Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The case for a post-Islamic revolution

(L-R) Asif Bayat and Mohsen Kadivar

*Artikel ini asalnya merupakan salah satu tulisan saya bertajuk "Revolusi Pasca-Islamisme", diterjemahkan oleh Ahmad Fuad Rahmat, felo di Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF). Telah tersiar di laman Harakahdaily.

In May 1996, a sociologist named Asef Bayat delivered a lecture at the American University in Cairo entitled "The Coming of a Post-Islamist Society". The lecture, which was then distributed as a medium-length essay, discussed the emergence of a new era of Islamism, focusing on Iran in particular.

Iran before post-Islamism

Before defining post-Islamism, Bayat describes some of the general features of Iranian Muslim government and society in the era of Islamism. Key among them is the commitment to vilayat-i-faqih, a structure of government leadership comprised of, and controlled by, classically trained religious scholars to replace the despotic regime of the Iranian Shah, among other symbolic features like the flag and national anthem. The desire to Islamise the country resulted in a "top-down" hierarchy of power.

By the early 1980s, the law required for the veil to be mandatory, a move regarded as one of the most drastic policies at that time. This was followed by several other equally severe changes in child custody laws, the husband's right to divorce and the legalization of polygamy, all of which took place with no consideration towards gender equality.

In other words the majority of laws under the Shah were removed and replaced by Islamic law. Indeed, Bayat characterized the era of Islamism as one whereby the Islamization of all aspects of a country was made a project of paramount importance.

In the following passage, Bayat provides practical examples to give a physical picture of Iran before the post-Islamist era:
“For a long time during the early 1980s, the maktabis view was quite predominant, Islam was considered a complete social, economic, political and moral system that had answers to all human problems. It was up to the “true” Muslims, through resiliency and commitment, to discover them. Such a monopolization of truth meant that there was no room for the coexistence of competing views or systems. Islamism was exclusivist and intolerant of pluralism.”

In this essay, I aim to further expand this discussion by providing an overview of the key features of Islamist ideas.

The era of pre-Islamism

Among the icons of the period was Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) who formulated several influential theories of Islamist discourse such as the Hakimiyah theory, the division between the Muslim community and the people of jahil or ignorant (although this idea was originally presented by Mawdudi - 1903-1979 -, one of the chief Islamist ideologues of Pakistan) and the duty to overthrow tyrannical regimes to uphold Islamic rule.

Two of Qutb’s books, Tafsir Fi Zilalil Qur’an (In the Shade of the Qur'an) and Ma’alim fi al-Tariq (Signposts) eventually became the most influential references for the Islamist movement.

Qutb was then jailed for ten years in 1954, before being sentenced to death in 1966 for his subversive political activities which were very much inspired by the wave of anti-colonialism that had swept Middle East politics at that time, particularly in Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey. Such was the tumultuous context of the political factors that compelled the ideas Qutb produced.

The following passage summarizes the essence of that worldview, a worldview which proved to be compelling for Muslims activists at the time:
“All that is around us is jahiliyah. Peoples imaginings, their beliefs, customs, and traditions, the source of their culture, their art and literature, their laws and statutes, much even of what we take to be Islamic culture, Islamic authorities, Islamic philosophy, Islamic thought: all this too is of the making of this jahiliyah.”

Additionally, the slogan “al-Islam huwa al-hal” (Islam is the solution to all problems) and the idea of a divine order, whereby a polity would be guided by revelation, became dominant agendas in the discourse, with little critical consideration of the suitability and effectiveness of the very Islamic solutions on offer.

Thus, the theocratic discourse to which the concept of vilayat-i-faqih was very much related is regarded as the solution for Muslims even though it was clear that injustices were going to emerge once the theories were applied uncritically. The personal affairs of the people were regarded as legitimate concerns of the state, on the basis of religious authority, whereby the government was to supposedly serve as the enforcer of revelation.

As an example, the jurisdiction of the supreme leader of the vilayat-i-faqih, extends fair into the affairs of the Iranian people, encompassing almost every aspects of their daily affairs (hawzah wilayat).

Exiled Iranian intellectual, Mohsen Kadivar (1959 – present) explained this problem further in the following passage:
“Legitimacy of all decisions and actions in public domain depend on the approval and authorization of the supreme leader, as the waliy al-amr. Another meaning of Vilayat over people is their guardianship, which is fundamentally different from representing them. The citizenry - having been placed in care of the supreme leader - has no say in the appointment or dismissal of the waliy al-amr, and no authority to oversee his conduct of wilayat, or his personal conduct (that of the waliy al-amr or supreme leader).”

