Religion and politics in the Arab world

As an important follow-up to my last two postings, I think we need to consider in a little more detail the role of two crucial factors in contemporary Arab politics: religion and money. I would argue that whereas increasingly religion and politics are being conflated in an irrational and unhealthy manner, the factor of money, particularly individual and family finances and fortunes, is being, in an equally irrational and unhealthy fashion, bifurcated from the political register in much of contemporary Arab political culture. In this posting I?m going to deal in a little more depth with the problem of religion and politics in the Arab world. I will come to the question of money in my next posting.

In my posting on “why the Arabs don’t revolt?” I argued that one of the factors preventing many Arabs from engaging in Iranian-style mass protests was concern over the potential for widespread social unrest leading to the seizure of power by religious extremists. In fact, the increasing conflation of the religious and political registers of individual and social life cuts in both directions: it spurs a certain kind of opposition to governments through “revolutionary” Muslim organizations, and without question Islamists now constitute the most powerful, and in some cases the only effective, opposition movements in many Arab states. However, religion is also deployed by governments to legitimate their authority and undermine challenges to ruling elites. Arab states, quite literally, employ large numbers of clerics who, no matter how socially conservative and reactionary, are loyal and preach loyalty to the regimes, and to spare no opportunity to remind the Muslim faithful of the unacceptability of ?fitna? and rebellion against authority. Of course, politicized Salafists like the Muslim Brothers, and all those who follow the logic of Sayyid Qutb et al, reject this idea out of hand, since they regard present Arab societies as at least insufficiently Islamic, if not outrightly in a condition of ?jahiliyya? (pre-Islamic ignorance). However, the traditional attitude in most Islamic societies has tended to hold that political authority should be respected as a default and matter of course, and that challenging such authority is more dangerous to social cohesion and a supposedly “Islamic way of life” than the occasional or even chronic misuse of power.

Therefore, the governments not only undermine pressure for either meaningful reforms or widespread social unrest by ensuring that the main opposition groups are religious extremists with limited popular appeal and very alarming qualities in the minds of much of the rest of society, they also appeal to traditional aspects of Islamic thought about the relationship between political power and clerical authority, especially in Sunni traditions. While many in the West seem not to understand this, with some interesting and important exceptions, the general rule in the Muslim world historically has been a clear distinction between the political power of sultans, emirs and the other civic authorities versus the clerical authority wielded by Muslim judges, scholars and experts in Islamic law. As I’ve noted before, this distinction between civil and clerical authority has been very differently constructed in the Islamic world than it has been in Western societies, sometimes leading Westerners, and indeed Muslims as well, to assert or presume that there has never been any “separation of mosque and state.” In some senses, of course, this is true, but this has rarely meant that clerical authority and political authority have been synonymous. Indeed, it’s probably the case that Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical concept of “vilayyat e-faqih,” or the rule of the jurisprudential scholars, (essentially the notion that a clerical authority ought to have the final sway in the political realm above and beyond more overtly political leadership) was not only a unique (and possibly uniquely unfortunate) innovation in Islamic political philosophy, but it also has been the most recent major contribution to philosophical/theological political theory in the Islamic tradition. The practical application of this novel concept is now fully on display in the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities.

Abdel Karim Soroush has argued that while Shiite communities have tended towards accepting what he has termed ?divine politics,? or political forms of religious authority, Sunni traditions generally have not. He also claims that conversely Shiites have been more inclined to philosophical and scientific empiricism while Sunnis have tended more towards deterministic and divine-will explanations of natural and social phenomena (this second point seems far more debatable to me, but plausible enough to take seriously). There is obviously an element of the reductive generalization in any such observation, particularly when one considers the enormous scientific and philosophical achievements of earlier Sunni Muslim civilizations. However, in the contemporary world, this observation does at least partially help to explain why Shiite Islamist parties in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon have been so much more successful at building political authority within their own societies and communities than Arab Sunni Islamists of whatever variety. And, of course, Arab governments have shamelessly used not only legitimate concerns about Iranian hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East, but also completely bigoted and indefensible anti-Shiite sentiments — and even paranoia — in their efforts to combat Islamist opposition groups, including Sunni organizations, and to set Sunni and Shiite Muslims against each other for their own benefit. These tactics have been reasonably successful in curbing, for example, the popularity of Hezbollah among some Arab Sunnis who might otherwise be more enthusiastic about the organization, and to undermine Arab Sunni allies of Iran such as Hamas.

