Sunday, 4 October 2009

The bleak future for Political Islam- (excerpt)

'The poet Iqbal, who was influenced by Nietzche, knighted by the British colonial authorities and who evinced some admiration for the Bolshevik revolution, might seem an unlikely source of inspiration for the Supreme Guide of the Iranian revolution. Yet, such is unquestionably the case. Ayatollah Khameni, in praising Iqbal, has laid stress on the potential for a Universalist, rather than narrowly nationalist, political Islam to act as a challenge, or countervailing power, to Colonial and neo Colonial influence and aggression. This sort of universalist Islam need not be of a fundamentalist, or Salafi type. Iqbal stressed the creative power God grants to Man as his Viceregent on earth. In other words the possibility is admitted of there being a universal Muslim law- not simply a slavish adherence to Sharia- adapted to meet the needs of the evolving Muslim community across the globe which will enable the Muslims to rise up and challenge the hegemony of the West.
 However History shows that such a challenge is premature- if not, as with Iqbal, actually in the interest of the Imperialists- and that it ends up enfeebling those who make it by involving their cogitations in intractable aporias.
Nevertheless, the Ayatollah has good reason to praise Iqbal. He is acknowledged as the poet-prophet of Pakistan- the creation of which, from the detritus of the British Raj, was the first tangible victory of political Islam. In contrast to al Afghani- whose polemical style singled out individual Muslim rulers felt to be not radical enough- Iqbal’s philosophy has no conspiratorial or practical application. In other words, it represents no source of danger to that class of clergymen who have done very well out of the Iranian revolution. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy, that both instances of the triumph of political Islam- however financially rewarding for their sponsors- have not weakened the West or reduced its power and influence in the region. On the contrary, if we consider the position in the Seventies- when Iran seemed poised to take over the role the British Navy had relinquished in the Sixties, and when Pakistan, drawing upon its alliance with China, seemed ready to cut the apron strings of its American patrons- we may well puzzle as to why both countries, despite substantial military spending and quite sophisticated ideological propaganda initiatives, seem more at the mercy of the West now than ever before.
Indeed, the American invasion of Iraq and more recent incursions into Pakistani territory seem an extraordinary reversal, an unparalleled humiliation, for political Islam. This is in stark contrast to the success of Alija Izetbegovich, the late Bosnian leader, in gaining help from both Iran and America, both political Islam and the liberal West, to, in effect, reverse the provisions of the Treaty of Vienna- in 1878- which transferred that territory from the Caliphate to Austro-Hungarian control.
In this context, some observers- bringing to bear an enviable erudition- are inclined to speak of political Islam as having reached a peak in the late Seventies and early Eighties and as now being in irretrievable decline. This raises a question- have socio-economic conditions so greatly changed that political Islam no longer has anything to offer? Or is it rather the case that disenchantment with the Post Colonial Nation State has continued apace leaving nothing but political Islam to fill the vacuum?
The great attraction of Islamist ideology- for those who observe the erosion, or increasing irrelevance, of traditional affiliations and identities based on clan, tribe- even language and ethnicity- is that Islam offers a sense of universal fraternity that is not complicit- in fact that has a long tradition of rebelling against- that type of colonial or neo-colonial globalization which creates Social atomization and anomie. Furthermore, in the context of mass migrations and urbanization, it may be that Nation States are less and less relevant to defining identity, or framing a shared socio-political agenda, especially where realpolitik dictates an attitude of clientism on the part of Post Colonial Nation States towards the Global Superpower.
In the past, Muslim countries were often quite keen to co-opt Political Islam to feed their own amour propre by getting up Islamic conferences at which to parade their impotence by repeating the same old meaningless platitudes and histrionic condemnations of Israel. Financial Institutions, too, jumped on the bandwagon with ‘Islamic banking’ and halal financial products. However, the utter futility and moral bankruptcy of such exercises over the last forty years does nothing but feed the sense of humiliation and resentment from which the demand for a political Islam rises up in the first place.
Islam is unique in that, unlike any other World Religion, State, Church and Commons have a common origin, a common trajectory and a common membership. The situation was very different for European Christianity. The Church had a separate origin, a separate law, a different language, and a wholly different aim from the State. In England, the Common law was further differentiated from the King’s Justice by having its own Courts, its own traditions, and developing its own militant ethos by putting forward the demand that no law be promulgated without the consent of parliament. The supremacy of the Commons, and the mercantile spirit of the middle class, was not fully established till the end of the Eighteenth Century.
