Islamic movements’ different approaches to common problems in Muslim countries

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Shawwal 11, 1423 2002-12-16

Islamic Movement

by Zafar Bangash (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 20, Shawwal, 1423)

With virulent anti-Islamic fervour gripping policy-makers in the West, it is not surprising that the Islamic movement is also coming under intense pressure. ZAFAR BANGASH, director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, discusses some of the approaches Islamic movements are taking to find a way forward.

With virulent anti-Islamic fervour gripping policy-makers in the West, it is not surprising that the Islamic movement is also coming under intense pressure. After all, the Islamic movement is challenging the west globally. It is clear that the only version of Islam that the West can tolerate is the one that is subservient and that concerns itself merely with rituals. This is "peaceful" Islam; anyone who dares oppose the West’s atrocities is immediately branded a terrorist and marked for elimination. This has become painfully obvious since September 11, 2001, when for the first time in history America got a dose of its own medicine. Before then other people, notably Muslims, had been at the receiving end of American militarism and arrogance.

This is only one aspect of the problem facing the Islamic movement; it can be said to be largely external, although, with large Muslim populations now living in Europe and North America, this is not strictly true any more. Since the events of September 11, Muslims in North America and Europe have been subjected to intense scrutiny, harassment and mistreatment in the name of security. The standard excuse advanced is that "things have changed." They certainly have, since every Muslim is now regarded as an enemy and a potential terrorist. If there is any consolation in this for Muslims in the west, it is that they are now being treated as their brothers and sisters in the Muslim world have been for decades. In this sense, the US has created a level playing field.

It is, however, to the internal working of the Islamic movement that we need to turn our attention. September 11 was not a defining moment for Muslims; nor was it the greatest calamity ever to befall mankind. Much of the Muslim world was in turmoil long before; this event made things much worse because of America’s aggressive militarism and lust for revenge. America went berserk as a result of one attack; for Muslims September 11 is virtually a daily occurrence. Why is it understandable for the US to get so angry and lash out at innocent people half way round the world, but not for Muslims to be upset about their daily humiliations, brutalities and killings? The US assault on Afghanistan was totally unjustified, as even the Americans did not accuse any Afghan of being involved in the attacks on the Pentagon and WTC.

The Islamic movement is now being forced to make September 11 its defining moment, and adjust all its policies and positions to this one event. There is also the West’s mindset of denial, dismissing all Muslim grievances as irrelevant and shifting all blame to them for everything that is wrong in their societies. This argument is most vociferously peddled by such zionist commentators as Charles Krauthammer and Daniel Pipes, as well as by Christian fundamentalists who assert crudely that Islam is "evil." While some of the problems in the Muslim world are certainly self-inflicted, it is completely invalid to conclude from this that the West is totally blameless. In fact, one fundamental problem of the Muslim world is the illegitimate nature of the nation-State structure imposed on it by colonialism. Similarly, the poisonous concepts of nationalism and party politics injected into the body politic of Islam have played havoc with Muslim societies and individual lives. Direct colonialism may have ended, but the era of colonialism has not; the ruling classes in most Muslim nation-states are products of the era of colonialism and serve the interests of the West. In turn, they are backed and kept in power by the US to prevent the legitimate aspirations of the people from being realized, because that would inevitably clash with the exploitative policies dictated by Washington.

It is in this environment that recent events in the Muslim world, especially relating to the affairs of the Islamic movement, have gained added significance. Two distinct trends have emerged: the victory of "Islamic" political parties in Pakistan and Turkey, and the public abandonment of armed struggle by the Gama’ah al-Islamiyya against the regime in Egypt (See Crescent International, Nov. 16-30, 2002). Both need careful analysis so that appropriate lessons can be drawn and the Islamic movement is clear about its future course of action. Superficially, these trends seem to indicate that Muslims must adopt one of two options: join electoral politics or take up the gun.

Let us be clear about some basic points of principle: the Islamic movement cannot adopt the path of violence, especially in its struggle to overthrow the existing order in Muslim societies. This is not based merely on classical Islamic political theory, which is quite problematic, but because this is what we understand from the Seerah (life-history) of the Messenger of Allah (saw). Muslims need to develop a better understanding of how classical Islamic political theory evolved on the question of not rebelling against illegitimate authority. Rebellion was discouraged by means of official patronage, to ensure that illegitimate rulers were not challenged; classical scholars were encouraged to guide Muslim sentiment into the peaceful avenue of nasiha (advice, good counsel). This policy has been elevated to such a status that in some quarters it is given more credence than Qur’anic commands and the Sunnah of Allah’s Messenger (saw).