Post-Islamism in Iran

In Bayat’s aforementioned 1996 lecture, he explained some of the developments that took place in Iran after the Iran-Iraq war and the death of Imam Khomeini.

Of interest were the changes in several government policies regarding the social activities of its citizens. The emergence of Andisheh-ye Diger (Alternative Thought) led by Abdul Karim Soroush (1945 to present), a professor of philosophy, aimed to establish the agenda of enlightenment and new thought there.

This collective rejected the exclusive attitudes of the Ulama’ in reading and interpreting the Qur’an. The group also criticized vilayat-i-faqih while proposing democracy as a solution. This found supporters and sympathizers among the youths, students and secular, and even religious, minded Iranians.

Additionally the slogan “Equality of Men and Women in Islam” was also reiterated by the group. They demanded gender justice in the professional, educational and legal fields.

As a result, by 1996, half of the positions in the Iranian civil service, and more than 40% in the education department were filled by women. Polygamy, mut’ah (contract) marriage and the rights of child care too were debated. In fact, the efforts to allow women to be judges were among the important measures that emerged from the movement.

According to Bayat, among the factors that led to post-Islamism was the experience of Islamist led rule in Iran which evidently revealed the weaknesses of the approach. On top of the Islamic economy that also failed, the Islamization of schools also led to produce a generation of youths who were religious. In fact, researches at the time showed that a high number of female students in schools and universities were not interested to don the hijab as was made mandatory by the law.

New era for Islamism

In April 2005, nine years after his Cairo lecture, Bayat wrote an article entitled “What is Post-Islamism?” by explaining how his ideas in 1996 could only confirm Iran as the example. Nonetheless he explained again that the experience of Post-Islamism in Iran is beginning to spread to other countries such as en-Nahdah in Tunisia and AKP in Turkey.

In this we should also keep in mind the emergence of Al-Wasat in Egypt (which is viewed by many as more progressive than al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun), the pluralist approach of Hizbullah in Lebanon in the 1990s and then the increasing calls for democracy in Saudi Arabia.

More interestingly, in April 2011, Bayat reiterated his previous argument in an article entitled “the Post Islamist Revolutions” in Foreign Affairs while referring to his essay in the book ”Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change The Middle East” (2009).

Evidently, Bayat is following the developments in the Middle East while anticipating, with accuracy, its future. He says:

“I suggested that the Iranian experience “may well remain the first and the last Islamic Revolution of our time” for the “growth of democratic sensibilities and movements [in the Middle East] is likely to push Islamism into the ‘post-Islamist’ course, paving the way for a democratic change in which an inclusive Islam may play a significant role. The outcome may be termed ‘post-Islamist refo-lutions’ [a mix of reforms and revolutions]”

Democratisation as a solution

In a journal article published by the Middle East Institute, entitled “Democratization and Islam”, John Esposito and James Piscatori wrote of the history of Islamic movements in the era of modernity, covering up to the point when democracy has become by and large accepted as a legitimate agenda by nearly all Islamic movements.

Among the more prominent voices therein is the leader of en-Nahdah in Tunisia, Rachid Ghannouchi and Abdelfattah Mourou. The following passage is Gannouchi’s explication of democracy as sovereignty of the people:

"The state is not something from God but from the people. The state has to serve the benefit of the Muslims multiparty elections, and constitutional law are all part of a ‘new Islamic thinking’ whose roots and legitimacy are found in a fresh interpretation or reinterpretation of Islamic sources.”

Morou, at the same time, criticizes Western policies that clearly contradict their purported commitments to democracy and human rights:

“Why does the West speak about democracy and human rights when it supports regimes that persecute and imprison activists. Yet, Western governments support such regimes. There is a contradiction between what the West wants or applies in the West and what it wants and supports in other countries.”

Islamists' call for democracy

What is more interesting to observe is how the calls for democracy that is increasing among Islamists was already anticipated by Muhammad Asad (left) in his book, Principles of State and Government in Islam, as early as 1961. According to him:
“The legislative assembly - majlis ash-shura - must be truly representative of the entire community, both men and women. Such a representative character can be achieved only through free and general elections, therefore the members of the majlis must be elected by means of the widest possible suffrage, including both men and women.”

Shaykh Taha Jabir al-‘Alwani in an interview with Muslim Democrat, published by Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), said:
“It is better to accept the majority than to accept a minority. If I follow the majority, I am always on the safe side. Following the minority will open the door to other minorities to take over by claiming to know the truth. We can’t open this door because it will lead to unspeakable violence and confrontations.”

These are only a few among an increasing number of democratic Muslim thinkers who have openly embraced Democracy. They can be read as open responses to those who regard democracy as something acceptable only during emergency scenarios.

