Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 December 2009
Issue No. 975
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In Focus:

Galal Nassar

Dangerous misconceptions

Chameleon because so ill-defined, political Islam continues to pose a threat to the well-being of all Muslims, writes Galal Nassar

One reason political Islam poses a significant threat to Muslim societies is that it meshes so easily with accepted tradition. Yet the current practice of political Islam is quite divorced from the intellectual structure of Islam. There is nothing in its practice that enables a politically viable society.

Until they started translating the Greek classics Arabs had a limited political vocabulary. But they managed to run their societies in a way that shows they understood political and religious needs. This is what Islamic history tells us.

Students of Islamic history must be aware of the immense transformation the concept of politics in Islam has undergone, and how that transformation has triggered violence in recent years. This trend is not going to end unless Islamic societies manage to correct the historical mistake that took place during the formative years of Islam, when authority was confused with authoritarianism.

Since the birth of Islam attempts, both religious and material, have been made to understand the political nature, and comprehend the practicalities of, Muslim society. Along the way differences surfaced, largely due to differing interpretations by scholars and political leaders. Many Islamic leaders acted according to mundane as well as doctrinal concepts, and their societies often tolerated their actions.

In early Islam Muslim societies had an active political life. They needed to defend themselves in a doctrinal, as well as military, sense. And yet they remained viable as both Muslim and political entities.

Why has the relation between Islam and politics changed so much? How did we move on from having a society that blends life and religion to having a single-minded doctrine that ignores all practical considerations?

Political Islam groups fail to answer this question. They don't tell us what kind of Muslim state they really want. Do they want a state that focuses on religious rituals mostly, or on practical matters first?

Islamists dream of reviving a lifestyle that existed in early Islam and making it fit for all Muslims today. Their quest has backfired, especially in modern times. Whenever the opportunity presented itself for the implementation of political Islam, as in the case of Algeria and Afghanistan, the results were deplorable. Islamists simply do not have a political project that works.

The spread of political Islam came as a reaction to pan-Arabism and to Israel's successes, and before that to colonialism and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Political Islam is a historical error that needs to be corrected, if not for the sake of Muslims themselves, then for the sake of Islam. This is something that the Islamists don't, or refuse to, recognise. Throughout history, Islam has spread thanks to a social methodology that embraced a humanistic approach to the rigours of the faith.

Islam has spread more through peace than war. The purely religious wars of Islam ended early in its history. Perhaps the last of these were the reddah (apostasy) wars fought following Prophet Mohamed's death. Since then Muslims have fought wars to secure political goals. They fought to have an Islamic state that answers their religious as well as their mundane needs.

The separation of church and state in Europe has alarmed Muslims, especially those who cannot imagine life in a secular society. "Political Islam has a burning desire to banish the secular state on the pretext that theocracy is at the heart of Islam," an expert in political Islam once said.

According to the scholar Abdallah Turkoman, "loyalty in the Islamic state is a matter of controversy. Should one be loyal to the state or to faith? Also the question of non-Muslims is still a thorny one. And the question of loyalty of Muslims in non-Muslim countries is quite unresolved."

Muslims, including moderates, fail to answer questions concerning loyalty and patriotism though such ideas are central to the composition of a modern political state. The answers they do give are ambiguous and inconsistent, betraying their inability to think the matter through. In a world where Muslim countries have to address modern political concepts, Islamist thinking is fundamentally flawed.

It is hard to conceive of a universal entity of the type the Islamists seem to want. Universalism is a dream many Muslims entertain without fully understanding its political implications. It is from this flawed doctrinal concept that much violence has emerged, conducted primarily by those who refuse to recognise the changes that have happened as the modern state emerged.

The Islamists often argue that history supports the idea of a universal state, which is nonsense. There is no historical record of a universal state. The latter is merely an idealised vision that has turned into a sacred dogma, one that many Muslims have failed to shake off.

Political Islam is founded on a gross misinterpretation of history. If only the advocates of political Islam were to examine the first 100 years of Islam they would rethink most of their ideas. Unfortunately, the dogmas of political Islam have so taken root that to debunk them we need to do more than dismantle violent groups, such as Al-Qaeda. We need to open our minds and hearts to dialogue. We need to discuss thorny matters all over again.

Unless we do this future generations will fall prey to violence. The tenets of political Islam have enough vitality to spread political chaos in Muslim societies for years to come. Perhaps we will see a revival of the revolutionary zest of the last century, but with a Muslim flavour this time.

Unless we act political Islam, selective in its approach, eclectic in its ideas, is likely to continue its march in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and in countries even closer to us. With its selective approach and eclectic ideas, it is a force to contend with.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 975 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | International | Opinion | Press review | Reader's corner | Culture | Entertainment | Features | Encounter | Heritage | Sports | Cartoons | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map