Muslim attitudes to power are like everything else about the contemporary ummah: complex; contradictory and chaotic. Everywhere power is the lodestone sought with passionate intensity yet everywhere it is as elusive as the legendary alchemical element. When any portion of its rare and delicate properties is grasped, the golden elixir inevitably melts to dust. Power will not stay still in Muslim hands and never delivers its yearned for promise. Yet, power is seen and conceived as the answer to all the ills of the Muslim world.
But let us be fair. It is not just in the ummah that power, and those with power, have gone mad. The whole damn world is complex, contradictory and chaotic. It is the spirit of our time, the postnormal condition, where everything seems to be sliding out of control and very little actually makes sense. A point well made by the English film maker, Adam Curtis. His famous documentary, ‘The Power of Nightmares’, drew parallels between the rise of Islamist extremists and the emergence of Neoconservatives in the US and argued that both needed the myth of a dangerous enemy to sustain their power base. In his short film, reflecting on the events of 2014, Curtis declares that ‘so much of the news this year has been hopeless, depressing, and above all confusing’. To explain what is happening, Curtis begins with Vladislav Surkov, an advisor to President Vladimir Putin. Surkov, Curtis suggests, has imported ‘ideas from conceptual art into the very heart of politics’ with the intention of undermining ‘people’s perception of the world so they never know what has really happened’. Surkov sponsored all kinds of groups, Neonazi skinheads as well as liberal human rights campaigners, including parties opposed to Putin, to create ‘a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is indefinable’. The strategy was also used in the invasion of Ukraine to produce a ‘non-linear war’, where you never know who the enemy are let alone what they are up to – ‘not to win the war but to use the war to create a constant state of destabilised perception in order to manage and control’. Curtis then goes on to suggest:
Maybe we have something similar emerging here in Britain. Everything we are told by journalists and politicians is confusing and contradictory. .. there is an odd non-linear world that plays into the hands of those in power. British troops have come home from Afghanistan. No one seems to know whether it was a victory or a defeat. Aging disc-jockeys are prosecuted for crimes they have committed decades ago while practically no one in the City of London is prosecuted for the endless financial crimes that are being revealed there. In Syria we are told that President Asad is the evil enemy but then his enemies turn out to be even more evil than him. So we bomb them, and by doing that we help keep Asad in power.
But the real epicentre of this non-linear world is the economy. And the closest we have to our own shape-shifting, postmodern politician is George Osborne. He tells us proudly that the economy is growing but at the same time wages are going down. He says that he is cutting the deficit but then it is revealed the deficit is going up. The dark heart of this shape-shifting world is quantitative easing. The government is insisting in taking billions of pounds out of the economy through its austerity programme yet at the same time it is pumping billions of pounds back into the economy through quantitative easing. The equivalent of £24,000 for every family in Britain. But it gets even more confusing, because the Bank of England has admitted that those billions of pounds have not gone where they are supposed to. A vast amount of the money has actually found its way into the hands of the wealthiest five per cent of Britons. It has been described as the biggest transfer of wealth to the rich in recent documented history. It could be a huge scandal comparable to the greedy oligarchs in Russia. A ruthless elite siphoning off billions of public money. But nobody seems to know – it sums up the mood of our times, when nothing seems to make any coherent sense.
The world is indeed becoming contradictory and confusing, full of uncertainty. What Curtis says about Britain is equally true of other countries. The US is never tired of espousing the rhetoric of ‘democracy and human rights’ yet, as the Senate Committee report on CIA torture reveals, the bastion of freedom engages in ‘gruesome and widespread’ torture. The ‘security’ of the US is absolute; but the security of other states is irrelevant. In the quest for its own ‘security’, the most weaponised country in the world, has made Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan the most insecure states in the world. The second most weaponised state in the world, Israel, feels constantly threatened by totally powerless people, the Palestinians, who are imprisoned in a territory it controls. US multinationals build efficient and sophisticated infrastructures and networks that lock other countries in long-term dependencies in collusion with the government, yet claim to be independent – even occasionally taking their own government to court. Democracy is projected as an essential ingredient for economic prosperity, yet the most successful economies of the last decade – China, Russia, Singapore, Qatar, Saudi Arabia – are unburdened by democracy. India, the biggest democracy in the world, touted as an emerging superpower, is in danger of turning into a ‘Hindu State’. Violent Hindu extremists belonging to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, given a boost by the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are forcing Christians and Muslims to convert. Their ‘home coming’ campaign has been used to engineer conversions on a mass scale; and they plan to ‘finish’ Christianity and Islam in India by 2021. Contradictions are deeply intrinsic to capitalism, which ‘has become too complex, too interconnected, too contradictory, too steeped in deep uncertainty and ignorance to be anything else but chaotic’ – yet, it is still defended and projected as the panacea for a global system perpetually in crisis.
