Facets of political Islam

Print edition : June 09, 2017

At Tahrir Square in Cairo during a rally marking the 2011 Arab Spring uprising on January 25, 2014. Photo: AFP

The book is a valuable addition to the literature on the unfolding drama in the Arab world.

DR FAZZUR RAHMAN SIDDIQUI completed his doctoral thesis on “Islamic Political Movements in West Asia and South Asia” from Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2008. He joined the Ford Foundation, and later moved to the Indian Council of World Affairs as Research Fellow. He has kept up his interest in “political Islam”. His book The Islamic State: From the Time of Caliphate to Twentieth Century: Pre-Ikhwan and post-Ikhwan Phase, published in 2010 (Beirut), was rated highly by fellow scholars.

India, of course, should take keen interest in “political Islam”. It was by using the Islamic card that Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who was as far away from orthodox Muslim faith as possible, carved out Pakistan, with the strong support of the departing imperial power. That Pakistan itself broke up, with East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh, shows that religion cannot be the unfailing glue that keeps a people together. In Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has made use of Islam to promote separatism.

Yet another reason for India to take note of political Islam is that a certain number (a few multiples of 10) of young Indians have ventured out to the Islamic State (I.S.) in Syria or Afghanistan. While the number of the brainwashed youngsters might be small compared with those from other countries, it is necessary for India, the government as well as civil society, to figure out the attraction of the I.S. for the young.

Siddiqui’s book is one of its kind as one has not come across a book published in India dealing with political Islam in a holistic manner. There are books on I.S., but they do not give the reader the big picture. The book is dedicated to all those countless revolutionaries who stood up to change the political trajectory of the Arab world. The reader, while admiring the author’s optimism and idealism, might wonder whether, except in Tunisia, the Arab Spring has delivered the anticipated results in the Arab world where innocent people continue to be killed in Syria and Yemen and with Egypt and Libya still struggling to find their way to a democratic destination.

The first chapter gives us a theoretical framework. The 1979 Iranian Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini introduced “a new trinity—power, Islam and politics—in the global political discourse”. The term political Islam has “apocalyptic implications” for the scholars and the media in the West. Adherents of political Islam differ from Marxists by emphasising the importance of the “moral and cultural interpretations” to understand social evolution. Yet another matter of importance is that political Islam is a revolt against orthodox Islam also.

The author gives an account of the origins of fundamentalism (in its various forms), Salafism, and Wahhabism and explains why political Islam is different from the three. The author inundates the reader with one too many definitions of political Islam from various scholars. The reader will find out that the author’s own brief and unconvoluted definition is the most appropriate one: A political movement to restore the primacy of the Shariah.

Three phases

Political Islam has gone through two phases and is now in its third phase. The first phase began in the 19th century when Islam lost to Western imperialism and ended with the retreat of that imperialism, giving political freedom to the Islamic world. The second phase, stretching to the early 1990s, was characterised by the growing voices of dissent against dictators. The third phase began with the collapse of the Soviet Union and led to the Arab Spring (the uprisings that commenced in 2010).

Chapter 2, titled “Quranic-Theological Context of Political Islam”, explains that for Islam sovereignty belongs to God and not to man. The Prophet Mohammad was both ruling and teaching his people. It is necessary to hold political power for “commanding rights and forbidding wrongs”. The author quotes from the Quran:

“Allah has promised those of you who believe and do righteous deeds that He will surely bestow power on them in the land as He bestowed power on those who preceded them, and that He will firmly establish their religion which he had been pleased to choose for them. “

The third chapter, “Islamic Responses to the Arab Politics During Colonial and Post-Colonial Phases”, deals with the Islamic response to the ascendency of the Christian West. There were two types of responses. The first called for “complete integration” with the West. The second had two variations, either to reject in toto the influence of the West or “to recreate an Islamic state according to Shariah and the Quran”. We are given detailed accounts of the thoughts of Sayeed Jamal al-Din al Afghani (1837-97), Hassan al-Banna (1906-49), Sayyed Qutb (1912-66), Sayyed Abu al-Ala Mawdudi (1903-79), and Imam Roholla Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-89).

Al Afghani had a fascinating identity problem. As he put it:

Chapter 4 (“Arab Spring and the Future of Political Islam”) gives a historical account, starting with the attempted self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, a small town in Tunisia. “The origin of the Arab Spring can be traced back to the womb of the autocratic character of the regimes in the post-colonial Arab world.” The West, especially, the United States, promoted democracy in eastern Europe, but did not do the same in the Arab world.

The author points out the crucial significance of the use of technology by the people in revolt. The number of Internet users in Egypt went up from 16.3 million in 2009 to 22.6 million in 2010.

Turning to oil, the author maintains that it has proved to be as “much curse as blessing”, whereas “unbridled liberalism and the diktats of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank” devastated the economies of Egypt and Tunisia.

The role played by the Salafists in post-Mubarak Egypt is noteworthy. Salafists traditionally shunned politics but they decided to participate in the parliamentary elections in 2011 and formed a united Islamic Front with the Muslim Brotherhood. The front won 70 per cent of the seats. Al Nour, the party of the Salafists, won 27.8 per cent of the votes. However, the Brotherhood and Al Nour fell out, and when the popular agitation to topple President Mohammed Morsi began in 2013, the Salafists joined in.

India and the Gulf

The last chapter is titled “Arab Spring: Changing Landscape and Implications for India”. More than six million Indian nationals are in the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the remittances from these countries account for half of the total remittances received. The remittances to India account for half of the total going out of the GCC countries. Cooperation in defence and security between India and the GCC member countries has been strengthened recently.

India has never wanted to export its democracy to other countries. It has scrupulously avoided interfering in other countries. New Delhi realises that political instability and turbulence in the GCC area will have serious adverse consequences for the country: Indian nationals there will have to come back, the remittances will stop, and energy imports, so crucial to the economy, will be affected.

In his conclusion, the author draws attention to the paramount importance of adherence to democracy by secularists and Islamists. He feels that India has not paid adequate attention to the Arab region and the changes occurring there. “The Arab Spring is a major source of instability in the whole region, which might affect the sectarian coherence here as well. India should try hard to prevent this cleavage in its own country because the presence of large number of Shiite might lead to this fragmentation” (emphasis added).

The epilogue, which narrates the history of the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is useful. There is a useful glossary of Arabic terms used in the text. The bibliography, running into more than 150 books, not to mention journals, shows the diligent research done by the author. The editing could have been better. The book is a valuable addition to the literature on the unfolding drama in the Arab world where some outside powers are actively engaged, adding fuel to the raging fire, with the rest of the world watching helplessly.