In political science, power is defined as the ability to achieve a desired outcome; to translate’s one will into reality. Power is recognised as having various aspects, which theorists have described in various ways. Some distinguish between the "power to do" something and "power over" others.
In political terms power is usually thought of as something that influences what others do. Ken Boulder (1999) distinguished three ways of influencing decisions: by force or intimidation; by mutually productive exchanges; and by the creation and legitimization of obligations, loyalty and commitment. Another form of power is that of agenda-setting: determining what decisions have to be taken and which not. At its most radical, power can extend to thought-control: the ability to influence others by shaping their perceptions, desires and needs. Lay commentators often distinguish between ‘hard power’, which is exercised by military or other force, against the will of those against whom the power is being exercised, and ‘soft power’, which is exercised by less confrontational means, such as persuasion or manipulation.
The current status of the US as the world’s dominant military, political and economic power is undisputed. Some historians have calculated that its present global hegemony is unprecedented in human history. It has a stable domestic political system, with few questions raised about its legitimacy. It is also the world’s wealthiest country, and has more interests in and control over the economic affairs of other countries than any other power has ever enjoyed. It also has enormous military superiority in terms of budget, technology and equipment; it has repeatedly demonstrated its ability and willingness to exercise that power to impose its will. No power in history has ever had a military presence in so much of the world as the US now enjoys, with bases or personnel in over 200 countries. Its dominance of international institutions – the UN, the World Bank, the IMF and so on – also gives it far greater political power, influence and freedom of action than previous empires ever managed to achieve in their spheres of influence.
Thanks largely to US sponsorship, Israel also enjoys military and political dominance in the Middle East, having heavy military superiority over neighbouring states and the freedom to exercise it almost at will, against resistance movements opposing its occupation of Palestine and neighbouring states who refuse to accept its regional hegemony.
Why, then, are both the US and Israel so seriously embroiled in conflicts? – the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other places at a lower level, and Israel against the Palestinians?
The answer is that both have failed utterly in the exercise of soft power. For decades during the Cold War the US presented itself as a champion of freedom and democracy, and assumed an air of political legitimacy that fooled many even in the countries that it dominated and exploited. At the same time it built an imposing edifice of institutions through which it could dominate other countries without appearing to do so directly. But soft power needs to be exercised with patience and care, neither of which the US has ever shown. The result has been increasing resistance to its hegemony; in the Muslim world this can perhaps be traced back to the impact of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. The aggressive attitude of the new American right, of which George W. Bush is a part, is the result of increasing frustration and impatience at the limits and imperatives of exercising soft power.
Once Bush became president, the neo-conservatives with whom he surrounded himself were itching for the opportunity to turn to hard power, an opportunity they took with alacrity (perhaps suspicious alacrity) after September 2001. At that time, it is often said, they were in a position to do whatever they wanted, anywhere, without the legitimacy of their actions being seriously questioned or challenged. Two years later they are bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have become the most hated US administration of all time. It is not only the victims of their power in poor countries that hate them; it is not even only informed dissidents in Western countries; it is the majority of ordinary people all over the world, and even the governments of their traditional allies, who are now suspicious and distrustful. In many cases, this is not so much because they doubt the US’s objectives, which they largely share, but because they doubt Bush’s good sense and ability to exercise his power with sufficient restraint to avoid causing more harm than he addressed.
In Israel we have seen a similar process. During the 1990s, the Israelis had a chance to legitimise their dominant position using the peace process, the sensible application of soft power, in this case derived from their favoured position in the international community. Pursued patiently and carefully, this dominant position could have been translated into institutionalised and legitimised domination over the whole of Palestine, and possibly the whole of the region (through the co-operation of Western puppets ruling Arab states). Instead the zionists threw this opportunity away by acts of arrogance and stupidity that ensured that the Palestinians, already suspicious of Israeli intentions, were virtually goaded into rejecting the so-called peace process. Again, this was a consequence of the Israelis not having the patience to accept the imperatives of soft power, and of the apparently irresistible temptation to use their hard power.
There are several lessons in all this for Muslims and Islamic movements. Muslims should learn not to be awed by hard power, but to appreciate that it is usually a sign of our enemies’ weakness, not their strength. We should also understand that every time our enemies resort to hard power, they are preparing their own future difficulties. We should also be much more wary of their exercise of soft power, for then they are pursuing the same objectives much more subtly and manipulatively. Some Muslims, particularly those with careers and other interests in Western institutions, find it convenient to take the West’s diplomatic and political initiatives at face value; for example Bush’s suddenly discovery – as a result of the US’s growing unpopularity – of the advantages of promoting democracy and freedom. Similarly, we should be wary also of those who claim to be our friends, and to be trying to help us, while refusing to oppose the West’s hegemonic agenda, or while restricting their criticisms to the West’s use of its hard power, without rejecting their broader agenda.
To Islamic movements also similar choices present themselves: about how best to exercise the power we have to oppose Western domination and assert our own agenda – power based on Islamic ethics and social justice, as opposed to greed and exploitation. Zafar Bangash and others have pointed out that the Prophet (peace be upon him) combined both hard and soft power in his strategy and methods. The idea is to be both wise and principled in our choices at each step.
We see today the exercise of hard power in various places in different forms. In Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and Kashmir mujahideen are fighting against oppressive invaders and occupiers. Clearly the use of hard power is justifiable – even essential – in these cases. In other places – the Riyadh and Istanbul bombings within the last month, for example – the wisdom of such an approach can be questioned, as can the choice of target.
However, when the main challenge confronting an Islamic movement is to effect social and political change in a Muslim society, there can be no justification for car-bombing targets in crowded cities and killing dozens of civilians (regardless of whether or not they are Muslim); even if the target itself – a British government office in Istanbul, for example – is legitimate. As in the attack on the Pentagon in September 2001, however legitimate a target is, the weapon and method of attack must also be morally defensible, which a hijacked airliner or a car-bomb in the middle of a busy city cannot be. This is another example of the stupid and counter-productive exercise of hard power.
If we look at successful Islamic movements in recent times we see that, although they have used hard power when necessary, their legitimacy and support have rested on soft power. This is true of the Islamic movement in Iran; the Revolution was based on decades of patient preparation by Imam Khomeini (r.a.); his main weapon was the clear assertion of the truth about the Shah’s regime and the need to replace it with an Islamic order. It was also the new state’s exercise of soft power and the positive changes brought to the lives of ordinary Iranians that secured and consolidated its position, enabling it to survive eight years of war against all the West’s attempts to destroy it.
The example of the Hizbullah is similar. Yes, they are best known for their resistance against the Israelis. But Hizbullah’s power base in Lebanon is based on the institutions it has established to provide a community infrastructure and much-needed services for Lebanon’s people. Such is the influence and strength of this soft power, and the credibility and legitimacy it has given Hizbullah, that even non-Muslim Lebanese have joined Hizbullah and fought Israel. The experience of Hamas in Palestine is similar; despite the Israeli occupation, Hamas is not simply a military group but one which also uses its power for the Palestinians’ benefit.
These are examples of the proper exercise of power, which Islamic movements must understand and follow. Yes, there is virtue in military jihad, resistance and sacrifice; but it must be in appropriate circumstances and the proper manner. It must also be combined with the wise exercise of ‘soft power’ for good and just ends, which ends bring their own rewards in this world as well as in the next. This is an option the West does not have, for those are not the rewards they are seeking; we Muslims must avoid trying to emulate them, and making the same mistakes, instead of following the examples and teachings of Islam in the pursuit of righteous power, insha’Allah.