 In contrast, the Prophet Muhammad, p.b.u.h, a successful and widely travelled merchant, held up the legal contract and the practice of keeping meticulous accounts as being at the heart of religious life and socio-political organization. Thus, Islam has an ethos wholly favorable to the development of a Market economy and, soon after its inception, the Caliphate shared many features in common with European capitalism in its Imperialist phase.
However, at root there was this great difference that whereas in Western Europe incessant conflict between Church, State and Commons ultimately led to a more or less complete separation of powers and the development of very robust institutions of Civil Society which guarded the individual from arbitrary power- of whatever sort- in Islam this process was suspended or reversed by internecine squabbles, doctrinal disputes, barbarian invasions or the usurpation of ‘Slave’ dynasties.
 In medieval Europe we observe the spectacle of great Emperors forced to kneel in expiation to the Pope. In Abbasid Baghdad, on the other hand, we see the Caliph acknowledging the venerated Imam, even appointing him his successor, but then quietly bumping him off. The fundamental concept that the Church is separate from the State- and that it alone has the power ‘to loose and bind’- did not take hold in Islamic countries. The result was that a purely spiritual, Religious, movement could suddenly turn into a bid for the throne, while secular power was regarded as a license to pronounce on matters of dogma. The history of Islam shows repeated instances of mutual contestation but no very robust tradition of separation of Church and State. The problem of the Muslim Commons- who found that Religion helped promote trade and industry and the development of Civil Law- but who could not stand together with the Ulema, who were drawn from their own class, against the despotic power of Sultans employing vast levies of war-like tribesmen- was exacerbated by the natural tendency of the Divines to turn inward, to immerse themselves in mysticism, to try to shut out the surrounding anarchy by discerning hidden realities which reflected the symmetrical glories of God. Against this background, especially in times of war or civil strife, both scholarship and enterprise tended to languish.
With respect to Islamic jurisprudence, the claim is sometimes made that reformist efforts to codify the Sharia law- whether in Ottoman Turkey or in India under the British- had the effect of foreclosing the creativity of the Islamic jurists and subjecting the legal branch to the executive. However, the parallel with Western practice is inexact on a number of points, most notably with respect to the fact that the gate to the Islamic equivalent of King’s Equity was never closed. In other words Justice was procurable either by executive firman or by legal fatwa. In both cases, the choice of the authority appealed to might materially affect the outcome. In any case, the fact that Iran has chosen to implement Islamic law in a Codified form rather than in a manner similar to Common Law suggests that the may be less to this point than has been made out.
Indeed, the modern demand for a political Islam capable of reinvigorating Islamic civilizations and restoring its position vis a vis the West derives more from an envious observation of the power and organizational strength of Western capitalism rather than from a process internal to or deriving from traditional Islamic jurisprudence and hermeneutics let alone increased trading or other links with Islamic countries. This makes for an uneasy relationship between the Islamic visionary and the Clergy. They are at cross purposes. Political Islam wants to affirm the perfection of the Revealed Laws at the same time as ignoring all that sort of thing completely in favor of vague dreams of glory. If some practical person- like those employed by the Turkish Religious Authority- says, ‘okay, you want to raise the position of women and comply the European Court of Human Rights, fine! We’ll remove any hadith which appears to go against women’s rights. The Ulema will know what to preach and we can all go forward happily’- the visionary is greatly incensed. ‘No! That’s not what I meant at all! Revelation is perfect and can’t be tampered with! You see, oh you are too stupid to see!- just take it from me that if the Imperialists and their Zionist henchman can only be humbled- which is very easy to do because they are all cowards and in any case riddled with A.I.D.S and other diseases- not of course the A.I.D.S isn’t a C.I.A conspiracy- anyway, where was I?, oh yes! You see once we defeat the Imperialists then Islam will flourish and we will regain Grenada and women will occupy a noble position and there won’t be any flies- damn them!- I mean the flies not the women- bless them for they are the mothers of the community and- kill the bastards!- I mean the flies, not the women- and anyway I must break off and go update my blog- Devil take these infernal pests!- I mean the flies not the women, never the women. No, not the women God forbid.’
