There is a spectre haunting the Muslim world, by the name of political Islam. Whether in the form of violent terrorist groups or in the guise of political parties pragmatically using the democratic process to gain power, it seems that everywhere behind the stunted development of Muslim-majority societies is the troublesome presence of political Islam. Observers of contemporary affairs will note Islamic politics as an object of social commentary, occupying a highly contentious and vilified space in academic analysis.
Rather than providing useful insights about Islamic politics itself, dominant Western representations of political Islam merely reflect the anxieties of the intellectual and ideological milieu producing them. Only in deconstructing these frames of analysis will Muslims be able to define an Islamic political ethic on their own terms.
Political Islam is the animation of public life with Islamic principles: to give Islam an authoritative status in political life. This definition rests on the proposition that from the personal to the political, the social to the spiritual – Muslims are participants in a religion, tradition, and philosophy that has authoritative declarations about how one ought to live.
The presence of political agency expressed with metaphysical reference is objectionable to Western observers, as a marked characteristic of the modern age is its desacralized nature. As such, it is almost a trope to see political Islamic agency associated with loaded and analytically unhelpful terms such as ‘radicalism’ and ‘fundamentalism’. At worst, dominant representations have long viewed political Islam as pathology. A paradigmatic example is Samuel Huntington’s infamous Clash of the Civilisations thesis, which posited the “inhospitable nature of Islamic culture and society to Western liberal concepts.” 1 In this view, Islam itself, and not just its political manifestations, has a violent and oppositional nature. Other views focus on the latter, denying the validity of a ‘political’ Islam. Fred Halliday declares, “to ask of Islam the answer to basic questions about politics and society is spurious,”2 while Bassam Tibi asserts that Islam is really about private worship and devotion, not politics; “Islamism is not Islam … [it is] an invention of tradition.” 3 But the most common and less combative view sees political Islam as a curiosity amenable to liberal mores. This swathe of literature is typically invested in analysing modern Islamist trends via taxonomies of ‘liberal, ‘conservative’ and ‘radical’, and focuses on the compatibility or non-compatibility of Islamic thought with notions like democracy and pluralism.4
On more subtle level, these representations of Islamic politics portray it as a side effect of modernisation processes gone awry. Manifestations of political Islam are at once expressive and obfuscatory – the real problem is a depressed, frustrated, and underemployed class whose identity is shaped in a situation of rapid urbanisation, scarce resources, and limited socioeconomic prospects.5 Thus, Islamism is viewed in relation to its effectiveness as conduit for material discontent. Phillip Khoury bluntly states, “Islam must be seen as the vehicle for political and social demands … [the] most convenient, readily available ideological instrument.” 6
Other explanations layer in the details of internal politics, portraying political Islam as the consequence of the failure of leftist, nationalist or ‘progressive’ regimes to cultivate prosperous nation-states.7 Couched in a more culturally authentic garb, Islamism is a ‘last-resort’ alternative, “an angry statement directed against the ruling authority … a sign of protest” effectively fulfilling “a de-alienating function … not matched by rival political movements”.8 All these representations tend to reify Islamic politics as either an implacable enemy or as impotent – but always as illegitimate.
Underlying these views is a normative assumption that political agency expressed in Islamic terms is abnormal and undesirable. They seek explanations for Islamism by reference to the external and structural – as a conduit for material rage, without meaningful engagement with the intrinsic appeal of ideas themselves.9 As Roxanne Euben comments, “surely it is not the case that moral beliefs are selected as are tools in a hardware store, chosen only for their efficiency … convictions … are far too complex to be either reduced to an option in the marketplace of ideas or minimised as a ‘refuge that provides emotional peace and comfort’.”10 In Reza Pankhurst’s evaluation these prevailing viewpoints do not “strike the right balance between interpreting discourses while evaluating the influence of context in order to understand to which extent the ideas produced are merely reactive or derived systematically from alternative views.” 11
These viewpoints are not necessarily incorrect. There are many legitimate criticisms that can and should be made of modern Islamic political theory and praxis. Nevertheless, disregarding what an Islamic politics ought to look like12, Western representations are united in their inability to admit Islamic politics as a serious or legitimate alternative paradigm. Implicitly or explicitly, these approaches consistently make liberal democracy and secularism the ultimate reference point in their analysis, advancing the universality and hegemony of said norms.13 It is as if Islamic thought can offer no meaningful visions of how to organise collective life or conceptualise political morality and should it try, it will naturally be dwarfed by superior Western modes of thought. Viewing Islamic political subjectivity from these frameworks is unhelpful. Pankhurst elaborates, noting that the primacy of a secular epistemology in analysis cannot be a methodological basis for understanding Islamic politics, instead producing visions of normativity “far out of sync with reality in Muslim majority societies.” 14
Rather than illuminating Islamic governance, these perspectives tell us about the attitudes and self-representations of those producing them. Michel Foucault wrote of the intimate connection between power and knowledge; how discourses are organised and presented, often with the cloak of scientific objectivity constituting a hierarchy of knowledge that disqualifies as inadequate “naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity”.15 Edward Said in his ground-breaking text Orientalism, highlighted that Western depictions of the ‘Orient’ have more to do with Western power than with a genuine representation of the subject, “…meant to indicate that the Orientalist is outside the Orient, both as an existential and moral fact”.16 Images of Islamic politics remain caricatured and obscure, and reveal more about the assumptions, fears, and visions of the observer. Western perceptions of Islamic politics perform a disqualification by default, seeking negation or subordinate compatibility of religious political subjectivity with secular and liberal mores.
