Could the root causes of the Arab-Muslim ‘malaise’ be cultural? That’s what journalist Brian Whitaker suggests in his book ‘What’s Really Wrong With the Middle East’. The thesis sounds suspicious, but Whitaker isn’t a cheap Orientalist, and he uses interviews with Arabs as his raw material. The key issues his informants keep pointing to are indeed the issues that, wherever you meet them, young Arabs complain about. These include an undue emphasis on submission and obedience in the education system, at work, and in the home, the social valorisation of conformity, and a corrupt public space.
The personal is the political. The problem in every sphere is one of overbearing authority, and it’s true that this is ultimately family-based, ultimately the result of overly-narrow personal identifications. In fact, I would argue that tribalism, nepotism, sectarianism, even forced marriage and honour killing, are all manifestations of the tyranny of the clan. And the tyranny of the clan is the result of bad governance.
The clan, repeats novelist Rafik Schami, “saved the Arabs from the desert, and at the same time enslaved them.” It saved them by providing economic and social solidarity, a sense of identity, and physical protection. This was necessary because over the years, for most of the time, there has been no safe field of activity other than the clan, no civic life free from the depredations of warlords, sultans and foreign colonialists. Society has had no choice but to turn inward. The traditional Arab town house is an architectural embodiment of the phenomenon. It looks shabby from the outside, just a door in a wall – this to deflect a pillager’s attention. Inside there’s a courtyard with a tree and a pool.
The process of clan-formation (I’m using ‘clan’ as a metaphor) could be seen speeded up in post-invasion Iraq. As the state and civil society collapsed completely people were forced to put their trust in their strongest local representatives, whether a family or a militia or a street gang. If these local bosses could provide food and safety, and avenge the dead, allegiance to them became essential. Their rules were respected. From one perspective, contemporary Iraq is a microcosm of Muslim history.
In his deliciously provocative book ‘Who Needs an Islamic State,’ Abdelwahab el-Affendi reminds us of how things went wrong politically very near the start of Muslim political history, with the khulafa ar-rashideen or the four Guided Caliphs who succeeded the Prophet. The first, Abu Bakr, proclaimed the Muslim community arbiters of how far he upheld Islamic values and practices, but the third, Uthman, refused to step down when he lost the community’s support. Uthman’s nepotistic appointments to governorships, and permission to his governor-cousins to amass wealth, paved the way to power for the Umayad dynasty, his Quraishi kinsmen. But first Ali ruled briefly, with great principle yet over multiplying dissension. Because they were idealists, Ali’s partisans divided into squabbling factions. Unelected and unresponsive monarchical rule followed. (‘The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad’ by Barnaby Rogerson is a balanced and readable account of the politics of the Guided Caliphs and their supporters).
With Muawiya’s victory, what el-Affendi describes as a Khaldunian-Hobbesian-Machiavellian politics triumphed. Whatever successes the rapidly expanding and increasingly prosperous Muslim society achieved in other fields, governance at the top was implemented through coercion and corruption. In despair at this situation, Sunnis developed fatalism and a doctrine of inevitable generational decline, while the Shia developed a new layer of supernaturalism. By the late Abbasi period leadership of the community was split between Caliph and Sultan, the former a mere symbol, a supposed reminder of the Guided Caliphs, while the latter was the actual wielder of state power. Given the unrealised potential of Islamic leadership, the umma traditionally refused state interference or authority in religious affairs. (And this, el-Affendi points out, is in effect secularism.)
Addressing a Meccan congregation – clearly one filled with democratic spirit – the Umayad Caliph Abd al-Malik threatened, “anyone who after today says to me,‘be conscious of God,’ I will have him beheaded.” Which was pretty much the rule thereafter. Because so much blood had been shed in the fitna before the Umayads, the ulema (a term less limited then in its meaning) “outlined minimum requirements for legitimate rule, and stressed that law-abiding rulers should not be opposed by force. Even when a ruler’s behaviour was below standard, an uprising was advisable only if its chances of success were very high. This position led to a spiral of concessions and was later to be used to legitimise almost any kind of rule.”
‘Any kind of rule’ in contemporary times includes Saddam Hussein, the Saud family, and Husni Mubarak (he of the US-military-built Wall), whose al-Azhar minions have – as el-Affendi says the classical ulema did – “counselled against principled resistance to tyranny without suggesting a viable alternative.”
Classical scholarship never fully developed an Islamic political science. It enumerated the saintly qualities of the Guided Caliphs but failed to analyse the role of social-historical forces in determining events during their rule. If statehood had been so smooth, why were three of the four Guided Caliphs assassinated? Why did the Muslims experience peace under Abu Bakr but war under Ali, although Ali was the most saintly of the lot? Such questions were discouraged. Today many Muslims of all sects talk about early (and even later) Muslim leaders as if they were divinely infallible figures. Some Sunnis will curse you as a heretic if you tell them about the wine in Haroun ar-Rashid’s court. And while Salahuddin al-Ayubbi is for Sunnis a sainted leader, the valiant liberator of Jerusalem, for the Shia he is a mass-murdering demon, the destroyer of Fatimid rule. Neither side considers Salahuddin as a historical human being, subject to historical forces.