The resort to armed struggle against despotic rulers in Muslim societies is bound to fail for several reasons. Not only do despotic regimes have a far greater capacity for violence, but by careful manipulation of public opinion they are able to blame their own oppressive and destructive policies on their opponents. Thus, far from the Islamic movement gaining sympathy, it loses credibility. This is what happened in Algeria when the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) took up arms against the military junta after subversion of the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the elections of December 1991. The FIS had won an overwhelming victory, yet the regime was able to paint it into a corner and accuse it of atrocities that were being perpetrated by the regime’s own agents provocateurs. These facts are now well documented because some agents of the regime fled Algeria and confessed their crimes in Britain or France. These developments were reported in detail in articles both in Le Monde (Paris) and The Independent (London) in November 1997.

The other problem with armed struggle is that it is easily co-opted by the military. In several Muslim countries, members of the Islamic movement have fallen for the simplistic option of recruiting some elements of the military into their ranks, who then lead a coup d’etat that is presented as a victory for Islam. Such an approach has had horrible consequences for Muslims in Egypt, Sudan and Pakistan. Initially the military works with the Islamic movement to consolidate its hold on power; once it feels secure, the Islamic movement is not only abandoned but physically hunted, and its core members eliminated. Gamal Abdel Nasser did this to the Ikhwan in Egypt, through whose support he had gained power; leading figures such as Hassan al-Banna, Abdul Qadir al-Awda and Syed Qutb were either shot or hanged on trumped-up charges.

If armed struggle is ruled out, is the electoral route not the best option for Muslims? It would be tempting to say yes, in view of the recent victories of "Islamic" political parties in Pakistan and Turkey, but it ignores certain basic facts. First let us consider Turkey, where the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a convincing victory by securing 342 out of 550 seats in parliament in November. It has now formed a government on its own, the first time such a thing has happened in Turkish politics. Its mother party, Refah, also had the largest number of seats (102 out of 550) in the 1996 parliament, but the government, led by Necmettin Erbakan, was dismissed in 1997 by the military-dominated National Security Council. Refah was forced to disband in 1998, and Erbakan himself was banned from politics. It re-emerged under a new name, Fazilat, but its reincarnation was also consigned to oblivion because, like Refah, Fazilat was viewed as "too Islamic". Therein lies the dilemma of electoral politics under a secular system: everyone must adopt secularism and accept charlatans as saviours. AKP has had to pledge its allegiance to secularism; it will no doubt be required to repeat this mantra at every public occasion, and prove it by worshipping at the tomb of Mustafa Kemal; the slightest deviation will bring down the heavy hand of the military establishment.

The situation in Pakistan seems at first glance slightly different, but fundamentally there is little to distinguish it from the Turkish model. In fact, general Pervez Musharraf is a self-confessed admirer of Mustafa Kemal. He has made no secret of his desire to mould Pakistani politics on the Turkish model. He has even created a National Security Council (NSC), whose task will be to oversee policies formulated by a civilian government and approved by an elected parliament. Lest the politicians get carried away, they had better not forget that Musharraf is boss in Pakistan. He can send them packing the moment he decides they are getting too big for their boots.

For the first time in Pakistan’s history, a coalition of religious parties has won a significant number of seats in the National Assembly, and formed a government in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The Islamic coalition has also won seats in all four provinces, as well as in Pakistan’s Tribal Area and the federal capital, Islamabad. In this sense it is the only truly "national" political alliance. Yet, soon after its electoral victory, its leaders were at pains to project themselves as "moderates", and assured everyone that they will not rock the boat. It is important to note that while they secured their victory by appealing to the public’s Islamic sentiment, they felt compelled to give their allegiance to the gods of secularism. The problem with electoral politics is that even Islamically-committed groups and individuals are forced to defer to unelected secular bosses on crucial issues.

In both Pakistan and Turkey, the entire system is totally subservient to US interests; the well-being of the people takes a back seat. Given such constraints, Islamic parties are forced to tinker with minor issues, such as banning music in buses and issuing orders to ban alcohol in hotels. This last point is not to be rubbished, but it will hardly make any material difference to the lives and conditions of ordinary people. When it comes to serious matters that affect the lives of ordinary people, such parties are helpless because the levers of effective power are in others’ hands.

