Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 November 2004
Issue No. 715
Special
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Muslim condition

How Islamic is political Islam? In the third instalment of the "Ramadan Debate" Lebanese thinker Radwan Al-Sayyid tells Omayma Abdel-Latif about the contradictions of revivalism, and the need for both political and religious reform

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'Most of the problems besetting the Muslims today cannot be resolved, as the Islamists have been advocating, by establishing an Islamic state which will uphold the Sharia, because this solution is based on a false premise. It assumes that Islam is absent, and has to be reinjected into our social and political universe'

"How much lower can we sink?"

The question was posed by the late Edward Said shortly before his death one year ago, as he contemplated the sorry state of the Arabs. It may be an old chestnut, but it has perhaps never been more pertinent than now, in relation not only to the Arabs, but to the whole of the Muslim world.

Brutal murderers, religious fanatics, evil doers, suicide bombers, throat slitters -- and of course the all-too-common "T-word": these are some of the images which have shaped public debate about Islam in the West for at least the past decade. Their origin, of course, is in selective and sensationalist media reporting, which gives a disproportionate voice to those who defend fundamentalism and engage in violence in order to serve a particular agenda. The re-emergence this week of Osama Bin Laden will probably only serve to stir up yet another wave of Muslim- bashing, in the form of lectures on how we need to change our behaviour, our attitudes and if possible our religion. In short, there are still many people in the West who believe that Muslims need "civilising" all over again.

Under the cultural and military impact of this racist and simple-minded view, it is not surprising that many Muslims have come to believe that they are engaged in a last-ditch struggle to protect their religion, culture and society from a belligerent West -- a West, they argue, that has never abandoned the project, launched with the Crusades, of humiliating, subordinating and dividing them. Yet despite the pressure to resort to simplifications of their own, there are still some Muslims who acknowledge that what has been going on in their societies of late is little short of a catastrophe.

One such person is Radwan Al-Sayyid, professor of Islamic studies at the Lebanese University. Al-Sayyid has long been a staunch advocate of the need for Muslims to undergo a serious process of introspection. He argues that the moment could not be more timely for a reformation of Muslims' understanding of their religion.

Al-Sayyid studied first at Al-Azhar University, where he obtained the equivalent of a doctoral degree on Islamic thought and jurisprudence. He then pursued his postgraduate work in Germany, where he obtained another doctoral degree in comparative religion.

He is the author of many books, and edits a weekly supplement on the Islamic legacy for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper. His most recent work is The Conflict over Islam: Fundamentalism, reformation and international politics, which was a bestseller. In this book, Al-Sayyid offers an original reading of the current situation of the main political Islam groups. The principal argument of the book is that there is a conflict over the articulation and representation of Islam which is currently being waged on three fronts. On the one hand, there is a conflict within Islam itself between three major factions whom Al-Sayyid terms the conservatives (generally represented by the religious establishment), the revivalists (who advocate violence as a way of changing the status quo) and the neo-reformists. At the same time, a second front has been opened between the State and these groups as to who should have the power to represent Islam and how. And there is now yet a third dimension to the conflict, following the West's intervention in these internal debates about reform and its continuing attempt to impose ''its own Islam''.

Al-Sayyid believes that the current crisis of Islamic political thought is deeply embedded in what he describes as "the failure of the Arab state to deliver". "The status quo regimes in most Arab countries which have existed for the past four or five decades have failed to deliver on two very important fronts: defending the national and security interests of their countries, and improving the living conditions of the Arab citizen," Al- Sayyid explains. "Even in the richer Arab oil states, development rates are growing at a snail's pace, and there is no proper explanation for this."

Al-Sayyid holds this "great failure" responsible for the two major upheavals to strike the Middle East in recent years: the emergence of political Islam, and the return of colonialism to the region.

"The Middle East region seems to me to be the only place in the world which has witnessed the return of colonialism in its oldest and most ruthless form -- direct military intervention," Al- Sayyid says. "There is now a foreign military presence in seven or eight Arab countries, either in the form of armies stationed there, or in the form of territorial concessions."

The emergence of political Islam movements, according to Al-Sayyid, is also a by-product of the drastic failure of the Arab political experience. While he acknowledges that the Islamists' reading of the crisis besetting the Arab world in the 1970s and 1980s was correct, he describes the alternatives which they have to offer as "as bad, if not worse, than the existing situation".

"They read the crisis too well; and reached the conclusion that the problem was a political problem," Al-Sayyid explains. "So they responded with a political ideology similar to that of the leftists and the nationalists." But the political project they offered -- namely, an Islamic state which upholds the Sharia (Islamic law) -- was based on misleading and incorrect assumptions. "The general assumption from which the Islamists started -- both those who advocate violence and those who don't -- was that Islam was conspicuously absent both from the State structure and from society. This was a very serious accusation, because it meant turning their back on centuries of Islamic legacy and claiming the right to force the Muslims to return to a religion which they were presumed to have abandoned."

