Post-Spring Arab world

Print edition : February 21, 2014

The Islamist Challenge in West Asia: Doctrinal and Political Competitions After the Arab Spring

An account of Islamism in the Arab world, which says “hard Islam” has little future.

THIS book is timely. We in India have not taken sufficient note of the turmoil in the Arab world, generally known as the Arab Spring, and its aftermath. Talmiz Ahmed has served as India’s Ambassador in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. His book The Children of Abraham at War (2010) was a study in lucid reasoning on complicated themes. He is erudite without being abstruse.

The book under review, The Islamist Challenge in West Asia: Doctrinal and Political Competitions after the Arab Spring, promises much more than its title might indicate. It is not confined to West Asia. It deals with the Arab world as a whole. It covers Egypt and Syria. The first chapter gives a textual and historical overview of Islamism, or Political Islam.

The International Crisis Group based in Brussels has defined Political Islam as “the active assertion and promotion of beliefs, prescriptions, laws or policies that are held to be Islamic in character”. Although Islamism can trace its intellectual origins to the 19th century, it is primarily a 20th century development that “arose from the defeat and attendant loss of dignity at the hands of Western imperialism”.

The Islamists want an Islamic order, the main element of which is the Sharia. Right from the beginning, Islamic scholars have made a distinction between ibadat and muamalat. The former means man’s relation to God and the latter, his relation with fellow human beings. Ibadat is eternal and unchangeable whereas muamalat may change with the times. Some scholars developed the concept of maslahah, translatable as public welfare, public interest or common good. The implication is that the Muslim ruler can pursue the common good in the spirit of the Sharia without having to adhere to its letter.

Divine sovereignty

Is the ruler to be elected by the people? Islamists do not necessarily agree. Two major scholars of the 20th century, Maulana Abul A’ala Maududi and Sayyid Qutb, have argued that the Islamic state is characterised by divine sovereignty. They were opposed to popular sovereignty. The revivalists (Salafis) disagreed. They made a distinction between the Sharia, which is eternal and inviolable, and Islamic jurisprudence ( fiqh). For them governance should be based on Shura (consultation), bayat (allegiance, ratification) and ijma (consensus). In terms of approach to political activity, the Salafis can be divided into three groups:

(a) Scholastic Salafism, which is principally concerned with ritual purity, avoids political activity and enjoins loyalty to the ruler; the best representative of this group is Wahhabiya in Saudi Arabia.

(b) The second group supports political activism, but of a non-violent type. The Muslim Brotherhood belongs to this group.

(c) The third is Salafi-Jihadis. They support violence against the existing political order. Al Qaeda belongs to this group.

The Islamist discourse in the 20th century, except in Saudi Arabia, was outside “the state order”. The secular political order in the Arab world lost its credibility in the second half of the century primarily owing to the failure to prevent the emergence of Israel by dispossessing Palestinians of their land, followed by the phenomenal military disaster of 1967. There was resentment over the influence of the United States over Egypt, often seen as domination, recalling the time of pre-independence domination by the United Kingdom. The Muslim Brotherhood got a chance to expand its network in Egypt.

The Brotherhood

Chapter 3 is devoted to the Muslim Brotherhood. It was founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna (1906-49). At its inception it was committed to Daawa, meaning an organised doctrinal effort to create a better Muslim, without participating in the political process. The Brotherhood had a broad-based social and welfare programme. That programme included schools for boys and girls; a scout movement; clinics and hospitals; sanitation; health education; and even trade unions.

Its membership grew from 20,000 in 1928 to 500,000 in 1948. The Brotherhood initially collaborated in the July 1952 Revolution in Egypt and half of the Revolutionary Council was from the Brotherhood. Both Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat had ties with Al-Banna. But after Nasser fell out with Muhammad Najib, whom the Brotherhood supported, inevitably, Nasser and the Brotherhood got estranged, culminating in an assassination attempt on Nasser by a member of the Brotherhood. Nasser dissolved the Brotherhood, arrested some, and executed some others.