Mohsen Kadivar, a Shiite intellectual presents the following observations as his basis for rejecting the doctrine of the vilayat-i-faqih:
“Vilayat-i-faqih has no credible foundation in Islamic jurisprudence. It is a notion that is formed in the minds of a group of honorable jurists through a specific reading of a handful of Islamic passages. Refuting Vilayat-i-faqih does not in any way undermine any of the Islamic teachings, requirements or obligations. I believe democracy is the least erroneous approach to the politics of the world - please note that least erroneous does not mean perfect or even error free.”

Thus, democracy as a system of government is suitable for Muslims. In fact, the principles of Shura and the supremacy of God are enough to reject any doctrine that renders the favouring of particular individuals at the expense of the collective freedom of the people to choose their own destiny.

AK Party and en-Nahdah as models

Aside from the AK Party (FJP) in Turkey which has become the focus of many political analysts, the emergence of en-Nahdah in Tunisia and Freedom and Justice Party - Hizb al-Hurriyah wal ‘Adalah – in Egypt are among those representing the re-evaluation of Islamic political doctrines beginning from the early 20th century. Previously they may have been mere spectators to the revivalist discourse, but now they are presented with the opportunity to convert their ideas into practice and reality.

From early on, Ghannouchi, as the figurehead and leader of en-Nahdah rejected any attempts to convert the Tunisian Revolution into the Iranian model. He demonstrated his commitment to the democratic system and a more progressive government.

En-Nahdah is pushing for employment opportunities, freedom and transparent and just government as their main agenda for the elections. Without following the footsteps of Iran and Saudi Arabia, en-Nahdah rejects any form of coercion in the name of morality and religion.

In an interview with Today's Zaman, Ghannouchi reiterates the principles of en-Nahdah:
“Nahdah has always maintained that it is not for a theocratic state and that it rejects the imposition of any beliefs or lifestyle on the people, whether under the name of liberalism or Islam. It has always struggled for a society where the freedoms of belief, conscience and choice are guaranteed and protected.”

Similarly, FJP has also proceeded with its own progressive agenda. This is clearly seen in their election platform text which is evident in its commitment to democracy, the freedom of religion, the separation of powers, transparency and accountability, equality of citizenship and the like. Page 11 of their Election Program states the following:

“The State is civil and civilian, for the Islamic State is civilian in nature. It is not a military state ruled by armed forces who get in power by military coups, and it is not ruled like a dictatorship, nor is it a police state controlled by the security forces, nor is it a theocracy - governed by the clergy or by Divine Right. There are no infallible people who can monopolise the interpretation of the Holy Koran [Qur'an] and have exclusive right to legislation for the nation and are characterised by Holiness. In fact, the rulers in the Islamic state are citizens elected according to the will of the people; and the nation is the source of authority. The basis of appointment to all positions and functions in the State is competence, experience and honesty. And just as it is the nation’s right to choose its ruler, legislators and representatives, it also has the right to question them and hold them accountable, to dismiss and replace them.”

Dr. Jasser Auda in his presentation in Egypt recently, entitled "ad-Dawlah al-Madaniyyah min Manzhur al-Islam" (Civil Government in Islam) explains several of the basic principles of a civil government, which is the freedom of religion, the absence of any coercion in laws and a reliance of democracy, while emphasizing human dignity.


Both parties are important political phenomena for the new era of political Islam. Nonetheless what tends to happen is when parties such as the AKP, en-Nahdah and FJP attains power, many Muslims in Malaysia would be proud to point to them as examples of the rise of Islam without properly engaging with the discourse of Islam and democracy to see those developments as in fact heralding an era of post-Islamism.

Thus, what we find is the tendency to argue for reforms while still defending policies that are evidently outdated. If they truly want to exemplify the real advances in Islamic thought, they should participate in the emerging discourses exemplified by the progressive Muslim thinkers mentioned above. This would be a much wiser approach compared to those who admit the greatness of those parties while still being stuck with a discourse from the past decades.

Post-Islamism, as was presented by Asef Bayat, Piscatori and others are worth reflecting upon. The future of Islamism is still unclear, even when there appears to be success. Such critical discourses should be engaged by Muslims, especially Muslims in a complex society as Malaysia. Political ideas are something that are always changing with the times, thus we remain in the old mould under the excuse of “holding on to principles” at our own peril.

At the very least, Islamist leaders and activists should educate their members about the concepts of al-thawabit (matters that are fixed) and al-mutaghayyirat (matters that are subject to reinterpretation), the spaces of ijtihad and the concept of faraghat as was explained by al-Qaradawi, Ghannouchi, Tariq Ramadhan and Jasser Auda. Either we change, or be changed.


  © Blogger template The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP