Should we Talk to Political Islam?

Alastair Crooke & Beverley Milton-Edwards

British Council, July 5, 2004 

‘Don’t be afraid of opposition. Remember, a kite rises against, not with the wind.’ Hamilton Wright Mabie

First and foremost, political Islam is regarded as a critique of modernity, both by those inside and outside the faith system. This is a critique fuelled by the realm of ideas, but also by the experience of Muslims living in our rapidly changing modern societies. In focusing their antipathy on processes of modernisation not only in their own Muslim societies but also in those ‘modern’ Western societies to which they have migrated, Islamists have held the same processes responsible for marginalising and excluding them in an increasingly inter-connected world. The common factor is the cultural submission apparently required of Muslims in the face of that monocultural construct known as secularism.

It is hard to deny that Western-delineated secularism, underpinning Western modernisation and assailing Muslim societies through imperial and colonialist expansion and doctrines of national liberation alike, has resulted in the serious erosion, even eradication, of some of the major institutional edifices of Islam.

In response, as a principal component of their alternative vision of modernity, many Islamists have insisted on a reappraisal of secularism.  Challenging Western hegemony, Islamist thinkers and activists assert that behind the fiction of the separation of church and state — that central premise of secular democratic governance — lies an undeclared infrastructure of Judeo-Christian belief. As Dyab Abou Jahjah puts it: ‘Europe is diverse, but the common aspect, recognised worldwide, is the western European Judaeo-Christian heritage. This has both a racial connotation related to being white; and a civilisational claim, Judaeo-Christian in character. Step outside that framework, and diversity is no longer permissible.’

Islamists question the truth of our Western pluralism and the neutrality of our cultural constructs. How should we respond? What if we actually listened to their alternative visions of modernity, mutuality and the need for dialogue? How open is the modernising West to the reform of those values to which we cling within the global public sphere? To date, we have demanded Muslim assimilation into or integration of these values. Would it not be better actively to seek a dialogue with political Islam, promoting security through diversity?

The Crisis of Modernity
Most public realms in modern secular societies do in fact display religious features. Modernity may gloss over the significant relationship between the way we have lived our faith and dominant economic values associated with global capitalism, but it is a link acknowledged by many sociologists of religion. Weberian analysis of the Protestant work ethic and its influence in the formation of capitalism is the best-known case study. But the religious impulse behind colonial expansion, nation-building, and liberal democracy offers more recent examples of the ways in which the Christian faith has been a crucial catalyst of modernity and in particular its relationship with, and impact on Muslim domains.

Religion was little in evidence, admittedly, in that archetypal modernising moment when the West demanded that Muslim societies face a stark choice: ‘Mecca or mechanisation?’ This superficial alternative had major consequences for the way Muslim society developed from traditional to modern modes of production, polity, culture and public life. Islam was accused of engendering a permanently entrenched, monolithic, narrow and conservative tradition that could never rise to the pluralism, liberalism, or democracy modernity required.

Western ideas of modernity have at their root the positivist belief that as societies that are based on science, they are bound to become more alike. This is nothing more than a chimera for Muslims who regard Western ‘universal values’ as a thin façade concealing a Christian single path towards a salvation, open to all. Far from ‘value neutral’, such salvation embraces everything from democracy to economics, while Muslim rejection of secular democracy is proof positive of Islam’s inherent backwardness.

‘Mecca or mechanisation?’ was, however, always a false dichotomy. Islam has never been immune to the new products, new industrial techniques, and technical innovation which mark the advance of civilisation. What Islamists do resist is the account of a European Enlightenment culminating in the emergence of secularism, materialism and consumerism as the defining features of modern culture. This narrative accommodates neither their experience nor their theology.

Instead, Islamists — modernisers, reformers and fundamentalists alike — commit themselves to a reassertion of Muslim identity. This process in turn reflects the context in which Muslims now find themselves. Since 9/11, there has been a major re-branding of continuing Western claims to hegemony. The ‘new and improved’ modernity mantra is couched in the rhetoric of Western security interests, and the arguments of democratic protectionism. ‘Modernity’ is promoted as a necessary prerequisite to political stability, and an instrument in the ‘war on terror’. As the global civic order is secularised, the argument goes, rational conduct becomes the norm, leading to greater political stability and the marshalling of forces able to repulse any Islamic extremists seeking to bring religion into the state through violence and revolution.

Deceit and Virtue
The Muslim experience of modernity is not unique. Modernity has been experienced by all societies as a traumatic and often violent transition from one mode of social, political, economic and cultural organisation to another. Yet Muslims are singled out by the West as having uniquely failed. The cultural borrowing that has continued to shape these societies is persistently ignored. Meanwhile, various, and often diametrically opposed, responses to modernity have, in aggregate, considerably weakened the institutional structures and checks and balances of Islam. This helped prepare the ground for those who challenged the canon of traditional Islam from a very different perspective.

