Nov 242015
 

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We are trapped. Once again, we find ourselves wedged between the hammer of terrorism and the anvil of the European far right and of Republican neocons across the Atlantic. Every war has its mongers who profit from its sorrows, rubble and spilt blood. So too does terrorism. Along with its victims and perpetrators, it has its merchants who capitalize on its horrors, chaos and climates of fear and tension. To these, every terrorist bombing and shooting is a golden opportunity to revive arrogant racist notions in a new Islamophobic format, thus enabling them to penetrate further into the mainstream, gaining new territory and more votes. The target is no longer “Africans”, “Asians”, “blacks”, or “browns”, but “Muslims”, “Arabs”, “Middle Easterners”, or “Syrians”. Against these, all limits may be dispensed with, the unspeakable may be spoken, the unacceptable becomes acceptable.

Before the dust had settled in Paris, the old symphony of “we” and “they” reverberated once more. “Our” enlightened values, we were again told, were locked in existential struggle against “their” barbaric religion and savage culture. “They” here, of course, does not refer to extreme fanatical violent groups affiliated to al-Qaeda, or Isis, but to hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world. Thus suddenly, ordinary working men and women going about their daily lives in Indonesia or Malaysia, Bangladesh or Senegal, find themselves cast as the enemy vying to destroy “our” western civilization, “our” sublime ideals and way of life.

What is worrying is that this rhetoric, which in Europe is more characteristic of the far right, is increasingly endorsed by mainstream Republicans in the US. It is ironic that, while Francois Hollande had declared in his address to the French Senate and National Assembly after the Paris attacks that “We’re not engaged in a war of civilizations, because the assassins do not represent any”, thousands of miles away, on the other side of the globe, US Republicans furiously insisted on the reverse.

The theme of civilizational clash between the West and Islam has been a favorite in the Republican debates. Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator and Republican presidential hopeful, went as far as to draw analogies between Islam and Nazism as he angrily reacted to Hillary Clinton’s statement that she did not believe the United States was at war with Islam. “That would be like saying we weren’t at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren’t violent themselves”, he suggested. “This is a clash of civilizations. For they do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East. They hate us because of our values.”

And just like the far-right in Europe, Republicans have swiftly moved to raise the question of Syrian refugees’ settlement in connection with the Paris attacks. While Marine Le Pen, leader of the xenophobic Front National demanded an “immediate halt” to the intake of Syrian refugees into France, Republicans lined up to urge a ban on any “middle Eastern” migrants in the US. A succession of governors, mostly Republicans, announced that they would not allow any Syrian applicants to be placed in their states, vowing to block the government’s plans to resettle a mere 10.000 of those fleeing the war in Syrian into the US.

Jeb Bush went further, demanding that the US only accept those applicants proven to be Christian, after thorough vetting and checks to ensure that they are indeed Christian. “We should focus our efforts as it relates to refugees on the Christians that are being slaughtered” he declared. Bush is not alone in calling for a discriminatory approach to the Syrian refugee question. The position has been endorsed by a number of senior Republicans such as Ted Cruz. “If there are Syrian Muslims who are really being persecuted”, he objected, they should be sent to “majority-Muslim countries.” “on the other hand, Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution.. we should be providing safe haven to them”.

That such bigoted, exclusionist language could be used by mainstream politicians in the 21st century is scandalous. Those fleeing brutality, death and destruction are no longer to be seen as human victims who deserve shelter and safety, but as Christians and Muslims, good victims and bad victims. As if it weren’t enough for Syrians to lose everything, their possessions, homes and loved ones, this sick narrative would have them stripped of their victimhood too.

Listening to Republicans chastise Obama and his administration over its Middle East strategy, one gets the impression that we are still in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the Cold War. It is as if the US had never invaded Iraq, had never been defeated there and forced to withdraw in a hurry, exhausted and humiliated. They seem unaware of the chaos and destruction their absurd wars had unleashed on the whole region and the great damage they had caused to the United States itself. One of modern history’s greatest ironies is that no one has done more to dissipate the neoconservative dream of American world supremacy and bury the New American Century Project than the former Republican neocon administration itself.