This assumption, argues Al-Sayyid, hits at the very heart of the Muslim faith.

He remains adamant, however, that there is no "religious problem". On the question of faith, Al- Sayyid believes that Muslims are probably more religious today than at any previous time in their history: the present age can only be compared in that respect to the time of the Prophet. That is why he thinks that one reason for the failure of the Islamists was that they tried to interpret politics through the prism of religion. "Our problems are not of a religious nature," Al-Sayyid insists. "They have more to do with the political, economic and social contexts in which we have to operate. Religion has very little to do with any of this."

"Most of the problems besetting the Muslims today cannot be resolved, as the Islamists have been advocating; by establishing an Islamic state which will uphold the Sharia, because this solution is based on a false premise. It assumes that Islam is absent, and has to be reinjected into our social and political universe."

As an ideology, therefore, Al-Sayyid argues, political Islam is probably part of the problem more than it is part of the solution. "There is an increasing sense of polarisation among Muslims. And political Islam as an ideology has contributed to this polarisation. It should not be held wholly responsible for it, since it was primarily the failure of the Arab state which created such a polarisation, but nevertheless, political Islam has been a contributing factor." In Al-Sayyid's eyes, this polarisation was specifically exacerbated by the Islamists' insistence on giving the conflict with the state priority over all other issues, and by their habit of dividing up the world on the basis of how "Islamic" the various parts of it are.

Al-Sayyid also criticises the sacred status which the Islamists accord to the Sharia, erecting it as the marji'eiya -- the point of reference and authority in any political order. This line of thought, he argues, goes against the basic teachings of Sunni Islamic thought, which believes that the marji'eiya -- the source of authority -- belongs to the umma, the people. As a result, democracy is the only political system which approximates to this thinking. "Muslims who embrace the faith and beliefs of Islam are the ones who safeguard the Sharia and therefore they are the ones who have the marji'eiya," Al-Sayyid argues. "The problem is that the Islamists have made the |Sharia -- not the umma -- into the only source of authority."

Despite this gloomy diagnosis, Al-Sayyid does find some reason for optimism in the emergence of a new class of Islamists, whom he calls "neo- reformists". These Islamists have transcended the issues of the Islamic state and the centrality of the Sharia in the political system. Instead, they call for a religious reformation process, since the traditional religious institutions have been rendered irrelevant at the hands of both the State and the revivalists ( Al-Ihyaa'iyoun ). "These neo-reformists -- such as Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd, Salim Al- Awa, Fahmy Howeidy and Tariq Al-Bishri -- are working to articulate a new project concerning the role of religion in the political order," Al- Sayyid claims. "They talk a lot about the 'spirit' of the Sharia, rather than dealing with it as a dogmatic text which can never be criticised. They also refer to other world historical experiences and stress the need to learn from them in any reform process."

On the face of it, such a group would seem to be capitalising on the reform legacy of the pioneers of the earlier Islamic reformation movement which emerged at the turn of last century -- people such as Mohamed Abdu, Jamaluddin Al- Afghani and Rashid Reda. But Al-Sayyid argues that digging a bit deeper will reveal that the problems which today's reformers confront are of a completely different nature from those which existed over one hundred years ago. The neo- reformists, he points out, are confronted by two colossal challenges: the first is the heritage of a failed political experience which spans the entire 20th century; the second is the fact that at the same time as they are calling for reform, they are also engaged in an intense struggle against both the revivalists ( Al-Ihyaa'iyoun ) and the religious conservatives ( Al-Taqlidiyoun ). In the view of the neo-reformists, both these groups pose a serious obstacle to any better understanding of the role of religion in the State.

The discrediting of the religious establishment in the eyes of many Muslims poses yet another challenge which the neo-reformists have to deal with. The revivalists, Al-Sayyid points out, have not only succeeded in undermining the role of the conservative religious establishment, but have also shorn the religious institutions of the power and influence which they used to wield among the faithful. As a result, the establishment no longer represents the marji'iyia for many Muslims.

Al-Sayyid argues that the neo-reformists' project may yet be undermined by two structural weaknesses of their work. "Like the revivalists, they are mainly concerned with issues of identity," he explains. "Both share a sense that the Islamic identity is under attack and that it needs to be protected."

Their second weak point is on the geopolitical level. In Al-Sayyid's opinion, there is no way their project can garner international support, because none of the Western powers are prepared to show genuine respect for the interests of the Muslims or develop relationships with the Muslim world which are not based on military, political or cultural intervention.

"This is indeed a very depressing world for Muslims," Al-Sayyid laments, "And it is this which has given groups like the revivalists some real justification for resorting to violence to protest the status quo." The real dilemma of the neo-reformists, argues Al-Sayyid, is that not only are they operating within an unhelpful social and political context, but on the international front, they face a world whose intentions cannot be fully trusted.

