The realisation that no single generation can solve a major global problem is unnerving. ISIS, we are told, poses such a problem. The war on terror has not rid the world of terrorism but instead created fertile ground for more terrorism. This is, it is said, a generational war, and we have to get used to it. It seems that the past decade has been spent shooting in the dark and, judging by the rhetoric, we may be spending another decade doing the same.
Entering the fray is Theresa May, Britain’s Home Secretary, who presented the government’s proposal for dealing with the domestic threat posed by ISIS during her speech at the recent Conservative Party conference. Her remarkable faith and certainty in her policy was only surpassed by her ignorance of the issue itself. We all have to do our bit, I suppose, but as home secretary it seems that she is more than capable of shooting in the dark by doing the only thing she can – pass laws that will do nothing to reduce the threat posed by ISIS. Maybe in her case it would be better to do nothing. Doing things just because we can is a major problem. To defeat groups like ISIS we need to stop shooting in the dark and understand political Islam.
Jihadi narrative: simplistic explanation to a complex problem
Much has been made about countering the narrative that fuels jihadi groups like ISIS. Since 9/11, governments across the world have tried to develop a counter-narrative with the hope of defeating jihadist ideology. The rise of ISIS has put this strategy under close scrutiny and we should question many of the underlying assumptions about political Islam. Why has jihadism grown so quickly? Have we misread the narrative?
Loosely, the jihadi narrative is that the West is engaged in a millennial battle against Islam and Muslims must defend themselves, ergo Islam is under attack and Muslims have an obligation to rise to its defence. Jihadists, whom the West refers to as “terrorists”, are defending their faith against this attack; the actions they take in defence of Islam are proportionally just and religiously sanctified; and, as such, it is the duty of good Muslims to support these actions1.
While it is perfectly sensible to undermine crude historical justifications for violent extremism, government intervention like the one proposed by Theresa May, to introduce a snoopers’ charter which many critics have argued will include draconian proposals, is defeatist and counterproductive.
The home secretary has promised a ban on “extremists” being interviewed on television, speaking at public meetings or using the Internet, as well as an extension of ministers’ authority to outlaw groups suspected of encouraging “terrorism” or violence; even “non-violent extremists” will be targeted. She also announced that the Tories will try to revive the Communications Data Bill, which would require companies to maintain records of people’s internet, email and mobile phone activity2.
Putting aside the fact that there are already satisfactory existing laws to tackle those who advocate violent extremism, let’s assume that countering the narrative and introducing new laws are not mutually exclusive. Surely, if we are honest about presenting a counter-narrative, the state should not be arming itself with more legal weapons to defend the country against what is effectively a debate over ideas and a battle for hearts and minds. It is an admission of defeat and strengthens the jihadi narrative further. Force has no place in the battle of ideas.
Demonising Muslims is counterproductive to defeating ISIS
It has long been understood that we need to counter violent jihadism with Islam. The growing threat of ISIS has made this even more pressing. Muslim countries, organisations and scholars have all been united in their unreserved condemnation of the group’s violent tactics. However, the policies proposed by the home secretary have the potential to sabotage efforts made by Muslims universally in undermining the jihadi narrative.
In the hope of defeating ISIS in the Middle East, the government is actually pandering to right-wing propagandists like Douglas Murray, who wants to “make life harder for Muslims across the board” in the West3. These proposals will target British Muslims disproportionately. Whatever safeguards the home secretary puts in place will further demonise Muslims when they are vital to the efforts to undermine and discredit ISIS; not to mention the damage it would do to a long tradition of civil liberty, upon which Britain prides itself.
In addition to being sabotaged by government policies, the counter-narrative agenda has other flaws: it is extremely simplistic; it presents only a small part of the story; and at best it explains the lure of violent jihadism amongst a small cohort of Western Muslims. In addition, its vagueness as a linear path where even legitimate grievances are seen as a potential first step towards jihadism (the “conveyor-belt” theory) casts the net of suspicion over all Muslims. Polling results show that the perception of a “war on Islam” is well entrenched among substantive sections of Muslim populations in both the West and other parts of the world. Yet, even the growing minority who view Islam as being under attack will very rarely endorse terrorism4.