What makes the Republicans’ discourse on Islam and the Muslim world dangerous is that it is disseminated through a wide and powerful network of media outlets and rightwing think tanks then consumed by a public with no direct contact or firsthand knowledge of the Muslim world. What gets generally confined to the shadowy margins of the far right in Europe, has in the United States, with its geographic remoteness from the Muslim hemisphere, lack of familiarity with Islam and the American tradition of religious based idealism, the potential of dominating mainstream public opinion of Islam and Muslims.

The truth is that cultures, civilizations and lifestyles do not clash. It is humans who clash, with their interests, ambitions, illusions and fantasies. Instead of the twisted binary logic of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, terrorism should render us more keenly aware of the interconnectedness of our world, of our shared existence and the dangers that threaten us all. Terrorists do not ask for their victims IDs before mutilating their bodies in Paris, Beirut, or Tunis. The solution to the insane chaos into which we have been dragged since 9/11 begins with an active rejection of the ugly dualisms of “us” and “them”, of believers vs infidels and of Westerners/Europeans vs the Muslim other.

Oct 272015
 

 

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Sunni Islam is in turmoil. Over the last two decades, it has been in the grip of ferment and fragmentation unprecedented in its long history. After the wave of radicalisation that had swept across Shiism following the Iranian revolution of 1979, it was the turn of Sunni Islam, which represents around 80% of Muslims worldwide, to seize the spotlight and move centre- stage, with the relentless rise of radical violent movements of the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The roots of Sunni Islam’s ailments it must be noted are not entirely to do with religion, as most journalists, politicians and “experts” in Europe and across the Atlantic never tire of repeating. Rather than scripture and theology, it is in politics and economics, in power balances, foreign interventions and the scramble for influence and resources that the causes of its ills reside. Religious faith, sect and ethnic affiliations are spontaneously recalled, or wilfully exploited within the conflicts raging around the Muslim world, but are in reality neither their primary cause nor the sole key to their resolution.

Still, there is a real concrete problem characterizing majority Sunni Islam: the profusion of religious and political voices pronouncing in its name, in disorderly, conflicting and confusing ways — a phenomenon from which Shia Islam has been largely immune thanks to the power conferred upon the clergy within the sect.

Sunni Islam has for centuries established itself as representing the majority’s beliefs, or the Muslim ummah‘s faith, rather than being a mere sect, in contrast with the various other components of the Muslim landscape, which assumed the character of dissidents seceding from the mainstream. This gave Sunni Islam a sense of self-confidence and the ability to identify with the wider ummah and act as is its voice, while other creeds remained limited expressions of angry dissident factions, even where they happened to seize power as with the Fatimid Shias who ruled Tunisia and Egypt between 909 and 1171 AD.

Theologically and historically, Sunni Islam has been largely egalitarian, in that it has denied anyone the right to monopolize the religious text, instituting a direct relationship between believers and scripture, free of any hierarchy. This created wide scope for flexibility and pluralism in the interpretation of the text, leading to the emergence of myriad intellectual and juristic Sunni schools.

Shiism on the other hand, underwent a sort of catholicism through restricting the process of scriptural interpretation to the infallible imams, and their successors, the clergy who provide the sects’ adherents with requisite religious exegeses and are devoutly followed by them.

The problem of absence of a religious axis of gravity or guiding centre was resolved within Sunnism by establishing the authority of scholars (ulama) as the chief bearers of the legitimacy to interpret the religious text, while acknowledging the right to intellectual pluralism within the framework of “ijtihad” or free interpretation.

But Sunni Islam has undergone a brutal change over the last two centuries. The process of modernization in the Muslim world has been associated with the growing role of the state and its bureaucracy as the chief, then eventually, sole actor and controller of the fates of Muslim societies. This phenomenon coincided with the fragmentation of the authority of scholars and the erosion of traditional learning institutions, which had been responsible for furnishing Muslim societies with meaning, values and symbols and maintaining their general equilibrium. This generated a vacuum filled with confusion and chaos, as amateurs and impostors came to intrude into the sphere hitherto occupied by qualified jurists and scholars.

