Oct 272015
 

 

ID-10052432

 

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
 

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 ?