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 ?