 Thanks to the paranoia and muddled thinking at its centre, political Islam can offer the same feeling of global fraternal comradeship offered by Communism- and the same facility in side-stepping the foolish squabbles of Nation States over irredentist claims or the treatment of minorities- not to mention any other matter of practical importance- but without having to take on board the invidious notion of the inevitability of class warfare. However, there is a fly in the ointment. It is the notion of Jihad which is all very and good if the enemy is far away. Or it was until Zawahiri and al Qaeda decided to actually go and hit that far away enemy. But why did Al Qaeda do so? The answer is that they had become nothing but hit men- assassinating great mujahids like Ahmed Shah Masood- and extortionists preying upon their own. To regain their self-respect they had engage in the far away Jihad. Not that it really enabled them to evade the Jihad close at home- viz. killing their former comrades. For this is the trouble with notions like Jihad and class warfare. Paranoia sets in. Suddenly everyone looks like a class traitor or a tool of the C.I.A or Mossad or what have you. As happened in Algeria, in the 90’s, you get a reductio ad absurdum where the true doctrine becomes ‘anyone not a jihadi is a kaffir who must be killed’- which is nothing but a licensing of infinite violence of all against all.
In Pakistan, both the Army and the political establishment have exercised caution in their handling of Jihadis. However, appeasement has only increased the Jihadis’ hubris. In some ways, this is quite understandable. Why go across the border, to be shot by the Hindus, when we can seize power for ourselves right here! After all, if we really have a chance against the Indian army, then, surely, we can defeat the Pakistani army which is much smaller! Moreover, here we are fighting on our own soil and have the home court advantage. The military analysts praised the fighting abilities of our boys who carried out the Mumbai attack. But the Indian Muslims wouldn’t give those martyrs enough ground even to be buried in! Why fight India when we can rule in Pakistan? Instead of us sacrificing our lives as the Army’s proxy, why not let them go and get themselves shot for a change!
This, in a nut-shell, is the problem with Jihadi ideology. Why be canon fodder when you can remain safely behind the lines getting a foretaste of the pleasures of Paradise? Instead of Jihad being a force multiplier for the Nation State, giving it a measure of ‘strategic depth’- why not invert the relationship? Let the soldiers defend the jihadis and the diplomats raise loans for their comfort. The ability shown by the supposedly decadent Western powers to nip terrorist plots in the bud- not to mention the horrors of ‘rendition’- have created a problem for those regimes which fostered terrorism as a for-export-only industry. Barriers to entry abroad means that the product flows back to glut the domestic market. Unless the government recognizes that this is a ‘sick industry’ requiring subsidies- thus killing it off with kindness- what is to prevent Terrorism from forming a symbiotic relationship with organized crime and the various other recognized forms of political activity and social entrepreneurship? In practice, of course, both roads must be taken. The good Taliban must be subsidized by day so as to transform into the bad Taliban who will come to blow us up by night. After all, that’s what we do with all public servants. The traffic cop draws his pay so as be in fine fettle when it comes to extorting money from us at the check-point. Criminals, too, are securely housed in prison so as to be able mastermind their extortion or other rackets while being protected at the tax payer’s expense. Jihadism, it seems, is not a cheap way of getting canon fodder. On the contrary it is a white elephant, which far from making its home amongst those you so kindly gift it to, returns home to rule the roost.
It may be argued that the above gives a distorted, or perverse, image of Jihad. The truth is that Jihad is an inward and spiritual struggle. However, political Islam finds it difficult to embrace this notion. Why? Well, the immediate answer that springs to mind is that if inward Jihad has any meaning at all- if it aint just pi-jaw and hot air- then its cultivation would be evidenced by the gaining of supernatural powers- the ability to heal, clairvoyance and so on. Indeed, there are numberless persons appearing to possess such qualities in every corner of the Islamic world. The problem is that they will heal anybody regardless of religion. How then are they different from the Hindu Godman or the Christian saint? Moreover, where the memory of such Saintly figures is venerated, a suspicion arises that Muslims are being led across the threshold of idolatry. Another reason for Political Islam to keep its distance from the Saints has to do with the manner in which, in the past, tyrants and feudal potentates have claimed descent from Holy Men to grab power and oppress the masses. Indeed, the tyrannical and intolerant Safavid dynasty- which established Shi’ia doctrine as the official religion of Iran- claimed descent from a Holy Man. The Ottoman Turks- as upholders of Sunni orthodoxy- waged war against the Safavids. Recurring hostilities between Turkey and Iran over 150 years became a factor in the devastation and neglect of the province of Iraq and the Arabian peninsula. To invest in the region would be to dangle a tempting prize in the face of one’s inveterate enemy. The development of Wahhabism- whose intellectual ancestry can be traced back to Ibn Taymiyya, who witnessed with his own eyes the terrible harm that had come to the Arabs from the Mongols- is understandable when we consider the declining position of the Arabs under Turkish, Iranian, Albanian and other overlords. Wahhabi intolerance and iconoclasm too becomes more understandable when one considers the inhuman cruelty and other excesses of the Safavids.
