April 6, 2010

Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics

In a 1946 seminal essay titled "Politics and the English Language," the British novelist George Orwell bemoaned the decline of post-World War Two English prose by pointing out that what was troublesome about some major English writing then was lack of precision, sheer incompetence, and vagu

This insight is at the heart of Brown's discussion in this timely book on Islam and politics. The author offers the most refreshingly sober analysis of the Islamic phenomenon; a welcome addition from someone who has spent his entire career analyzing modem North African and Middle Eastern societies by using original sources and
treating the Muslim world in the most balanced of ways. Brown focuses his analytical lenses on three interrelated phenomena: first, Islam as theology; second, Islam as history; and, third, Islam as politics. As a result, he presents an overwhelmingly clear picture of the interplay between these three factors in classical and modem Islamic societies. This type of analysis is the more welcome after the tragic attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, when every Tom, Dick, and Harry has become a specialist on Islam and the so-called Islamic terrorism. In his insightful analysis of the issues at hand, Brown cuts through the thick of it all by advocating a clear method of studying the Islamic religious phenomenon.

A scholarly approach or a scientific study of religion, he correctly maintains, ought not minimize the impact of religion on life but, on the contrary, ought to shed important light on the interplay between theology and other social and historical factors. That leads him to suggest that the Muslim people must be judged by the same "rules of logic and evidence" as other people (p. 19). Brown, just like Edward Said, is disturbed by Western perceptions of Islam and the Muslim people and is anxious to make sense of the complex historical and theological relationship between the Muslim world and the West. Once and again, he affirms the notion that Islam belongs to the Abrahamic family, that is, it is akin in its theological worldview to both Judaism and Christianity and "that the more Jews or Christians know of their own religious heritage the better able they are to understand Islam" (p. 21).

Aside from its theological core, Islam grew out of an urban environment and is "marked by an urban bourgeoisie outlook" (p. 27). Brown elaborates in a subtle way on the Benedict Anderson thesis of the "imagined communities" discussed in his classic work, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1993). Because of its Abrahamic theology, its bourgeois and urban dimension, its literati class, its Sufis, the intellectual leadership of formative Islam was able to imagine a universal community of believers who could transcend ethnic, linguistic, and geographic boundaries. Although he does not refer to Anderson's major study, Brown seems to be heading in the same direction of analysis. The Muslim notions of politics, he asserts, developed mainly in the formative phase against this background of universal imagining, and hence Muslim political theory is replete with such terms as the ummah, dar al-Islam, dar al-Harb, and dar al-Sulh. However, Brown stresses that in spite of the central role of the ulama, the main intelligentsia in classical Muslim society, in providing a universal imagining to the Muslim ummah, no corporate "church" body has ever existed in the Muslim world. The ulama, especially in the Sunni world, have more or less stood with the status quo by refusing to support opposition to the political authority. The mainstream Muslim ulama, providing legitimacy, put their weight behind an Islamic tradition that was pro-status quo and pushed their notion of orthodoxy often with the support of the political authorities. Brown clarifies the important connection between the ulama and the ruling elite in Muslim societies, a relationship of cooptation or at best cooperation: "The Sunni ulama have almost never acted in an organized fashion as if they constituted an institutionally distinct, hierarchically arranged body" (p. 33). Brown provides us with the necessary conceptual tools to delve into such central questions as the education of the ulama, their relationship to the state in the classical era, and their role in the dissemination of religious
knowledge. It is crucial to examine these points in light of the modem developments in the Muslim world, especially in light of the relationship between state and religion. In the wake of independence from colonialism, many Muslim countries created Ministries of Religious and Islamic Affairs and encouraged a class of ulama to be the official spokespersons of Islam. However, opposed to that, a new class of Muslim activists and thinkers emerged in modem Muslim societies, thus giving a new voice or representation to Islam and the problems facing
the Muslim world. It is interesting to examine the dynamics of the relationship between "official Islam" and activist Islam in contemporary Muslim societies. One can take the Wahhabi case in Saudi Arabia, the Turabi case in the Sudan, and the Shiite case in Iran. In Iran the ulama have, more or less, controlled the state since 1979.