Despite great efforts to distinguish Islam from violent jihadism, the universal adoption of ambiguous terms like “political Islam” has not really helped. Political Islam, under which sits any number of groups, is portrayed as the last stop on the road to violent extremism, despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims operating under this umbrella term are extremely unlike to adopt terrorism or violence as a strategy. It would be far better to be more specific and view the different strands within political Islam as distinct entities with diverse histories and different visions for the future. The counter-narrative, with its clumsy one-step-to-violent-jihad, sees all Islamists as potential terrorists, which undermines the most crucial factor in reducing violent extremism, democratisation of the Middle East, which, if we are honest, will ultimately mean a greater role for political Islam. For decades the Middle East has been a pressure cooker simmering with many problems and the best safety valve is a process of genuine democracy.
The “Arab Spring” was supposed to churn around the issues festering since the creation of the modern Middle East. Now that the short “Spring” has turned quickly into what seems like a long “Arab winter” it is clearly tempting to fall back on the cosy unholy alliance between democracies in the West and autocracies in the Middle East and thus compromise democracy for the sake of stability and “interests”. That would be a grave mistake, not least because in politics things usually don’t happen exactly the same way twice.
A marriage of convenience may have limped on for decades by supressing calls for democratisation, but it’s very unlikely that a similar marriage can continue for many more years to come. Applying the old formula in this new political context will be disastrous and the blowback next time may be even bloodier than in the past.
ISIS, in fact, looks like the blowback for decades of misgovernment and misuse of Islam in the Middle East. It is just as much a manifestation of crises in Arab regimes as it is a product of individuals with a warped narrative. Ascribing madness to opponents is easy. Whilst it’s more convenient to emphasise the psychosis of terrorists we are in effect sticking our head in the sand if we don’t see the bigger picture. Our efforts to stem the tide of jihadism have little chance of success if we are not willing to confront the structural political problems endemic in Middle Eastern countries. Until these problems are addressed, “making life hard for Muslims in Europe”, as Douglas Murray and his ilk propose, will not solve the problem of jihadism.
Better to see political Islam through the lens of political reform and not the lens of terrorism
Central to the seismic shift required to overcome the scourge of violent jihadism is to help Arab countries democratise, which means finding a way to accommodate Islamist parties within the political process. Defeating jihadism would be enough of a reason to accommodate these changes but the call for real self-determination and real democratisation rests on far loftier ideals and should not be contingent upon Western self-interest in maintaining the status quo of strong Arab regimes with a weak civil society.
ISIS has forced many Muslims around the world to confront unsettled disputes over the Islamic State. What is an Islamic state? Is it a religious obligation? Is the Islamic state compatible with modern nation states? The questions are at one level complicated and mostly academic; covering theology, history and political philosophy, they are also questions to do with basic common sense. Every religion inspires political activism. Even though the USA is a secular country, it is extremely religious because religion is interwoven into politics. As Ghandi said, those who want to separate religion from politics understand neither religion nor politics5. Separation of religion from politics is not only impossible but also, in most countries, undesirable due to the deep interconnectedness between the two. What is, however, required in modern politics is a separation of state and religion and not the separation of politics from religion.
These questions, for all intents and purposes, are also insoluble as is the case with many religious issues within any tradition, especially Islam which has no past history of centralised authority or institutionalised clergy. This key feature of Islam’s history allowed greater freedom in interpretation of religious texts and explains the noticeable absence of a genuine theocracy within the Muslim world. It is also the best explanation for the relative absence of secularism within Arab countries because there is no comparable history of centuries of violent conflict between religious and non- religious institutions. Equivalent religious institutions and secular power in the Muslim world did not exist as separate political entities vying for power and authority. Secularism was the rapprochement between these two powerful forces in the West, which did not exist in the Middle East.