Over the past century, Islam’s modernisers have freed their faith from its institutional strictures. The intellectual free-for-all that has resulted has brought with it an element of volatility, but it has also led to a subversive articulation of modernity based on values which Muslims could espouse: ‘Redeeming Islam because it was the “other” opened the door for endorsing an alternative road to modernity …’

Islamists point out that for Muslims, colonialism has been the defining experience of Western modernism, followed by the stark contrast between Western claims for democracy and its support for corrupt, ineffective, oppressive and undemocratic regimes. Liberal western economics have often been blamed for precipitating greater inequalities, exploitation and injustice for the many, and excessive riches for a corrupt few. Muslims in European societies, they point out, experience high levels of unemployment, discrimination and Islamophobic hostility. Modernity, for them, is very far from being a shared experience or an equal opportunity.

Western self-regard, conveniently drawing on its monopoly of ‘virtue’, has effectively blocked out such complaints as meaningless. But is this right? There is an argument to be made that western policy-makers, government and corporations have not given adequate thought to the basis of the malfunction of the Western economic model in so many parts of the globe. The conceit that the problem lies with Muslim resistance and antipathy or ‘exceptionalism’, is shaky at best. To persist in forcing through a union of economic systems, rather than generating global economic mutuality may only feed the ethos of counter-cultures hostile to modernity.

To most Muslims, the modernity often on offer amounts to little more than cultural submission. Muslim resentment at Western injustice has not only radicalised Islam, but has divorced it once again, as in the Middle Ages, from Judaism and Christianity. An Islam humiliated and marginalised has provoked widespread anti-Western feeling among its followers.

Our unwillingness to see or to hear the messages of counter-modernism within a global discourse is a refusal to accept reality. The realities of Muslim experience and their complaints of double standards can be ignored only because the West buries its head in a single, linear narrative of progress, which sees nations on a temporal continuum from ‘backward’ to ‘advanced’. The West is ‘modern’ and ‘civilised’, therefore what we do to advance our vision is benign in intent. Policy-makers may then concentrate their research on the aberrations of Muslim culture, to explain why democracy fails to develop. Western discourse is perceived as ‘innocent’, too, because of its avowed neutrality. We remain convinced that our separation of state and religion and our economic model of liberal economics, both derived from post-Christian positivism, are so self-evidently benign in intent, that they are the way ahead for everyone, and that those who challenge them must simply be counted hostile to us. If it is hostility that animates them, why look further at what they are saying?

The United States, in the aftermath of its victory in the Cold War, and with US Christian fundamentalism on the rise, wishes to assert its vision of modernity, but now as a US security demand. This counter-modernist agenda is seen by the US as a potentially dangerous threat. This is premature. By no means all of the directions in which the project of political Islam, in its many varieties, may veer as events unfold will necessarily be hostile to the West or its values. Without doubt, however, the West’s choice of response will play a decisive part in determining which of these paths are taken.

There are potentially positive developments. Strands of Islamism reject polarising salafi theories in favour of a more gradualist approach, and in deference to one that works with the grain of popular sentiment. Important debates on governance, popular participation in governance, pluralism and the rights of women are taking place. Within Islamism there is a vigorous exchange on feminism, for example. These are all areas in which, to cultivate security, areas of mutual agreement might be explored. Many Muslims now clearly harbour some sympathy for a more flexible reinterpretation of tradition, coupled with the ability to pose a cultural and political ‘Other’ to the discourses of the West.

If the mission of global democracy is to succeed, however, we need to do more than simply repeat our vision of it in an ever-louder voice. We are not setting out to understand some obscure ‘other’ discourse, emanating from a civilisation terminally different from our own. We must open ourselves up to hearing the evidence of the Muslim experience of modernity under Western domination.

This involves an acceptance of a global space characterised by the principle of simultaneity. Those involved in dialogue on all sides must listen in a way that allows their own values to be challenged and, where necessary, modified. Of one thing we can be sure: if there is no space for this in Islam’s dialogue with the West, and no acceptance by the West of a different narrative, culture and experience, global democracy will never be the outcome.

In practical terms, we must discard the fiction that as the rest of the world acquires science and becomes modern, it is bound to become secular, enlightened and peaceful. We must assume the probability of opposition rather than convergence, and argue the need to practise acceptance. Of course, acceptance of difference over values that are assumed to be universal is deeply problematic, especially when it deeply challenges embedded cultural assumptions. In the wake of the Western war on, and occupation of, Iraq Muslim communities across Europe have questioned whether multiculturalism is anything more than an empty slogan, re-awakening all the tensions inherent in the relationship between Islam and the West.