While Vladislav Surkov may have made his little contribution to the state of affairs, the blame for creating a ‘non-linear’ world cannot be laid on his door, as Curtis seems to suggest. While there may be spectacle and illusion there is nothing postmodern either. Postmodernism is as dead as the dodo.
The contemporary times are best characterised as postnormal, where what we conventionally accepted as normal is rapidly evaporating. It is a product of accelerating change in a highly complex, networked, globalised world where old, conventional orthodoxies are dying, and new ones have yet to be born. It is a period ‘where facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent’. As Curtis rightly points out, ‘a constant vaudeville of contradictory stories’ makes individuals and communities feel ‘powerless, unable to challenge anything because we live in a state of confusion and uncertainty’.
Like much else in postnormal times, power is in a state of flux. It is shifting from the West to the East, from presidential palaces to public squares, from the states to colossal corporations and non-state actors, from men to women. Wealth and power can move at great speed and can be accumulated by individuals and corporations almost overnight. Today’s start-up can become tomorrow’s multi-billion corporation. A street demo can go chaotic and bring down a government. But while shifts in power can lead to toppling tyrants, and dislodge monopolies, it can also, as Moises Naim demonstrates in The End of Power, cause chaos and paralysis. Power has become simultaneously omnipresent and cynical as well as illusive. And there is little or no accountability.
In postnormal times the venality of the enemy, real and imaginary, justifies all. Even failed leaders get to be rhetorically prescient and aphoristically correct in seeing political power as emanating from the barrel of a gun; and brutality rules okay. Of course, it is not okay – but despite all the lip service given to the moral high ground, upholding ethical standards of behaviour and remaining true to enduring values of civilisation, the potent power of fear makes us all equally compromised. We are merely standard bearers for keeping ourselves secure by whatever means possible in a frighteningly precarious world.
The contemporary chaotic, complex and contradictory nature of the ummah should be seen in this context. Muslims do not exist in isolation from the rest of the world – even though some think they do. But the chaos that predominates as the condition of the ummah has a particular character. The majority of the world’s refugees are from Muslim states fleeing conflicts fuelled by sectarian strife, ethnic antipathies, political dissent or the brutal grip of authoritarian oppression. There are wars and rumours of war that spread dearth and blight the lives and aspirations of entire societies. There are places where the curse of war passes down the generations who know nothing but its unending misery. Elsewhere there are discontents milling beneath the veneer of calm. There is the scourge of poverty and underdevelopment encouraged by debt swelling around islands of excess where wealth is poured into ostentatious projects designed to aggrandise those in power. Money circulates to bolster the grip of ideological power, to boost blocks of continuing antipathy, and fuel future antagonisms. And everywhere in Muslim majority countries and among Muslim minorities west, east, north or south there is a yearning for the power to create order, to regain balance, to establish the deen, the way of being of Islam. This desire sees Islam itself as the foundation of power – the engine of harmony, the source of command over the vicissitudes of life, the ideology that puts everything in its proper place, and, once again, returns worldly power in the hands of Muslims. But the desire for order is not solely benign; it has taken brutal life that does not shrink from mayhem and murder to become sheer depravity and brazen barbarism that seeks to legitimise itself in the name of Islam while visiting its indiscriminate vengeance most liberally, though far from exclusively, on Muslim victims. Hardly surprising then, that nowhere is there agreement on how power is to be accessed and actualised. The path to power is everywhere complex and contradictory because all meanings and means of power are themselves in dispute – hence the chaos.
