Wednesday, May 31, 2006

An Arab Perspective on Political Islam

The Ongoing Conflict Between Political Islam and the West
By Magdi Khalil

While there is no issue with Islam as a religious belief, political Islam – as much as any political body – was bound to make mistakes. The Muslim Caliphate was the manifestation of that concept in past ages; and it can be identified nowadays in the upsurge of “Global Islamism”.

The offensive cartoon that triggered a violent outburst in the Muslim World, and particularly in the Arab part of that world, raises the question about the true nature of the current happenings: are we dealing with a contrived cultural confrontation or with a dispute that is gradually shaping into another round of the ongoing conflict between the West and Islam?

I personally lean towards the second option, and there are precedents in history to support that opinion. Political Islam and the West are at extreme odds, waves of mutual hostility and animosity can be tracked throughout history, and, we may indeed be witnessing the fifth round in that long, historical conflict.

The First Round: initiated by political Islam via the first Islamic invasions, or what is known in Islam as the “Islamic conquests”. The early Islamic conquests reached the West, threatened Europe and left an obvious mark on Al-Andalus.

The Second Round: Europe set off this round with the crusades; those were launched under religious banners in the same fashion as the first Islamic round, and left the Muslims of the East with extremely bitter memories.

The Third Round: initiated by political Islam through the Ottoman Caliphate that was accompanied by a huge, widespread violent wave, posing a menace to the survival of Europe, and leaving a clear impact spanning from Asia Minor to the Balkans.

The Fourth Round: Europe initiated this one with the European colonization of most of the Muslim World – some countries remained under occupation until the sixties of last century.

Clearly, the two parties have exchanged “blows” throughout history, each side initiating an equal number of rounds, but with different outcomes. Political Islam left behind Muslim entities in the former USSR and in some European states, by forcing the indigenous populations to convert to Islam. The West was – and still is – engaged in helping the Jews realize their historical dream to resurrect their ancient kingdom in the land of Palestine.

It is worth mentioning that there is a difference between Islam as a religious practice, i.e. spiritual rituals, worship, and faith in God and the five pillars – and political Islam, where Islam serves as an ideology with a vision to create a viable political Muslim entity. The Muslim Caliphate was the manifestation of that concept in past ages, and it can be identified nowadays in the upsurge of the concept of “Global Islamism”. The Islamization of all aspects of life is at the heart of this comprehensive concept, and terrorism – the military side of this concept - serves as a reinforcing brutal arm. In other words, in reference to the common argument that Islam is both din wa dawla (religion and state), we need to differentiate between the two aspects; the issue has nothing to do with Islam as a religious belief, and the right of belief is a granted personal right. However the notion of Islam as “a state” addresses the political aspect, and, political Islam – as much as any political body – is bound to make mistakes.

The exclusive religious nature of Islam only lasted for a few years after its emergence; before long, Islam had fused religion and politics, giving birth to what is known as political Islam—a concept that is still in effect in our times. Political Islam, by definition (whether scientific or functional) is an old phenomenon, as ancient as Islam itself, only the labelsl have changed throughout history.

It is also worth noting that from a western perspective, the conflict with political Islam is basically of a political nature, even though it has taken on a religious angle in one particular round. On the other hand, from an Islamic perspective, it is a political / religious conflict, given that Islam has fused both aspects since its early beginnings, as mentioned earlier. This theory is supported by the fact that Eastern Christianity has suffered as a result of foreign attacks in the course of the long historical conflict with political Islam. The crusaders have played a role in weakening Eastern Christianity, and what the crusades did in Constantinople is proof enough. Furthermore, the Eastern Christians have paid – and are still paying – a heavy price, given the intense religious tone of the conflict. As perceived by political Islam, there was no way for Eastern Christians to escape unscathed, and they have become convenient targets of the hostility and rage permeating their world.

The Fifth Round: Political Islam took a turn in initiating another round, and the events of 9/11 marked the beginning of a deliberately planned round of assaults. The only difference this time around is that rather than a “Muslim Caliphate” state to carry out the assault, “Global Islamism” took that job. As mentioned earlier, “Global Islamism” is a comprehensive concept, and terrorism – planned or unplanned – represents the aggressive wing of this wide-ranging scheme. In the days of the Muslim Caliphate, there was a central state in charge of the military aspects of political Islam, and nowadays, in the absence of that state, terrorism has taken on the military role (of course, the concept of Global Islamism extends far beyond mere terrorism).

