What to do with ‘political Islam’

What to do with ‘political Islam’

The term “political Islam” has been a dominant theme in Middle Eastern politics for a couple of decades. With the recent military coup in Egypt, and the political tension in Turkey, it has become, once again, the focus of attention. People ask whether political Islam is dead or triumphant, or moderating itself, or getting more radical.

Finding an answer is not that easy, but here I will share some thoughts. Firstly, “political Islam” is actually a very vague term, and it may correspond to very different realities. This is because the influence of Islam on politics, which is the issue, can take very different forms. The Quran really does not give you a definition of a state, or a blueprint of an ideology, but only political values such as “justice” or “consultation.” How people understand these values and build a political vision on them very much depends on non-religious factors, such as their context and mindset.

Authoritarian minds, for example, build a very authoritarian “political Islam.” When they read in the Quran that good Muslims should regularly pray, they go and establish “religious police” to make sure that people do pray. A liberal Muslim mind, however, would say that praying is his personal duty to God, and none of anybody else’s business. (The Quranic injunction to “command the right and forbid the wrong” can similarly be interpreted in authoritarian or liberal ways, as I show in my book, “Islam without Extremes.”)

The main problem with modern-day political Islam is that it has almost always flourished within political cultures that already happen to be authoritarian. That is why the non-Islamic ideological movements in the same places have been quite authoritarian as well. Just look at the secularists of Turkey, Tunisia or Iran: They all have a history of banning the Islamic headscarf, which makes them the perfect mirror image of the Islamists who impose the headscarf. (Even some of the “liberals” of this part of the world have been authoritarian, just like some of the ones in Cairo’s Tahrir Square who have been cheerfully applauding a bloody military coup.)

The matter, then, is not how to suppress “political Islam,” or forcefully secularize Muslim societies, but how to liberalize the political culture of societies that happen to be Muslim. (Or Russian, Chinese, Burmese - you name it.)

In my view, there are two major ways for this: First, promote the market economy, and thus economic development, which will empower the middle class, which will inevitably become liberal-leaning. This chance is already taking place in Turkey.

Second, help save conservative Muslims from the sense of being besieged. In other words, do not occupy or bomb their countries, or launch military coups against their political parties. Welcome them to the democratic game, and keep the rules fair.

The much-expected “war of ideas” will take place, in a fruitful way, only within a liberalism-friendly context.
Even then, you will still have many problems with hubris, machismo, paranoia, and mere inanity, as is seen in Turkey. But do not forget that such problems exist almost everywhere in the world. And, also, please do not forget that the evolution of “political Christianity” from the tyranny of the Spanish Inquisition to the liberalism of Martin Luther King did not happen overnight.

NOTE: Adam Garfinkle, the editor of The American Interest magazine, to whom I referred to in my latest column, kindly sent a note explaining that he does not support the military coup in Egypt. It was David Brooks, the columnist for the New York Times, who supported the coup by referring to a critique of the Muslim Brotherhood mindset by Garfinkle. I do not want to misrepresent people’s arguments, and apologies to Garfinkle if I have done that to his.