Chaos, however, is no straight forward matter. The conventional understanding of the term as total confusion or disorder well expresses the feelings evoked in the generality of participants in and observers of the Muslim scene. However, these feelings are not the subject of chaos theory which more fully enables us to consider the predicament that confronts the world today. Chaos theory deals with the problems of predictability in complex systems and has a great deal to do with the limitations of our understanding of what constitute set patterns and how they work. Chaos theory seeks to comprehend how complex systems respond to minute differences in initial conditions which never repeat and vastly affect the outcome. Complex systems are complex because of the multitudinous interactions of which they are composed all of which are in continuous motion – nothing stands still. Yet what the world is waiting for and wants is a stable platform, a regular, predictable, knowable Muslim world, the reliable partner kind of Muslim World that does the expected kind of things. The trouble is such coherent agreed definitions neither exist nor are sufficiently widely accepted across the increasing diversity of Muslims societies. The standard Muslim responses of self-definition are, in reality, encrusted within and without by varied traditions and their accompanying myths, legends and flights of fancy. The most basic requirement in approaching chaos is acquiring some grasp on what constitutes reality. Muslim reality is a conundrum appearing through the lens of apologia, nostalgia, romanticism, hagiography, as well as the extensive library of Orientalism and Islamophonbia according to one’s origin, interest, affectation or predilection. Muslim reality is out there somewhere, largely beyond the major conventions through which it is perceived and discussed by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Chaos is not fashioned from nothing; it arises from complexity and complexity is the legacy of history, the inexorable accretion of events and ideas. History is that most human of endeavours, a game of whispers fashioned from diverse ways of communicating and remembering things past, that shapes attitudes and actions in the present and visions of the future. Muslims like people everywhere live among the wreckage with the weight of history bearing upon them. More and more it is the way Muslims rummage through the debris of their diverse histories that define the complexity of their differences and construct factions, tendencies, groupings and persuasions. History has become the most contentious issue where Muslims are concerned, none more so than how they should understand and operate the history of the origin of Islam itself. History provides an almost infinite variety of initial conditions from which the construction of contemporary Muslim identity, persona, aspiration and action is inspired. In today’s ummah, history is power, the presumed power of authenticity, a power sought after, jealously guarded and not infrequently wielded with malign intent to harvest ever more potent power.
The relationship of Muslims to their history has two inescapable aspects. The most basic definition of a Muslim is one who believes in the revelation of Truth in history: that of Truth is contained in the Qur’an and exemplified in the life of the recipient of revelation, the Prophet Muhammad. Secondly, the history of Muslim civilisation charts the immediate accession to worldly power by the first generation who gave allegiance to the Qur’anic revelation. History records the spread of empire and influence by their succeeding generations: the ideal phase of the ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’, the ‘Golden Age’ of the Abbasids, the mighty power of the Ottoman Empire. Then, we have the inexorable falling off from power as Muslims gradually relinquished control over their destiny. After their glorious rise, Muslims everywhere lose the knack of worldly success. These two aspects of history intrinsically shape Muslim ideas about the relationship of identity and power.
Consider, for example, the recent surge of neo-Ottoman nostalgia in Turkey. The main stalwarts of the Islamist party that rules Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, both suffer, to use the words of Mohamed Bakari, ‘from delusions of grandeur which stems from nostalgia for the Ottoman past’. Erdoğan started as a pragmatic Mayor of Istanbul. But that pragmatism evaporated with successive terms as Prime Minister, after which he, following in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin, installed himself as President with real power. One can look at his attempts to revive Ottoman culture and heritage with favour but the restoration of status-obsessed political Pasha culture is another matter. It has led to the obscene $615 million Presidential Palace outside Ankara, thirty time larger than the White House, complete with one thousand rooms. The Ottoman Empire, Barnaby Rogerson notes, ‘is a human edifice to be desperately proud of if you are Turkish’ but its spiritual and moral foundations were rather dubious. ‘The Ottoman Empire was a conquest state pure and simple’, writes Rogerson, ‘based on the very successful military formula of balancing the élan of Turkish tribal cavalry from Central Asia with a salaried army of professional engineers, musketeers and artillerymen recruited by enslaving the boys of the Christian minorities’. It had ‘no historical links real or imagined’ with the Prophet Muhammad or his teachings.
Was the success of Muslim Empires the product of a direct correlation between belief and power? Is political power, governance over populations, irrespective of their race, creed, colour, language, ethnicity or communal history, the proper and necessary concomitant of true belief? For the Islamists of various ilks the answer is clear and precise. Power belongs to those who are pure and true believers; and everything can be justified to gain and maintain power, no matter how horrendous. This is not just the creed of the psychotic followers of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who glory in beheading innocent people, or the Taliban, who massacre innocent school children, or Boko Haram, who kidnap school girls and sell them into slavery – it is the basic dogma of all puritans. This is how the Saudis justify their rule and power and the Iranian Ayatollahs rationalise their theocracy. It has been the mantra of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan, the two movements that, according to Abdelwahab El-Affendi, have cornered the ‘Islamism’ market. All Islamists, Sunni or Shia, Salafi or Wahhabi, Brotherhood or Jamaat, have a ‘rigid and non-flexible agenda’, based on True Belief, that ‘leaves no room for dialogue, let alone negotiations of any kind’, notes Najah Kadhim. What this means is spelled out by El-Affendi: ‘in the age of ISIL and similar mega-terror groups, the lines between violent dysfunctional and non-violent varieties of Islamism get blurred. The Brotherhood wants to re-establish the caliphate, but never gets there. ISIL does establish the caliphate, but its success appears worse than the Brotherhood’s failure’.
