Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Political Islam: A Modern Phenomena

Mohammed Ayoob

Political Islam: 
A Modern Phenomena of Presenting National Goals as Islamic
Mobilizing Resistance to Domestic Autocracy and Global Western Hegemony

Political Islam, namely, any political activity that draws upon Islamic precepts, history, vocabulary, and presumed models of governance currently embodies the idea of resistance to hegemony far more than any other ideology in the Muslim world and even beyond. The only ideology currently capable of mobilizing substantial segments of the South’s population to resist this material and ideological hegemony [of the Industrilaized West] is political Islam.

This does not mean that political Islam is a monolith. Diverse manifestations of political activities in the name of Islam are primarily determined by context-specific variables, despite the similarities they may possess in terms of the vocabulary used and the common pool of ideas from which they draw. However, there is an anti-hegemonic aspect of political Islam that runs through many of its diverse manifestations. This dimension also explains the role of several mainstream Islamist movements and groups as the primary opponents in those countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, several of which are clients or allies of the global concert and/or hegemon.

Several factors help explain why political Islam is especially prone to taking anti-hegemonic positions and resisting Western domination: the historical antecedents of Islamist movements that have shaped their worldviews, the nature of regimes in several Muslim countries and their dependent relationship with global centers of power, and trajectories of American policy toward the Muslim world in general and the Middle East in particular. The complex interplay among these variables tends to strengthen the anti-hegemonic strand in Islamist political activity as well as add to its standing and popularity among diverse Muslim populations.

The antecedents of what we call “political Islam” can be traced to the nineteenth century, when the Muslim world began to feel the full weight of the European onslaught. Islamist political activity in the form we know it today is, therefore, a modern phenomenon, as much a creation of modernity as a reaction to it. In the thousand years of Muslim history before the advent of European colonialism, when Muslims ruled over Muslims, Islam was only rarely used as a political tool to challenge temporal authority. This held true among both the majority Sunnis and the Shia minority with the latter adopting religio-political quietism as a survival strategy.

In general, the ulama, the religious scholars, were politically quiescent as long as the temporal rulers met the minimum standards of defending the lands of Islam and non-interference in their subjects’ practice of religion. The state was minimalist in character and largely left civil society alone as long as subjects paid their taxes and did not threaten rebellion. In other words, there was basically a live-and-let-live policy between the temporal and religious authorities; when wars occurred, they were primarily among princes and warlords seeking to expand their territory at the expense of their neighbors. Political mobilization at the popular level, which was inherent in the Prophet’s preaching even during his lifetime, became the exception under Muslim dynastic rule.

European colonialism drastically changed the nature of political authority in the Muslim world by putting non-Muslims in control of Muslim lands either directly or indirectly. Simultaneously, mass literacy and the introduction of the printing press enabled lay Muslim scholars and activists to challenge the ulama’s religious authority, thus leading to a proto-Reformation that ushered scriptural literalism and the priesthood of the individual – essential components of Europe’s Reformation – into the Islamic world.

Calls for proto-nationalist resistance were often couched in Islamic terminology, and the faithful were called upon to resist colonial encroachment and overthrow European domination as part of their individual and collective Islamic duty to prevent Islamic lands and Muslims from falling under non-Muslim rule. Consequently, anti-colonial resistance became the modern era’s quintessential jihad. This notion of jihad has been carried over into the twenty-first century as resistance to the hegemony of, and domination by, non-Muslim great powers – the taghut (arrogant ones rebelling against God) – to use the terminology of the Iranian revolution.
Political Islam, as an ideology of popular mobilization, is the heir of these proto-nationalist resistance movements and its ideologues, the most prominent of whom is Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. This pioneer in terms of using Islamic vocabulary to mobilize Muslims against colonial domination found no contradiction between the twin forces of nationalism and pan-Islam in colonized Muslim countries. In fact, he saw them as two sides of the same coin that could be employed simultaneously to resist European domination, thereby demonstrating the paradoxical compatibility of nationalism and pan-Islam in the Muslim world. 

Contemporary manifestations of political Islam are heirs of this tradition of combining nationalist agendas with Islamic ones, or rather of presenting national goals as Islamic, in their attempt to mobilize Muslims to resist both domestic autocracy and global hegemony. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, successfully combined nationalist and Islamic appeals to become a major domestic political force. Hamas, an offshoot of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, has achieved similar success in Occupied Palestine.  But it was the Iranian revolution – a classic case of people going into the streets and overthrowing an unpopular regime – that provided the prime example of successfully combining Islam and nationalism for popular mobilization.

A second variable that has strengthened and continues to strengthen political Islam’s anti-hegemonic strand is the nature of several Muslim regimes and their past and present links with the global centers of power, especially the United States. While Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh have adopted (and, in the case of Turkey, consolidated) democratic systems to various degrees, several others, notably those in the Arab world and Central Asia, continue to suffer from huge democratic deficits.

The authoritarian nature of many Muslim regimes, especially in the broader Middle East, which includes Central Asia, the Caucasus as well as the Middle East as traditionally defined, provides crucial political space in which Islamist political activity can expand. Closed political systems and authoritarian regimes are standing invitations to the increased popularity of such political formations, because they stifle political debate and effectively suppress all secular opposition.

This dialectic between American hegemony (as represented by American policies toward the Muslim world and especially the Middle East) and political Islam (as represented by movements and political formations opposing both American hegemony and its local clients) is likely to have a major impact upon the Muslim world’s future political trajectory, particularly in the Middle East.

Mohammed Ayoob is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and Coordinator of the Muslim Studies Program, at Michigan State University. He is also an Adjunct Scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.(ISPU). His most recent book is The Many Faces of Political Islam (University of Michigan Press: 2008).  The full policy brief may be downloaded [here] courtesy of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

More on Political Islam: Dynamics in Political Islam and challenges for European policies Jihad : The Trail of Political Islam (Carnegie Council, New York)

No comments: