Islamic Perspectives

Islamism is a viable political system

In the last twenty-five years the Muslim world has witnessed a very significant increase in the appeal of Islamism among their people. The overthrow of monarchy and the emergence of the masses-based leadership of the Ayatollahs in Iran; the appeal to incorporate Sharia as the civic law for Muslims in Muslim and non-Muslim countries; the vehement opposition to Western military attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan among Muslims all over the world; the global Muslim backing to Iran in its effort to develop nuclear technology, indicates that this trend is proving to be a viable rallying point for mobilizing Muslim masses.

Muslims the world over do not form a homogenous community. Apart from differences in languages and cultures the class divisions and economic inequalities are wide and sharp. Islam is not an autonomous and independent category but only one of the many factors which shape the attitudes of Muslims wherever they may be.

To understand the reasons for the resurgence of Islam as a political system in recent years one should review the background of the Muslim societies in the preceding decades, which may be surmised as follows.

Background: Substantial economic gain in the middle-eastern and southeast Asian countries due to increased oil revenues did not result in reducing socio-economic inequalities in Muslim societies. The dispossessed and alienated classes in the Muslim societies who are in majority have chosen Islam as a vehicle to express their discontent. They feel that Western liberalism is opposed to the Islamic way of life. The assessment of a vocal majority in the Muslim world has resulted in the condemnation of past ideologies.

The failure of socialism, Marxism, liberalism, Western capitalism in military, economic, political and social fields encouraged the search for a different ideological framework for political movements. The Muslims of West Asia and Southeast Asia are returning to the all-embracing ideology of Islam which once permeated all aspects of their lives and struggles. The credibility of Muslim champions of Western liberalism who criticize the Islamic ideology has plummeted in the Muslim world. In the absence of other channels, mosques have become viable means of expression of the popular resentment of the masses against imposition of Western culture in Muslim societies.

It is interesting to note that the content and complexion of Islamism differs from country to country. In Iran it was the basis for the struggle of the masses against monarchy. In Afghanistan it was first the basis for nationalism against the Soviet occupation and later a basis for restoring law and order. In Pakistan it was first a tool for legitimizing the rule of the army junta and later a movement to restore democracy. In Egypt it is an effort to promote democracy against an authoritarian government. In Saudi Arabia it is a plea for keeping the royal family in power. In Morocco and Tunisia it means the condemnation of modernism. In Turkey the conservative party leaders want to use Islam for partisan politics. In Sudan it is the basis for keeping the country from breaking apart under the strain of tribal rivalries.

The diverse application of Islamism brings up the need to understand the ideology of this movement. Based on the observations of various social scientists the following could be construed as the elements of Islamism.

Islam is a comprehensive way of life and is integral to politics, state, law and society. Muslim societies have failed in recent times because they departed from the understanding of Islam and blindly followed Western irreligious and materialistic values. Islamic renewal calls for an Islamic political and social revolution that draws its inspiration from Qur’an and prophet Mohammad who led the first Islamic movement. To establish Allah’s rule elements of Western inspired civil law that promote religiosity must be replaced by the Islamic law which is the blueprint of a Muslim society. While the crass Westernization of Muslim societies is decried, modernization is not. Science and education are promoted. Establishing an Islamic system of government is not simply an alternative but an obligation.

That brings us to the inevitable question of the future of Islamism as a movement in Muslim societies. It is a grim reminder of the historical fact that Muslims are no longer in-charge of their own destiny. It is the realization that efforts to modernize and protect society’s cohesion requires a serious re-examination of the Islamic heritage as a potential mode of action.

Terrorism un-Islamic: In their frustration some Muslims have adopted terrorism as a tool to fight the western stranglehold on Muslim societies. That is both immoral and prohibited by Islam. In the Islamic system there is no place for subjecting civilians to violence no matter how much one may disagree with their views or policies.

The term Islamism suggests not a programme but a style and above all a mindset. The preoccupation of the critics of the Islamic movement with programmes and solutions that leave the movement open to accusation of naiveté is misplaced. Even the most benighted rulers, whether Muslim or not, will usually respond to pragmatic concerns.

The fact that the rulers of Iran are animated by Islamic convictions does not seem to be leading to the downfall of the regime in a situation where Western powers are openly targeting Iran with a well-planned hostile action from the outside and well orchestrated internal subversion.

The fear of those who see in Islam’s resurgence some great revolt against modernity is mistaken. Whether Muslims respond to the Islamic message on the material level of class and social interest groups, or the ideal level of spirit and mind, nothing suggests that the crisis of identity which inspires the message is near an end. For this reason it is most useful to view the Islamic revival movement not as a narrow and specific programmatic entity with discrete beginning and ending points, but as a broad endeavour which Muslims are pursuing as a necessary aspect of contending with the bad situation of Muslims in the contemporary world.

There is no predictable conclusion to the movement. Whether it will bring joy to its adherents or it is another attempt to regain equal footing with the Western system is hard to say. What we are more likely to see is the emergence of a heterogeneous multiplicity of social character within the world of Islam.