Powellism and Western Islam

This is part one of a two-part series. You can read part two here.

“Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre” —Enoch Powell, Rivers of Blood

John Enoch Powell (1912-1998) was a man of many talents; a poet and a scholar, a philologist and a linguist, an Anglican and amateur theologian, an ardent minarchist and the last of the High Tories, but for the majority of the British public, past and present, his legacy was sealed on 20 April 1968, when he delivered possibly the most incendiary speech —dubbed “Rivers of Blood” by the media— in modern British politics, calling for an immediate halt on all Commonwealth immigration to the United Kingdom. Roundly censured by even his own Conservative Party, he instead found his audience among the British public. Of those polled after his speech, 75% voiced their approval, rapidly propelling himself to the status of Britain’s most popular politician. In the words of the Tory peer Michael Hesseltine, had he chosen to run for the leadership of the Tory Party, he would have won by a landslide; had he run for Prime Minister, he would have won by a “national landslide”. In the decades since, Powell, and the eponymous political ideology that followed him have left an indelible impact upon the politics of the United Kingdom, and the national discourse on immigration in particular.

Considering this, it may very well be asked, what business is it of a Muslim to study the beliefs of a man many British Muslims understandably consider to have been an unapologetic racist? The answer lies in the fact that despite having been a significant presence in the country for over half a century—and having resided within its borders as a minuscule yet fascinating minority for far longer—Muslims have offered disappointingly few analyses of the deep and complex history of British civilization and its philosophical output in light of Islam. As the Western Muslim community continues to evolve from one dominated by immigrant transplants to, for better or for worse, a settled population, it is high time to begin seriously examining these adoptive lands and their cultures in view of the faith. It is in keeping with the Islamic principle of taking the good and leaving the rest, that we explore Powellism through the lens of Islamic political thought, as well as Powell’s personal legacy, and its implications for the future of Islam in the United Kingdom.

Free Markets & Small States

Often when I am kneeling down in church, I think to myself how much we should thank God, the Holy Ghost, for the gift of capitalism”

If there is to be a serious analysis of Powellism, from any perspective, it cannot fail to mention how, some 20 years prior to the rise of Thatcherism, Enoch Powell became the first major British politician to seriously challenge the post-war consensus on the welfare state, standing staunchly in favor of non-interventionism, both in economics and all other affairs of the state. It was with no small degree of consternation that the famed libertarian economist Murray Rothbard remarked that perhaps the greatest voice for free markets within the UK was a High Tory who “believe[d] in the divine right of kings”. Powell himself is often referred to as a libertarian, though he notably rejected the label for himself. Indeed, his ideology shares less in common with the raucous and relentlessly permissive “Tea Party” favored by the American libertarian movement, than it does with the limited conception of the state envisioned in Islam.

The classical khalifah too, resembles less the dreams of today’s Muslim political theorists than it did the minarchist kingdom of 19th century Britain that Powell idealized: a decentralized entity whose influence was rarely felt in day-to-day life, with functions that today seem inseparable from the duties of the state being performed instead by the local community, held together by the bonds of faith and virtue. For as much as organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood claim to rebel against the Western colonialist project, their stale, de-cultured vision seems irreparably influenced by the thoroughly modern institution of the nation-state. In truth, perhaps Hizb ut-Tahrir’s grand dreams of a “global caliphate” are not so much a bold overhauling of the modern world and its fragmented nation-state model, as an attempt to recreate it on a larger scale. In fact, modern “Islamism” may be more troubling than the arbitrary lines in the sand drawn up by French and British colonialists at the turn of the century, because at the very least, those artificial states do not attempt to pervert Islamic institutions. Zakat, that beautiful custom, with its recipients strictly detailed in the Quran becomes a “tax”, the position of the khalifah becomes equivalent to a Presidency, and worst of all, the shariah itself, Allah’s eternal gift to mankind, is deformed beyond all recognition into some kind of invasive and bureaucratic legal code.

While we may not, like Powell, “thank God… for the gift of capitalism” and the voraciously materialist ethos of contemporary economics; the distinctly European notion of the “welfare state,” birthed from the horrors of the Industrial Revolution should, too, give us pause. The Islamic tradition is one such that it ordains self-reliance until the point of desperation, in which even a man reduced to owning nothing but a thin piece of cloth was instructed by none other than the Prophet himself to go out and work. When the great de-regulator himself, Ronald Reagan, cited Ibn Khaldun as an influence on his supply-side economic policies, he was not terribly far from the mark. Similarly, as for the corporal aspects of the shariah, too often the perception of the hudud among many Muslims today leans more Orwellian than Prophetic. Enoch Powell once voted to decriminalize homosexuality, not because he, a devoted Anglican and traditionalist, viewed the act as by any means morally acceptable, but because he did not believe that “it [was] a proper area for the criminal law to operate”. Islam, of course, does ascribe a penalty to illicit sexual acts, as well as all other hudud offenses, but not in the distinctly modern authoritarian style that is sometimes envisioned. The hadith tradition itself notes how Umar ibn al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) turned away from implementing the hadd (established punishment) for alcohol consumption on a clearly guilty man because the information was discovered through spying into his personal dwelling.[1] In the medieval period, far from querying the personal lives of their subjects, sultans weren’t even invested with the authority to investigate whether the salat (ritual prayer) was performed or not. Islam and the surveillance state are clearly not compatible.