However, by choosing to concentrate on the Balkans, where the majority of the population was Christian, the Turks unwittingly reduced the capacity of the Islamic world to regenerate in the wake of European advances. Furthermore, the Muslim Aristocrats of this region put up some of the fiercest resistance to Turkish attempts at reform thus making inevitable a popular uprising against Turkish rule which the European powers would turn to their own advantage.
Whether or not sectarian divisions alone were to blame, the fact remains that the Ottomans and the Iranians could not unite with other Turkomen and Caucasian Muslims to counter Russian Imperialism in the north, or to come up- in partnership with Indian, Omani, or Swahili potentates- with a concerted strategy to counter European power in the Indian ocean. The result was that more and more trade routes passed out of Muslim hands. Great Islamic metropolitan centers fell on hard times. Islam acquired the name of a fatalistic religion variegated by a cloying sensuality. When the Wahhabis captured Mecca, the Ottoman asked the Egyptian Khedive to defeat them. The English, who understood the revolutionary potential of Wahhabi Islam for their Indian subjects, were only too happy to further the Khedive’s mission. However, the Khedive’s forays into the Arabian peninsula, and later Syria, did not sow the seeds of amity between the different branches of the Arab race. On the contrary, it left bitter memories of rapacity and extortion.
Political Islam can not but be aware of the manner in which sectarian and dynastic rivalries have imposed a heavy toll upon the ability of Muslim peoples to resist European Imperialism. Furthermore, the tendency of certain modernizing Muslim rulers in the nineteenth century to rely on foreign experts to rebuild their military and economic capacity on Western lines also backfired. In the case of the Egyptian Khedives, indebtedness to Western usurers enabled a sort of lightly disguised Anglo-French Imperialism to take root in Egypt. Even more grievously, the Young Turks in the Ottoman Empire- some of Jewish origin- preferred to stress ethnicity over religion- thus sowing the seeds for the Arab revolt- which in turn brought the Arabs nothing by a demeaning client status to the failing power of the British Crown.
Political Islam in India- which reached its zenith at the time of the Khilafat agitation- was soon humiliated and made to look ridiculous because, it turned out, the Turks didn’t want the restoration of the Caliphate. Henceforth they were determined to be Europeans and wanted nothing more to do with their dusky brothers in the faith. The Indian poet, Akbar Illahabadi painted a picture of the Indian Muslim intellectual- ‘payt masroof hai klerki main/ dil hai Iran aur Turki mein’- ‘ ‘Tis the belly makes necessary our clerk’s white collar / but our hearts never forsake Janissary and Ayatollah!’. But then, first Turkey, then Iran- even Afghanistan, under King Amanullah, who, seeing as he murdered his father to get the throne, was clearly very advanced in his views- turned their backs on political Islam preferring to be seen as modernizing leaders of European style Nation States busy negotiating treaties with the Great Powers. The dream of al-Afghani lay in tatters.
It is against this background that we need to understand that Iqbal- far from sponsoring political Islam as a Universal ideology, or a form of anti-Imperialism- was simply currying favor with the Imperialists by assisting their policy of ‘divide and rule’ while providing an intellectual camouflage for the creation of a modernizing Western style successor Nation State but one in which people like himself would prosper at the expense of Hindus and Sikhs. In other words, to use his own terminology, this was ‘land-hunger’ as opposed to Jihad, special pleading for a particular confessional group rather than anything to do with universal values.
This is not to say that, as E.M. Forster noted, Indian Muslims did not spend a lot of time dreaming of the vanished glories of Grenada and mourning the loss of various Balkan countries whose names one might not know but whose women were no doubt well favored. The political genius, and sheer staying power of Izetbegovich in organizing both Jihadi as well as Western support for Bosnian Muslims enabled that dream, at least in part, to turn into reality. However, it is far from clear that the rising generation- not just in Bosnia, but also Albania, Kosovo, or amongst the Muslim minority in Bulgaria- feel that the cry of Jihad still has some universal meaning. It is true that Western Intelligence Agencies have cracked down on some Jihadi networks associated with the Bosnian conflict and there is talk of a potential threat from the region. However, in light of the burgeoning power and ability of the Western Security Services to fight terrorism, as well as the increasing pre-occupation young people have with their own financial future- political Islam may not have actually been very much further advanced. Indeed, Izetbegovich’s legacy may come to be seen in his own country, as it is in the West, as not that of an Islamist but a secular humanist- a dissident imprisoned by the Communists- a brave champion of pluralistic democracy and so on and so forth.