Therefore, the conflation of the religious and the political has been used to almost entirely ill effect by both governments and Islamist opposition groups. Governments use official Islam to legitimate their power and behavior. Islamist opposition groups use their own revolutionary versions of Islam to destabilize the governments and seek power in order to impose reactionary theocratic or quasi-theocratic new regimes. In both instances, the interests of Arab societies and the prospects for their healthy and progressive development are greatly damaged by the excessive emphasis on religious legitimation by both autocratic governments and reactionary opposition groups. It is hard to imagine a more unhealthy situation than one in which official government-sponsored clerics tell the Arab publics not to question their leaders too strongly because it would be some kind of un-Islamic fitna, while at the same time Islamist clerics tell people it is their religious duty to pursue reactionary theocratic dictatorships. Of course there are plenty of apolitical forms of Islam in the Middle East, ranging from mystical Sufis to Salafists concerned only with their own personal conduct. But apolitical religiosity is no social or political solution either. The only way forward is the reconstitution of the Arab center and center-left, and the reintroduction of a robust Arab secular discourse and political narrative. The dysfunctional authoritarian regimes, in so far as they continue to resist reform, are incapable of building prosperous, pluralistic and thriving societies. As long as the Islamists are the only plausible alternative, the prospect that they may come to power is likely to remain anathema to enough of the citizenry of the Arab states that the current regimes can continue to limp along for the foreseeable future. This dynamic has been a key factor in creating the Arab political stagnation of recent decades, and guarantees that it will continue until an alternative to this unacceptable binary is allowed to develop.

Real hope for a better political future in the Arab world demands and requires the de-coupling of religion and politics, or at least a return to the widespread recognition of earlier decades that these are, in fact, distinct registers of political and social life. Islam is a religion, not a political program, which is why even though it has been in existence since the 1920s, the oldest Muslim Brotherhood organization, the MB of Egypt, has never been able to come up with anything remotely resembling a program of governance, economic development or anything of the kind, and has relied almost entirely on the vapid, meaningless and indeed politically ludicrous slogan ?Islam huwa al-haal? (?Islam is the solution?). There is no question that the Arabs are and will remain for the foreseeable future a deeply religious people and that Islam will continue to be a potent force at all levels of society, and will be used by all sources of authority to legitimate their actions (even Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, Qaddafi and other relatively secular leaders frequently invoked Islam whenever they became desperate). Obviously, religion is not going to go away and Islam is going to remain a potent force in Arab society.

However, the conflation of the political and religious registers by both governments and Islamist opposition groups lies at the very heart of the present Arab malaise, and constitutes one of the most significant barriers to overcoming the ongoing stagnation of Arab politics and culture. In most Arab societies for most of the 20th century, there was a much healthier attitude about the relationship between religion and politics. There is no reason that the Arabs cannot regain and indeed improve upon previous widespread understandings that religion and politics may be related but they are not, and cannot be allowed to become, synonymous. The key to recuperating an Arab center and center-left political narrative that recognizes and promotes an understanding of this distinction, and which again champions secularism in the Arab world, will probably depend on the willingness and ability of existing governments to recognize that if they continue to leave the Arab peoples with the unacceptable binary presently available, at best they will continue to preside over stagnation and degeneration, and at worst they will be the ones responsible for the ultimate victory of their reactionary, theocratic opponents.