Is Islamism, Islam ?
I define Islamism as the twentieth century political movement to instill “Islamic” governments in Muslim countries. The intellectual architects of this movement were Sayyid Qutb, Maududi, Ayatollah Khomeini and Hassan al-Turabi, amongst others. They have formed the political and governance template for movements in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, Somali, Sudan and Pakistan. The Islamist movements begin with a small, religiously purified elite of the wider group of believers that are welded into a group that form the nucleus for political and community action. It is interesting to observe that this type of Qutb Islamism is now employed as a modus operandi for Christian groups who wish to transform their community support into political power. The RNC’s flirtation with the evangelicals has parallels with Ikhwan’s links to the Nasserites, right down to the betrayal, (but not the executions).
Islam is of course what we all understand it to be, the religious belief and codified ritual practice contained in the Quran and Prophetic (PBUH) Sunnah. It is the basis of what a Muslim does.
Although there is wide religious diversity amongst the proponents of Islamism there is surprising unity in political method and public governance. Khomeni for example is a “twelver shia”, Maududi founded the Jammat e Islami and Qutb was the spiritual source for movements as including the Muslim Brotherhood at one end and Al Qaida at the other. There are fundamental theological differences between these movements, but the chronology of their rise, the method of their political action and the similarities of their governance suggest that they are surprising similarities.
Islamist governments are one party structures with weak or non-existent alternative voices. Although they reach power via the ballot box they are disdainful of the transformative power of public participation in community governance. They also shun transparency, media freedom and gradualism. The governments have strong social justice commitments and high standards of personal public official accountability, although over time these are eroded by the corruption of unchecked political power. There is always a concentration of power amongst the spiritual elite, such as the Iranian the revolutionary guardian council.
Islamist governments concentrate disproportionately on the outward manifestations of Islamic observance, women’s dress, alcohol consumption, prostitution, etc. They seem less willing to understand or rectify other more important systems of government. There is no standard Islamist economic policy, but there are strong trends to a determinist economic model, although this is widely recognized as a failed model, and is ironically profoundly “un-Islamic”.
Although Islamist governments are authoritarian and keen to introduce what they deem to be “Sharia” law they are surprisingly devoid of ethic of the rule of such law, the narrow scope of legislation to certain aspects of criminal law (the Hudud), and they do not tolerate a judiciary independent of the executive. The fidelity toward the absolute rule of law or to governance based on unchanging set of legal principles is conspicuously lacking.The arbitrary nature of legal rulings itself becomes an obstacle to social stability and economic progress
Islamist governments appear to have more in common with Marxist regimes of the early and middle part of the twentieth century than with the Prophetic (PBUH) model of governance in Medinat ul Nabi in the 6th century. Their development along this abbherent path reflects the very low level of education amongst Islamists group and their unwillingness to read non-Muslim scholars and understand that this type of governance has been tried and has failed. Islamist have no understanding of Islamic finance that are rarely developed beyond rudimentary systems, nor do they understand the gradualism that is required to move societies. Islamist regimes are revolutionary and radical. they seek to impose the will of the elite on the masses without persuasion, trust and transparency. Islamist governments confuse their own survival with that of Islam, which forms the basis for their missionary zeal, resembling most closely that of Lenin’s October revolutionaries.
Youssef Choueiri details the profound similarities between the the 19th century French Nobel prize winner Alexis Carrel and the thesis of Sayyid Qutb. he goes on to assert:
What Qutb fails to inform his vanguard, however, is that the code of conduct he subsequently elaborated in his ‘commentary’ on the Koran matches that of Carrel much more than Muhammad’s own Traditions.’ The result is not an indigenous form of governance, but ‘a Third World version of Fascism.
Courtesy of Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad
This is not to say that Islamism is synonymous with fascism, which clearly it is not. Nor is it to say that all Islamic thinkers are identical, they are not. Maududi’s Jaamat e Islami was enthusiastically democratic and non violent. The critique of it is different to that of Sayyid Qutb. Qutb’s later writings, especially from prison have an authoritarian and revolutionary flavor that is not authentically Islamic.The purported template for radical Islamists such as Qutb, and the source of his Islamic authenticity is their alleged fidelity to the method of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). This assertion is false and they must be challenged on it.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, there was no government, no government structures and only the most rudimentary tribal understandings. Even during this period, and with the profound difference in understanding, the Prophet (PBUH) did not impose his will upon Medina, although the citizens had invited him to do so. Rather his community power, grew gradually with increasing community support. Political support lagged behind widespread community support in Medina: Abi Salul was allowed to sit in the presence of the Prophet (PBUH) and mock him without fear, although the Prophet enjoyed widespread community support and was de-facto ruler of Medina. He did not impose Islamic rules on other faith communities, but rather treated them generously often at the expense of strict justice to Muslims. As Islam spread the Muslim rulers were known for their minimalist intervention in local government, economics and trade.
The Islamic law was a welcome relief from the arbitrary negotiated justice of tribal law and allowed guarantee of property rights and was administered by an independent impartial judiciary, which is they very opposite of the current situation. The Islamist doctrine is disturbingly messianic, something that is un-Islamic. If one wishes to preach, it is better to actually preach the worship of God, rather than preach a totalitarianism that you may believe will in the future be congenial to the worship of God, i.e. the worship of God rather than the worship of Islamism.
Groups such as Hizb ut Tahrir take this absurdity to its logical limit when they claim that their vision of Islamist government is actually a secular system of rules that will produce a Utopian society. They therefore are not interested in preaching this worship of God, but rather the adherence to a set of political ideals which are claimed to be central to the Islamic ideals of government. These assertions are false. Islam needs to be lived first before it is legislated. Institutionalizing piety is itself problematic, as we are currently discovering.
The first generation of Islamists who are now entering the last years of their lives are full of regrets. In private conversations they admit that the errors they made were to rush into political power and compromise or distort religious principles for short term political gain. They also admit that in formulating their lofty goals they were almost childlike in their naiveté. One recurring regret is prominient, moving from a community based religious movement to a political party has been a tragedy for the former. Once it entered politics, the growth in the Islamist support stopped, then gradually declined. If one were primarily committed to the promotion of worship of Allah, this should be alarming.
As one who feels that the Muslim world will never truly be itself until Islam forms an integral part of its polity, I don’t wish to see a secular government. That model (e.g. Bathism in Iraq, Egypt and Syria) has been tried and failed. Nor has secular government given security to non-Muslim countries who have interests in the Muslim world, indeed it is regularly argued that totalitarian secular polity has been the germ that has fuelled Islamic radicalism. But the Islamist models that are on display today are excessively romantic, formulaic and shallow. Islamists need to turn down the temperature of their public religious fervor and demonstrate that they can govern a community.
Contemporary Islamism is in danger of losing its authenticity. Although it is currently in ascendancy it will not last long unless it reformulates itself without its Marxist baggage and studies non-Muslim thinkers who have already grappled with the idea of religion and society.