In God we trust (interview with Andrei Smirnov)
In the course of a recent Russian-language interview with Prague Watchdog, the academic and Islamic scholar Andrei Smirnov explained his thinking about contemporary Islam and its relation to the world – especially Russia. Although the text of the interview is unfortunately too long to translate in full, the following excerpts may give some idea of the philosopher’s general approach and line of argument.
PW: ... The Christian world... has accused Muslims of aggressiveness and a desire to establish total control over anything that interferes with their field of vision.
AS: Russia is thought to have around 20 million people who are either Muslims or who belong to a historically developed Muslim culture. And the geographical area in which the Islamic peoples were resettled is such that it actually cuts Russia across from north to south along the Ural Mountains. If the Muslim world had really reacted to the events in Chechnya as a united front, I think the current situation in Russia would be radically different. But the fact is that more than 90% of Russian Muslims show neither aggressiveness nor a desire for total control. Moreover, they are not used to total control.
We are projecting our own fears onto Muslims, fears which have historical roots in our own culture. Islam has never known a Church. This is something fundamental, something that is often talked about but whose significance is never fully understood. If there is no church in this religious system, its means that there is no organization to hold the levers of total control over the believers’ consciousness, or the mechanisms for communicating their decisions to one another. For this reason, Muslims are not historically accustomed to obeying any higher absolute imperatives. The habits of discipline with which a Christian consciousness is educated do not exist in Islam. That is the profound cultural and historical reason for the non-total nature of modern Islamic civilization. Though various political reasons are being superimposed on it at present, my own view is that it is precisely the lack of a tradition of total obedience which explains the separateness of the Islamic countries from one another.
PW: On the subject of those fears: there’s a very widespread view of Islam today which equates the modern forms of Islamic terrorism with Muslim religious doctrine and Muslim ethics.
AS: Let me continue with what I just said: Islam has no church, and this means that no organization, no person has the right to speak on behalf of Islam. Again, with our experience of Christian culture we are accustomed to there being some person who is authorized to speak on behalf of Christianity in general, or some part of it. In Islam, authorized agents of that kind are unavailable. Jurists may speak on legal issues. There are politicians, who speak on political matters. But there is no person who would be entrusted with the right to express the opinion of the entire Umma. At the same time, each individual Muslim may want to speak on behalf of Islam. And indeed, many do. But this does certainly not mean that other Muslims will agree with such statements.
In Islam there is no custom of obeying declarations that are obligatory for all, as there is when someone in authority declares something – a crusade, for example. The crusade will take place because the statement was made by an authorized person. In Islam anyone can declare a jihad, but no jihad will take place if others don’t follow you. And they will only do so if they are confident of the validity and correctness of the decision. Of course, there are always a handful of people who can be manipulated, duped and used, and on them the label of Islamic terrorism can be hung, as is now being done. But it would be a very great mistake to assume that such people are the true face of Islam, or that they represent a general tendency to which the Muslim mind inclines.
We aren't frightened by the inscription “In God we trust”, which appears on U.S. banknotes. We don’t consider this kind of thing to be evidence of the clericalization of the Western world. But we do tend to take an excessively alarmist view of analogous symbols in the Islamic world, and to give them eschatological interpretations.
PW: Perhaps because “In God we trust” isn’t transformed into terrorism that topples towers and sends suicide bombers to blow themselves up in crowded places?
AS: I don’t want to enter into a discussion of that question here, but on the other hand it was America which invaded Iraq in violation of all the norms, and it was that which triggered a reappraisal of what constitutes international law, and of what can and cannot be done in international relations. It’s not at all a straightforward issue. The process of labeling carries the risk that the enemy may always be ready to respond in kind, and that his arguments may also turn out to be valid.
(Translation by DM)