But what is this Caliphate that these puritans seek? ‘The whole mesmerizing edifice of the Caliphate, that world-wide medieval super-power of yore’, writes Rogerson, ‘is one of the most potent dreams for anyone interested in a revival of Muslim culture. It is also the oldest curse, the most persistent heresy’. Rogerson takes us through the Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman Caliphates to show that there was nothing there but imperial power. Even during the period of the Right Guided Caliphs – ‘a time of true heroes, when sovereign rulers cared for the poor, orphans and widows of the community as much as they directed the affairs of the state. When they shopped for their own households in the market place, darned their own clothes, led the prayers and theological discussions, fasted the hardest during the month of Ramadan, led the prayers as Imam and could chant the whole (yet unwritten Qur’an) through the night, and remember the traditions better than any scholar’ – there was, Rogerson finds, no Caliphate as such. Indeed, he warns that ‘we must begin to detach these rulers from the bloody soaked human glory of the imperial conquests of the Arab Caliphate’.
Indeed, it is ‘comically absurd to think’ that the Prophet Mohammad ‘was interested in systems of government, the title and powers of rulers, their governors, judges and administrators’. ‘There was no Empire, no Caliphate declared or dreamt about during his lifetime’. The whole notion of the Caliphate is a manufactured pipe dream.
But the Caliphate is not the only grand illusion in the pantheon of the ummah. There is also the Sharia. The idea that Islam is law is the greatest shibboleth whose pervasive grip has drained Muslim societies of their humanity. Every evil known to humankind can be, and often is, committed in the name of the Sharia. The quest for the power of purity invariable resolves itself into the notion that what Muslim society everywhere is lacking is Sharia and the thing that alone will usher in pure Muslim existence is the institution of this legal code as the ground plan for the entirety of political, social and economic life. The great question is what is Sharia? The shorthand answer is always that Sharia is ‘God’s law’ with the implication that it is fixed, known, invariant and hence vital to Muslims’ existence. Yet, any basic introductory guide to Islam, the kind of booklet one would give to a youngster, would state that Sharia is derived from Qur’an and Sunnah. They are also likely to be introduced to four key principles by which this law works: ijma, consensus of the learned; qiyas, reasoning from analogy; ijtihad, independent judicial reasoning; and adab, customary practice which is deemed not to contradict anything contained in the primary sources. All of which should, yet somehow fails, to draw attention to the salient point that Sharia exists only as a human construction. This way of making law – with its accretion of power to religious elite, outmoded logic, and incorporation of tribal norms and customs – was developed and established by great jurisprudents of yore, whose names are blithely appropriated to ‘schools of law’ though their constructive function in this process is overlooked. The human reasoning that went into the process and the attention given to fashioning reasonable rules and regulation to take account of context and circumstance also become incidental items of forgetfulness. The word Sharia itself implies an active path, a way to a watering hole. Thus by all tests Sharia is unequivocally the work of human interpretation seeking God’s pleasure. Since no human being can in honesty be certain of attaining the mind of God, Sharia can only be a human approximation and never can be fixed in time. Yet when Muslims clamour for the power of purity they clamour not for the responsibility of shaping Qur’anic principle and the example of the Prophet to order society today in light of contemporary circumstances but rather to impose a human construct, a set of laws made as best they could manage to serve other times, other places and other problems. When they speak of Sharia most Muslims actually mean fiqh, the body of jurisprudence fashioned to serve the ethic of empire, full of the accretions of imperial times.
Sharia does not descent ready-made from Heaven. It is has to be made and remade by humans, through continuous effort and intellectual rigour, in every epoch according to the circumstances and certain principles (maqasids). Far from being an outmoded romantic notion that takes us back to distant mythical history, it should be a pragmatic answer to the demands of a changing world that takes us forward to a feasible future. Or, as Malise Ruthven put it, citing the scholar of Islamic law, Wael Hallaq, Sharia constitutes ‘a colossal project of building a moral-legal empire whose foundational and structural impulse is summed up in the ever continuing attempt to discover God’s will.’ The project entails ‘dialectic between the sociological and the metaphysical, between the Community as a worldly society and its persistent attempts to locate itself in a particular moral cosmology’. It is an on-going realist effort focussed on the real world that in history ‘was always placed in a metaphysical context, just as this metaphysics was constantly teased out in the realism of mundane existence’. Moreover, historically the Sharia’s moral and ethical imperatives had nothing to do with the State – they operated outside the confines of political power. Those who equate the Sharia with the State are in fact totalitarians. Their claim that ‘sovereignty belongs to God’ is actually a claim that they are the representatives of God on earth.