Not all Islamists have an interest in this type of dialogue. One objective of 9/11 was not to stimulate debate at all, but to explode intellectual capacity by shock and awe tactics. However, too much focus on those extremist groups whose resentment of Western hypocrisy has pushed them across the Rubicon, may risk losing sight of the larger picture that is the community of Muslim believers. This is a largely literate global community and diaspora that is unlikely either to return to traditional Islam or to allow their Muslim identity to be overwritten by Western secularism and consumerism.

Their only path, in one form or another, is political Islam. In Europe, this constituency with its links to Islam worldwide, could be harnessed to build a safer world. Thinkers such as Tariq Ramadan locate a third way between assimilation and exclusion, embracing principles of dialogue, culture, and identity which are the fruits of our ‘inclusive memory’. An inclusive approach, he maintains, reflects the shared values in Muslim and Western culture, so that stake-holding is mutual rather than one-sided.

Under this impulse, political Islam could, in turn, offer a vision of modern society based on the ethos and culture of Islam. If the West is willing to engage in this exchange, it can be assured of a positive reception.

Cultivating security and democracy
One aim must be to free up the dialogue on global democracy and governance. Another requirement must be to devise cultural mechanisms which can nourish sociability between the actors. Once acknowledgement of and respect for difference becomes a recognised precondition for global democracy, we have to expect diverging values under some headings, and common ground on others. Sociability should be able to draw on an apparatus of zones of contact which can explore those alien cultural values more resistant to ready empathy.

A fragmented, global world needs cultural experts as translators for its own audience as well as on the other side. In addition to translating Western cultural values into a range of signifiers that have some meaning further afield, cultural bodies could usefully undertake to identify for their own policymakers, those cultural determinants that have provoked countercultures into being, thereby widening their understanding. These same bodies could play a significant role in increasing sociability through dialogue and zones of contact with Muslims within their own countries, as well as within Muslim societies. Cultural links cultivated in these ways, could play a vital role in the infrastructure of global security.

Sociable economics and development
In the past, Western economic development theory was pressed into service to promote political change in the Muslim world. The ‘Mecca or mechanisation?’ mantra was calculated not only to bring about better economic production; it was also intended as a political tool. Industrialisation, it was argued, led to political institutionalisation; and the displacement of traditional, usually landed, elites. Religion too, it was expected, would recede from its role in public life as the civic order became secularised. This in turn would lead to political stability as rational economic decisions took precedence over religious norms.

Islamic economic theory, by contrast, was firmly tied to culture and identity. Modern Islamic economic theory has emerged in step with the upheavals wrought by Western economic modernisation projects in Asia and the Middle East. Some Islamists believed that ‘if economic choice is considered a secular activity, economic advances will make Muslim existence look increasingly secular. But if it is considered a religious activity, then economic modernisation need not reduce Islam’s perceived role in the lives of Muslims’. Bringing economics into the equation with religion was seen as central to the goal of defining a self-contained Islamic order. But Islamists also realised that modernity had an economic dimension that could be scrutinised by Islam and made relevant to the incipient debate about Muslim identity and culture. This provided a welcome opportunity to highlight the universal reach of Islam.

Of course modern Islamist economic theory is also influenced by certain touchstones, sourced in the experiences of the Prophet. These experiences; flight, persecution, rejection of old tribal and status issues, and spiritual submission, have been interpreted as centring on principles of both social and economic justice. Such egalitarian strains inevitably have an impact on Islamic economic theory, and have found resonance among Muslim communities the world over.

The emphasis on social and economic justice has been undeniable in much of modern Shi’a thinking, for example. This, in turn, has been linked to a Shi’ite political agenda that focuses on the underclass and their sense of solidarity with the state and the rest of society. Shi’a doctrine, as espoused by thinkers such as Ali Shariati and Musa Sadr, must be seen within a revolutionary milieu that reflects Third worldism and its Marxist antecedents.

Islamists have replaced socialists and Marxists in paying attention to Muslim impoverishment as a product of Western globalisation. Many theorists place alongside the calls for economic justice, equality and social harmony, a critique of the injustices, inequality and lack of social harmony in the West.  This however, is a polemic that leaves ample space for pragmatism.

Islamists have also sought to distinguish between the products of a modern technological society and capitalist-inspired consumerism; between productive enterprise and a global capitalism that exploits Muslim societies and communities. Islam was born among traders. The success of Islamic banking too is testimony to its ability to adapt. Islamic economic theory need not be estranged from capitalism or globalisation, as long as neither concept remains intimately tied to Westernisation.

Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood make clear their commitment to the reversal of economic decline and an end to massively low standards of living. Western prescriptions for these ills, however, are fatally compromised in their eyes. They see the capital intensive approach to the manufacture of consumer items destined for the luxury market, as one that aggravates hardship, by increasing disparities within society. They do not, however, turn their backs on productive enterprises that might alleviate the crisis.

