This is an old post and I would probably change some things now (and in fact, will change some things soon once I do a new post) But this was lost when the old Brownpundits crashed and I wanted to recover it. So here it is
Posted on October 7, 2013 by omar
Hussein Ibish has written an article on the decline and (impending?) fall of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Reports of their death may be exaggerated, but surely the “Islamist political party” project is not doing well in most places. Turkey will be cited as an immediate counter-example, but I think AKP just hasn’t had the chance to really become too “Islamic” yet. If and when they do (and pressure to do so is bound to come from within, unless the project falls apart so badly in the middle east that Turkey gets away without trying it), they will find themselves in trouble as well.
The problem (in over-simplified form):
Modern states and modern politics (not just all the complex debates about how power should be exercised, who exercises it, who decides who exercises it, the theories around it; but also the actual institutions and mechanisms that evolved) arose first and foremost in Europe. There are surely things about that evolution that are contingent and could have been different elsewhere, but there are also many very fundamental features of modern life (modern levels of knowledge, modern industry and organization, modern understanding of human biology, psychology, sociology etc) that will still hold no matter where they develop on this planet. This is an extremely dense and imposing edifice. You cannot reject it and be modern in ways most people do seem to want to be modern (I have NEVER met an Islamist who did not want an air-force). Some non-western countries have already managed that knowledge transfer (e.g. Japan, South Korea), others are getting there (China), others hope to get there someday (India?) but Muslims are notable for wanting to get there while remaining medieval in terms of theology, law and politics. And not just at the fringes. Fringes are fringes everywhere. But in the Islamicate world, this dream is mainstream.
Why? maybe because while no serious theory of politics developed in Islamicate religious thought (Ibn Khaldun is not religious literature), some dreams/fantasies of an idealized “Islamic state” were allowed to percolate. The deal was that the ulama would throw this dream around at each other and leave actual ruling to the rulers (who in practice were always and everywhere guided by existing Byzantine, Persian and Central Asian models and by “mirrors for princes” kind of literature, not by the dreamworld of the “rightly guided caliphs”). Every Islamicate empire down to the late Ottomans ruled in the name of Islam, but they did so using institutions and methods that were typically West-Asian/Central-Asian in origin. And then the Europeans took off (literally by 1903 but earlier metaphorically) and that whole world crashed and burned.
And out of this wreckage, somebody dug up the old stories of the rightly guided caliphs; It seems to me that early fantasists (like Allama Iqbal) took it for granted that a lot of this is just propaganda and we all need propaganda, so “ek hi suf mein khaRey ho gaey Mahmood o Ayaz” (a famous verse of Iqbal, describing how Sultan Mahmood and his “slave” Ayaz could pray in one row; the wonders of Islam, that sort of thing) but they fully expected reality to be much closer to London than it was to Medina (witness his approval of the Grand Turkish assembly). To them, it was more like Chinese or Japanese reformers creating their own version of what worked and getting out from under the imperialist thumb. I am sure Iqbal did not expect to be the leading poet of the Pakistani Taliban! But over time, stories frequently repeated can come to be seen as the truth. Islamist parties want to create powerful, modern Islamic states. But the stories they are using are more Islamic than modern. Far more so than the early reformers perhaps realized. The result is that every party is all the time in danger of becoming hostage to those espousing primitive notions of Shariah law and medieval political ideas. It turns out that pretending to have “our own unique genius” was much easier than actually having any genius that could get the job done. Human nature being what it is, the easy path was taken.
A small role was also played by well-meaning Western supporters, who wished to help the “lesser races” out of their misery and raise their “self-esteem”, and piled it on thick. With validation coming from Westerners, some in the Westoxicated Muslim elites had little difficulty believing “our indigenous tradition, our glorious heritage” and so on.
And last but not the least, some of the brightest minds of our generation chose to be ruined by postcolonialism instead of opting for more wholesome pursuits like sex, drugs and rock and roll. Today, the Leftist intelligentsia (otherwise the natural opponents of the Islamist parties) in Muslim countries is so heavily contaminated with Western academic claptrap that some can be found cheering on the Islamists as signs of welcome “resistance to the dominant narrative”. OK, maybe this is not true of Arab countries, I dont know. It seems to be prevalent in a certain Western educated, upper-class Pakistani and Indian context though.
The results do not look pleasant.
PS: On Islamicate empires, my background view:
Islamicate empires (the dominant form of political organization in the middle east and South Asia since the advent of Islam) had a near-total separation religion and state. The empires were run as West Asian empires, mostly (almost totally) an evolution of previous imperial patterns in that region. The religion evolved within these empires, but had practically nothing to say about politics. Religion was part and parcel OF the empires, but religious doctrine provided practically NO guidance to the political process. The political process used religion but was neither derived from it, nor bound by it .
Islamic theology accepted practically ANY ruler as long the rulers were Muslims. An imaginary idealized Islamic state was discussed at times but had little to no connection with actual power politics, contemporary OR past.
Empires governed loosely and interfered little with the everyday religious rituals of the ruled, especially outside the urban core. The rulers were interested in collecting taxes and continuing to rule. Most of the ruled gave as little as possible in taxes and had as little as possible to do with their rulers. This is not a specifically Islamic pattern, but it was almost universal in Islamicate empires.
As a result, Muslim religious literature developed no serious political thought. “mirrors of princes” and pre-Muslim (or not-specifically Muslim) traditions guided actual politics, not some notion of “Islamic state”.
PPS: some misconceptions are coming up repeatedly:
1. That I am referring to ALL muslims. Not so. I am talking about Islamist parties, which are NOT a majority in most Muslim countries, but are mainstream in most. There is also the matter of the Islamist parties getting a certain authenticity cachet in the eyes of Western observers looking for “Muslim representatives” in the multiculturalist universe.
2. That this is about whether the Egyptian military or the Morroccan king are making X or Y correct choice. No, its not about them. Its a broader generalization; the MODE of failure may vary. But failure of the Islamist political project is inevitable…not because there can be no such project in principle, but because the project as it has actually developed in the 20th century is based on the twin illusions of “the ideal Islamic state” and “Islamic political science”…neither of which actually existed in history.