Post-colonial imperialism and the role of the military in Muslim countries

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Dhu al-Qa'dah 08, 1424 2004-01-01


by Zafar Bangash (Reflections, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 16, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1424)

The fragmentation of the Muslim world into nation-states is the most obvious direct result of Western colonialism and its hegemony over the lands of Islam. Almost all Muslims now recognize the need to replace these states with Islamic states, and to re-draw the political map of the Muslim world. The difficulty is that, although the era of direct colonialism may have ended, we are currently in an era of indirect, post-colonial imperialism characterized by the continuing dominance of Muslim countries by institutions created by our former colonizers. Although much weakened by corruption and misrule, the institutions of pre-colonial Muslim societies were still rooted in their local cultures and histories, and based on the values and principles of Islam; which is why the colonialists worked so hard to destroy them and replace them with institutions based on Western models. This required the creation of new elites who would identify primarily with their Western masters rather than with the Muslim masses. The other key institutions that the West created for this purpose are the state bureaucracies and the armed forces.

Of all these, the military has probably had the worst effect on Muslim societies. Its role in protecting and promoting the West's interests has taken many forms. Officer corps have routinely been training grounds for future elites, not least because of the continued close relations of Muslim militaries with Western military establishments; note, for example, how even supposedly civilian or monarchical rulers in countries like Egypt and Jordan are in fact former military officers trained in Western countries. The ruling parties in one-party dictatorships (Ba'athist Syria, for instance) are also usually rooted in or closely associated with their countries' militaries. In countries like Turkey and Algeria, the military have also served as the ultimate guardians of pro-Western secular regimes, repeatedly intervening to protect them from the political aspirations of the Muslim masses. Their constant demand for expensive, western-manufactured weapons has also hindered the social development of these societies, diverting scarce resources from education and health care, for instance, as well as keeping the countries dependent on and subservient to the West. Yet these same military establishments have consistently failed in what is supposedly their main role: protecting their countries from external enemies. From Morocco to Indonesia, the greater the armies' failures on battlefields, the more eager they have been to meddle in civilian affairs. Not one Arab army, for instance, has ever managed to inflict a military defeat on Israel; this stands in stark contrast to the record of Islamic movements such as Hizbullah and Hamas against Israel, and of similar popularly-based resistance movements in Chechnya, Kashmir and Afghanistan.

Defenders of the militaries argue that they have to play a leading political role because they are the most organized forces in Muslim societies. This may be true, but only because of the severe repression of all popular movements, particularly Islamic ones. The organization and apparent power of military establishments has misled some Islamic movements into thinking that the quickest way of establishing Islamic states would be by alliance with the military. This strategy has failed dismally in Pakistan (where the Jama'at-e Islami supported Zia ul-Haq during the 1980s) and Sudan, and is based on a complete misunderstanding of the true role of military establishments in post-colonial societies. The example of the Islamic State of Iran provides a model: although the refusal of soldiers and units to fight the Islamic movement contributed to the Islamic Revolution's success, it was based primarily on Iran's Muslim masses. The military was then systematically reformed (‘purged' in Western parlance), and augmented by popularly-based institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards and the Baseej. It was made absolutely clear that the military existed to serve the Islamic state and its people, hence Iran’s success against both the Western-backed Iraqi invasion in the 1980s, and numerous political attempts to subvert or destroy the Revolution. Today, whatever other dangers Islamic Iran may face, a military takeover is not one of them.

All Muslims and Islamic movements must realize Muslim that military establishments are in fact impediments to change, indeed agents of our greatest enemies. It is only the Muslim peoples, charged with genuine commitment to Islam, that can bring about meaningful change, and defend our countries, societies, faith and values. Providing these committed, dedicated peoples with the quality of leadership and clarity of direction they deserve is the great challenge facing Islamic movements today.

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