Friday,27 April, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Friday,27 April, 2018
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Religion and the state

The ideas and remarks uttered by Emir Tamim bin Hamad during the Arab Summit on the Dead Sea last week came as no surprise to observers who have followed the Qatari leader’s policies and behaviour. The emir knows the function he performs as a ruler of a tiny emirate with a small population and a vast amount of natural gas resources under the protection of the largest US military base in the region. Qatar’s function is to support Islamist groups, provide shelter to their leaders who have fled the law in their own countries, and to fund and arm their militias and affiliated armed groups in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Iraq and even in Europe. It is also Qatar’s task to defend the right of these groups to come to power in those countries and to declare their Islamic caliphate on the grounds that they are the “opposition”. In the process, it pushes the term and recognition of “the armed opposition” as a way to obfuscate the issues and conceal the true nature of those groups. The result is the collapse of states and national armies, millions of displaced persons and the transformation of the Middle East into a huge refugee camp.

That emir loves to meddle in the domestic affairs of other countries. Of course, he realises that his meddling does not even serve the interests of his own country but rather those of the international powers that are fighting over the fates of the countries and peoples of this region. He is also perfectly aware that those powers are playing on the socio-political contradictions and complex equations of power and rule that have shaped circumstances in this region. All the factionalism and power struggles, the vulnerability to religious and absolutist demagoguery, the sectarian and ethnic divides are so handy for the purposes of divide and rule, the inflammation of communal hatreds, and general sabotage and destruction. The Qatari emir is fortunate to have at his disposal a huge media machine like Al-Jazeera. They lent him credibility and an air of professional detachment in those early years before the masks fell and the media revealed its true nature as the spearhead of propaganda campaigns against other Arab governments, societies, armies and governments. It was no longer an agent of reform but a sower of strife, chaos and destruction that used as its news sources promoters of terrorism and inciters to hatred and violence.

Observers of contemporary developments in the Arab region cannot fail to note that not a day goes by without bloodshed and a new eruption of conflict between extremist groups and certain governments or regimes. Naturally, this has socio-political roots and students of the history of this region and the conflict over power in particular will be amazed at the heavy presence of armed force as the instrument of resolving disputes between rulers and their opponents. The arts of politics have been eclipsed by the sword. The explanation of this is to be found in the prevalent ways that both government and opposition have been practised throughout history, apart from some exceptions in which a different philosophy and different rules were applied.

History informs us that Muslim rulers subscribe to the concept of “unanimity” which they favour over “plurality” or “diversity in opinions and points of view”. The principle was set in the Saqifah Bani Saidah (a place where the early Muslim elites met to discuss affairs) following the death of the Prophet Mohamed. Some present countered opposition to the principle that rule had to remain in the hands of the Qureish tribe by raising their swords. Even some of the members of the Qureish, such as Ali bin Abi Taleb, who had reservations on the method of choosing the first successor to the prophet, Abu Bakr Al-Sediq, held that those present should be forced to choose between a declaration of allegiance and the sword.

Without a doubt, the principle of unanimity under a ruler is an ideal. The different components of a community or society reconcile their differences through their convergence on a single individual. However, the prerequisite of unanimity inherently denies the principle of plurality and the value of difference which, in fact, is part of human nature or one of the laws of God. As is written in the Quran: “If your Lord had so willed, he would have made mankind one nation, but they shall not cease to disagree.” (Hod 11: 118) It is human to disagree; there is no point in fighting it. Disagreement should be accepted and handled rationally. The failure to do so is to kill political life and open the way to the violent and arbitrary oppression of dissent.

On the other hand, political opposition in Islamic history has a long record of extremism and violence. It is as though the opposition’s first if not only reaction is to reach for the sword. That is what those who opposed the third caliph, Othman bin Affan, did, as did those who opposed the fourth, Ali bin Abi Taleb. As you flip through the pages of Islamic history you will find that three of the first four caliphs were assassinated. Most of the rulers of the Ummayad and Abbasid dynasties died by poisoning, strangulation or the sword, or by treachery and betrayal.

The source of the problem resides in how the two sides viewed each other. The camp that opposed Othman refused to reach a political understanding with him while Othman condemned his opponents as khawarij, or deviators, who thirsted after his mantle of rule that God had bestowed upon him. The sword was the answer. Othman was killed while reading the Quran. The problem grew worse and more complex when the opposition, especially the khawarij camp and its offshoots, assumed a cloak of religious legitimacy for their political opposition. They spoke of “divine sovereignty” and “the rule of God” with regard to which the words of the Caliph Ali bin Abi Taleb offer the most succinct description: “Truth used for wrong.” There is a vast difference between matters of faith and affairs of government. The latter involves the acquisition of the means and know-how to manage the affairs of people on earth; the other has to do with the individual’s struggle to live and act in a way pleasing to God and that will earn him a place in paradise, not in a worldly seat of power.

Herein resides the predicament of the Muslim Brotherhood in our day and age. It is also the essence of that mist of deception they spray at home and abroad in the course of their fight to reach power and assert their political hegemony. In fact, some commentators have called the Muslim Brothers the latter-day khawarij precisely because of the way they hide behind religion and “use truth for wrong”. As for the skills in managing the affairs of state and promoting the welfare of people, in that they are sorely lacking as they have demonstrated wherever they have come to power. They failed dismally in Egypt, and they botched it in Tunisia and even Morocco. Today, their model, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has revealed his ugly dictatorial face as he stifles opposition, suppresses freedoms, perpetrates rights abuses and deeply divides his society in the course of his pursuit of a tyrannical presidential system to legitimise and consolidate his authoritarian powers.

Those who support and promote the Muslim Brotherhood and similar organisations that espouse or use armed violence know exactly what they are doing. They know that the Muslim Brotherhood is not the epitome of moderation and centrism it pretends to be. It is the wrecking ball used to destroy states and societies, national armies and other sovereign institutions. After all, no civilised state can survive and flourish on the ideas and attitudes that promote repression, dictatorship, religious fascism, incompetence and various forms of blackmail in order to remain in power. Those that support the Muslim Brotherhood and its kindred terrorist and militia groups that parade beneath “opposition” banners and that receive support from Western and some Arab capitals, know that no good can come from Islamist rule. To them, this is the key to keeping those countries mired in backwardness and cycles of bloodshed and armed violence at the hands of groups that refuse to accept difference in matters of faith or opinion or identity, that kill others because of their identity and “otherness”, and that prefer the sword over diversity and plurality.

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