Envisioning Politics Beyond Left and Right

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Modern politics is characterised by a multitude of political differences. This reveals a profound ontological uncertainty we were promised would not happen. We were sold the idea that with the rejection of divine revelation, supposedly the cauldron of hostility and division, we would find social harmony. Instead of God, we would embrace Reason and man-made ideology which would end all strife and hardship and usher in God’s kingdom – not in heaven, but on Earth. The Enlightenment period of history would be where such ideas would culminate and eventually seek to dominate.

This has (predictably) led to nightmare, oft-touted as beginning with the bloody (and potentially proto-fascist) French Revolution, with one writer describing the gigantic parades in the day where everyone had to cheer, lest they fall under suspicion of not being committed to the republic, and police raids at night to arrest enemies of the republic,”[1] reminiscent of its totalitarian heirs in the form of communism and fascism in the 20th century. Indeed, almost by design, any attempt to create utopia on earth leads to dystopia. There is something to be said in the eery familiarity of the conclusions of man-made ideologies.

What unites politics since the French Revolution is that they all fall under the left-right political spectrum, modelled after the French National Assembly. To the left of the king sat his opposition: revolutionaries, republicans and the like. On the right sat the king’s defenders: royalists, conservatives, landowning aristocrats and so on. Over the course of the 20th century, this spectrum came to embody the political discourse of Europe and America, adding the far-left (communism) and the far-right (fascism). If we are to summarise what these positions embody, the left is often the cause of the lower classes and malcontents, the centre that of the middle-classes, and the right often looks after the interests of the upper classes and elites.

Through the process of colonialism, Islamic civilisation witnessed its local and indigenous social, political and economic structures torn down and replaced by western, colonial institutions that aimed to mimic the political institutions and ideologies of the West. Hence, ideas about socialism, nationalism, libertarianism, secularism and others became the dominant form of political discourse even in the Muslim world. This intensified after the colonial empires relinquished (physical) control of Muslim countries who became nation-states, yet retained the colonial institutions and ideas underpinning them and so effectively acted as self-perpetuated colonialism of the mind. Some of this even predated colonialism as Western invasion and direct control; thus, we witness the rise of intellectuals and newspapers in the late Ottoman Empire dedicated to the discussion and dissemination of European ideas surrounding nation and identity, political organisation (democracy and constitutions) and even economic organisation (the rise of socialist ideas). In any case, what we begin to witness is a slow dependence being created on the West for its production of political ideas, which the Muslim world would simply consume and regurgitate in a disfigured manner.

Islam: Left or Right?

What is today called Islamic politics often falls into the Western schema of “Left” and “Right” – Islamic Libertarians, Islamic Marxists, Islamic centrists and so on. After conducting a genealogical enquiry into the origins of these European ideologies, one cannot say that Islam can be solely categorised as either Left or Right. Islam shares views conducive to elements across the spectrum, taking the good and rejecting the incompatible as it pleases. The dictates of the Shari’a as formulated through Qur’an and Sunnah span “Left” and “Right”, and indeed rejects what this spectrum has to offer and exists beyond and outside of it. For instance, scholars were harsh on taxation by the state, condemning it as a great hardship on the people, but also supports the state’s role in collecting the Zakat, distributing charity and looking after the needy. This is an example which may confound the western politician as it transcends the Left-Right spectrum which seeks to polarise the idea of financial independence and social welfare.

Ultimately, Islam possesses an entirely different worldview antithetical to the fundamental assumptions and claims of these ideologies. That is because these ideologies have their root in the Enlightenment, which as aforementioned, elevate capital-r Reason above revelation. For instance, what drives most enlightenment-rooted ideologies is a linear view of history. Capitalism (with its Whiggish historiography), Communism (historical materialism), and even feminism which takes the conception of history as moving toward utopia, but replacing Marxist class wars with gender wars. A deeper investigation into the difference between the ‘Islamic paradigm’ and ‘Western paradigm’ is beyond the scope of this essay, but I direct anyone who desires a comprehensive reading on the matter toward Ahmet Davutoglu’s ‘Alternative Paradigms’.[2]

As western societies continue to polarise with the rise of anti/post-liberal cultural and political movements, liberals bare their fangs and show their increasing illiberalism towards anything that threatens their hegemony. With this context, the stability and relative success of China offers an opportunity to see past liberal democracy as the end of history. It is neither necessary nor desirable to seek to emulate China. But in a world starved of choice, the very existence of an authoritarian, illiberal state rapidly rising to the top throws what has been basic political wisdom since 1945 into crisis. States do not evolve towards liberal democracies, nor is such a thing necessary for prosperity. Fukuyama’s famous declaration of “the end of history”[3] at the end of the Cold War, whereby all states would proceed towards liberal democracy (at one point or another), took only two decades for it to become disproven. Alternative developments do exist, and for Muslims in particular, this should be a moment of enlightenment as for so long their theory and practise has been restrained by the hegemonic ideas and practises of the West. This is a window for those interested in the continued development of Islamic political thought to begin to detach themselves from their dependence on western ideologies and chart their own course.