The fates of Sunni religious establishments ranged between total obliteration, as was the case in Turkey, Tunisia, Iraq, and Syria, and marginalisation and annexation as happened in Egypt, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Egypt’s al-Azhar turned into an arm of the state’s, used by successive rulers to bestow legitimacy on their power and political edicts. Tunisia’s al-Zaytouna, established in 737 AD, was closed down in the 1960s, then turned into a mere marginal branch of the post-independence Tunisian university.

Amidst the vacuum, disorder, and erosion of the religious educational system, many intruders were able to penetrate into the deserted territory and claim the authority of pronouncing in the name of Islam and acting as the guardians of its adherents. Ben Laden was an engineer while al-Zawahiri was doctor, both educated and trained in modern/ post-colonial establishments.

Indeed, contrary to the dominant narrative that associates terrorism with religious education, it is rare to find a terrorist who had received solid instruction in a Sunni religious educational institution, even those that have lost their lustre. In fact, it is graduates from those schools and universities that are acting as powerful antidotes to extremist groups and the version of Islam they espouse.

No doubt, we cannot turn the clock back. The modernization process is a firm reality in the Muslim world. Furthermore, the intellectual, or modern intelligentsia is now a factor of Muslim society. It has taken on aspects of the role traditionally played by the scholar. The challenge for Muslims today is to restore and revive Sunni Islam’s enormous religious and scholarly heritage within a modern context, thus creating an amalgam of the profound and rich Islamic sciences and modern methods and disciplines.

In order to absorb the great tensions seething deep within Sunni Islam’s guts and recover its equilibrium it is crucial to redeem the status and function of the traditional scholar not as the sole player on the arena or as the conscience of Sunni Islam, but as an intellectual authority of great moral influence and presence across Muslim society. The key to this restorative process lies in the revival of the old educational Sunni establishments, taking into account the spirit of modernity and demands of the times, while preserving their autonomy and independence from the powers that be, thus imparting moral authority to their views and interpretations in the eyes of Muslims around the world.

Only then can we resurrect the traditions of openness and dialogue that had characterized those institutions and safeguard the Muslim body from the extreme tendencies of violent terrorist groups. Take Morocco, for instance. Thanks to its active and influential religious institutions, foremost al-Qarawiyyin and Husseiniyya, it was able to weaken radical currents and deny them religious legitimacy. This stands in sharp contrast with the experiences of its neighbours in Algeria and Tunisia, where the dearth of local religious scholars has left society, mainly the younger generations, prey to the influence of extreme ideas and ill-equipped to challenge and isolate their proponents.

Reviving the authority of traditional learning institutions couldn’t on its own act as a magical cure to the maladies of radicalism and terrorism. These feed on the political conflicts raging in the region. But it would no doubt help restore the stability of Muslim societies in a closely interconnected world, where crises can no longer be left to rage far away and inevitably spread closer home. To that the waves of wretched refugees crossing into Europe’s shores to flee the Syrian abyss is a clear testimony.

Image courtesy of Winnond, Free Digital Photos

Oct 272015
 

ID-10051186With over 1.6 billion followers, one third of them living as minorities, Islam is a major force in the world today. An active factor in international relations, its influence is far from local or confined to countries and communities classified as “Muslim.” With the presence of Muslims in Western capitals and the rapid diffusion of mass-communication media, Islam has become a globalized subject, albeit one largely viewed through the prism of security and intelligence. Amidst the rise of al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist groups, it has become increasingly perceived in Europe and the U.S. as a generator of crises and a threat to global stability and security.

In spite of the deluge of images and narratives of Islam that has flooded the public space since September 11th, knowledge and understanding of the subject has remained limited. Few know the enormous diversity of the Muslim world and its societies, on the levels of schools of thought, religious interpretations, or sectarian pluralism. Fewer still realize that there exists no uniform Islam but divergent tendencies fostered and promoted by the general political climates where different Muslim communities happen to find themselves.