An alternative to Jihad as having a military or a spiritual dimension may be to consider it as being primarily an organizational and propagandistic activity concerned with building what, Harvard Professor, Robert Putnam calls ‘Social Capital’- in other words social networks that increase the interconnectedness of people. The problem here is that, people have been sitting on committees and getting up resolutions and organizing conferences for decades and decades with no tangible result! Indeed, this sort of Jihad is now nothing but a careerism- a sham bureaucratic, sham academic or even sham political careerism as your taste takes you. This sort of political Islam is a costly advertisement for a product that does not exist; that can not exist because all the working capital has been used up on making the advertisement. No great harm in it, we may argue, if the West is footing the bill under the rubric of ‘multi-culturalism’ or some other such anodyne and hypocritical foolishness. Still, it is a misallocation of intellectual resources. Especially if, now, we are being asked to foot the bill ourselves. If your son- or better your daughter- your son being reserved for Medicine or Engineering- gets a scholarship to study Islam at Harvard- well and good. But what if he asks you to shell out your hard earned money so as to sit through that drivel? Is it a good way to spend your nest egg?
As for other forms of social networking- the fact is, everybody is sick and tired of the Tablighi busybody who comes round to enquire into your moral health- or pass comments on the morality of your neighbors. In the old days, especially in the Kingdom or some of the Emirates, people would put up with this because they feared the fellow had connections with the moral police. Nowadays, people have lost that fear. If you report me for possessing alcohol, I will report you for supporting al Qaeda! The bluff has been called.
If Jihad can’t be military, can’t be spiritual, can’t be organizational- then must political Islam dispense with Jihad? Is there no alternative? Or, to put it another way, what is the right outgroup- the kaffir- for political Islam to direct its venom at? The West? No, they will come and kick down your door and drag you off to Guantanomo or Abu Ghraib. Or sorry, that was under the previous administration. Now, they’ll simply send a drone to blow you up in your bed. What about some minority within our own borders? Why not pick on them? But, truthfully, can their position get any worse? In any case, thanks to past pogroms, there simply aren’t enough of them to go round. Women. Ah! Now you’re talking.
However there is a fundamental problem, for Political Islam, in adopting a misogynistic policy. The fact is, Islam was at one time in a superior position to Christianity, with respect to women’s rights, in that marriage was seen as a contractual relationship, women’s property was (at least theoretically) safeguarded and divorce- though not encouraged- was permissible. Furthermore, espousal of political Islam has often gone hand in hand with the education and empowerment of the women of the family, thus creating a constituency for itself within the educated Female elite both in Muslim countries as well as amongst the diaspora. In most Muslim societies, at least in urban centers or within the centers of power and knowledge, it is far too late to turn back the clock. Only a prolonged period of war-lordism and Talibanisation can change attitudes to women in this respect and force them out of Public life. No doubt, a cynic might say that Pakistan has already made a commendable start down that road and thus political Islam has a rosy future; however, this may be just a false dawn. What if the Taliban go on strike for better pay and conditions rather than the extra houris in Heaven we would readily grant? What if the Americans declare a victory and just pull out leaving us all to stew in our own juices? What if Israel- but no, Israel we will always have with us- and if it didn’t exist we would have to invent it- how else secure the future of political Islam?
Unless. Unless? We know what you’re going to say. You’re going to talk about a new political Islam based on movements from below- a subaltern Islam- Women, Trade Unionists, horny handed peasants, illiterate Political Scientists, starving fashion models, that smelly kid you sat next to once on the School bus, all these voices from below slowly harmonizing together to take on the burden of re-envisioning political Islam and- fex Urbis lex Orbis- from the dregs of the City will come the Light of this World.
No that wasn’t what I was going to say at all! How dare you? You’ve got it completely wrong. Well apart from that bit about the smelly kid I once sat next to on the School bus. You see, he grew up to become Imran Khan.
(S. Choudhry)

No comments: