Inside Story

The Islamic state in context

Fears of the emergence of an Islamic state in Egypt or other countries in the region are at odds with thirteen centuries of history, writes Tarek Osman

Tarek Osman 10 July 2013 2215 words

Strictly secular: Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser takes the oath for his third term as president, in March 1965.
Photo: Al-Ahram/ Wikimedia Commons

IRRESPECTIVE of the popular and military moves against political Islam in Egypt last week, the likelihood of an Islamic state emerging in the Arab world has always been extremely low.

Over the 1352 years since the death of Imam Ali (Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and the fourth “Rightly Guided Caliph”), not a single Islamic state has emerged in the Arab world. None has had a legislative structure based exclusively on Koranic jurisprudence; none has been ruled by a leader selected on a theological basis; and all have been conspicuously based on national, tribal or familial foundations, with Islam only an overarching frame of reference.

There is no space here to analyse every Arab (not to mention Persian or Turkish) state over the past thirteen centuries. But it is useful to dissect the ruling structure of the largest and most important of them.

The Umayyads, the first dynasty to rule the Islamic world after the death of Ali, anchored their rule in a familial hereditary system that was established after fighting (and massacring) Prophet Mohammed’s own offspring. They subjugated North Africa, Andalucía and Iran, and also entered the Islamic republics in southern Russia. The Umayyads’ legitimacy – which was never fully established – rested on the buy-in of the religious establishment, initially in Al-Hejaz (Islam’s birthplace) and later in various Islamic learning centres in the Levant.

The Umayyads never claimed that their family-heads (the Islamic caliphs) were the religious leaders of the Islamic nation; that position was left to the venerable scholars of Mecca and Medina (and later in Damascus). The Umayyad rulers were emperors of the expanding state that bore their name, and it was no coincidence that their courts were modelled on those of the eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople. On the many occasions when the Umayyads’ rule was challenged by those who had a solid claim to be the real guardians of the principles and teachings of Prophet Mohammed, their response came in the form of military campaigns. In one instance the Umayyads’ armies burnt down the Kabba, Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca.

Over the past thirteen centuries, numerous dynasties in the greater Middle East have copied the Umayyads’ ruling scheme. First, grab power militarily. Then uphold the notion that the state is “Islamic.” Next, ensure the recognition and obedience – though not necessarily the approval – of the most venerable (and famous) of the Islamic scholars of the age. Afterwards, rule as you please without any serious regard to Islamic jurisprudence, principles or identity.

An Islamic pretext was sometimes used to establish legitimacy, or to gain momentum before militarily challenging the ruling dynasty of the day. The Abbasids, descendants of an uncle of the Prophet Mohammed, used the notion of a “just Imam from the house of Mohammed” as the slogan for a vast clandestine operation that built an army of followers (the majority of them were Persians). They developed a sophisticated funding and money-distribution system spanning what is today Iran, Iraq, and the eastern Mediterranean, before openly challenging – and obliterating – the Umayyads. Around 250 years later, in the tenth century, the Fatimids used their claim of descent from Prophet Mohammed’s daughter, Fatima (Imam Ali’s wife), to entrench their rule in what is today Tunisia, and later to launch a military challenge to the Abbasid rule in Egypt, conquer the country, and establish their new capital, Cairo (the city victorious). The Ottomans followed a similar path in the sixteenth century, only cementing their claim as the political leaders of the Muslim world after expanding their rule to the Levant and Egypt (the home of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most venerable seat of learning), and after taking control of Al-Hejaz and assuming guardianship of Islam’s holy shrines.

In all of these examples, and others, the ruling format remained the same. And never did these different rulers, even those directly descended from the Prophet, claim that they were the theological authorities of the Muslim world. That remained the job of the scholars in the centres of Islamic learning, towns that were increasingly detached and geographically distant from the political capitals.

THE format has continued in modern times. The state that Mohammed Ali Pasha established in Egypt in the first half of the nineteenth century became the model for almost all the states that emerged in the Arab world in the second half of the nineteenth and the early decades of the twentieth century. Ruling Egypt until the 1952 coup d’état that ended the country’s monarchy, the successors of Mohammed Ali maintained the “Islamic nature” of their state and ensured cordial relations with – and control over – Egypt’s powerful religious establishment, Al-Azhar. But all the legislative, judicial, economic, social, educational and political systems that they built were imported from Europe. Even in Arab states whose ruling families anchored their legitimacy in a religious pedigree – the Hashemites in Jordan and the Alawites in Morocco, for instance – the same pattern endured.

The social and political modernisations that accompanied the Arab liberal age from the late nineteenth to mid twentieth century posed a significant threat to religious institutions. Secular education, Western social norms (the mixing of men and women in public spaces, for instance), and the new cultural orientation of Arab societies (towards Paris, London and Vienna) in the early twentieth century not only diluted the religious establishments’ traditional sway over their societies; more importantly, they were perceived – and not just by the religious establishments but also by different social segments – as a challenge to the overarching Islamic identity of these societies. Some luminaries sought a meeting of minds between “modernity and the heritage and teachings of the religion of rationality,” in the words of Egypt’s grand scholar at the dawn of the twentieth century, Mohammed Abdou. Others saw an impending confrontation: a need to defend Islam from the “West and its subjects,” the subjects being the Arab and Muslim liberals who spearheaded advancements in Arabic education, translation, literature, theatre, music and, later, cinema.