It is such conditions that define the form of Islam that gains prevalence in a given historical context. Like any other major religion, Islam has been in its past, and continues to be in the present, subject to multiple strategies of interpretation. In general terms, we can speak of three prominent trends competing over the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world today.

The first is theocratic, at the service of absolutist rulers for whom Islam is a means of acquiring a de facto authority wrested by the force of the sword and hereditary succession, above any checks and restraints, and free of any accountability. This Islam is armed with its network of institutions, funds, and functionaries. The essence of religion as an authentic spiritual experience is irrelevant here. What matters are the rituals and outward forms of religiosity as the source of power legitimation. Religion is a mere obedient and obliging servant of the ruler, his interests and whims. In the Arabian Peninsula, a Wahhabism wedded to rule by the sword represents the clearest embodiment of this form of Islam.

Its proponents are as eager to exhibit the ritualist and formalistic aspects of Islam in a crudely interventionist way, such as the imposition of prayer, the segregation of men and women and enforcement of the niqab, as they are to keep it remote from politics and the realms of power and authority. As soon as these taboos are touched, the religious establishment, with its guardians of the sacred army comprising official scholars, clergymen and preachers, springs into action, denouncing the culprits as deviant and unorthodox, thereby furnishing the religious cover for their silencing, oppression and elimination.

The second strategy is as morally absolutist, dogmatic, legalistic and exclusionary as the first but espouses a different type of politics. It is an anarchist form of Wahhabism. It feeds on the climates of crisis, wars and conflicts raging in Muslim lands and seeks a source of justification for the perpetration of violence and terror in the theology of Islam.

This minority current had been isolated in Khandahar and the distant mountains of Tora Bora. But the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and widening circle of political, sectarian and ethnic conflicts has strengthened it and enabled it to resonate with growing sectors of angry, anxious and disillusioned Muslim youth. The Arab awakening, which gave people in the region hope of the possibility of peaceful political change, had dealt a powerful blow to this tendency.

But as its great aspirations were crushed under the boots of generals in Egypt, burnt in the furnace of civil wars in Libya and drowned in the bloodshed of Syria, this violent anarchist current gained fresh momentum and rose to the forefront once more. For all its noise and the enormous exposure it receives, however, it still fails to command religious legitimacy or acceptance in the eyes of most Muslims, who still dismiss it as religiously deviant and politically counterproductive, damaging to the image of Islam and the stability of Muslim societies.

The presence of such extremist groups and the extent of their influence depend to a large extent on the general political climates prevailing in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, these conditions, particularly those reigning in the Arab hemisphere, show no sign of rehabilitation or stabilization.

These two trends are at loggerheads with democratic modernist Islam, whose roots lie in the 19th-century Islamic reform movement founded by Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Mohamed Abdu, which revolves around the notion of compatibility between, on the one hand, Islamic spiritual and religious values and, on the other, what it describes as the “requisites” of modern times. These include the imposition of checks and balances on power, the adoption of democratic mechanisms and procedures, and the emancipation of Islam from what proponents of this reformist school describe as the “prison of stagnation and imitation.”

With the advent of modernization, urbanization and mass education, this current has amassed considerable influence in Muslim societies (and later among Muslim minorities). Today, it is under pressure from multiple quarters. One of these is the theocratic camp, which considers the very presence of an Islam that calls for restrictions on the authority of rulers and respect for the will of the people, expressed through electoral democracy, a direct threat to its existence. This explains the unrelenting war waged by certain Gulf states on the wave of democratic change in the Arab region for the last three years.

Alongside pressures from Arab theocracies, democratic Islam is challenged by Salafi jihadists who dismiss it as “diluted,” “soft” and “naive,” pinning its hopes on peaceful protests and ballot boxes, which, unlike armed warfare, lead nowhere.