Nevertheless, Al-Sayyid insists that the neo- reformists should be given credit for their constant effort to achieve two main goals: to reconstruct a political order which belongs to the people, and to bring about a re-reading of Islamic thought in a way that can reconcile religion with the State.

"Their focus should be to work towards religious reform, and reconciliation between religion and the State," Al-Sayyid argues. "These are two very important priorities for Muslims now. In all the annals of Islamic history, the conflict between Islam as a religion and the existing political order has never been so intense as it has been over the past three or four decades."

In his latest book, Al-Sayyid paints a picture of a conflict which he says exists within Islam over the articulation of religion and the monopoly on the representation of Islam. This conflict opposes the revivalists -- who had emerged victorious from their war with the conservatives -- and the neo-reformists.

The State, or status quo regime, is also party to the conflict. Al-Sayyid acknowledges that part of the challenge facing the neo-reformists is that they are dealing with a ruthless State which has mishandled the whole issue of political Islam. "To the regime, political Islam was no more than a security issue which could be settled either by arresting Islamists or by killing them."

In fact, Al-Sayyid holds the State responsible for the fact that Islamists ended up opting for violence in order to try and change the political order.

Had there been a vibrant political life which could have accommodated them and embraced their political ambitions, Al-Sayyid believes, the revivalists would have evolved into some kind of a political party. But in the absence of an open political forum in which they could put forward their vision, they were forced to resort to violence as the only way they could bring about change.

This is precisely why Al-Sayyid believes that political reform now needs to be given precedence over religious reform. For one reason, he says, it is easier to embark on a process of political reform than of religious reform. "Every one is familiar with the mechanisms of democratic rule, free elections and the rotation of power. These are easier goals to achieve. Political reform should provide the environment for debate and free thinking, which are two essential elements in any process of religious reform. Tackling the freedom deficit in the Arab world is one important step towards religious reform."

Al-Sayyid believes that some Arab regimes have further complicated the situation not only by blocking any attempts at serious reform, but also by joining forces with reactionary elements within the religious establishment in their fight against those who are calling for reform. "The State, or the ruling elite, have been engaged in double talk. On the one hand, they want to appear to be the defenders of the faith, so as to gain legitimacy. But on the other hand, they want to project a liberal image to the outside world, which in this case means clamping down on the fundamentalists. The State has been able to maintain a monopoly over articulating Islam because of the discrediting of the religious establishment -- which was largely of its own doing -- and because of the lack of any other alternatives that could hope to gain legitimacy from both the umma and the ulema."

Religious reform requires the formation of a new marji'iyia. "We need senior ulema who have a vast and accurate knowledge of Islam -- of its jurisprudence, its doctrine, the relationship between the different Islamic groups and movements. We also need ulema who know modern sciences like sociology and the humanities in general. These ulema should be able to develop a new strand of Islamic thought and form a new marji'iyia that will have the power to read the text and interpret it in a way that connects with our modern day world."

But in order to regulate who speaks in the name of religion, do we really need an Islamic hierarchy as well? Or would that not mean running the risk of a new assertion of monopoly over religious knowledge?

This is a question which Al-Sayyid himself has been contemplating for the past decade. In fact, it is precisely this lack of hierarchy in Sunni Islam which has made Islam such a very dynamic religion in the past. The reason why Sunni Islam became the majority religion is simply because it always placed religion within the realm of ordinary argument, as being subject to open debate in order to reach consensus. But in this age of fitna (schism), Al-Sayyid believes that an Islamic hierarchy is warranted. "In times of welfare, the existence of a hierarchy becomes restrictive and an impediment to development, but in times of fitna like the one we are living through now, I think if we had one religious authority -- not necessarily one as restrictive as the Catholic Church -- it would definitely lessen the trouble and confusion. If Al-Azhar had maintained a tight grip on Muslim affairs and was still held in high esteem by the majority of Muslims as the source of religious authority, we might have spared ourselves many troubles and crises."

But Al-Sayyid recognises that even the existence of a credible and powerful religious authority would not have prevented some one like Osama Bin Laden from claiming to be speaking in the name of Islam. "I cannot simply tell Bin Laden that Islam tells you to belt up. But I can prevent him from having influence when I prove his theories to be wrong. One time he says he attacked the World Trade Center because of Palestine, now he says he did it because of Lebanon, and tomorrow he will probably say, 'I did it because of Saad Zaghlul'. This shows the bankruptcy of his thought. He has managed to claim the leadership of this movement [the Jihadist salfi ], which is not a new movement, thanks to his charismatic personality and all the money he has brought to it. What he says is not ijtihadaat. His words resonate simply because there is no one who can respond to what he says with authority and argue against it."

So the time is ripe for reform. But as long as the West continues to treat the Muslim world with contempt, and the neo-reformists fail to recreate the bond between the ummah and a renewed religious establishment, the advantage is likely to lie with the revivalists -- for better, or more likely, for worse.

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