Ideas & Philosophy — 30 July 2013
When “Islamism” Becomes an Opium

Ali Harfouch

When Marx wrote vehemently on religion, referring it to‘opium’ he was referring to a particular clerical order which legitimized the Monarchial power-structures shaping the dismal status-quo in the Middle Ages . Religion was sedative, the masses were told that this is a fixated ‘reality’ and to question it would be to question the will of God. Islamic thinkers like Ali Shariati, who were initially inspired by Marx later noted that this conception of religion was fundamentally inapplicable to Islam because at the core of Islam was a revolutionary and radical message for socio-political and economic change. Drawing upon the Prophetic era Islamic scholars and activist explained how the Prophet’s action-program addressed not only regressive customs in his community but more so the underlying ideas – he challenged the ‘reality’ surrounding him. However, the recent events in Egypt and the responses by mainstream scholars and thinkers around the Arab-Muslim world have seemingly ignored the explicit Islamic methodological imperatives and have transformed their own “traditional Islamism” into a sort of opium which legitimizes the status-quo in Egypt calling upon Muslims to accept “the lesser of two evils” or go even further and claim that doing so is an “Islamic duty” as we must rally behind our Muslim leaders such as Mursi. They do so, instead of encouraging Muslims to construct a new reality.

Their misinformed prognosis stems from a more inaccurate diagnosis of the existing reality. Islamic jurisprudence dictates that scholars and/or jurists follow a particular methodology in issuing a judgment on a particular issue;

Step 1: Understand the issue, phenomena, or event being judged in its totality i.e. its origins, context, and so forth. Issues, phenomena, or events can include that ranging from cloning to the Arab Spring.

Step 2: After having a holistic understanding of the ‘issue, phenomena or event’ i.e. the subject-matter, the Scholar and/or jurist then retorts to his or her holistic study of revelation – in its totality – to reach a judgement.

Political naivety, leading to a misreading of the ‘subject-matter’ in our case the recent ousting of Muhammad Mursi consequently leads to a misapplication of a Shari’ verdict.  An analysis of the discourse being espoused by mainstream Muslim scholars, whether they belong to the Brotherhood or not, points to their inability to transcend the sensationalism created following the coup d’état in Egypt and their inability to transcend a illegitimate false-dichtomy. And instead of subordinating the ‘reality’ to the imperatives of revelation and Islam, they will subordinate revelation and Islam to the existing reality. For many, the Secular principles which underlie the existing political structures such as national identity and are the chief orienting principles for their political actions. While Islam plays a marginalized nominal and rhetorical role – an instrument.

One prominent Muslim scholar in Britain put it bluntly “You can either choose Sisi who is evil or Muhammad Mursi who is good” and when asked about a third option he retorted “You mean half-good and half-evil?! That is impossible”. Yet both General Sisi and Mursi are, and with full content, working within the same political framework. Worse yet, supporters of Muhammad Mursi are demanding that he be reinstated as President – in an ossified and stagnant political structure. As though no lessons were to be learned from Mursi’s nominal year as President, his dismal performance, exclusivist policies (towards his “Islamist” allies), and the now explicit and exposed continuity of the power-structures from the Mubarak era. In reality the “dichotomy” is more accurately; a secular dysfunctional system governed by a bearded regime versus secular dysfunctional system governed by men in military suits. While the latter draws its legitimacy from “national interest” the former draws its legitimacy – and perhaps more dangerously – from Islam and “national interest”

Both of the “evils” are the product of an existing albeit crumbling grand-evil; the colonial power-structures in Egypt and in the Arab-Muslim world. It is thus imperative that the scholars in the Arab-Muslim world point to the possibility of a ‘third-option’, a liberatory programme which constructs a new reality which is in accordance with the Shari’ and which abolishes the existing colonial power-structures and in turn the structural contradictions which perpetuate Egypt’s economic crisis, political dependency and military vulnerability. A second problem emerging from their political naivety is the blurring of the clear line between normative [Principled] Islam and pragmatic “Islamist”. Instead of warning Muslims and non-Muslims alike that it was “Islamist” in an ossified stagnant state and not Islam which failed, they are insistent on positing the opposition (pro-Mursi) versus interim regime (Anti-Mursi) as an Islam versus Kufr dichotomy. Making it appear as though our allegiance belongs to individuals instead of the principles those individuals are supposed to embody. Ironically, the most consistent and systematic critiques have come from fellow-Islamist who had allied with Mursi in his presidential campaign against Mursi. For example, the well-known ‘Abd al-Mun’im ash-Shahat explained, in an open letter on behalf of the Salafi Da’wah;

“Al Nour offered its advice to the president. Thanks to God, we did that sometimes in public and many times in private. The answer was always that: we know better… This is until it all happened, until the president was actually removed, until he became unable to order the police to protect his closest followers, and until he became unable to issue an address without the military’s approval… Al Nour participated [in the ousting of Morsi] in order to protect the constitution, in order to help keep the Shura Council in power with its Muslim Brotherhood majority, and in order to impose a national reconciliation agenda and prevent revenge against the Muslim Brotherhood.”[1]

By ignoring the shortcomings of Mursi they in turn have legitimized an illegitimate ‘reality’ – more so- encouraging the youth to defend it with their lives. Islamism, in this sense, has become an opium.

A proper conceptualization of normative[2] liberatory Islam and an objective understanding of politics in the Middle East alludes to a stark reality; the events in Egypt point to the failure of “Moderate Islamism” i.e. the continuity of neo-liberal economics and colonial policies under the masquerade of Islam through the ‘inclusion’ of Islamist into existing political structures. It is worth noting that these very same scholars and so-called “leaders” were unable to learn from the Arab-Spring and encouraged the electoral farce after the Brotherhood aborted an incomplete revolution. Intellectuals and alternative leadership has indeed emerged across the Arab-Muslim world such as Harakat al-Ahrar[3], a youth-based movement in Egypt and Hizb ut-Tahrir[4], a global political party also with a growing base in Egypt. The common message; there is an alternative and that alternative is Islam.

In our next piece we will address the Scholars and “leaders” in the Muslim world by laying down the essential steps and imperatives for the formulation of an alternative Islamic programe.

Ali Harfouch is a graduate of Political Studies at the American University of Beirut working in Islamic activism.



[2] For reference on normative Islam as an alternative analytical framework refer to The Inevitable Caliphate? by Dr. Reza Pankhurst.



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