The Arab spring to Caliphate – Echoes of a medieval polemic

Hasnet Lais

The Arab Spring, dubbed ‘a grotesque verbal distortion of the great Arab/Muslim awakening’ by The Independent’s Robert Fisk, has undergone a paradigm shift in the Egyptian context. The recent victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections has led many political commentators to cite the triumph as an indication of the Muslim world regaining its political independence.  While the initial stage of the uprising and demands by protesters were reported as reminiscent of the democratic revolutions of 1989 in east-central Europe, the appeal of democratic ideals has not ultimately exercised a lasting effect on the imagination of Egyptians, the majority of whom have opted for social and political arrangements more tuned with their beliefs, history and religious heritage. If anything, it suggests the period of containing Islamist groups through repressive laws is no longer an option, since the popular mobilization mounting a serious challenge to the status quo throughout the Muslim world are Muslims for whom Islam is a doctrine capable of effecting powerful social and political change.  In the Muslim world, Islam has and continues to feature with increasing regularity in the ideological outreach at grassroots level and these facts on the ground are dawning for western policy-makers.

The current wind of change-unprecedented in recent Arab history-is beginning to pay dividends for Muslims who may exploit this opportunity to call for a revival of Islam’s venerable power structure, the Caliphate, as a stabilising force for political unity, which by any measure is a significant development in the battle for Muslim hearts and minds. The normalization of political Islam has served as a riposte to the view that a politico-religious construct of civil society would be traded for western-style pluralist democracy where legitimate and accountable authorities could be found. It was misguided for pundits to hail the Egyptian elections as beckoning a future devoid of Islamist influences. With Islam constituting the basis for social contact and communal activity in much of the Muslim world, this in itself should have prompted the realisation that the slightest political earthquake would catapult Islamists into government. The former Downing Street Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell quotes right wing commentator Dr Guy Bechor of the Lauder School of Government at the Interdisciplinary Centre, Herzliya, as someone cynical of America’s tireless campaign for democratization and civil society in the Middle East:

For Bechor, democracy “is the shortest path to sharia”, and he argues that the US, in opening Pandora’s box to steal a glance at democracy, has released all the demons that will destroy its old friends as the Arab world returns to the Middle Ages.[i]

The sentiments expressed by Dr Bechor are uniformly held by many in western political circles. An article some years back in the New York Times, titled “21st-Century Warnings of a Threat Rooted in the 7th” noted how the likes of  Eric S. Edelman, the under secretary of defense for policy, Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, and Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top American commander in the Middle East raised the spectre of the Caliphate’s return:

“The word getting the workout from the nation’s top guns these days is “caliphate” – the term for the seventh-century Islamic empire that spanned the Middle East, spread to Southwest Asia, North Africa and Spain, then ended with the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258…. Specialists on Islam say the word is a mysterious and ominous one for many Americans, and that the administration knows it. “They recognize that there’s a lot of resonance when they use the term ‘caliphate,’ ” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and now a scholar at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, said that the word had an “almost instinctive fearful impact.”[ii]

Many would argue that America’s apprehension over a Caliphate is not so much motivated by a concern for the survivability of freedom and democracy but rather because the Caliphate’s restoration could signal a coup de grace for American hegemony in the Muslim world, where it would no longer exercise substantial leverage. Muslims have every right for this scepticism. Of all the geopolitical lessons they have learnt since the Gulf War, one that would stand out would be the cancellation of elections in Algeria in 1991-92-when America remained silent- as a result of the Islamists obtaining a parliamentary majority. The U.S.involvement in subverting electoral processes in the Muslim world with the intentions of stifling Islamist representation had become clearer when the election of Hamas in Palestinesent shockwaves through American policymakers, urging a retreat from the principles of democratisation.[iii] While some claim that the policy of the U.S. administration towards Islamists has been disjointed, those like Shadi Hamid, the Director of Research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, best explain why the U.S. has afforded the secular dictatorships in the Muslim world a carte blanche to place Islamist parties in a chokehold while ignoring the antidemocratic thrust of such measures:

“U.S. efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East have long been paralyzed by the “Islamist dilemma”: in theory, we want democracy, but, in practice, fear that Islamist parties will be the prime benefi­ciaries of any political opening”.[iv]

