Justifications for terrorism against Western states, such as the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack, are not rooted in traditional Islamic philosophy but do use some of its ideas, argued Mohammad Azadpur yesterday evening.
Azadpur, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Research on Culture and Literature at Johns Hopkins University, addressed a crowded Kaufmann Auditorium in a lecture organized by the Iranian Students Association, titled “On Terrorism in Islamic Political Philosophy.”
“After Sept. 11, I noticed that a lot of people were confused about whether Islam really promoted this sort of violence,” said Nassim Majidi ’03, president of the student group, which helped bring Azadpur to Cornell.
“Although [Muslims] have their own views about the religious side [of Islam], I thought it could help to educate people about what the political philosophy is truly about,” Majidi said.
Azadpur distinguished between two different eras of Islamic philosophers, those of the Medieval period and those who wrote at the time of European incursions into the Middle East in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
He noted that during the Middle Ages, leading Muslim philosophers envisioned a model Islamic state which would take an active role in elevating the morality of its citizens.
The Medieval philosopher Abu Mohammed al-Ghazzali combined works of Greek thinkers such as Aristotle and Plato, with the “Abrahamid monotheism” of Islam to create a utopian Islamic city. Such a city would induce its citizens to enhance their spirituality by imitating Mohammed, the founder of Islam, who was idealized by al-Ghazzali as a philosopher king, a lawgiver and a prophet. This ideal, like the Platonic one, is incompatible with democracy, Azadpur noted.
However, Azadpur emphasized, modern Islamist political philosophy takes the idea of an Islamic state to an extreme. “There is a marked distinction between the more modern and the classical interpretation of the Islamic utopia,” he said.
In the modern context, he explained, Islamist leaders — those who politicize Islam — look towards the Islamic state “as an ideal to put in practice, to mobilize the community to achieve raising the moral and intellectual levels of its citizens.” But the theories had originally been meant merely “to articulate and discuss as a way to foster personal growth and spiritual achievement, not to implement as a practical measure.”
Still, Azadpur explained that terror groups, such as al-Qaida, who appeal to violence to achieve an Islamic utopia have appropriated modern Islamic philosophy as an intellectual framework from which to lash out at the Western world.
In fact, the violence stems from frustration with totalitarian Middle Eastern regimes which close all options for reformers to have a political voice and effect change, Azadpur said. The West, and particularly America’s tacit approval of such oppressive states and support for Israel are seen by people in the Middle East as a policy of keeping Islamic peoples in poverty, without hope for advancement or a say in their future.
Audience members pointed out some U.S. foreign policy blunders that have contributed to Muslim hostility towards the United States.
“Oil is the central reason for our interest in the Middle East, and unfortunately because of our dependence on guaranteeing that supply, we’ve had to make terrifying political compromises,” said Peter Cohl ’04.
“President [George W.] Bush says the [Sept. 11] attack targeted the U.S. because of its prosperity and its democracy