Al-Banna proposed a “return to Islam”; Western imperialism led to “slow annihilation and profound and complete corruption”. The rights of man declared by the French Revolution and the social justice propounded by the Russian Revolution had been decreed by Islam 1,300 years ago. But, it was not a call to return to the 7th century. What was advocated was a return to al-nizam al-Islami, an Islamic order based on the legal principles of pristine Islam drawn from the Sharia.

The Islamic state that the Brotherhood wanted to see established would have the Quran as the basic constitution; government would have to function on the basis of consultation; and the ruler would be bound by the preaching of Islam and the will of the people. Such an Islamic state could accommodate the core tenets of Western democracy.

The Brotherhood was rigidly hierarchical. Al-Banna was intolerant of dissent. As its leaders were subjected to state-sponsored repression, it developed a “deep sense of victimhood”. It established a “secret apparatus” trained in espionage and combat. Al-Banna believed that jehad was an obligation of every Muslim. Although the Brotherhood articulated a reformist agenda that included liberal values, in practice it had authoritarian tendencies unable to permit dissent and a propensity towards violence. The author believes that all this had an impact on its handling of state power when it got it 80-odd years after its foundation.

Fall of Morsy

The author’s account of the fall of President Mohamed Morsy in July 2013 leaves much to be desired. He appears to blame Morsy only for “the deep polarisation” in Egypt during his brief presidency. The author leaves out the role of Saudi Arabia, though he does quote Abdul Rehman Al-Rasheed, a Saudi journalist, who predicted in December 2012 that “because of his intransigence and incompetent political performance, Morsy will end up on his own after alienating all other political functionaries and turning them, through the constitution fiasco, into enemies. He will have no one to support him in the hard times to come.” The reader will note that the prediction was made eight months ahead of the military coup in July 2013. The account is descriptive and not analytic. He does not tell the reader that the three pillars of Hosni Mubarak’s autocracy, namely, the higher judiciary, the military, and the intelligence organisations, never accepted Morsy as President and that the Army had decided to dislodge him from power even before the huge demonstrations started.

While we have to wait for some time to know the relevant facts relating to the fall of Morsy in full, the author could have told us much more than he has, based on information already available in the public domain. For example, The New York Times carried a series of investigative articles soon after the military takeover, giving an informed account of what happened, quoting some of the principal actors.

The account of developments in Syria too is not sufficiently analytic. It does not explain how a movement asking for reforms turned into one seeking the removal of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Mosque and the state

The final chapter, “Institutionalizing Sharia and Democracy”, is a thoughtful one. Effectively, there was a separation of mosque and state in the Islamic world, with the ulema dominant with regard to the interpretation of Islamic sources and fiqh while the Sultan’s writ ran in diverse areas of Siyassa (state order, such as commercial and economic policy, foreign and military affairs and criminal law). The emerging state order in the post-Spring Arab world is already “civil’ since there is no institutionalised rule of the clergy as in Iran.

The author does not believe that “hard Islam” will be accepted. Islamic parties have been successful in elections not necessarily because the voter is attracted to “hard Islam”. These parties had an advantage over their rivals in terms of organisation and grassroots-level contacts. Society has changed with exposure to modern education and to the outside world. The Islamic parties are subject to change in the direction of more modernity.

The author ends on a positive note as far the future is concerned. The “wall of fear” has been pulled down. “There may be occasional setbacks due to inexperience, short-sighted- ness, or ineptitude, or the inducement of armed forces of its opponents, [but] this tide will not be stemmed.” It is an Arab Renaissance.

A thoughtful reader might ask herself whether the author’s optimism is supported by the recent events in Egypt and Syria. But, nevertheless, the reader will close the book with considerable satisfaction and hope to read more from the author soon as the Arab world is not static. The glossary explaining Arabic terms is most useful.

K.P. Fabian is a retired Ambassador.

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