How is one to view the relationship between religion and society in the modern Muslim world? What is the role of colonialism in this relationship? Brown admits that there have been major shifts in power relations between the Muslim world and the West in the past two centuries. Brown refers to the confrontation with the West or the Western impact but never explicitly to European colonization, the single most important event in the development of modern Muslim societies. It is in this context that one can understand the interplay between three major forces in the colonial Muslim world: Islamic forces, colonialism, nationalism, and a fourth force, Communism, in the case of Indonesia.

This interplay gave rise to the modern nation-state phenomenon with various degrees of political, cultural, and economic independence from the colonial center. The heavy colonial legacy along with the need to modernize the state without the appropriate personnel and resources to do so created many challenges for the nascent nation-states. In the Gulf states, because of oil, the challenges were of a different nature. That is why, as Brown notes correctly, in the early phase of the nation-state the "Muslim discourse" was dominated by such charismatic figures as Ataturk, Sukaro, Nasser, and Bourguiba. He notes that in the past few decades this discourse has been dominated by Islamist intellectuals and activists This is true only to a limited extent. The political elite in the contemporary Muslim world are still as powerful as ever, and dissent is rarely tolerated. In addition, a large number of the political elite are pro-West, as opposed to the first generation after independence that was, more or less, anti-West or anticolonial and stressed the importance of independent political and economic development in the Muslim world.

Why, then, the rise in Islamist politics? This statement has to be qualified. Most Islamist movements in the Sunni world have had a tough relationship with the new nation-state and the current military leadership. Some have been banned from politics (Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia are examples). The only example of an almost takeover of the state by an Islamist movement took place in the Sudan, under Turabi. But this experiment has come to naught. It is against the above theoretical background that Brown takes up the issue of Islamism (Islamic fundamentalism) in the modem Muslim world. Here his analysis lacks some theoretical clarity, unlike that in the first part of the book. How is one to characterize the Islamist movement in the Muslim world? First, Brown is correct to assume that Islamism is a multilayered phenomenon in the Muslim world and that it traverses the past two centuries. However, one can delineate several classes of Islamism: precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial. The Wahabbiyyah is at the heart of the first class, whereas the Muhammadiyyah; Nahdatu ul-Ulama of Indonesia; the Ikhwan of Egypt; and the Jama'at-e-Islami of India and Pakistan, all products of the colonial eras, comprise the second class. Of the third class, we have the Egyptian Jihad and the Taliban movements. Brown assumes that all Islamist movements are political and thus radical in nature and orientation.

This is far from true in the case of Muhammadiyyah, Nahdatu ul-Ulama of Indonesia, and even of the Tabligh Jama'at, the most dominant revivalist movement in contemporary South Asia. Islamism is, in large measure, the product of modern European colonialism in the Muslim world and the failure of the modem nation-state to accommodate protest movements in their political systems. I think that the weakness of Brown's analysis in this section stems from his failure to accept Western colonialism as a historical fact in the Muslim world. Nowhere does he use the term; instead, he uses such terms as "changes,"" confrontations,"and so forth. It is the fact of colonialism that gave rise to the modem nation-state in the Muslim world, often an exhausted and poor nation-state that resorted to both modernization and repression in its formative phase. In the 1950s, the Masumi Islamist party was repressed in Indonesia, as were the Ikhwan movement in Egypt and the Jama'at in Pakistan. That is why the relationship between Islamism and the state in the Muslim world has been complex. In the case of Wahabbism, Islamism and the state have been allied, whereas in other cases, Islamism and the state have been at odds. The state in the modern Muslim world is a nineteenthcentury creation prompted by European colonialism. As such, Islamism has never been a static phenomenon. It has invented a powerful religious discourse to legitimize itself in the eyes of the masses and to gain political and economic support. Islamism has been in crisis for the last four decades for many complex reasons: first, because the whole of Muslim tradition has been in crisis, and second, because the new guard of Islamism is not satisfied with the achievements or lack thereof on the part of the old guard. This is true in the case of Wahabbism, and bin Laden is an example.

In spite of some major theoretical flaws in the second part of the book, I think this work paves the way for grasping the Islamist phenomenon in its diverse forms in the contemporary Muslim world. My criticism of the second section is not intended to minimize the importance of this book and the solidity of its arguments throughout. Brown has offered us the necessary epistemological tools to come to grips with the complex theme of Islam and politics both in the classical and modern phases of the Muslim world.


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