Symposium: When Does a Religion Become an Ideology?

Is it significant that, in Islam, the pillars of faith are rituals rather than moral values?

In this special edition of Frontpage Symposium, we have invited two distinguished guests to discuss the question: When does a religion become an ideology? Our guests today are:

Tawfik Hamid, an Islamic thinker and reformer who is the author of Inside Jihad: Understanding and Confronting Radical Islam. A one-time Islamic extremist from Egypt, he was a member of Jemaah Islamiya, a terrorist Islamic organization, with Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who later became the second in command of al-Qaeda. He is currently a senior fellow and chairman of the study of Islamic radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.


David Satter, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He was Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times of London from 1976 to 1982, during the height of the Soviet totalitarian period and he is the author of Age of Delirium: the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union, which is being made into a documentary film. His most recent work is Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.

FP: Tawfik Hamid and David Satter, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.

Mr. Hamid, let us begin with you. Make an introductory statement for us to get our discussion started: When does a religion become an ideology?

Hamid: A religion becomes an ideology when the followers of this religion cannot tolerate the existence of those who have different views or beliefs, and when they understand their religious text literally and refuse to accept any way of understanding the religion other than their own way of understanding.

FP: Thank you.

Dr. Satter how would you now build on Mr. Hamid’s statement?

Satter: I think another way of putting it is that a religion becomes an ideology when man-made dogma is treated as infallible truth.

Although there are adherents of all three major monotheistic faiths who believe that every word of the sacred texts is to be taken literally, for the post-Enlightenment rationalist mind, there is a distinction between transcendent moral truths, exemplified in the case of Judaism and Christianity in the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments and the dogmatic contents of the religions expressed in their historical accounts and ritual requirements.

This distinction is important to bear in mind because transcendent moral truths are never the content of an ideology. An ideology contains an assertion about society that is treated as ultimate truth and applied indiscriminately to explain all aspects of political reality. Since transcendent moral truths owe their character to the fact that they are “over and above” society, they cannot contribute to the content of an ideology. In fact, the effect of an ideology is always to destroy true moral transcendence.

The ritual requirements or dogmatic assertions about history of a religion, however, are perfectly suitable for the construction of an ideology. The obligation in Islam to wage jihad, properly interpreted, can be made the basis of an ideology which treats waging war on unbelievers as the highest obligation of a Moslem and evaluates all actions in terms of the extent to which they support this sacred obligation. Other religions too have aspects that could become the material of an ideology. One example is the doctrine of the Jews as the “Chosen People.” Although this doctrine has never been used to justify the oppression of others, it could be.

A religion becomes an ideology when its man-made elements become an idée fixe and are seized upon as an idea that can be imposed on all political and social institutions in the interests of power. The temptation was explained best in Dostoevsky’s tale of the Grand Inquisitor where the inquisitor explains to Jesus the essence of an ideology’s appeal:

Instead of the strict ancient law, man had in future to decide for himself with a free heart what is good and what is evil, having only your image before him for guidance. But did it never occur to you that he would at last reject and call in question even your image and your truth, if he were weighed down by as fearful a burden as freedom of choice.

Laying down that burden may be easiest of all if the mental prison thereby created is constructed with the materials of supposedly sacred religious teachings.

Hamid: In general, I agree with many of the above views. I would like to add that, based on David’s analysis, I see that having an ideology is not by itself the problem. For example, the ideology of the chosen people – as he mentioned – was not used to oppress others.  It is the part of ideology that is used to oppress others, such as ‘violent Jihad’ in Islam that is actually causing the problem.

A good distinction that David made was the distinction between true moral transcendence and ideology. It is important to mention that one of the main problems in traditional Islam is that the pillars of the religion [to say Non G-d other than Allah and Mohamed is the prophet of Allah, the 5 prayers, the obligatory tax (Zakkat), the fasting of Ramadan and the pilgrimage (Haj)] are rituals rather than moral values. In other words, based on the traditional views within Islam, Bin Laden can be a good Muslim because he follows the 5 pillars of Islam. On the contrary, if the pillars of Islam include ‘you shall not commit murder’ or other moral values, Muslims would not have seen people like Bin Laden and the terrorists as real Muslims. The ideology and the religious dogma of the 5 pillars made many Muslims unable to use the transcendent moral truth to judge people like Bin Laden.

Regarding the view that ‘man had in future to decide for himself with a free heart what is good and what is evil,’ I agree with this but I will add that the inspired moral values from religion such as ‘you shall not commit murder and ‘you shall not steal’ should remain as the back bone for future moral values. We may change some practical applications for these values but the pillars for such values will remain – at least in the view of many – as inspired values via the creator (i.e. not man-made).

Regarding the statement that “Laying down that burden may be easiest of all if the mental prison thereby created is constructed with the materials of supposedly sacred religious teachings.” I have seen the practical application for this in our Islamic society when many in the Muslim world adopt Islam as an ideology as a reaction to the moral relativism concepts that flourished in the Muslim world in the 1950s and 60s partially due to the work of liberal movements. The Islamic societies could not tolerate the lack of clear borders or ‘prison’ for their mind and it was much easier for many in these societies to follow an ‘ideology’ with clear borders rather than having the burden of freedom of choice.

