Politics and Religion in the Middle East
The tragic circumstances that the Islamic Nation is going through have different facets, ramified reasons, and accumulated historical epochs that formed its current situation. Probably, the most manifested aspect of this tragedy is the failure of the Islamic scholars theoretically and the politicians practically to answer a clear question about the relationship between Islam and the political regimes that can be established in this part of the world. Though, one can’t deny the efforts of some scholars to address this issue such as Ali Abed Alrazeq in his book ‘Islam and the Sources of Political Authority’ , Rashid Rida in his book ‘Caliphate or the Great Imamate’, Mohammad Khalid in his book ‘ From Here We Start’ and Mohammad Al-Ghazali in his book ‘From Here We Learn’. But those efforts don’t have a consensus, and there was no large scale public debate about them. Moreover, they mainly address conceptual frames, lacking a translation of those concepts into actual procedural steps that can formulate a political regime not contradicting the aggregate rights and freedoms dominating the contemporary political thought.
The above mentioned failure in tackling the question about the relationship between Islam and Politics was reflected historically from two basic angles, the first represented in the rise of the national Middle Eastern state as an artificial entity detached from the natural social interactions, in contrast to the European model. The second comes from the nature of the political regimes that governed those states from the 1920s and didn’t take into consideration the cultural and historical characteristics of this region.
The Modern-Day Nation-State Model
It’s worth mentioning that the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923, following Atatürk’s revolution, and the implementation of Sykes–Picot Agreement by the colonial states fragmented the Ottoman Empire into artificial states with fake borders. In other words, the nation-state model that emerged in Europe after centuries of religious wars and conflicts was imposed by force on the Islamic countries mainly in the Middle East, and the inhabitants of those countries found themselves in political entities that they didn’t participate in making. Nor does it reflect their societal realities, unlike few other exceptional nations in the area that were historically related to the concept of nation-state (the Egyptian model).
To note, because the Middle Eastern nation-state model didn’t emerge from the core experiences and interactions of the region, this led to the creation of fragile states despite the fake aggressiveness of its political regimes. The aforementioned reality was clearly illustrated in the inability of these regimes to fend off a real threat known as ‘The Arab Spring’, and as a result they have transformed into entities heading toward disintegration or witnessing a painful transitional period of examining an alternative path that might emerge from the region’s interactions. This partially explains the rise of the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS) as a manifestation of these painful interactions, that won’t stop as long as the inevitable historical questions are not answered and mainly the question addressing the relationship between Islam and politics. At this juncture, the dispute over the issue of Caliphate remains with all the contradictory opinions, especially since the Quran text and prophetic narratives (Hadith) didn’t address this issue that was basically connected to the historical practices of the Muslims themselves.
The Imposition of the nation-state model created a feeling of political alienation among the people of the region, which was strengthened by the emergence of political regimes that demanded its subjects (not citizens) implicitly to abandon their rights in political participation unlike the western states. In other words, those regimes decided to preserve the colonial heritage that reverberated in the nation-state (results of Sykes–Picot Agreement) without applying western liberal democratic political models, maintaining their power either by frightening their subjects with their security cadres (The Iron Fist) or through using financial incentives that granted their subjects good living standards in return for their acceptance of the political regimes (The Economic Holiday), or by using both tools.
The Arab Spring
This nature of the Middle Eastern political regimes pre 2011, especially their detachment from the public as a result of the above mentioned political alienation, accelerated their collapse in front of the enormous public pressure, in a way that exceeded the expectations of analysts and observers. Inaccurate scientific western predictions speculated about the possibility of implementing liberal democratic well-known ruling models, while ignoring an essential fact that these revolutions were accompanied by an unconscious desire of its participants to put an end to the dominating political alienation. Thus, despite the fact that the slogans used in the streets primarily demanded simple socio-economic demands without using complicated political concepts, these demands were only achievable through formulating a political regime/model that would end the political alienation between Islam, not only as a religion but also as the highest cultural identity in the region, and the modern democratic values. Only then would it be capable of representing the inhabitants of the area and respond to their demands. But unfortunately no one introduced such a regime. A year of stumbling and incapable Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt confirmed this fact and ended the dream of the people for such a regime because of many unanswered questions, including a fundamental one about the relationship between Islam and politics.
The intellectuals of the Arab world, as usual, failed to answer the inevitable historical question, and declined to invent a new concept that would end the problematic cognitive dissonance between Islam as a religion or cultural identity on one hand and politics on the other hand, They also didn’t attempt to build a political regime on a common ground between the supporters of draconian so well organized political Islamic movements and the secular forces interested in preserving their interests. The concept of ‘civil state’ that doesn’t exist in the literature of sociology surfaced as a proof for this complicated reality. The liberal secular stream didn’t bother thinking about how to realistically resolve its tensions with the political Islamic camp, for example through pushing the Islamists to adopt religious principles without imposing them on the society, or adopting rigid constitutions to guarantee the limits of the political Islamic parties when they are in power, or specifying the unconstitutionality of any law that contradicts with the sovereignty of the state and the integrity of its territories, or enhancing the role of judicial authority in monitoring. |As a result, both streams lost the public trust and the momentum following the waves of what is called the ‘Arab Spring’.
