Political vs Politicised

Salam ‘aleikum Asim Siddiqui, I agree with you completely:

The Islamic movements dominated Muslim political discourse in the 20th century. Political models coming from the west, such as representative democracy and accountable governments, were at best seen as tools to achieve an Islamic theocracy or at worst dismissed as unIslamic. Meanwhile monarchies, dictatorships and tyranny were able to thrive in the name of Islam. Much of the last 100 years has been spent politicising Islam rather than working for a just polity: the rule of law, equal citizenship and democratically accountable governments. The 21st century will see Islamist ideas dismantled by Muslims and western political models incorporated. Parallel to this, however, will be the Muslim challenge to present ideas emanating from the west as not un-Islamic but rather universal - a job in the past made difficult by colonialism and now by the west’s “war on terror”.

One of the reasons why ‘Islamist’ political parties are being resoundly rejected in the few Muslim-majority nations where the democratic experiment has been allowed to flower is because voters have learnt:

  • Religion alone (and Islam as the case in point) is not equipped to build a stable, liberal, pluralist society.
  • Hard-won human (and in particular gender) rights are more likely to turn to toast in the hands of Islamist parties than by secular ones.

In response, Inayat Bunglawala points out that ‘Islamism’ is at the very heart of Islam.

But my main point is about this word ‘Islamist’. What do you take it to mean and can you let us know whether you believe the Prophet Muhammad was an ‘Islamist’. After all, he was a statesman as well as a religious leader, he negotiated peace treaties and conducted wars. He established a state based on Islamic laws. Did he ‘politicise Islam’ or was Islam from the outset political?

Asim’s response:

Thanks for your comments. The only real criticism so far has come from Inayat, bless. Our Beloved Prophet was both a temporal political leader and a recipient of revelation. There were numerous occasions when he would be asked by his companions if an opinion he had was from revelation or from his own judgement - where it was the latter the companions would be free (and did) to challenge him and suggest alternatives. There were also occasions when ‘political’ decisions were made guided by revelation.

However, revelation ended with him. No subsequent leader can claim divine guidance or an insight into God’s mind on any political decision they make. Hence, my point is that all leaders must be accountable to the people, not claim they are accountable to God (which in reality means accountability to no one and allows them to get away with murder, literally).

It is the conflating of the two roles the Prophet held simultaneously that has so adeptly been manipulated by many Islamists to pursue their own political agendas. My definition of an Islamist is anyone who seeks political power to impose their interpretation of Islam on others.

What’s yours, dear?

And later:

Inayat - the Prophet was involved in politics, I have already said that. However that does not make Islam a “political faith”. We must not conflate the two roles he had (as I said earlier). Surely you can see the dangers in doing so? You don’t need to be a Muslim to seek social justice - I’m sure you will agree? Many of the most humanitarian people are non-Muslim. Islam is a religion (like any other) which has a set of moral guidelines that urges believers to do good works - but its up to the believer how s/he goes about doing that. In my view, the role of ulema (Muslim scholars) is to act as the moral conscience of society, i.e. a modern day pressure group. Their role is not to vet/approve legislation - otherwise they would be above the law and accountable to no one. Do you see where this is going? Inayat, seriously bro, you do not want to live in an Islamist-run ‘Islamic state’. For us it’s academic living happily in the secular west, for others it’s a matter of life and death. So just chill out on the Islamism and promote some love.

This exchange on the role of politics in Islam highlights the two contrasting dynamics at the heart of Muslim discourse today. Whether Islam is a political religion or whether it is a religion that has been hijacked by ‘Islamist’ geo-politics is a debate that has been raging in Muslim-majority nations since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Muslims who want to see the growth of stable, pluralist states tend to gravitate to Siddiqui’s corner; the evangelists of the Islamic state to Bunglawala’s. Western Islamists enjoy life in liberal democracies while sermonising about the political benefits of the Islamic state modelled on an abstract Muslim country based on arbitrary interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunnah. Their ideas are patently unrealistic and unworkable. Other terms like ‘fantasists’, ‘utopian’ and even ’sentimental’ figure in there too. If on the other hand you see sense in Bunglawala’s ideas, your mileage may vary.

But the fact remains that Muslims who have tasted democratic process after decades of totalitarian dictatorships of one form or another have voted with their feet to keep religion out of politics. No wonder there is no room for democracy in an Islamist state.

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