The Enlightenment Bias
The worldview underlying these viewpoints is precisely the point at which Islamic political thought manifests its deepest critique and its alternative paradigm. This worldview is that of the Enlightenment. A series of political, scientific, and intellectual movements emerging in the milieu of 17th century Europe, the Enlightenment should be seen not just as a historical period, but also as an ongoing process – a project. As a radical reorientation of traditional modes of being, the Enlightenment is a paradigm that infuses and frames much of the core of Western ethics, politics, and society to this day. The internal multiplicity of the Enlightenment project nonetheless displays a shared set of assumptions, an essential unity.17 John Gray argues that the core objective of the Enlightenment was “the displacement of … traditional moralities, and all forms of transcendental faith by a critical or rational morality [aiming] … to set universal standards for the assessment of human institutions”.18
As a paradigmatic example, the 18th century moral philosopher Immanuel Kant, a central protagonist of the Enlightenment, termed it “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity … [which is] the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.” Privileging an idealised faculty of reason, Kant declared: “Dare to know!”19 The essential ethic of the Enlightenment project is that in answering the fundamental questions of human existence – the meaning of right and wrong, the nature of social and political life, understanding the world around us, man need not seek reference to an external source, but rather ought to reference himself in reaching ultimate judgements. This vision of the true potentiality of man was based on an ontology centring the human being as fundamentally autonomous,20 and by doing so man traverses along the road of progress and success – Enlightenment. Central to this paradigm is what Wael Hallaq terms the ‘doctrine of progress.’21 Whereas in many traditional cultures, history was constructed eschatologically and framed around a core existential morality, new ideas saw human history as a collective phenomenon, driven towards a particular purpose – progressive improvement as couched in language of material advance, scientific knowledge, and aforementioned ‘maturity.’22 History is preparatory, “simply the means to reach the intended summit of human progress: Western modernity,”23 as embodied by agents invested in secular rationalism. Thus does Karl Marx, considered the father of social science and another major protagonist of the Enlightenment, declare that religions are “nothing more than stages in the development of the human mind”.24
We are observing a radical reorientation of traditional modes of being. Religious logics, previously the existential centrepieces of human life for millennia, are cast as irrelevant, reactionary, and backwards – obstacles along the path to anthropocentric progress. Strong currents of prescriptive political, social, and economic philosophy in Western milieus are therefore premised on exclusively material and explicitly secular premises. Here, the normative place of religious belief lies strictly outside the sphere of authoritative political and moral discourse – it ought only to be private, internal, and devotional.
Islam as a religion and as a political ethic is precisely none of those things. As Muslims emerge from the aftereffects of centuries of colonialism and reassert political agency on their own terms, the West would do well to take an Islamic politics seriously. If our modern world is defined by moral relativism, engineered economic disparity, impeding environmental catastrophe, and brute power politics, then it is clear that the moral, spiritual, and civilizational ethos of Islam, one of the world’s great ethical and intellectual traditions, has something to offer humanity as a whole.
- Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, 114.
- Reza Pankhurst, The Inevitable Caliphate, 10.
- Andrew March, “Political Islam: Theory”, 108.
- For example, see Michaelle, Browers, “Islamic Political Ideologies.” In The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies, ed. by Michael Freeden and Marc Stears.
- Roxanne Euben, Enemy in the Mirror Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism: A Work of Comparative Political Theory, 26.
- Ibid, 27,28.
- Huntington, 114.
- Euben, 29, 30.
- Ibid, 30.
- Ibid, 48.
- Pankhurst, 12.
- The major division between different strands of intra-Islamist thought seems to be if legal-political concepts are schematically defined by classical scholars or necessitate contemporary elaboration and reinvention.
- Pankhurst, 7.
- Ibid, 13.
- Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, 82.
- Edward Said, Orientalism, 6, 21.
- Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament, 7.
- John Gray, Enlightenments Wake, 123
- Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment?
- Hallaq, 75.
- The doctrine of progress was influential in the 18th and 19th centuries, for example laying the groundwork for European colonialism. Although the rise of postmodern thought in the latter half of the 20th century has seen this doctrine largely repudiated, it is not hard to see the ways in which it influences contemporary discourse in the manner in which Muslim political and ideological subjectivity is expected to ‘reform’ according to certain lines.
- Hallaq, 16
- Ibid, 17
- Euben, 27.
About the Author: Hamza Surbuland is a guest contributor. He has completed a First Class Honours in Political Science at the University of Queensland, submitting a thesis entitled ‘Rethinking Islamic Politics: God, Enlightenment & the Modern State’. Hamza is currently in Jordan pursuing studies of Arabic & Islamic sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Instagram here.
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