And beyond the Muslim landscape, this brand of Islam is viewed with mistrust by many in American decision-making circles and across the Atlantic. In the name of realism and pragmatism, these prefer to deal with rulers who, though authoritarian and ruthless with their masses, are pliant and willing to leave their markets wide open for Euro-American goods and squander billions in their nations’ resources on weapons no one else would buy. These are, therefore, infinitely preferable to elected leaders bound by the will of their people and committed to their interests.

Those who call for the reformation and democratization of Islam seem to miss an essential fact: that a democratic reformist Islam has existed since the 19th century. It has its own literal body, pioneers, and thinkers, within both Shia and Sunni Islam. The question is: Does the situation of present-day Muslim society, marked by crisis, tensions, foreign interventions and political despotism, foster this reformist democratic Islam, or does it promote its violent and theocratic rivals?

Rather than sifting through Muslims’ religious texts, theological tracts and medieval polemical disputes, those agonizing over the “problem” of Islam would do well to ponder the concrete reality of real, living Muslims and seek to fix it rather than striving to fix Islam.

(photo courtesy of  Nutdanai Apokhomboonwaroot, Free Digital Photos)

 

Oct 272015
 

As soon as the Tunisian elections results were announced with Nidaa Tounes overtaking Ennahdha party, celebrations of the “Islamists'” defeat at the hands of the “secularists” got underway across the media in France and many other western capitals. The historical context of a country in the aftermath of a revolution, its socio-political circumstances and complex regional conditions was banished from the narrative. Between cliches of bad “Islamists” “defeated” by good “secularists” and jubilant resurrections of old prophesies of the “failure of political Islam,” the contest was portrayed as a battle of ideologies and world views.

Such faulty conclusions derive from false premises: from the tendency to view political parties and movements with an Islamic reference frame as metaphysical ahistorical entities outside the laws of socio-politics. Their decisions and conduct are only explainable by reference to theology and ideology. Their religious references are seen as the key to their successes in societies viewed through the prism of culture mostly, while their religious discourse is thought to grant them immunity from defeat and diminution. Islamist parties’ electoral setbacks thus stand little chance of being objectively discussed, as one would expect of those of the Democrats in the U.S. or Labour in the UK.

The truth, however, is that Islamists are political actors no different from other parties and political organizations, prone to ascent and descent, success and failure, and subject to the influences of the national political climates where they operate. Those working in open democratic environments differ from those moving within climates of oppression and despotism. The nature of the wider social milieu shapes these actors and defines their political and intellectual outlooks.

Yemen’s Islamists, who function in a tribal framework, or those in Lebanon and Iraq operating in a sectarian context significantly differ from those working in the more culturally and politically open societies of Tunisia or Morocco. In fact, the conditions of the same political actor may vary significantly with changes to its political sphere, which has been the case with Ennahdha party, for instance, which was transformed from a politically radical opposition party under the Ben Ali regime into a ruling party as a result of the rapid developments ushered in by the Tunisian revolution.

The terminological baggage used to refer to such parties and movements is, it must be said, part of the problem. It is overly broad, ambiguous and loaded with negative connotations. It designates actors at opposite ends of the Islamic spectrum with visions of Islam and politics that are at loggerheads, from the violent anarchists of Isis and al-Qaeda and the quietist Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, who subscribe to a puritanical reading of Islam and firmly reject democracy and its procedures as non-Islamic, to those like Ennahdha and Justice and Development party, who seek to legitimize it within an Islamic reference frame, adopting it as their political methodology, and seeing no contradiction between their faith and human rights, public liberties or individual freedoms. When referring such political parties, it may be more accurate to speak of “democratic political Islam.”

Islamic political movements are byproducts of two interconnected projects. The first, is modernization in the region, with all its tensions, successes, failures and consequences, foremost among which urbanization and mass education. They are both a result of and a response to the modernization process. Contrary to common wisdom, Islamist parties tend to do better in modernized societies, such as those of Turkey and Tunisia, than they fare in more traditional ones like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

The second is the nation state. Islamic political parties are crucially influenced by their local environments and shaped by them. Their concerns and priorities remain largely national even if they speak of the notion of the “ummah,” which is in reality a matter of moral and emotional solidarity, nothing more.

