Political Islam: Theory and reality

Published June 29, 2014
Muslims have become so used to modern nation-states that many of them will put up a fight if forced to give up their Pakistani, Afghan, Syrian or Algerian identities in return for a new identity introduced by the likes of bin Laden or Mullah Omar. — File photo
Muslims have become so used to modern nation-states that many of them will put up a fight if forced to give up their Pakistani, Afghan, Syrian or Algerian identities in return for a new identity introduced by the likes of bin Laden or Mullah Omar. — File photo

Political Islam is an attractive concept for many Muslims and some expect it to resolve some of the economic, political and cultural problems they face. But most don’t know how this will happen.

From the early 19th to the mid-20th century, the Islamic world produced a string of scholars — Jamaluddin Afghani and Syed Abul A’ala Maududi in British India, Hassan al-Banna and Syed Qutub in Egypt and Ali Shariati in Iran — who provided an intellectual basis for what is now known as 'Political Islam'.

What they wrote made sense in an era when most of today’s Islamic nations were either under direct colonial control or had just regained independence and were still struggling under a colonial legacy. But the fundamentalists, unlike the nationalists, never believed that the end of colonial rule will also bring economic, social and cultural freedom from Western influence.

“When the British left the subcontinent, they also left behind a system, and enough people to run that system, which prevents the formerly colonized nations to attain full independence,” says Khurshid Ahmad, a leading intellectual of Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami party.

Notions of an 'Islamic system'

Economy: Ahmad argues that the developing world currently owes a total of $3.242 trillion to the richest countries of the world. He points out that the richest 1 per cent of the world earns as much as the bottom 57 per cent.

Ahmad and other similar Islamic economists blame the world’s interest-based economy for this disparity and want to establish an interest-free economic system.

But the problem is, they haven't been able to implement the Islamic system. Individual financial institutions have tried to implement this new system in some countries, but at best they offer cosmetic changes or rephrase the economic jargon to justify the prevalent interest-based system.

Culture: Another major complaint fundamentalists often voice is the West’s cultural domination. They want it to be replaced by an Islamic culture.

But 'Islamic culture' itself is a contentious term. Muslims in Iran or South Asia are culturally as different from Arab Muslims as all of them are from Western culture. In fact, all of them have borrowed more from Western culture than they have from one another.


Politically, the Islamic world is even more divided. Perhaps the only common factor in more than 50 Muslim nations is that most of them are run by autocratic rulers.

Several major Muslim states have serious differences with one another and have also often gone to war against their co-religionists. The conflict in Syria and the ISIS’s surprise takeover of several Sunni cities in Iraq once again confirms that for many fighting the opposite sect is perhaps more important than fighting the so-called 'infidels'.

Also read: 'Political Islam: Rise, fragmentation and possible fall'

The role some neighbouring Arab, and non-Arab, countries have played in fanning sectarian differences in Iraq and Syria indicates that the Middle East may soon be divided into blocs. Iran, Iraq, parts of Lebanon and Syria may form the Shia bloc and the rival bloc may include Sunni Arab states.

This may eventually lead to the breakup of some Arab states, like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, on sectarian lines.

But unifying the Islamic world was always a difficult task. And it is understandable why. To provide an intellectual basis for the unification of more than 50 nations with such major economic, cultural and political differences is not easy. Theories produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have become irrelevant. And since the 1960s, the movement known as political Islam has not produced any major intellectual.

No experience in running a modern state

Islamic political parties also have had very little experience in running a modern state. The only country that has remained under religious rule for a considerable period is Iran, where fundamentalists toppled the shah in 1979.

But there is little in the Iranian experience that fascinates Sunni Muslims. Most Muslims outside — and many inside — Iran blame the religious elite that is running the country for creating more problems than they resolve.

Another example is Afghanistan, where extremists like the Taliban and Al Qaeda had an opportunity to create a model Islamic state but failed miserably.

For almost five years, the Taliban and Al Qaeda movements had an entire country at their mercy, with full freedom to do what they wanted. Osama bin Laden and his clique had enough resources and plenty of connections in oil-rich Arab states to get the finances they needed to build roads, schools, hospitals and factories destroyed in 20 years of war and civil strife.

They did not.

Also read: 'Turkey emphasises cultural Islam, not political'

Instead, they turned Afghanistan into a launching pad for terrorist attacks against the Western world, which led to the US invasion after 9/11 and has created a situation which has further weakened the Pakistani and Afghan states. Political scientists fear that if the gradual radicalisation of the two societies is not stopped soon, both Pakistan and Afghanistan may disintegrate into smaller and ungovernable entities.

Pakistan also, has suffered tremendously with the mixing of religion with politics. The religion failed to become the unifying factor that Pakistan’s founding fathers had hoped it would be. But it did create dozens of highly radicalised religious groups who know how to kill in the name of religion but do not know how to run a modern state.

Now the country’s army, which played a key role in forming many of these radical groups, has been forced to launch a major offensive to eliminate them. They may succeed in doing so but this process may also create new divisions within the Pakistani state.

But if the operation fails, it may undo the Pakistani state.

What would a modern Islamic nation-state be like?

Political Islam has so far been unable to resolve the differences that exist between their version of an Islamic state and the modern nation-states that exist in today’s Islamic world.

Their ultimate goal is to create an international fraternity of Muslim nations that can slowly be guided toward a united caliphate. But how they intend to make modern Muslim nation states accept such a caliphate, they’re at a loss to say.

Will nation-states such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Morocco be forced to join such a caliphate?

Will they willingly give up their sovereignty for the sake of a greater unity or be forced to do so?

How would the rest of the world react to the emergence of a new religious bloc in the world?

Will it lead to a greater jihad against the rest of the world?

Within the caliphate, how much power shall the caliph enjoy and how much freedom will its citizens be allowed? Will there be a free media? Can women appear on television and cinema screens? Can there be music in an Islamic state? Will women be forced to wear the veil? Will it be compulsory for every man to have a beard?

It is not that political Islamists do not have answers to these questions. They do. The problem is that their answers are not acceptable to an overwhelming majority of Muslims.

The modern, interest-based banking system is well-entrenched in many Muslim countries. Poor Muslim nations depend on financial assistance from the United States and other Western nations and financial institutions. They cannot defy them.

Rich Muslim states neither have the desire nor the intellectual depth needed to create an alternative economic system. They are even less willing to share their riches with poorer Muslim countries.

Workers from poor Muslim countries in these rich states are often treated like slaves and return home with a taste of bitterness that remains with them for the rest of their lives.

Middle-class and educated Muslim women are not willing to wear the veil, at least not the type presented by the mullahs, though many cover their heads with scarves.

Also read: 'The new Sunni Islamist caliphate in Iraq'

Both Muslim men and women are addicted to Western-style television shows, films, music and other cultural influences and are unwilling to give them up. They are unwilling to go along with the religious groups or the traditional mullahs, like the Taliban.

They fear that in a Taliban-like state, or the Iranian-style Islamic republic, they will be marginalised and will be forced to accept an orthodox version of Islam that they do not believe in.

Muslims have become so used to the modern nation-states, many of them will put up a fight if forced to give up their Pakistani, Afghan, Syrian or Algerian identities in return for a new identity introduced by the likes of bin Laden or Mullah Omar.

Rich Muslim states are not likely to abolish visas and open their doors to poorer Muslims just because religious groups want them to do so.

(to be continued)



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