The history that is used to justify puritan ideologies is essentially romantic hagiography. Even the life the Prophet is presented as idealised stories lacking human weakness, and thus devoid of humanity. But as Rogerson shows, the Prophet led a community where discussion, different viewpoints and disobedience were common. His contemporaries saw him as ‘both fallible about the affairs of this world, whilst at one at the same time being revered beyond all men as the mouthpiece of the divine’.
Indeed, ‘there never has been a golden period of hallowed political obedience in Islam, not then, not now’. The idealised norms that we are presented with, Kecia Ali points out, diverge from earlier norms in striking and unrecognised ways. For example, the widely accepted notion that power in a household belongs to the man, who are breadwinners and head of the family, actually rewrites the past. Ali examines the relationship between Muhammad and Khadija, his first wife, which is conventionally presented as an ideal monogamous marriage. Yet, as she notes, ‘this emphasis on Muhammad and Khadija’s marriage diverges sharply from premodern Muslim accounts of his life’. While ‘Khadija played a pivotal role at key moments in Muhammad’s life, she was absent from the bulk of the material transmitted about him. His public leadership of the community in Medina transpired after her death, and so relatively little of the hadith corpus concerns her. To read certain books about Muhammad’s life, one would think Khadija was his only wife’. Ali argues that ‘the triumphalist narrative of Muhammad’s egalitarian marriage to Khadija’, inadvertently strengthens ‘a model of male/female coupling and nuclear family life that excludes those who are single by choice, couples who cannot or do not have children, and especially gay people from its vision of the good family’. To redress the balance of power we have to retell ‘the stories about our sacred figures’ anew.
Hagiography of first generation Muslims obscures the undeniable fact that their ranks were riven with dissent and burgeoned into bloody civil wars. Diversity of interpretation among the first generations of Muslims produced fundamentalist literalists who while proclaiming God alone should decide on matters that governed the fate of the Muslim community nevertheless excelled in denouncing all who disagreed with them as infidels (kafirs) whose blood could be shed legitimately. The bloodletting self-appointed Islamic warriors of today have ample historic precursors from whom they draw their horrific inspiration. And such groups of religious maniacs have re-emerged down the centuries. Muslims cannot glibly rest content by saying this is not Islam, which means peace. They cannot complacently answer that these aberrations have been settled in history, militarily defeated, and intellectually denounced by great scholars long dead. The challenge posed by fanatics recurs in every epoch; and has to be tackled by every generation – before the fanatics persuade young men and women to think they are warriors of Islam purifying the world by creating charnel houses.
The problems with history thus reach back to the original formation of everything Muslims take to be religion and their religious identity. History as tradition encrusts how Muslim religious discourse is structured. Tradition as instituted over time has become a source of power and authority which now regulates and constrains Muslim debate. Muslims seek power by deferring to tradition without questioning what tradition has become, or inquiring into the competence of the bastions of tradition – the religious scholars. In the complex networked world, most Muslims are content to hand their children to obscurantists Mullahs to ‘teach them the Qur’an’, leaving them without the faculties of interpretative reasoning. The masses are happy to bow down to the sole authority of traditional scholars who have become the clerical professionals Islam is supposed not to possess. Authority and power is invested in a ‘scholarship’ which is ultra-conservative and preservative, agile on the head of numerous pins, ever ready to offer an answer even to the most stupid questions rather than genuinely educate the masses to accept individual responsibility for the moral and ethical choices they have to make in their daily lives. Nostalgia for an imagined prefect history of perfect men who made perfect decisions during the formative phase of Islam makes Muslims compliant sheep following religion as a series of dos and don’ts. Or in contradictory mode it generates schizophrenic believers who exist in bifurcated worlds, of religion and normality, that are uneasy companions constantly giving birth to unresolved insoluble questions.