What existed there for over 1,300 years, up until the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, despite the rise and fall of many different empires, states and dynasties, was a constitutional framework (unwritten, it must be said) that legitimised and balanced political power. Most notably, the symbiotic relationship between a loosely organised scholarly class and the head of state, which preserved what can only loosely be described as an Islamic state. In exchange for the scholars conferring legitimacy, heads of state acting as the executive and were required to uphold the rule of law, the sharia. In classical Islamic constitutional theory, stability and order was maintained by scholars functioning as legislators and protectors of the law, with the state operating as its enforcer.
This is very much a simplistic description of the operation of political power in Islamic states. It would, though, be very difficult to make a strong case for a specific political system as prescribed by religious texts, given the variation in regimes throughout Muslim history and the pragmatic embrace of these regimes by the scholars. There is no specific regime type above and beyond the demand for good governance expected of the ruler and the rule of law enforced by the state and guarded by the scholars. The state was seen as an instrument in establishing the objectives of governance: rule of law, justice and accountability.
Middle Eastern regimes use the state as an instrument of repression
A number of reasons are given for the rise of modern political Islam, including the failure of national secular elites which succeeded European colonial regimes. They have disappointed miserably in meeting the hopes and aspirations of their people. The most notable reason is the restriction on political participation typified by Egypt in recent history, in particular with its repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, the members of which have been killed and imprisoned; the movement itself has been proscribed as a political party in a number of countries.
Middle Eastern regimes emerged as a security apparatus kept intact by a strong military. Citizens are unable to escape the long arm of the state, and even mosques, historically the only free public space, have been constrained by the authorities. This took an even more extreme turn last year in Egypt. Following the ousting of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s ruling junta made a decision to withdraw the licences granted to well over fifty thousand mosques. In a move that is unprecedented in Islamic history, hundreds of thousands of imams were banned from leading religious services, and only clerics who not only graduated from Al-Azhar University but are also employees of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Ministry of Awqaf) are now permitted to lead services in Egypt.
The reason for the government in Cairo deciding to cancel the permits issued to what are, typically, small mosques known as “zawaya”, is that these underfunded, grossly overcrowded institutions have played an increasingly important role since the 2011 revolution and were opposed overwhelmingly to the 2013 military coup led by current President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. In reality, though, since the mid-1970s, the zawaya have played an active role as dynamic forums for social and political mobilisation in financially disadvantaged communities and in marginalised, low-income areas across Egypt. This move, according to leading UCLA Professor of Islamic Law, Khalid Abou El Fadl, will change the course of history in Egypt, and indeed the trajectory of modern Islamic history6.
Rise of modern political Islam
The modern debate about political Islam is really a proxy for the debate about justice, good governance, rule of law and political legitimacy. For many Muslims the modern Middle East is not the product of any organic growth of the social, cultural or political authority that existed in the region for millennium. Instead, the nation states in the region are post-colonial remnants, which in their very formation lacked the legitimacy that centralised power requires in order to govern effectively. The over reach of these states and their misgovernment is the root cause of the current chaos. The call for an Islamic state is really an indictment of these regimes. It is the only language available, one with historical pedigree, for good governance and justice.
Historically the Islamic State was a nebulous and malleable concept that was adapted to accommodate the fluid political changes in the Muslim world. If we were to reimagine its purest form, imaginary symbolism which all political programmes require in order to be credible, the community-state established by Prophet Muhammad in Madinah would be the archetype; a political community united by a set of rules and principals. Madinah offers the pluralistic and progressive idea of Islam as a set of revolutionary ideas about how a society should structure itself. We find notions of spiritual as well social equality in that example.
Indeed, one can see in Madinah the seeds of government based on the rule of law and not kinship or ethnicity, according to the acceptance of certain set of principles and values. The first Ummah of Muslims (political community; a state if you like) created by the Prophet could easily be termed secular nationalism, a community based on the acceptance of principles, ideals and values about how society should be run; a social contract by any other name.
A return to 7th century Arabia is not what Islamists are calling for; they seek the universal values that informed its formation. The goal of political Islam is to govern modern states more effectively whereas the objective of violent jihadism is to great rid of all states, and to reformulate human society as a global utopia according to its own imagined formula. The primary agenda of Islamists is social restoration and repair of their country based on what they believe is an Islamic moral framework. Like communism, socialism and nationalism, modern Islamism seeks to rebuild existing states, using their institutional and constitutional means and then to transform society through what it believes will be better governance and greater rule of law.
When Islamists feel that the goal of political reform of their country through existing structures is blocked and repressed violently, their ideology can and does at times turn violent. It also turns globalist in nature because in Islamists’ eyes the “local” tyranny is augmented by its global partner. If Turkey is taken as an ideal Islamist project, we see that the success of an Islamist party which has had the opportunity to put its ideas into practice, and allowed people to judge them through the ballot box, has the potential to sap any support for a more radical variant of political Islam.
Unproven is the hysteria that Islamists are seeking to incorporate classical Islamic law into the legislature and make it supersede a democratically elected assembly. This is not borne out by the facts. Islamists are far less likely to enforce classical sharia then, say, Saudi Arabia, which is at war with them. From the small number of concrete examples we have of Islamists ruling, namely Turkey and Tunisia, one can safely assume that the sharia will not override the elected legislature in a country run by political Islam.
Classical sharia has a far greater prominence under the current Saudi regime than it does under any elected Islamist party. To put it simply, the dominant Wahhabi thought in Saudi Arabia is far more concerned about how a Muslim man must grow his beard correctly, or that a Muslim woman must don the veil, than to have any kind of opinion about the invasions of Iraq, Gaza or the fate of Jerusalem. It is not an exaggeration to say that the United States realised, just like Britain before it, something that the Al-Saud clan discovered much earlier: this kind of fervently apolitical Islam is invaluable as a conservative legitimating agent for imperialist and neo-colonial interests in the Muslim world. It is as a result of this mind-set that one is able to see a perfectly harmonious marriage in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, between unfettered free market capitalism and mass consumerism on one hand, and inequality and extreme religiosity on the other.
Political Islam provides the best synthesis between the faith and democracy
One can legitimately question the “Islamicness” of an Islamic project lacking the classical constitutional role of the sharia and the scholars. This, however, is an intra-Muslim question that will continue as long as Islam is relevant to the lives of its followers. A broader issue is how to accommodate millions of Muslims, who, as with other religions, are inspired to live their lives by their faith. Islamists have demonstrated that they are perfectly comfortable with functioning within existing constitutional structures without undermining the existing balance of power between elected legislatures, a non-clerical judiciary and an elected head of state. They do not seek a return to 7th century Arabia. In their eyes, the state and form of governance are merely political instruments that change over time and place to ensure universal principals of good governance and justice.
The Middle East needs a level playing field. Politics should not be rigged against Islamist parties. Religious nationalism is part of the fabric of every society, some more than others, and trying to engineer its political manifestation instead of allowing it free democratic expression is counterproductive. Religious nationalism is unavoidable. You can’t suppress religious impulses forcefully, particularly in a democratic society where people make decisions, formulate laws and build a consensus based on their own ideals and values and their sense of what is right and wrong. People of religious persuasions will try to impress their ideals, their morals and values upon society. It might be by peaceful means, if that’s an option, but if there is no peaceful avenue for the implementation of one’s religious values and ideals, then the voice of violence and revolution is likely to come to the fore.
Of the many political trends, Islamists are the most successful in carrying out a successful synthesis between democracy and Islam, a synthesis that has to be made and allowed to manifest politically if the Middle East is to escape from the prevailing chaos. Of course, many Muslims will rightly question this claim having conceded to a constitutional structure that has hollowed-out classical Islam from the governing process, but, surely, this somewhat academic debate is no excuse for undermining the whole democratic process.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.