December 16, 2006

Is there an Islamic Centre? A Cautious Thought offered.

One of the problems in analysing developments within the Middle East has been separating out the strands of political ideologies that we are looking at. Looked at from afar an easy division between good secularist and bad islamist movements is possible but as soon as you get closer the divisions cease to work as well as a tool to understand what is happening in the Middle East. I am no expert and this article is as much a call for knowledge as it is a statement of fact, but one of the crucial issues that seems forgotten in most discussion of political Islam is the way that politics and other religions have fused and sustained democracy. Unless Islam is significantly and crucially different then it too may have the potential, indeed may be realising the potential as I write, of doing precisely that.

The Middle East in this sense is a place in which only the extremely acute outside observer should make quick judgements- and I claim no such status. But there are some factors that we ought to consider in our analysis of the region that are worthy of at least thinking through. The Middle East is filled with regimes which with notable exceptions are dictatorial- they are founded upon military power and they maintain themselves through the classic instruments of torture, oppression and propaganda. Such regimes as Syria's or Saudi Arabia's might fall easily into this category. Others like Turkey have an imperfect democracy and between the Turkish imperfection and the Syrian despotism lie all sorts of controlled democracies or even franchise enriched dictatorships (a lovely euphemism) from Iran's experiment with theocratically vetted elections to Jordan's with monarchically controlled elections. That background is indispensible to understanding the complexity of the Islamic movements that we face within the region.

But it also leads to distortion, because if we assume that all Islamic oppositions are the same, then we may fall into the trap of thinking that either they are all benign movements of liberation or that they are all fundamentalist movements of obscurantism. According this article from Al Ahram Weekly, we should complicate this vision. Khalil El-Anani argues that there is an emergeant Islamic centre if you like which whilst it bows to the politics of Allah also worships the deities of impartial law and democratic elections. In some sense what he describes is not a million miles away from the view that Tariq Ramadan offers western European Muslims, that Islamic engagement in the modern world is to be conceptualised as within the domain of a witness to timeless truths and is therefore compatible with secular democracy. Ramadan's argument about witness attacks a view like Said Qutb's that there are no alternatives between a fully Islamic state and a pagan state that all Muslims must oppose. Ramadan offers a middle path whereby Islamic democrats can use the principles of their religion within a democratic and secular polity to inform public policy, that seems to be something similar to the model of what El-Anani calls a new Muslim Centre.

El-Anani's view of the way that some within Arab politics consider the world receives some support from other sources. His claims about the parties he mentions are substantiated, in the case of the Jordanian Islamic Centre and in the case of the Tunisian Al Nahda party which split on the precise issue of its relation to democracy and secular law. His broader view of the trends within the Middle East has also found support- for example take this article by Par Amr Hamzawy which comes to similar conclusions but mentions a slightly different list of parties as included within the phenomena.

In many ways these Islamic movements fit within societies in which the predominate method of criticising often corrupt leaderships and expressing nationalism rests within a political language that can't be divorced from its Islamic context. Like for instance Catholicism in Eastern Europe under communism, identification with an Islamic nationalism has become an alternative to identification with the regime's promotion of secular nationalism. As Olivier Roy has commented at length in a lecture this kind of politics is one that is steadily becoming more and more important within the Islamic world. I myself have discussed both Professor Roy's lecture lecture and what I think is a related phenomena whereby strict religious behaviour and an identification with incorruptability become crucial aspects of politics within such societies, points I mean to develop over the coming months. The linguistic opportunities offered by Islam as a means of criticising leaderships who seem seduced by luxury don't mean that Islam is neccessarily incompatible with either law or democracy- in a sense as El-Anani argues these movements attempt to separate modernity from Western Christian ideas and provide it with an Islamic base. As Roy has argued, the new mutation in political Islam in the Middle East (interestingly he extends it to other regions too) is the move to allying Islam to nationalism.

Obviously there are questions and problems about this. One for example is with whether such a movement can encompass the pluralism of a genuine democracy. El-Annani's article demonstrates this: with its absolutist rejection of the West and consequently of perceived imperialism. The issues that Farish Al Noor sketches out in his article about Malaysia are issues which all Muslim movements will eventually have to face as their countries come to grips with the dilemmas of living with minorities- especially recently immigrated or even converted minorities. There is also the problem of description- I have no doubt that members of these movements stand further towards Qutb than Ramadan. Nor do I doubt another significant problem which is that a decision to use religious language to describe politics, inevitably risks the kinds of sectarian divisions that say were frequent in early twentieth century Europe.

Having said all that, this is a fascinating phenomenen and one that I do not see covered at all in analyses of the Middle East. Maybe I am too credulous of reports in Al Ahram as in other places, but the backing of experts like Sivan makes me think that I'm not. We must acknowledge that the Middle East is incredibly complicated and the ways that Islam plays into the political arena are also complicated- we must not go down the road of seeing every Islamist as a fundamentalist- there may be Rick Santorums in the Middle East whose motivations are Islamic but whose means are democratic. I don't profess expertise in this area- and some of the judgements in this article are no doubt wrong- but the sense that there might be a space whereby the language of politics, which in so much of the world is Islamic could also support moderate democratic governments I think is right.

I have to say though that I advance this thesis with the maximum of caution, I am ignorant and don't have the language skills to do more than that and would welcome somebody who comes along and disagrees based on better information. This is if you like the first draft of an idea which I hope to redraft several times- maybe hundreds of times.

I should note petulantly that I tried to publish an earlier and better version of this article but Blogger in its wisdom wiped my first attempt- so this is if you like the reheated version and I attribute all infelicities to that fact!


Hazem Debess said...

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