Saying Good-Bye to All That

Economics and the small state are one thing, but Powellism and modern Islamic political thought share something far greater, an altogether more profound yet intangible similarity: an attempt to make sense of one’s place in the world following the complete collapse of the social and political order that governed it for centuries. Something more than bullets had echoed off the River Somme; it was a sense of betrayal, of widespread disillusionment throughout a generation concerning everything they had been taught, their very cultural inheritance as a people. The British poet Robert Graves perhaps summed it up better than anyone else with the title of his autobiography, Good-Bye to All That. In 1933, the Oxford Union, that beating heart of the British intelligentsia, passed the motion “This House will under no circumstances fight for its King and country,” on a resounding factor of 275 for to 153 against. British colonists stationed in the Raj at the time reportedly couldn’t believe their ears. Over the course of scarcely a half-century, the Empire collapsed, not through war and internal upheaval as with its former adversaries, but because it simply lost the will to go on. As Ian Smith, Prime Minister of Rhodesia and possibly the last man who truly believed in the primacy of the civilizing mission and “All That,” finally stepped, harangued and enervated by three successive anti-colonial British administrations, into the Lancaster House to accept black majority rule, he must have thought to himself, what happened?

As Muslims, we often ask ourselves the same question. The story of our newfound political impotence is quite different, however. For one, the khilafah was abolished not with a whisper, but with a bang. From the Arabian Peninsula to the Indian Subcontinent, Muslims across the ummah gave their wealth and their lives for the last stand of the Ottoman Empire and what it stood for. More importantly, we have Allah . As the Prophet Muhammad once remarked:

 “There shall be Prophethood among you for as long as Allah wishes it to be among you. Then it shall be lifted up when Allah wishes to lift it up. Then there shall be successorship on the pattern of Prophetship for as long as Allah wishes it to be. Then it shall be lifted up when Allah wishes to lift it up. Then there shall be a trying kingship for as long as Allah wishes it to be. Then it shall be lifted up when Allah wishes to lift it up. Then there shall be a tyrannical kingship for as long as Allah wishes it to be. Then it shall be lifted up when Allah wishes to lift it up. Then there shall be successorship on the pattern of Prophetship.” [2]

Many idle and vacuous words have been spoken detailing, from a hodgepodge of various secular perspectives, the causes of our earthly failure as of late; yet none as compelling as those uttered 1400 years ago. Suffice to say that this is not the end of the story of the people of God’s Final Prophet-but merely a chapter. Like waves of the sea, the times come and go; He remains. In the meantime, we may find it prudent, as we navigate our path, to explore how another civilization coped with its material demise.

So how did the MP from Birmingham himself react to Britain’s slow slump into global obscurity over the course of a century? An ardent imperialist in his youth who mastered Urdu in the hopes of one day becoming Viceroy of India, upon hearing of the relinquishment of the Raj to native hands he underwent a volte-face, becoming a bitter opponent of not merely the creaking hull that remained of the Empire, but any attempt to prolong the political presence and humiliation of the United Kingdom on the global stage. It was Powell alone who saw the absurdity of attempting to transform the empire on which the sun never set into the global peacekeeper on which the sun never set, inevitably as an extension of American soft power, which he perceived to be the true threat to Britain in the modern age. “It is difficult to describe,” he concluded in the aftermath of the Suez catastrophe, “without using terms derived from psychiatry, a notion having so few points of contact with reality.”

In keeping with his staunch non-interventionism, he was a bitter opponent of Britain’s meddling in foreign affairs, including her former colonies in the Middle East. Powellism may not be very nice, as far as the average British Muslim is concerned, but at the very least, it does not result in the Iraq War. Powell’s “inward-looking” philosophy ought to be of some note to Muslim political movements as well.  In the aftermath of the ummah’s decline in political relevance, it seems it has forgotten to shed its global ambitions along with it. Whether it be the various misadventures of Kemalist Turkey’s romps across the Balkans, or the pan-Arabist ambitions of Nasserite Egypt, the misguided perception of Muslims as a global presence worthy of respect did not die out with the Ottomans, but was merely refocused through an altogether more secular lens. In the heated words of an irate Iraqi commentator, “We do not know how to run things, neither in politics nor in technical matters.” The internal diplomacy of the Muslim world is fraught, to say the least. In keeping with their geopolitical impotence, Muslim nations are helpless to aid one another; in keeping with their delusions of grandeur, they thrust themselves forth onto the global stage, often to the detriment of their people. There is scarcely a crime committed against the ummah today that does not have the backing of a Muslim government.

As for the cultural and economic influence that has arisen as a result of 20th century globalization, it could genuinely be argued that they have had a far worse impact on the global health of the ummah than any military defeat within that time. Muslim traditions and practices that survived hundreds of years have been wiped out within decades by a voracious, globalized culture of assuredly American origin. This internationalizing disease, not content with merely evaporating our distinct cultures, has taken direct aim at the practice of our faith. What is ‘Wahhabism’ if not the grand conclusion of the globalist project, the wholesale abandonment of centuries of scholarship in favor of a single monolithic interpretation, arrogantly proclaiming itself the only true path towards Him ? As the Prophet Muhammad said 1400 years ago, “Soon the best property of a Muslim will be a flock of sheep he takes to the top of a mountain, or in the valleys of rainfall, fleeing with his religion from tribulations.” In times such as these, Powell’s “Splendid Isolationism” seems an inspiration.

To be continued. 

Works Cited

  1. https://abuaminaelias.com/dailyhadithonline/2013/01/29/umar-catch-drinking-party-spy/
  2. Narrated from Hudhayfa by Ahmad with a sound chain as stated by al-Zayn in the Musnad (14:163 #18319) and as indicated by al-Haythami (5:188-189).

Photo Credit: Getty Images


About the Author: Luqman Quilliam is a guest contributor. He aspires to one day become a student of shariah. His interests include indigenous British Islamic heritage, statecraft, Islamic economics, and film. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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