, not one would have the belief that Muslim lands must expand and never recede. (If there are 10 Muslims who read this, let’s do a poll in comments. Acceptable answers include “Risk!” – as in the board game – and “huh?”)

Thankfully, Josh put the term “lands of Islam” in quotes.

The next section I have concerns with concerns the repeated use of the “heartlands of Islam.” He’s not the only one to use that phrase, but since he’s the one I’m talking about…

What exactly does the phrase mean? In terms of population, we know Arabs make-up less than 20% of the world Muslim population. The most populous Muslim nation is Indonesia, and South Asians compromise almost 25% of all Muslims. As a center of learning Al-Azhar is Egypt is one of the primary spots for Sunnis as Qom is for Shi’ah. Mecca and Medina may compromise holy sites, but only 3 million Muslims, out of 1.2 billion, go there a year, and they are subject to worshipping as the Wahhabis tell them to, so it’s not fully free and spiritual experience. Why is the Arab world considered the heartland of the Muslim world? You can only argue Saudi Arabia because of its historical importance, but modern realities mean it is not the welcoming place it once was. By adopting that phraseology, we are Orientalizing Islam, and to certain extent accepting Al-Qaida’s definition of Islam, which privileges the Arab world. It is important to realize that the war Al-Qaida is fighting is also against other Muslims, in an attempt to define who are Muslims and what Islam is. They are equally committed to destroying Islam today as they are the “West.”

Assuming that you do work with this definition, why would Iraq be considered in the heartland? Iraq offers Najaf and Karbala, which are important for Shi’ah, and most are grateful for the ability to visit those shrines and to practice freely if nothing else, but Al-Qaida does not consider the Shi’ah Muslim. With the aid of the Taliban they perpetrated the largest massacre of Shi’ah at one time in Mazar-i Sharif – which is makes their supposed association with Iran laughable. That only leaves Baghdad, as a former capital of the Abbassid Empire. Now the Abbassids had their problems, but Baghdad was, and continues to be, an example of a center of learning and the arts, where debates were encouraged, and thought was seen as good. It was also a major center of inter-faith interaction. In other words Baghdad represents the antithesis of what Al-Qaida stands for, much like Andalusia does. It becomes very difficult to justify using the terminology of “heartland” with respect to the Muslim world, as that implies Muslims are bound by common place rather than common doxis. Better, I think, would have been to talk about Arab world.