Idealised stories and history are the main instruments through which Islam is turned into an ideology. It all amounts to a desperate attempt to define what is essential, what has been lost, what must be implemented to regain the lost levers of power which generate and guarantee self-determination and genuine authenticity – so that Muslims can resume wielding earthly power once again. Power, control over things has somehow become an essential proof of right belief, a prerequisite of marching on to power. The best illustration of how Islam has been used as an ideology of power is provided by Pakistan, a state created in the name of Islam. The various factions, from the Jammat-e-Islami to the Taliban, fighting for their puritan versions of Islam in Pakistan is a spectacle that is as astounding as it is sinister. But the true defender of Pakistan’s ideology is the military, which has carefully crafted its Islamic image. The military, writes Hussain Ahmed, is ‘the ultimate patriarch, the symbol of Pakistani masculinity, the most-sadiq (truthful) and most-ameen (trustworthy) – traits traditionally used to describe Prophet Muhammad’. Without the army, it is argued, both Pakistan and Islam are doomed. ‘Therefore as guardians of the state, the army must be permitted to act as it deems fit so that both physical and ideological boundaries are protected’. As a result, the military’s dominance and control of society, economy and politics is absolute – ‘and it defends its hegemony through a combination of real and imagined power’.
But it is not just Pakistan’s military that behaves in this manner. The military’s dominance over politics and society is pretty evident in most Muslim countries – from Egypt to Indonesia. Far from being the defenders of the state, the military is often the biggest hurdle to progress and progressive thought. What Pakistan illustrates is that when Islam becomes an ideology acutely preoccupied with power it turns easily to totalitarian ruthlessness and brutality involving all segments of society. As Ahmad points out, military dominance is coupled with ‘colluding elite, naked profiteering’ and ‘a blissfully ignorant young middle-class’. It is a reality, Ahmad concludes chillingly, that has been ‘carved indigenously and terrifyingly’, in the name of Islam, ‘through a willing acquiescence of the citizenry’.
The citizens are totally baffled by our chaotic, complex, and interconnected world. They exist within a framework that is simple, unitary and uniform: God is One, all Muslims are a single community distinct from all others, Islam is a total way of life which covers all aspects of existence. How then to come to terms with proliferating diversity? How do sectarian divisions come to mean so much? Why are Muslim societies so diverse in their cultures and ways of being? Where is the uniformity that should surely characterise everything from how to trim a beard to how women should or should not be covered and hidden from public gaze? How should they react to the ideologues who promise earthly order through instituting Islam as power? How do Muslims debate what are presented as inflexible certainties, enduring traditions that are the only basis for establishing the autonomous independence of being they are told should be theirs by birth right? The conundrum of a pious personal life is that it cannot cope with complexity – the hallmark of contemporary existence.
Consider, for example, the issues of governing a nation state. As the Muslim Brotherhood discovered in Egypt, the modern state is a formidably complex entity. Those in power have to deal with different vested interests some of which may be armed, an all-powerful army, entrenched institutional frameworks, unruly judiciary, an economy that may not be in good health, a health system that may be falling apart, an international system that may place its own demands, and a citizenry with a long string of grievances. It is not just a question of many different and diverse parts, but how these parts interact to produce a complex nation state. The complexity is well illustrated by Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Bosnian government, Sejad Mekic tells us, ‘is a three-headed hydra, with a presidency that consists of representatives from three “constituent peoples”: Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), Croats and Serbs. The Dayton Peace Agreement, signed on 14 December 1995, divided the country into two mini-states: the Serb Republic and the Bosniak-Croat Federation. The two semi-autonomous entities are united under a parliament and three-member presidency. Despite the efforts to build up the powers of the central state, both entities are still highly autonomous, with separate political, police and financial structures’. Governing a complex structure of this nature itself requires a complex controlling mechanism – not an easy task. Indeed, this is why even matured and established democracies, such as Britain and France, are finding it difficult to cope with the complexity of governing a modern state. As the rate of change accelerates, the issues of governance will become even more complex.
Of course, one way to deal with complexity and diversity is simply to suppress it – and store up even more complex and wicked problems for the future. A benign way of looking at the dominance of military in politics and the emergence of Islamist authoritarianism in the Muslim world would be to see it as a mechanism of avoiding complexity. Nazry Bahrawi highlights another device: using Islam to construct racialism, which makes races into foundations of Islamic and political identities. Thus, to be Malay in Malaysia is by definition to be a Muslim (of a specific type), which in turn means you subscribe to the political concept of ketuanan Melayu, or Malay supremacy. In Brunei the formula is ‘Melayu, Islam, Beraja’, which translates as ‘Malay, Islam, Monarchy’ – by being Malay and Muslim you automatically pledge allegiance to an obnoxious and absolutist monarchy. A similar pattern has emerged in the Gulf, as Hassan Mahamdallie points out in his review of Miriam Cooke’s fascinating book, Tribal Modern. Here the blood purity of a tribe, rigorously policed, determines the purity of your faith and your righteous claim to power. But no matter what sinister mechanism you use to suppress diversity, what instruments you use to banish complexity, they are not going to go away. They are here to stay; and set to increase rapidly.