If the thrust of Western policy is perceived to be exploitative and likely to exacerbate distributional inequity, it will serve only to increase polarisation. But the West should have no problem in finding zones of sociability with this economic outlook. Modern theories of development no longer designate tradition and cultural inheritance relics from the past, hardly amenable to change or modernity. Tribal, clan, family and religious networks are all now appealed to as possible facilitators of development. Social and political change can be presented in a more acceptable light, because they are legitimated by the progressive reinterpretation of traditional tendencies within Islam that is already under way.

This is well illustrated in Zaki Badawi’s approach to the Muslim principle of zakat (charity for sanctity) as a form of development finance and ethical economic theory. As Badawi asserts: ‘Zakat funds should plan to achieve the aim of the Shari’a — that is to find a long-term solution to poverty and dependence’.

There is room for dialogue here on how Western economic engagement may be fashioned to work with the grain of Muslim culture and values. Again rather than striving to attain a union between the economic systems of the West and the Muslim world, it may be more productive to acknowledge mutuality and difference.

For neighbouring European states, with their own Muslim citizens, finding zones of sociability in the cultural as well as in the economic spheres may help considerably to lessen political dissent. The idea that as time passes we shall all become more alike and share similar values, is relatively new.  It is just as reasonable to expect and plan for the opposite. In the past the response to this was tolerance — broad-mindedness and respect for what was distinct about the Other. This is even more vital as we enter a period where Islam is perceived as increasingly isolated from Christianity and Judaism as well as from other Western cultural norms.

Perhaps the unpalatable truth is that outsiders are unable positively to influence the process of deep institutional and cultural change which alone can overcome the profound crisis facing the Muslim world. By misdiagnosis of the issues, however, the West has played a considerable part in precipitating the crisis.

From dialogue to governance
We have argued that if there is to be any really meaningful dialogue with political Islam, the West needs to accept the role of listening, actively promoting symmetry in dialogue, and being ready to accommodate alternative discourses on the experience of modernity.

We also argue that the underlying Christian optic should be acknowledged — at least to ourselves. Meanwhile, Islamists might usefully attempt to transmute the idealism and energy of the early community of Muslims to the level of the state, large-scale enterprise and institutions, as their contribution to sociability.

There will be some, however, who will doubt the value of dialogue with groups claiming to derive their views from a strict and fundamentalist interpretation of God’s will. Dogmatism and inflexibility is associated with any cultural, political, social or economic movement. It is true that when conflict occurs, dialogue becomes all the more difficult, and where it might be seen to reward those responsible, can be ruled out altogether .This should not be an excuse to refuse the attempt.

In the very different circumstance of sustained dialogue with Islamists, in the first instance, we should be trying to listen to another narrative. We must be prepared for the regular mention throughout much Islamist writing of those striking ‘parallels of the hostility’ with which the West has always greeted Islam, extending from the inhabitants of Mecca and their allies, through the Crusader knights of Europe in the Middle Ages to the pith-helmeted colonialists of the 18th and 19th centuries and including the current hostility, from a West whose collective mind appears similarly shut to their mission. Some Islamists argue that this is a struggle principally of faith and rivalry: others believe that once again it will entail a resort to force and self-defence, just as the first community of Muslims was faced with the need to respond to violent organised opposition.

What you will not find, here, is any monolithic ideology.  On the contrary, we have argued that the loosening of its internal checks and balances, and jettisoning of much of the traditional canon of Islam has made it once again vulnerable to change. The Qur’an may be viewed as a political document, a blueprint for a system for practical human life in all its aspects but it is silent on specifics at many points. As a result, Islam can be remarkably adaptable. Thus, Eickelman and Piscatori have noted with respect to Muslim law:
Emendations and additions to a purportedly invariant and complete Islamic Law (shari’a) have occurred throughout Islamic history, particularly since the mid-19th century.  Muslim jurists have rigorously maintained the pious fiction that there can be no change in divinely revealed law, even as they have exercised their independent judgement (Ijtihad) to create a kind of de facto legislation…even in such a reputedly conservative country as Saudi Arabia, legal reforms routinely occur, often made possible by the invocation of the “public interest” as an overriding Islamic concern.

To cite the immutability of Islam as a reason to desist from dialogue is inadequate, if not seriously flawed. If the more plausible case is made that the Islamists have failed to elaborate either solutions or a well-defined political platform that can face up to the challenges of modern society, then discourse is more — not less — likely to encourage political Islam to define its project in more concrete terms. In the void left by the retreat of the traditional Islamic establishment, the decline of the secular Left and of the nationalist Arab cause, political Islam has become the torchbearer for many Muslims. It is surely worth making the effort to hear what it is that they have to say.

Leave a Reply