Satter: Muslims, of course, are not the only ones who seek “clear borders.” Very few people have the confidence to identify their fundamental moral values and apply them to the myriad of complicated situations with which life confronts us. Even the most educated people fall back on mental borders that are the product of past habit and unchallenged assumptions. The problem becomes much greater when the mental borders are ubiquitous and the product of a false universal theory – as in Nazism or communism – or the dogmatic contents of a religion as in the case of radical Islam.

We are also confronted with the problem of group dynamics. Ethical judgment is the property of an individual. Dogmatic rules guide the behavior of a group. They eliminate differences and mobilize people for common action. So to the difficulty of thinking for oneself is added in an ideological situation the emotional trauma of confronting the group. Under the circumstances, it is small wonder that fanaticism in power has such terrible force. It operates on the difficulty that people have, when challenged, of defending what is truly human in each of them, their ultimate moral sense.

So what can reinforce the moral sense of the individual in the face of religious or secular fanaticism? If I understand him correctly, Tawfik provides the answer with his reference to the five pillars of Islam, none of which deal with ethical values. I think we need to be very clear in distinguishing between dogma and genuinely transcendent values. In the case of Nazism and communism, the task was easier because there were no transcendent values. Communism prided itself on its rejection of metaphysics. But in the case of radical Islam, the fanatics can draw on an authoritative religious tradition. Every word of the Koran is treated as divine truth and the authoritative interpretation of the Koran is or, at least, can be seen as being implicitly terroristic.

It seems to me that, under these circumstances, we must insist on our ability to define terms. To be truly religious, values must be transcendent. They cannot be derived from a political objective, for example, creating a classless society or a restored Caliphate. They can’t be based on the hatred of outsiders whether capitalists or infidels because the tensions that these hatreds reflect owe their origin to society which higher values necessarily transcend. Where the measure of right or wrong is the interests of a group, whether the proletariat, Aryans or the ummah, we are dealing with man made dogma regardless of any pretended religious justification. Its absolutization creates an ideology not a religion and it should be treated as an ideology and not granted the legitimacy of a religion with which it actually shares nothing. In the case of Islam, this does not mean an attack on Islamic practices as such but only their use in the service of terror under which circumstances, the issue of transcendence becomes relevant. To search for meaning is only human but it can lead to barbaric conclusions if it proceeds without ethical guidance. In a nuclear world, we need to defend the distinction between higher values and dogma as a matter of fundamental self defense.

Hamid: I agree with the points that David mentioned and would like to add more applied points that relate to Radical Islam.

David raised the point of “Difficulty to think for oneself”. This is exactly what happened to me and to many members in the Radical organizations. We felt that we are like sheep that just need to follow the leader. Individual thinking was lost especially when the radical leaders discouraged us from ‘thinking’.

David considered the ummah concept as “a man made dogma regardless of any pretended religious justification”. This could be true however; Muslims see the ummah concept as a religious based one. It is vital to understand how Muslims see such a concept in order to be able to approach the problem and deal with it correctly. In this regard, it is also important to emphasize that Communism and Nazism were seen by most of their followers as manmade ideology. In Islam, the situation is completely different as most Muslims see the ideological component as a religious revelation from Allah. In the former situation (i.e. manmade ideology) it is much easier to change the ideology as you can prove it wrong. When the ideology, as in case of Islam, is processed at the subconscious and emotional levels of the brain (as a religion) rather than the high cortical levels (as the case of communism and Nazism) it is much more difficult to change it.

I completely agree with David about the need to have a clear distinction between religion

and Ideology. Islam that only works inside a mosque as a form of individual worship can be considered a religion. However, Islam that is used as a political power and a controlling system for the society must be treated as an Ideology. The West need to be clear about this issue, as giving the Ideological part of Islam (that promotes violence and control of others) the protection and privileges that are given to a religion can be catastrophic. This ideological part of Islam has to be fought as the case with fighting communism and Nazism. If we failed to make such a separation between Islam as personal type of worship and Islam (or its interpretations) as a political and driving force to dominate others we will not be able to control radical Islamic ideology in the future. In fact we may be actually giving support to the radical ideology if we gave it the advantages of a religion. Allowing the ideological part of Islam to flourish under the banner of religious freedom weakens the spiritual part of the religion itself and makes things more complicated.

Satter: Politics dominates our lives and there is always a temptation to make a religion out of politics. If a political objective has divine significance, it is worth dying for and, of course, worth killing for. Those obsessed with a political mission are fearless and resourceful. Relieved of the need to exercise individual moral judgment, they become ruthless spies, talented strategists and remorseless killers. This is why it is so important to show a political ideology in all its man made artificiality. Only in this way can an ideological movement be discredited.  One hopes that it will be harder to organize mass crimes on behalf of a system that has been shown to be not divinely inspired but man made. In any case, the effort offers some hope for the future.

FP: Tawfik Hamid and David Satter, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.