Uniformity, let alone unity any sense of the concept of the ummah might imply, is a palpable fiction, a cruel and cynical lie. Muslims are divided by language and history derived from their colonisation as much as colonialism divides them from and distorts their relationship to history. Modernity confounds Muslim societies because it appears invariably in the guise of westernisation and becomes a questioning of authenticity, of autochthonous potency and power, the ability to derive their own future from their own ideals and authority. Muslim nation states owe nominal allegiance to supra national Muslim/Islamic organisations while being members of a variety of other groupings depending on their divergent status as client states of former colonial powers or new Empires. The reality of naked power relations disenfranchise as much as they disadvantage the citizens of Muslim societies. Muslim minorities living within western societies find the complexities of their existence even more disturbing. They are confronted with the plethora of ways to accommodate and be within the supposedly permissive acceptance the West offers yet also acutely conscious that their Muslim identity is suspected to be beyond the acceptable bounds of liberalism.
The complexity shaped by history makes Muslim existence profuse in contradictions. Muslims find themselves confounded by quandaries at every turn, embroiled in contemporary existence where all meanings admit of so much different and diverse implications and interpretations. Power is the question at the top of the agenda and their most common vantage point on power is the embrace of victimhood. Muslims are victims of the historic insult of colonialism, and victims of the pernicious gaze of western society which views them through the distortions of Orientalism or the more naked prejudice of Islamophobia. Muslim are victimised by their inability just to be themselves however they understand that to be. Muslims are victims caught between tradition and modernity, everywhere powerless and constrained by the failings, corruption and complicity of their governments. Muslim nation states lack democratic legitimacy even where elections are held. Their governments are implicated in the policies of western imperialism, craven clients of foreign powers.
Victimhood is so well rehearsed it has become routine. It has become a powerful tool to mould and mobilise popular dissent especially where people lack the conventional outlets of a thriving civil society. Muslims routinely cast themselves as pawns in the hegemonic game of real power; and thus see venality everywhere. The venality of the enemy, real and imagined, is then used to justify their own venality expressed often as religious piety and moral superiority. The asymmetry of power that casts Muslims as victims has inured people to a tacit acceptance that this legitimises terrorism as the weapon of the weak. With creeping horror the depredations of such violent response has become ever more pervasive and brutal in Muslim societies and around the world. Terrorism most effectively victimises the victims of victimhood – most often it kills maims and destroys the living and livelihood of Muslims. Caught in the complexities of decoding and disentangling the abuses of hegemonic power and power politics here, there, and everywhere the Muslim response is mindless violence or quietism. The majority disown egregious actions and declare it has nothing to do with the peaceful ethos of Islam. Quietism is never an effective answer to the real complex issues of power, more usually it amounts to passing by on the other side attempting to be oblivious to the substantive problems. In the face of the many ideological movements, violent and non-violent, that are the modern reality of the Muslim world simply taking the alternate position that Islam means peace is a very public washing of hands – a disclaimer designed to distance people from guilt by association with those who pursue naked power. However sincere a statement of unshakeable belief the definition of Islam as peace may be for what one hopes constitutes a majority of Muslims, it is nevertheless a way of disowning rather than resolving a very obvious problem within Muslim societies.
Overburdened with a sense of victimhood, Muslims dream of power and the invariant relationship of power to purity as proof of right religion. And thus they are lost. It is too easy to blame hegemonic politics and spout the mantra that Islam is peace. It is too easy to wallow in nostalgia, romanticism and hagiography which amount to little more than apologia in a variety of disguises. It is far more difficult, not to say complex, to lift your gaze from misplaced nostalgia and a sense of victimhood and look at the real sources of contemporary power: culture, education, and engagement with the diversity of the world.
A major problem with the quest for purity as the source of power is that it wipes out culture and diversity. When culture and its diversity are removed all that remains is the arid rigidity of fiqh, the literalist letter of the law. Islam, as Kadhim points out, is reduced to a ‘crude mathematical equation’: ‘Islam is equal to fiqh (jurisprudence) and fiqh is equal to Islam’. However, the Qur’an itself is explicit and profuse in its insistence that religion as values and ethics is an operative force that must be at the heart of culture and society in all its myriad human diversity. A purist approach to religion denatures humanity and de-cultures what the Qur’an insists are essential vessels of our purposeful creation. When you abandon culture, or look down on its highest expressions, you forego power to shape history. It is through culture that we untie the knots of social, ideological, and political power. Indeed, the culture of power itself can only be tamed through the power of a thriving culture. People without culture are powerless nonentities.