Of course, I do not mean to argue that Muslim history has been one of uninterrupted barbarism. The courts and more importantly the mosques, universities and markets of cosmopolitan Damascus, Granada and Baghdad, and of the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires, made great scientific, social and cultural advances. Neither do I mean that Islam is inevitably barren in terms of political organisation – Islamic concepts such as rai (personal opinion), ijma (consensus), shura (consultation) and istislah (the public good) have enormous political ramifications, but here as so often Muslim societies have failed to fully realise their religion’s potential. The point is that, relative to its strengths at any moment, Muslim civilisation’s poor political organisation has always been its weakness. It is one of the reasons why it took so long to respond to the Crusader assault. It is one of the factors that laid it open to the ravages of European imperialism.
After the initial defeat, the Muslims had to internalise the political ideas of the coloniser in order to resist colonialism. These included ideas of race, or of socialism, or of ‘secularism’ as if it were something new. The problem with these concepts is that they had not been thought through by the Muslims themselves, but imported.
In India, in response to nationalised Hinduism, some Muslims focused on territorial statehood. The ex-Ottoman lands, including the Christian parts, devolved into squabbling ethnicities, were ‘balkanised’. As a result of the unworkable states system created by Sykes-Picot, each state with its own intelligence service and media system, the Arabs’ grand nationalism devolved into petty nationalisms. The centralised state made its appearance in the Arab world as a police state. Methods of direct control are what the colonial masters taught by example, and what the new ruling classes have learnt very well indeed.
In ‘The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation’, Ali al-Allawi points out that all the grand civilisational blocks except Islam have great powers to represent them. The West has the United States and the European Union, plus all the international infrastructure they have created. Russia, China and India represent other cultural-civilisational blocks. But the Muslims are splintered into dictatorships and imperial-client states. In this situation, who can halt the depredations of Zionism or prevent American attacks? Who can address the interrelated crises of overpopulation, climate change, educational failure and resource shortages? Why are disasters and civil wars in Muslim countries ‘managed’ only by untrustworthy foreign powers?
In the absence of a respected, weighty voice for Muslim interests in the international arena, non-state actors proliferate. These include those (such as al-Qa’ida-type nihilists) who discover no viable alternative to legitimising tyranny has been mapped for them, and so lash out blindly or, worse, fit unwittingly into imperialist plans. It is significant that (except for Turkey which sees itself as racially linked to Chinese Turkestan), al-Qa’ida has been the only Muslim ‘power’ to condemn the repression of the Uighur Muslims.
In this context the need for a responsible, well-organised, powerful and independent Muslim polity, what some might call a Caliphate, may seem obvious. You can agree even if you aren’t a religious Muslim, even if you don’t believe in the fallacy of absolutely discrete civilisations. You can agree especially if you are horrified by the prospect of a Saudi-style super-state which forces men to prayer and forbids women from driving. Such a state could never, in the 21st century, be considered responsible, well-organised, independent, or even powerful. It would have no moral voice and would fill no gap.
El-Affendi provides some pointers to what a successful Muslim polity might look like. He reminds us that the Prophet’s community in Madina was one of voluntary association. Madina had no police force, intelligence service or prison. People fought in defence of the community and paid the charity tax if they chose to; the punishment for not doing so was being forbidden from contributing in the future. This doesn’t mean that taxation should always be voluntary in Muslim countries, but it does point to the “basic problem with the current Islamist vision of the state … that it accepts the modern concept of the state as a principle of restriction. This conflicts with the original Islamic vision of the polity as a principle of liberation and self-fulfilment.” El-Affendi shows that the Sahifat al-Madina was a treaty whose parties – tribes and clans, including Jews as well as Muslims – chose to apply communal rules and responsibilities to themselves. A modern Islamic polity should therefore be “a decentralised pluralistic association based primarily on choice rather than coercion.” “In truth,” he writes, “the purpose of an Islamic political community is to enable individual Muslims to live according to Islam, and to protect them from coercion which tends to subvert their commitment to Islam.”
In other words, the polity should be democratic. Any Muslim community which achieved independence based on democratic participation and the public good would by definition form an Islamic state. Sharia law – but not necessarily the hudood punishments – could be the flexible framework governing its judgments. Sharia can never be imposed undemocratically, el-Affendi reminds us, because “when it is imposed it is not sharia. When only coercion underpins sharia, it becomes hypocrisy.”
The rejection of coercion, taken to its logical conclusion, means that an individual should be free to choose to join or to leave the polity. El-Affendi suggests a non-territorial state model could help achieve such a level of freedom: “This entails a concept of an international order based more on coexisting communities than on territorially-based mutually-exclusive nation-states.” The international media’s (for the Arabs, a pan-Arab media) creation of virtual communities hints at the possible future. El-Affendi’s non-territorial concept could also be very useful for achieving Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.
As well as being democratic, the polity should present an alternative to consumerism. “Muslims are prisoners of the West,” according to El-Affendi, “because, like their opponents, they have developed an insatiable appetite for luxuries.” The Haram in Mecca, dwarfed by luxury-crammed towers, is a terrible example of the phenomenon. An Islamic focus on providing necessities to all and luxuries to none would not only solve problems of inequality and poverty in the Muslim world, but might also be a guiding beacon for other civilisations.
Brian Whitaker’s book suggests the Arabs get over their preoccupation with the past. Such a sentiment has ugly precedents – such as Obama’s Cairo speech, heavy on Bernard Lewis and light on present reality – but Whitaker no doubt means well. The thing is, preoccupation with the past could be very useful indeed for the Muslims, so long as it is a critical preoccupation.