There are no designated leadership quarters for Global Islamism, but there are several quarters for the purposes of recruitment and spreading the word, and Saudi Arabia comes on top of those, followed by Egypt and Pakistan. Around the globe, millions of Muslims are sitting on the sidelines, watching the unfolding events from a distance, as this round of assaults was initiated by extremists only and not by all Muslims. Some in the West have estimated those extremists to represent around 10-15% of the total population of the Muslim world, which roughly equals 130-200 million fanatics. Islamic extremism is unfortunately gaining more ground as days go by, a fact that does not bode well for the future, hinting at the possibility of an extensive confrontation and of a shift from a cold war status to a an all-out battle.

Conspicuously, the cycles of violence instigated by political Islam – whether through the Muslim Caliphate, the Ottoman Caliphate or international terrorism – are of a global nature, hitting East and West, sparing no one, while the western attacks mostly tend to target the East and the countries of the Third World.

So, which of the Muslim states can stake a claim for the leadership of the Muslim world?

There are three types of leadership:
First, political and military leadership: it is obvious that none of the Muslim states qualify for this type of leadership, for many reasons. It is also a given that the West would not allow such a state to emerge and bring back the Muslim Caliphate; the West has no wish to revisit that period, or to be haunted once more by the phantoms of the Islamic invasions that have threatened Europe more than once.

Second: an intellectual leadership capable of offering a compelling extremist ideology that would draw and mobilize fanatics. Several states are walking that path, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan are at the top of that list.

Third: The model of Islamic reform: simply put, this implies following the example of Judaism and Christianity in making a complete separation between religion and state. So far, not a single state has dared to put this model forth, as the great majority firmly believes in an Islam that fuses “religion and state”. The Turkish model is an exceptional case, that can neither be generalized nor copied, not to mention that it has been gradually losing ground, and showing clear signs of instability and turmoil.

Possible Future Scenarios

The First Scenario: suggested by Bernard Lewis – a historian and prominent expert on the Ottoman Caliphate– in a book that was written prior to the events of 9/11, and published afterwards. In the book entitled What Went Wrong? he mentioned that the Muslim civilization has declined, and the Muslim world was crumbling under the weight of ignorance, poverty and regression. “Islam cannot (“cannot” is one word) flourish without conquests”, he clearly stated, which means that a substantial Muslim political structure cannot exist in the absence of Muslim Caliphate.

The Second Scenario: A resurgence of a Muslim Caliphate, in a different form, the dream that Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri have long harbored, and thought to accomplish through terrorism, and by taking control over a state that will serve as a launching point for the new Muslim Caliphate. They were hoping to start with Afghanistan, then move on to Saudi Arabia, overthrow the regime, and establish a base for the Caliphate, but their dream faded after Afghanistan was hit. Prior to that, Hassan Al-Turabi, who was based in Sudan, tried and failed to revive the Islamic Nationalism “al-Umamiah al-Islamiya”. Others took a step-by-step approach to revive the Muslim Caliphate, resorting first to political means, and planning to shift into a military mode once they are in power. The Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt stands out as passionate advocates of that approach, as confirmed by a statement of the late supreme guide of the movement – Mr. Mustafa Mashour “we will not give up (the goal) of restoring the Muslim Caliphate”. (Asharq Al-Awsat, 9 Aug. 2002). I personally think that these attempts are destined to fail.

The Third Scenario: suggested by Samuel Huntington in “The Clash of Civilizations”, where he wrote “in the end, Mohammed will triumph” – meaning that the Prophet of Islam will have his victory owing to the Muslim world’s rapid population growth, and the way Islam is spreading and the Muslim cells are multiplying, threatening to enfold the world within their clasp.

The Fourth Scenario: it was suggested in the aftermath of the events of 9/11 that this is the final round of the battle between political Islam and the West, which will result in “the collapse of the Muslim World.” This scenario suggests that political Islam will be entirely defeated in a matter of a few decades, because terrorism will have taken the lead in this round, at a time when the Muslim world was at its weakest. That might explain why some people have commented that the Muslim world is actually facing the most dangerous crisis in its long history.

Magdi Khalil is a political analyst, researcher, author and executive editor of the Egyptian weekly Watani International. He is also a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, London, a free-lance writer for several Arabic language newspapers, and a frequent contributor to Middle East broadcast news TV. Mr. Khalil has also published three books and written numerous research papers on citizenship rights, civil society, and the situation of minorities in the Middle East. E-mail: