Monday, April 5, 2010

Political Islam, A Review of the Literature

By: Dr Marwan Asmar

The writer is director of research and analysis at Writelabs, an Amman-based consultancy


Immediately after 11 September the world became deluged with books on the relationship between Islam and the West. Suddenly it was felt by writers, opinion-makers, columnists, journalists, researchers and academics that people in western countries wanted to know and read about Islam and what Muslim people think.

I mention academics last because a great deal of what was written had a sensationalist aspect, seeing Islam as a war-mongering religion. However, a great deal of the writing had a serious nature to it. Some books concentrated on the relationship between Islam and the West, others discussed what they talked about the myth and reality of contemporary Islamic movements, Islam in the digital age, rethinking Islam in the modern world and the importance of Islamic culture and belief. The variety of titles showed some were really re-evaluating past views and trying to come up with more meaningful analysis.

Despite the fact that the Bush administration was concentrating on bringing democracy to the Arab world, or at least this is what it has been saying after the war on Iraq and Afghanistan, few books concentrated on that particular aspect of Islamic politics. However, some did take such an angle like the book on Islam and the Challenge of Democracy by Khaled Abu Al Fadl (Princeton 2004) who examined the democratic pressures facing the Muslims today.

This is an angle that was taken up through what has been termed as Islamic revivalism, Muslim fundamentalism, Islamic politics and Islam in international relations. Some writers have become so well-versed on the subject that they are producing several on the subject of which Peter Mandaville is one of the first. His Transnational Muslim Politics, (Routledge 2001) is today being followed by a second book on Global Political Islam, International Relations of the Muslim World that is due to be out by the middle of 2007.

This book contextualizes what it terms as political Islam in its international dimensions, concentrating on a complex and fluid relation between political Islam, nationalism and globalization while downplaying the 1990s theory of the clash of civilization.

But the writer appears to be establishing a theme when he talks about the Al Qaeda as a transitional network in international relations one that is likely to influence the direction of relations in the region. However, the book is clearly aimed at students of international relations theory who seek to understand the interactions between different global actors in the international system.

This is followed by other literature that tries to understand notions of change in Islam as brought about by the different interpretations given to jihad or holy war. Thus the Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global by Fawaz Gerges, (Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp 358) precisely looks at this point seeing the concept as preached and practiced by Al Qaeda as only a minority view.

Gerges says that the mainstream Jihadists concentrate on the internal dimension of changing the Islamic world from within and adopt a nationalist view to bringing about political reform. This is in contrast to those braced by such organizations Al Qaeda which espouses a different philosophy of striking at the heart of the international system.

Reviewers says this is an articulate book that examines the tactics used by the Jihadists in a bid to gain power and inflates its rank and file. But the author poses different questions such as can the Jihadists survive if they stick to violent tactics as those used by the Al Qaeda.

The issue of transnational politics in Islam has been tackled from different aspects and angles. Quite frequently the domestic angle of Islamism was seen to impinge on the external dimension. The notion of the state, ideology, nationalism, civil society, even piety and revivalism are seen as inputs in the analysis on Islam and the political behavior of Muslims, Muslim leaders, politicians as well as activists. These factors it is argued are used by Muslim politics and is in turn influenced by them.

These ideas and practical beliefs were argued to manifest themselves in different ways when dealing with the perceptions of Islam on the international and transnational levels to produce sophisticated points of view and analysis. While issues of terrorism, violence and threat may manifest themselves in certain literature, the trend has become less obtrusive.

In Face to Face with Political Islam by Francis Burgat (I.B.Tauris, 2003), the dimension is more subtle. Burgat, a French academic, says it is too simplistic to say Islam negates democracy and is intolerant towards the other for this is far from the truth. Burgat says Islam seeks to express its identity in an international system dominated by western states and western ideology.

It is from this perspective political Islam seeks to reassert its authenticity in the global system that is hegemonized by external forces on the one hand, and from internal domination by the state system and order on the other which is argued to be propped up by the West, the author maintains.

But her analysis goes further than this when she says Islamists may not recognize the universality of democratic rights because of the fact they may have never experienced these rights themselves because of the nature of the dogmatic political systems they live under and of the nature of political rule that stifles opposition, the multi-party system and free thought.

The book, which has been described as one of the best analysis on Islam argues on the one hand, that the religion seeks to restore its culture as dominated by colonization and on the other it’s a device for emancipation rather than fundamentalism. She also specifically examines the Islamic view on modernity and its interactions with it, on women and the questions of violence.

As opposed to such analysis however, Ray Takeyh and Nikolas K. Gvosdev give a different interpretation to political Islam. In their book The Receding Shadow of the Prophet: The Rise and Fall of Radical Political Islam (Praeger paperback, 2004 p 208) paints a gloomy picture of the future of Islamic movements in the Arab and Muslim worlds, saying they have dismally failed because of not being able to produce a workable model of governance for a nation-state.

The authors state that what they call "militant Islam" is more adept at breaking things rather than creating them and that it is successful in fomenting rebellion and channeling unrest rather than building stable societies.

But many would argue this is a too simplistic interpretation and may even lean on the ideological in their views. A prime example of this is firstly the Iranian Revolution of 1978 and the establishment of an Islamic government based on firm representation and which has ruled Iran through elections and parliament.

The other example is that of Hamas when it participated for the first time in the January 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Elections and obtained the majority of the seats.

The Hamas experience clearly negates the views put forward by Takeyh and Gvosdev because of the measure of the popularity of political Islam among the masses who have become fed up by mainstream politics and politicians who do not deliver on their promises.

Both in Iran and Palestine, the Islamists, and over the 1980s and 1990s built grass-root institutions, extended their hands to the masses, the poor, the destitute and the middle classes to gain support for their own political Islamic point of views and become respected in society.

In Iran, Islamists built a strong participatory political system, and in Palestine the Hamas movement became active, reactive and answered the needs of Palestinian in the West Bank and more so in Gaza. Thus on those two levels Takeyh and Gvosdev may be considered to have undermined their point of view and produced a short-sighted analysis.

Since fundamentalism seems to be regarded as big game theory, there is always differing point of views. While literature does not directly concentrate on the "them" and "us" attitudes, it is felt that these always crop up in the analysis by trying to be reductionist and even chauvinistic.

Professor Bassam Tibi, professor of International Relations at the University of Gottingen, Germany, tries to distinguish between the spirituality of Islam which poses no threat to the international system and Islamic fundamentalism which he views as a political response to western dominance.

In his The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder, (University of California Press, 2002, p 256), Tibi says there is a fundamentalist revolt not only against western political power but also against western culture and values because it challenges the western-based notion of a world order of nation-states as Islam rejects such boundaries and sees itself as the legitimate organizing force of the world.

Tibi however argues that Islam should be better understood as a cultural force to be cultivated rather than as a threat to be feared. This book urges political and religious leaders to foster cultural and religious tolerance among the world's religions.

Despite the great number of books that have been written critics have suggested that most of those have been marred by superficial western understandings of concepts related to traditions, values and beliefs that exist in the West but do not necessarily have the same impact in the Arab or Islamic worlds.

It is argued that views on democracy, political systems, freedom of expression, the issue of leadership must be contextualized within the prevailing indigenous ideas and thought processes. But apart from that however, one of the striking things that appear to be missing in any book on Islamic politics and international relations is the textual aspects of the Koran and its doctrinal percepts.

Views on the organizations of society, the issue of order, relations with one another, as well as the relations with the other tend to be underplayed, and what tends to be highlighted by some writers like Bernard Lewis is what he calls the belligerent views in Islam like war and the issue of bringing the non-believers to hell.

But such views are taken out of context. The peaceful aspects of Islam, its rejection of aggression unless attacked and the need to treat prisoners of war kindly are not aspects that are frequently stressed and consequently neither readers know about them nor do western Middle East specialists care to acknowledge them on the whole.

However, certain books which appear from time to time seek to readdress the picture. Take Graham Fuller's The Future of Political Islam, (Macmillan, 2004, pp 226). His easy approach makes this book a good read of an immensely important subject to the West.

Quite simply he says political Islam is here to stay, and it serves as a realistic alternative to repressive regimes in the Muslim world, something which the West needs to get used to.

Fuller moves away from the traditional stereotype about Islam belonging to the Middle Ages but paints a youthful and modernistic picture of Islam as it enters into the 21st century. The author, a former CIA operative, says Islam is an adaptive religion that is able to work within modern institutions be they are democratic or quasi-democratic. Above all, Islam has the knocking ability to engage in modern systems in the world and accept concepts like participatory democracy and its universality in the modern world.

So many ideas, so many points of view. Many argue that Islam is not a uniform system of beliefs, there are many trends and movements within the religion, pointing to its rich texture and the ways it engages itself in different complex structures throughout the world. On the whole it’s a religion within the international system rather than one which seeks to work outside it or even overthrow it.

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