The Teleology of Modern Political Structures & Procedures

In Recalling the Caliphate, Salman Sayyid presents the case of engineering infrastructure as part of an answer to the question of how an Islamic worldview would differentiate the building of infrastructure such as bridges and roads from alternate worldviews.[4]

There is however, a difference in how a bridge would be built in continental Europe or the United States. The difference may not be the most obvious one, in the actual engineering requirements of the bridge; but it would be clear in relation to the mix of private and public finances available for the bridge, the level of consultation allowed, the administrative apparatus available, and the size and roles of the various stakeholders would all be different. At a certain level of abstraction, such details would be irrelevant as the purpose of the bridge is fairly clear, but this misses the point about the actuality of the process of putting up a bridge, reducing it to merely an engineering activity. The telos of the bridge permits a positivist approach to the task of building a bridge. It is less clear what the telos of an entire culture or economy could be, and without teleology it is difficult to determine the correct organisation of an economy or culture…

This leads to the recognition that distinct forms of economic organisation can emerge, reflecting particular institutional and cultural arrangements. These arrangements are crystallisations of historical struggles and strategies, and shape economic organisations and activities in ways that have a direct and continuing impact upon individuals, families and communities. A Canadian firm or a Chinese firm involved in the same economic activity may conduct themselves very differently in relation to issues of health and safety, care of workers, decision-making processes and expectations, organisational culture and values; so much so that experience of working in one or the other firm would be a distinct enough experience to make a difference to the shape of one’s life.

It is clear that worldviews are not merely abstractions without influence on the “secular” issues of life, such as the building of infrastructure or the shaping of political institutions to guide and aid society. A worldview implicitly guides even the most mundane of procedures, concluding in a particular outlook and style. So one may ask: what is the solution? How do we rise up to the challenge of creating real Islamic politics? This is something we have had to try and come to terms with for over a century and with little luck.

Taking Islamic Political Thought Forward

To look at infrastructure projects or health policy is but a small sample of where traditional Islamic political discourse transcends and defies the left-right spectrum. I would go a step further and say that its mere existence in our discourse is a manifestation of the intellectual degradation of Islamdom, as we must rely on the political thought of those possessing a different and often antithetical worldview to our own. To construct new “Islamic” politics which are basically transplants from the left-right spectrum is not a form of intellectual exercise or achievement, but imitation and trickery. What is required is a revival and reorientation of the Islamic worldview, not as a historical phenomenon that can be analysed and only read through books, but as a real and living way of looking at the world. This worldview must take into account our ontology (why we exist), our deontology (the moral imperative of our actions), and our teleology (the end purpose of what we are doing – the afterlife is indivisible from life, and Muslim actions are oriented in a way that reflects our constant awareness of our afterlife).

The real challenge now is to develop a framework for politics that operates under an Islamic worldview. However, most attempts to do this have missed the mark. Take the imitation of Al-Mawardi’s Ordinances of Government in both substance and format by most works today seeking to advance a “modern take on Islamic and politics.” To seek to imitate Al-Mawardi or the Siyasatname of a mid-era Ottoman scholar but cover it with the trappings of the modern state is to commit the greatest con of all: implicitly accepting the model of the modern state while also offering nothing but a sentimental call to the past for legitimacy. Taking the modern ministry/department and calling it a diwan doesn’t make it an Islamic state if its underlying philosophy and procedures remain the same.

Muslims have been left downstream, picking up the scraps of the West’s experience and solutions (most of which we’re watching fail before our very eyes) for these challenges, then engaging in cheap imitation until the next pool of scraps come along. The West’s slow implosion and the rise of illiberal China offer an opportunity to move beyond this base existence. A window of opportunity has opened which allows us to question the status quo and begin asserting ourselves. The question is, will Muslims spot an opportunity and prepare accordingly, or miss it and continue to moan?


[1] Furniss, Tom. “Mary Wollstonecraft’s French Revolution.” The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft, Cambridge University Press, pp. 59–81.

[2] Davutoglu, Ahmet. Alternative Paradigms. TPB, 2011.

[3] Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?” The National Interest, no. 16, 1989, pp. 3–18. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24027184.

[4] Sayyid, Salman. Recalling The Caliphate. Hurst, 2014. pg.140-141

About the Author: Dimashqee is a student of history and politics, focusing on statecraft, geopolitics, and world history.

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