Two narratives gradually emerged. The first, fuelled by the cultural developments of the Arabic liberal age, invoked the Arabic or Mediterranean identity of the societies in this part of the world. Some of the thinkers of this movement completely ignored the influence that Islam has traditionally commanded in these societies, and their highly secular Arab philosophical currents had their days in the sun (mainly in the 1930s and 1940s) but quickly vanished from the limelight. The views that lasted were those of leading thinkers who tried to merge the traditions of the Islamic heritage with modern thinking. Although they emphasised that Islam (loosely defined as a “civilisation”) is the overarching frame of reference for Arab societies, they worked to build the emerging Arabic states on modern political, economic and even cultural institutions. The results were the 1923 Egyptian constitution (the model for many constitutions in different Arab countries), the acceptance of the notion of a constitutional monarchy (initially in Egypt and later to a lesser extent in Syria, Iraq and, briefly, Libya), and the beginnings of credible checks and balances between different authorities (the monarchy, the parliament, the judiciary, in addition to formidable political-economy power centres).

The support of the religious establishment, a key pillar of the old ruling formula, was increasingly waning, and Arab nationalism further strengthened this trend. The tsunami that Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser unleashed in the Arab world from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s, which continued for roughly a decade after his death in 1970, was strictly secular, though the notion of independent state institutions was sacrificed to hero-worship. Arab nationalism, at least in its first two decades, imbued Arab politics with something new: the consent of the middle and lower middle classes to a conspicuously secular governing ideology – one not imposed by Europeanised elites but supported by the masses.

The potency, momentum and immense success of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s antagonised not only religious establishments across the Arab world but also the movements born in the early twentieth century to “defend the religion” – most notably Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. But in the 130 years between the emergence of the Arab state in the 1880s and the “Arab Spring,” the forces of the Islamic movement never managed to stall the advance of secularisation.

OVER the past two years, the rise of political Islam across the whole of North Africa and its commanding presence in the Eastern Mediterranean (Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the various Islamist groups in the Syrian opposition forces) have fuelled the belief that some Arab countries face the prospect of a gradual Islamisation. This movement takes many forms, but two are paramount. The first is the attempt of various Islamist groups to Islamise state institutions: stressing the Islamic nature of their societies in the new constitutions of their countries, linking the penal code of their countries to the laws of the Islamic jurisprudence, putting religion-related restrictions on freedom of expression, and significantly enhancing the influence of Islamist political economy power centres. The second form, championed by some assertive Salafist groups, aims to Islamise “societies,” which such groups see as having strayed from the “correct Islamic path.”

These forms of Islamisation – and of course the rapid rise of Islamist groups to power – have overwhelmed many Arab liberals, most of whom are isolated and leaderless and have tenuous links to the masses of the lower middle classes and the poor. The result has been nervousness, antagonism, detachment, increasingly violent social confrontations and, sometimes, emigration. In fact, North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean are witnessing alarming levels of departure among the well-educated who are able to find jobs ly.

But this Islamisation will not succeed. First, despite the piousness of the vast majority of Muslim Arabs – the commanding majorities of the region – Islamisation inherently challenges the national identities of each country. Despite clever rhetoric, it means the domination of one component of Egyptianism, Tunisianity or Syrianism over other components that have shaped these entrenched identities. This is especially true in the old countries of the Arab world, the ones whose borders, social compositions and, crucially, identities had been carved over long, rich centuries. And the more the Islamist movements continue to thrust their worldviews and social values, the more they will disturb these national identities and the more agitated – and antagonised – the middle classes will become.

Second, these efforts at Islamisation take place when almost all of these societies are undergoing difficult – and, for many social classes, painful – economic transitions. And there is no way out. The ruling Islamist executives are compelled to confront the severe structural challenges inherent in the economies they inherited. Some can buy time and postpone crucial reforms with foreign assistance (which comes at a political price). But sooner or later they will have to make the tough socioeconomic decisions that these structural reforms require, and they will be blamed for the pain that ensues. Some of the constituencies that had voted them into power will rapidly seek other alternatives.

Third, demographics will work against Islamisation. Close to 200 million of the Arab world’s 340 million people are under thirty. As a result of the many failures it has inherited, this generation faces myriad socioeconomic challenges. A culture of protest and rejection has already been established in its ranks, and young people will not accept indoctrination – even if it is presented in the name of religion. Almost by default, the swelling numbers of young Arabs, especially in the culturally vibrant centres of the Arab world (Cairo, Tunis, Beirut, Damascus, Casablanca, Kuwait and Manama), will create plurality – in social views, in political positions, in economic approaches and in social identities and frames of reference.

Finally, this Islamisation project will suffer at the hands of its strategists and managers. The leaderships of the largest Islamist groups in the Arab world have immense experiences in developing and managing services and charity infrastructures, in operating underground political networks, and in fundraising and electoral campaigning, especially in rural and interior regions. But they suffer an acute lack of experience in tackling serious political-economy challenges or administering grand sociopolitical narratives. This lack of experience will translate into incompetence.

These factors will take time to unfold. The second decade of the twenty-first century will be transformative not only for Arab politics, but more importantly for Arab societies. Amid the gradual fall of the old order and the highly likely failure of Islamisation, young Arabs will be searching for their own narratives. In some countries the process will be smooth, in others it will be bloody, and in most it will be protracted with spikes of tension. The result will be a plethora of different, competing social narratives. In many cases, we will see interesting mixes of various ideologies (Arabism, Mediterraneanism, Islamism and others). But just as Arab states have never been exclusively Islamic for over thirteen centuries, Arab states will not be Islamic in the foreseeable future. •