This brings us to the question of the options available to the Islamic movement, if it is neither to participate in electoral politics nor to take up arms against an oppressive regime. First we need to be clear about the primary function of the Islamic movement itself: it is not to grab power by any means possible; the function of the Islamic movement is to "enforce the common good and to forbid evil" (al-Qur’an 3:104). This can only be done if it has won enough adherents who are prepared to stand up for this fundamental Qur’anic command, and in the process are prepared to make every sacrifice, including that of their lives, to ensure that this principle is upheld. We see from the Seerah of the noble Messenger of Allah (saw), that for 13 years in Makkah he and his Companions underwent every kind of persecution and oppression, but never took up arms. It was only when a secure territorial base became available that armed struggle was permitted.

What is also evident from the Prophet’s example is that he did not participate in the established system in Makkah. He not only rejected offers to share power, but there is also no evidence that he ever participated in the deliberations of Dar an-Nadwa, the assembly of Makkan chiefs where important decisions of state and society were made. If the Messenger of Allah (saw) refused to join or use the jahili system, and rejected the option of "influencing the system from within", how can Muslims go against this Sunnah? There is much confusion among Muslims on this point. The option of working to "change the system from within" is not available to us.

The Islamic movement must adopt the method of non-co-option and peaceful resistance to the oppressive socio-economic political order. Non-co-option will deprive the existing order of legitimacy in the eyes of most people. It is a process of education that is essential, otherwise proper understanding of issues will not develop. Peaceful, unarmed resistance to the existing order is the best way to expose the brutal nature of a regime. This has been demonstrated most effectively in Iran, when the movement against the Shah’s oppressive regime was under way in 1978. There, the Islamic movement led by Imam Khomeini scrupulously avoided armed confrontation. It is true that in the process thousands of people died, but that resistance also deprived the regime of its claims to legitimacy; ultimately ordinary soldiers themselves refused to obey their superiors’ orders to fire on civilians. When soldiers begin to refuse to obey orders, it means that the regime has lost the support of a vital pillar of its oppressive machinery, and cannot last long.

In Algeria exactly the opposite happened. When the GIA took up arms, it gave the regime the opportunity not only to unleash its massive firepower but also let loose its agents to kill supporters of FIS and then blame it on the Islamic movement. The most gruesome acts of murder and brutality were perpetrated in areas that were FIS strongholds. The regime thus achieved two objectives at a stroke: it painted the Islamic movement as a violent group, and also eliminated people who had supported it. Although not everyone fell for such ploys, the Islamic movement was put on the defensive; it constantly had to react to government propaganda to clear its name and explain that it was not responsible for such atrocities. If the Algerian Islamic movement had taken the path of peaceful, unarmed resistance, it could have deprived the regime of all legitimacy and mobilized the masses to bring it down. The Islamic movement lost the moral high ground by allowing one segment to take up arms. It is true that peaceful resistance would have led to the killing of a large number of people, but then so did the armed resistance. The difference is that, in the first case, the regime would have lost all legitimacy and its own troops would have rebelled against its authority; what actually happened was that more than 150,000 people were killed but the junta survived. Most of the leaders and supporters of the Islamic movement were either killed or are imprisoned.

A word about the policy change of the Gama’ah al-Islamiyya is also in order. There is a common misconception that eliminating the ruler will usher a radical change in society. Such thinking guided the Gama’ah when Anwar Sadat of Egypt was killed in October 1981. While no tears should be shed for Sadat, the fact is that it was naive to assume that the people would rise up simply because the "Pharaoh has been killed," as the Gama’ah declared at the time. Nothing of the sort happened; the regime was able to crush the Gama’ah’s uprising, and many of its leaders were either killed or jailed. Sadat was succeeded by Husni Mubarak, who immediately declared a state of emergency that was supposed to last for six months; 21 years later, it is still in force and Egypt is no nearer to being liberated from the clutches of the pharaohs than it was in 1981. In fact it has become a zionist-American colony, and corruption and incompetence have reached dizzying heights.

The Islamic movement needs to develop a clear analysis and understanding of the issues before proceeding to act. In fact, the actions of some parts of the Islamic movement these days are actually proving the partial validity of the classical Islamic theory of passivity and nasiha.

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