The appointment of the Brotherhood speaks volumes for the countless political movements in the Muslim world proclaiming legitimacy and missions based on religious tradition. Despite decades of state-sponsored persecution, the Brotherhood’s religious constituency stretches beyond kinship solidarities to wider associated networks of community. For this reason, religion must factor in our analysis of Egypt’s political future. Any ad hoc measures to liberalise civil society in the Muslim world is likely to be met with resistance couched in religious terminology. Since the distinguishing features of village and industrial life in the Muslim world are enumerated via an Islamic medium, any fissure in the region’s entrenched authoritarianism would almost certainly be seized by Islamic parties as they are a psychological vehicle for social protest. In countries like Syria where Assad continues his wanton massacre against the besieged people of Homs, Islam by and large people’s the social landscape so like Egypt, religion is likely to provide a major vocabulary for demands and contests in a post-Assad Syria. As far as civil society in the Arab world is concerned, the parts of society distinctly different from the state and largely in autonomy from it retain an Islamic essence. The perception that reinforcing civil society is central to developing democratic institutions in the Muslim world[v] is misguided and completely ignores how primordial organisations in the Arab world, including voluntary societies and clubs, trade unions and pressure groups each contain the discursive elements of Islam which provide loci to public calls to action.

Therefore, the suggestion that the creation of a Caliphate finds little traction among mainstream Muslims is utterly false. The gaining steam and popularity of the Brotherhood and Salafi Al-Nour party, offers a prescription to rank and file Muslims that the Islamic world is on the verge of a political-religious nexus, where government and religious dictate can constitute the basis of a polity. The intersection of spheres generally considered autonomous in the western political tradition is essential to Muslim societies, which being juxtaposed against the out-of-touch military-bureaucratic state leaderships, has often become the functional equivalent of a parallel polis. A time is looming where likeEgypt, the electoral laws and restrictions on campaign practices- in much of the Muslim world- which prevent the Islamists from party representation will be lifted and opposition forces, most notably Muslim factions will gain rapid ascent and be granted the freedom to operate campaigns all over the electronic media.

So what are we to make if the increased participation by Islamists in mainstream channels of public life culminate in the resurrection of a Caliphate?

Well according to a piece by Raymond Ibrahim, on the popular Jihad debunking website jihadwatch.org, the relatively non-violent nature of the Muslim Brotherhood is no reason to overstate the ill-conceived optimism of the current period. Speaking of the methods they employ to attract growing support, Ibrahim argues that the Islamist’s mobilization strategy is part and parcel of a stealth Jihad:

 “Of course, all Islamists have the same goal: the establishment of a sharia-enforcing caliphate. The only difference is that most are prudent enough to understand that incremental infiltration and subtle subversion-step by step, phase by phase…are much more effective for securing their goals than outright violence. Then, once in power, “they will become much more savage”.[vi]

Despite expressing the communis opinio on the Caliphate, the problem with Ibrahim and many other commentators is their depiction of the Islamist’s successful incorporation in the political process as a surreptitious trend, the success of which depends on keeping the laity aloof from their real ambitions.  However, there is nothing clandestine in the agenda of Islamist politics. Being servants of the public interest and self-consciously establishing fresh models of leadership and community, Islamists signal a new form of contestation and participation in the Muslim world. An attempt to arrest its spread by casting its advocates in adversarial terms is regrettably a hallmark of western perceptions on the Caliphate which owes its attitude to a medieval legacy.

I am in no doubt that many in the western world fear the reprisals of a Shariah-based government, even if it is established thousands of miles away. The prospect of countries not too far fromEurope, potentially gestating terrorism has not escaped the attention of current analysts. Due to a combination of terrorist activities on European soil as well as an increasingly vocal and high profile status of Muslim minorities in the West, the status of Muslims in the west is a highly complex and multilayered phenomenon, intertwined with the politics of identity. But how justified are western reservations for a Caliphate? Are we not- by suggesting the Caliphate derives its exclusivity from terrorist groups and represents the sine qua non for a pseudo-pious elite- merely regurgitating the Orientalist fear and loathing of the other, at the expense of reasoned judgement?