Underpinning all varieties of cultural power is the Word which, as Boyd Tonkin argues ‘may now shine brighter as a shield than as a sword’. The Word is the major ‘tool of transformation’ in postnormal times: it can ‘hold complexity and contradiction in a stable suspension without any “irritable reaching” after certainty. Its power, writes Tonkin, ‘lies in unending, self-revising curiosity – a winding path of tests, variations and adaptations to match its own narrative of natural selection’. The power of the powerless comes, as Czech writer and dissent Vaclav Havel demonstrated, not from quietism and passivity but from ‘living in truth’: ‘the daily practice of honesty and integrity in thinking, writing and personal conduct’. ‘The true word spoken, written and above all performed will bring a “repressed alternative” to fruition’.
When culture is combined with education an understanding emerges of the complexity of the contemporary world providing us with the capabilities to tackle the issues of power. As Jeremy Henzell-Thomas shows so effectively, education is a source of multiple powers: ‘the power to recognise the full extent of human powers and faculties’; ‘the power to arrest fragmentation, resolve conflict and transcend narrow definitions of identity’; ‘the power to ask searching questions, root out our own prejudices, and resist indoctrination’; ‘the power to amass a body of knowledge, to marshal evidence, and to resist conditioned, biased and one-dimensional thinking’; ‘the power to reach for a universal vision of excellence which encompasses truth, meaning, purpose and what it means to be fully human’; ‘the power to keep on inquiring and learning’ and ‘opens our minds and hearts to the source of all knowledge and its infinitely generative power’ and ‘the power to reach for the sky, and to join heaven and earth, the transcendent and the immanent, in the love of God and “all that moves on the face of the earth”’.
Education also confers, Henzell-Thomas tells us, ‘the power to relate and to know the “other”, and by so doing to enrich and improve ourselves’. Many Muslim problems, including the issues of power, are deeply intertwined with their inability to relate to Others – including the Others within Islam. Just as Muslims dehumanise themselves by suppressing culture and diversity, so they dehumanise Others by seeing them as distinctly different, a product of corrupted religions and false worldviews. And, as such, at best to be shunned. Yet, without engaging with the other, without seeing the Self in the Other, without interacting with other notions of Truth, we cannot appreciate the true diversity and complexity of the world. This is the true god-shaped hole in our hearts; the true source of our helplessness. Engaging with the Other, as Rahel Fischbach and Rachel Friedman demonstrate, can be discomforting. When Muslim, Christian and Jewish postgraduate students meet in a classroom at the Mohammed V University, Rabat, bewildering and outrageous questions are raised. ‘Do you really believe in all the doctrines of your religion?’ Wasn’t Paul an imposter? But ‘the lines that divided us were not simply religious but also cultural, educational, geographical, and especially epistemological’, write Fischbach and Friedman. There were contradictory and contending conclusions. Eventually though there was enlightenment once the power of engagement came to the fore: there was understanding to be had of ‘ourselves and others’.
Engagement, education and culture are not only sources of power they also provide us with the essential instrument for navigating the chaotic, complex and contradictory world of today: critical acumen. Everything we know about power and its misuse points towards the need for robust, open, and critical Muslim debate about our misconstruction of the very idea of power. ‘Every time you erect an authority figure’, Rogerson writes, ‘who thinks on behalf of other humans, who decides what is wrong and right, you weaken the first and essential purpose of Islam, which can usefully be imagined as an electrical charge connecting humans to their God’. History, including Muslim history, attests that power derived from brute force, through the imposition of the Sharia, through terrorism, through military dominance of politics, or any other insidious, barbaric battery of means human wit can contrive, does not produce progress and never peace on earth. So long as Muslim societies truncate, obfuscate, and censor critical debate about their formative history and the relationship of religion and power they will place the subtle seduction of the gun and the scimitar before the demands for positive change and enlightened progress. It is time for Muslims to take responsibility for their own times, unafraid to engage with others and openly critical of themselves. The only real power that can redeem Muslim communities is the power of critical reasoning, the power of education, the power of engagement, and the willingness to honestly address the shortcomings of our present way of being Muslim. It is the only way to fit enduring values and ethics of Islam to the needs of our complex times. It would be a powerful way to go.