We must strip the phenomena of “political Islam” of the mystical aura shrouding them, which results from a tendency to equate them with “fundamentalism”: a mass of angry irrational impulses wholly motivated by religious aspirations and incentives, and instead situate them within the conditions of their time and space. Only through historical socio political context can we hope to cure researchers, journalists and observers of the malady of oversimplification, generalization and reductionism that currently deforms the bulk of analyses of the subject.

Ennahdha party’s electoral successes and failures — past, present, or future — must be stripped of religious and moral considerations and viewed as perfectly normal phenomena in a democratic system where political forces naturally oscillate between ascent and descent. And though the claim that the ‘religious’ have been vanquished by the ‘secularists’ may strongly appeal to many, I fear it does not stand up to accurate objective scrutiny.

What happened in Tunisia has in reality nothing to do with ideology, religion, or secularism and everything to do with local political power balances and surrounding geopolitical conditions. Tunisian voters have clearly opted for two main political parties, which reflects the reality of polarization between these two entities in the country. The relative advance of Nidaa Tounes (38 percent to 31 percent) illustrates that a relative shift in favor of old regime forces has occurred. They have remobilized, recycled themselves and renovated their discourse and some of their faces at the expense of the new forces brought forward by the revolution.

This points to the reality of the ‘Arab Spring’ decline and to the impact of the geopolitical environment over Tunisia and the forces of change in the wider region. Ennahdha rose to power on the wave of change that had swept across the Arab world and is now retreating with the old forces’ return amidst the resurrection of climates of military coups in the region. Small Tunisia and Ennahdha movement could not break this general trend, even if they managed — with great difficulty — to restrain it with the survival of the country’s nascent democratic experiment.

Developments in Tunisia reflect a general rule that applies to those who shoulder the burdens of government in the aftermath of revolution, with all its pressures, challenges, even dangers. Standing on the frontline in post-revolution times comes at a price. It entails a drop in popularity, as revolutions necessarily ignite mass fervor and raise the threshold of expectations to a level hard to meet in normal circumstances, and impossible in the strenuous tumultuous conditions of post revolutions.

This fact is vividly illustrated by the electoral performance of the two secular parties that had entered into an alliance with Ennahdha following the October 2011 elections and had shared the burdens of power with it. Their losses have been bitterly heavy, with the Congress for the Republic dropping from 29 to four seats only, while the Forum for Labour and Liberties, whose chairman had served as the Constituent Assembly leader for the last three years, lost all its seats and was ejected altogether from the new parliament.

Other crucial factors to bear in mind include the challenges and dangers posed to the Tunisian experiment from its direct and indirect geographic environment, from Libya and Southern Sahara, with increasing terror threats due to arms proliferation in Libya and a widening of the circle of anarchy, conflicts and wars in the Arab hemisphere. Equally significant have been the the country’s economic difficulties due to political unrest and climates of instability. Such ordeals were aggravated by the economic crisis that has engulfed the economies of Europe to which Tunisia’s economy has been inextricably tied since its independence in 1956.

The Tunisian election results will no doubt have a palpable effect on Ennahdha party, forcing it towards greater accommodation to its local environment, as well as renovation and reform within a more open democratic context. What is crucial for those with an interest in the subject, however, is to begin to view this party, just like other political Islamic actors, as socio-political phenomena prone to advance and decline, rather than entities outside history.

They must free themselves of their mystical outlook and of culturally essentialist interpretations of political parties with an Islamic background. In open democratic settings, these are likely to move closer towards the model of Christian democratic parties in Europe. Ennahdha party of Tunisia may, in fact, serve as a laboratory for the possible evolution of political Islam in this direction. The question is: when will “Western” journalists and experts rid themselves of their ideological biases and start to see reality as it is, with all its complexities, shades and nuances ?