According to a founding member of a Chicago based Muslim American think tank “The International Strategy and Policy Institute”, the representation of the Caliphate as an imperial enterprise has echoes of a medieval polemic:

“Language that resurrects medieval fears like the emergence of an Islamic super state “reaching from Spain to Indonesia” reinforces the misperception among Muslims the world over that … war on terror is a war against Islam.  Historians would agree that during the era of Muslim Caliphates there were major advances made in art, architecture, literature, philosophy, sciences, mathematics and medicine.  The Caliphate era is a period in Muslim history that invokes nostalgia and justifiable pride”.[vii]

Perhaps an assessment of European encounters with the Muslim world can help deconstruct existing prejudices. Despite having recovered from the Dark Ages to initiate its own progressive civilisation, the dread of an Islamic Empire remained firmly lodged in the European consciousness as a collective trauma, which explains the single minded obduracy of much European scholarship on Islam and the political aspirations of Muslims. With the Ottoman capture of Gallipoli and their advancement into the southern shores of the Mediterranean and Balkan regions signalling the presence of Muslim rule in Europe, the spectre of Islamic rule extending its sphere of influence across the continent haunted the wider European conscience. Although being hailed the ‘sick man of Europe’ for its political and territorial disintegration beginning in the 19th century, at its height, the Ottoman Empire spanned three continents, assuming vast control of large parts of North Africa, the Caucasus and South Eastern Europe. In Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A western attempt to understand Islam, she notes what probably best explains western anxieties at the prospect of an emergent Caliphate:

“…the old fear of the ever-expanding Muslim empire remained. Europe could not make an impression on this dynamic culture…When Islam was a great world power; Europe was overrun by barbarian tribes and had become a cultural backwater”.[viii]

If the prospect of a Caliphate continues to be treated in the western media as an aberration in the pursuit of justice and progress, opposition to its emergence needs to be seen in the light of this historical backdrop where ‘Christian’ Europe feared the encroachment by Muslims, loathing their relative material ascendancy in bitter contrast to their own lamentable state. Now that the west has redressed this historical imbalance, it would be hypocritical of them to feel the confidence in the stamina of its own truths- most notably the cherished ideal of freedom- undermined by voices in the Muslim world, favouring an alternative model of government. After all, if the right to self determination is genuinely universal, then why are we in the west so hesitant to welcome the Egyptian people’s wake from political slumber and their embrace of a system that is most consistent with their indigenous value system? Given the west’s love for pluralism, a readiness to engage with the advocates of political Islam can demonstrate whether its commitment to diversify relationships and alliances with different nations and peoples is true or not.

The colonial designs had bequeathed to Muslims political instability. Given the Muslim world’s experiment with nationalism, socialism and ideologies alien to its history failing to deliver the much needed progress so often promised, an Islamic social order must be granted the opportunity to prove it can guarantee the necessary accountability and enhancement of political freedoms by reshaping the character of the polity. The west needs to depart with any detrimental frames of referencing as far as the Caliphate is concerned and substitute essentialist polemics for a concerted understanding with what the Caliphate can ultimately represent. By labelling the demands for Islamic rule as a hindrance to civilization with threatening implications for both Egyptian and Western security, we are not placating but rather reigniting medieval fears.

 

Hasnet Lais is a freelance writer, with a Masters in Islamic Societies and Cultures from The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.


[i] Article titled “When to quarrel with the devil”. Accessed from: http://www.newstatesman.com/middle-east/2012/02/arab-world-syria-essay-iran

 

[iii] Asem, S. “The Muslim Brotherhood and American Democracy: Could Obama Usher in New Hopes for Islamist Politics?” Arches Quarterly, Volume 3, Edition 4, 2009, p. 50

 

[iv] See Shadi Hamid, “Resolving America’s Islamist Dilemma”, a Century Foundation Report, 2008.

http://iis-db.stanford.edu/pubs/22529/Hamid_report_10-30-08.pdf

 

[v] Ibrahim, S.AD. (1991), “Al-mujtama’ al-madani wa’l-tahawwul al-dimuqrati fi al-watan al-‘arabi”, Cairo: Ibn Khaldun Research Center, 1991.

[viii] Armstrong, K. (1991), “Muhammad: A Western Attempt To Understand Islam”, Victor Gollancz,   p. 11

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