New Ideas Needed
We are aware of the complexity entrenched in approaching the relationship between Islam and politics, or the difficulty in giving a clear answer for this very multifaceted question, but this doesn’t prevent us from introducing a few ideas:
- - The difference between the value system guiding western civilization and that which guides the Islamic one. The value of Freedom (Liberty) dominates other values such as Justice and Equality in the hierarchy of the western value system, while in the Islamic value system Justice is prevailing above all. Thus the set of values or the hierarchy of values embedded in the democratic liberal value system is not compatible with the order used in the Islamic one. This demonstrates the inevitable necessity to find a ruling model that is consonant with the hierarchal scheme of the Islamic value system. Moreover, this ruling model should preserve the procedural indicators existing in the definition of democratic regimes, like respecting the rights of minorities, the separation between the three main authorities, the independence of the judiciary, etc.
- - To distinguish between the Quranic verses (Aya) or the prophetic narratives (Hadith) with political implications on one hand and those revealed for purposes related to legal jurisdiction on the other hand. This distinction would help in protecting the Quranic verses and the prophetic narratives from being misused as political means, like كقوله تعالى "ومن لم يحكم بما أنزل الله فأولئك هم الكافرون", “Those who do not judge by God´s revelations are infidels indeed” (Al-Ma’idah, Ayah 44). Moreover, the procedural definition of the Islamic law (Sharia) must be clarified in order to forestall any political abuse of the concept by some profiteers. In this context, The Islamic Law (Sharia) is mainly divided into Faith provisions that address the relationship between the believer and his lord, ethical provisions that aim to purify human’s behaviors and actions, and practical provisions to organize his/her relationship with the society (trade, inheritance, marriage, divorce, etc), in addition to other issues like punishment laws (Hudud crimes). Thus it is not possible to merge all of the Sharia in the punishment laws as some political Islamic movements are preaching.
- - To identify the Quranic verses with political implications, as "وأمرهم شورى بينهم", “And their affairs are conducted by mutual consultation among themselves” (Al-Shura, Ayah 38). Although consultation is considered as a basic element in the Quranic text, there is no clear explanation for the term ‘consultation or how to transform it from the conceptual framework into the procedural indicators, that allows Muslims to interpret the verse in a flexible manner according to their political, economic, and social needs. In other words, this undoubtedly leaves no contradiction between the procedural definition of democracy and the ability to establish a political regime in accordance with the Islamic designated values.
- - The absolute relativity in the temporal political domain, in which every Muslim has the right to disagree and adopt independent reasoning or interpretation (ijtihād/diligence), taking into consideration that Islam didn’t confer or grant any ruler a religious authority, his authority is civil from all aspects and is subjected to the consensus of the people whom may remove him in accordance to their interests.
- - It’s also imperative to address the only prophetic practice represented in the ‘Charter of Medina’ that constituted the first social contract in the Islamic history, as this document considered the inhabitants of ‘Madina’ as a civil society capable of showing solidarity, cooperation and unity in safeguarding the interests of its members regardless of their religious or ethnic ties. The ‘Charter of Medina’ included the Jewish tribes in the ‘Ummah’ as an evidence that Islam is not against building nations formed of different religious or ethnic groups. It granted also its citizens freedom of faith “Jews have their own religion, and the Muslims their own”, freedom of expression without discrimination, juridical and legislative independence for minorities, joint defense regardless of religious background, and the right to observe and to question.
- - The absence of conflict between the secular values and the five basic or universal necessities (priorities) on which the lives of people depend, and whose neglect leads to total disruption and chaos in the Islamic perspective. These five necessities are Religion (moral values), Life, Intellect, Procreation, and Property (money).
To conclude, there is no way to surpass the inevitable necessity of clarifying the relationship between Islam as the highest cultural identity in the Middle East and the political domain. The lack of desire or knowledge of the need to answer the historical imperative question about the relationship between religion and politics will keep the region in its medieval era, similar to the European Middle Ages. While the European experience concluded with the complete separation between religion and the state as a result of the complicated and bloody interactions, the Middle Eastern interactions are still open to different scenarios, taking into consideration that the region will confront diverse manifestations as a result of avoidance of the aforementioned question. Those manifestations started with the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings and have continued in different forms, whether in the form of traditional demonstrations or the brutal killings by the fanatic groups. Long-term stability of any political regime or entity is not attainable without addressing inevitable historical questions about the relationship between Islam and Politics, the ability to rebuild a middle class in the Islamic entities through social mobility mechanisms, and developing political regimes that is capable of absorbing the critical social divisions.