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Home arrow Political science arrow Encounters with Islam: On Religion, Politics and Modernity

Pasting Green Labels

During the Cold War era, the developing world seemed to be presented with a clear-cut choice between the socialist path of ‘top-down’ industrialisation and social modernisation through the agency of an all-powerful state, and liberal models that relied on the operations of supposedly benign market forces. In the Islamic world the ideological divide was influenced profoundly by the experience of peoples such as the Egyptians, Indo- Muslims, Algerians and Indonesians, who had just broken free from the tutelage, and humiliations, of the Western European colonial powers. A leftward slant seemed inevitable in the circumstances; Western governments were seen to have exploited their power or political leverage to impose unfavourable terms of trade or to make compliant regimes sign agreements that mortgaged their export commodities, such as oil. Despite the repression of Islam in the Caucasus, Central Asia and China, the Soviet and Chinese models of development seemed more benign. Islamic scholars and ideologues, co-opted by governments, argued that Muhammad was the original socialist, and that the early caliphs were all socialists at heart. As the Egyptian writer, Mahmud Shalabi, put it in 1962: ‘We have an independent socialism springing from our history, our beliefs and our nature.’ However, the appropriation of Islam and its symbols by authoritarian states with single-party, Eastern-European-style governments led rapidly to disillusionment among Muslim intellectuals - especially after the catastrophic defeat of Egypt, Jordan and Syria by Israel in the June 1967 war. Voices that had always expressed scepticism about official, left-leaning Islam became more voluble and gained a wider hearing.

Honed by persecution in Egypt and Syria, and fuelled by injections of patronage from conservative oil-bearing states, the Islamist movement in its various guises tried to forge a more authentic idea of an ‘Islamic’ political economy. The slogan ‘Neither East nor West, Islam is Best’ encapsulated the idea that ‘Islam’ was not ‘just a religion’ but a full-blown ‘ideology’ rooted in the Qur’an, the exemplary life of Muhammad and the comprehensive system of jurisprudence that flowed from them. This ideology was supposed to supply distinctive ‘Islamic’ solutions to issues of development, economic management, finance, gender relations and political power. The movement reached its climactic moment in 1978-9 with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the proclamation of Khomeini’s revolutionary Islamic Republic.

Any lingering suspicion that Islamism might lean more towards socialism than liberalism was destroyed by the USSR’s invasion in 1979, under the Soviet leader Brezhnev, of Afghanistan. Forget that pro-Soviet governments in Kabul had brought electricity, female education, decent if basic hospitals, and some solid infrastructural necessities such as clean water and paved roads, to regions of a country where poverty and illiteracy had ruled for centuries. The great jihad supported by the Saudis (and covertly by the Americans) not only destroyed the left-leaning government in Kabul. It also set in motion the momentous train of events in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that brought an end to the Soviet Union itself. For Panglossian Western voices such as Francis Fukuyama, the ‘end of history’ signalled by the triumph of capitalism was complete. For Muslim ideologues such as Abdullah Azzam, one of Osama bin Laden’s intellectual mentors, however, the message of Soviet collapse was quite different. Just as the early caliphs had destroyed the armies of Persia before gaining control of Roman Byzantium’s wealthiest provinces, so the Islamist movement - the Third or Middle Way between the empires of East and West - would triumph against the crusading armies of the United States and its Muslim lackeys. Territories once held by Islam (including Spain) would be restored to Islamic rule. In a globalised world, moreover, ambitions were no longer confined to restoring territories lost many centuries before. For Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, the influential Indo-Muslim ideologist, who died in 1979, the ultimate objective of jihad must be the establishment of a ‘universal Islamic order which would use the spirit of jihad and the instrument of revolution to capture power through the existing state system and thereby guarantee the rule of Islam’ in perpetuity.

Where Islamism has come to power, as in Iran and Sudan, the political forms seem no less authoritarian than the systems they intend to replace. Nor is it at all clear what the actual content of Islamist government may be in terms of the universal categories that define modernity: namely, liberal market capitalism and its (perhaps only temporarily eclipsed) former rivals and counterparts - state socialism and communism. This is the demanding task that Charles Tripp has set himself by examining the writings of the leading Muslim intellectuals who have grappled with this question. On a brilliant and comprehensive reading of the sources, both Muslim and occidental, he arrives at a conclusion that will dismay Muslim radicals without giving much comfort to the (now discredited) proponents of the ‘war on terror’. Islamism rests on fragile intellectual foundations. Far from being rooted in the ‘authentic’ discourse of Islam, most of its ideas are borrowed from the West it claims to abhor.

Muslim responses to the transformation of local economies under the pressure of market forces ranged from the Luddite-style attacks on spinning machines and factories by the so-called ‘Wahhabis’ in Northern India, in defence of Muslim weavers, early in the nineteenth century, to the wholesale adoption of capitalist institutions by reforming governments operating under Western colonial auspices. Despite the obvious contrast in methods, there were common ethical concerns. Islamic jurisprudence, derived from the Qur’an and Muhammad’s precepts, places a strong emphasis on fair exchange and social harmony. An often quoted hadith, or saying, attributed to the Prophet states that ‘wealth is the test of my community’ - implying that its possession would test their moral fortitude. Many twentieth-century Muslim writings - echoing the criticisms of Christian socialists as well as Marxists - argue that capitalism removes all restrictions on the acquisition and spending of money, promoting excessive concentrations of wealth and the commodification of basic necessities such as food and sex, making money the measure of all things, to the detriment of moral values. At the start of the twentieth century, Talaat Harb, an Egyptian financier, was inspired to found Egypt’s first national bank because of his concern that the foreign capital flooding into the country was eroding the social solidarity of the peasants, and with similar consequences for urban society. Yet he was far from being anti-capitalist, seeing in the modern banking system an effective machine for engineering growth and economic development. He hoped it could be ‘tamed’ by embedding it in the matrix of Islamic social values. Muhammad Abduh, the Islamic reformer who abandoned his former nationalism to collaborate with Lord Cromer, the British pro-consul in Egypt in the interest of modernisation, argued that capitalism diminished moral constraints, and particularly the quintessentially Islamic virtues of compassion, mercy, solidarity and co-operation. His Turkish contemporary, Said Halim Pasha, went even further: ‘Modern culture, based as it is on national egoism is ... only another form of barbarism. It is the result of an over-developed industrialism through which men satisfy their primitive instincts and inclinations.’ The consensus of progressive thinkers held that, while capitalism was dangerous - especially when its levers were held in irresponsible foreign hands - its effects could be mitigated by bringing it within the frame of Islamic moral precepts.

This hope, however, would prove to be elusive. The tradition of fiqh - Islamic jurisprudence - addressed the ethical responsibilities of the pious believer; it had little to say about society as such. Indeed ‘society’, as understood by Western social theorists, lies outside the conceptual universe of traditional Islamic thought. The need to accommodate society’s needs, and to defend the Islamic social order against the depredations of capitalism, required the adoption of novel categories - though these were cleverly smuggled into a renovated Muslim discourse by the use of familiar terminology. Thus Abduh, an admirer of Herbert Spencer, elevated maslahah, the public interest as acknowledged by traditional fiqh, into a defining principle of his reformist agenda. Under the rubric of maslahah, the public good and social benefit became the yardsticks by which social transactions would be judged. As Tripp points out, a signal change in intellectual outlook occurred with a shift of emphasis towards the state as the guardian and implementer of maslahah. Traditional Islamic discourse, rooted in the history of nomadic incursions and the mamluk or ‘slave’ dynasties that flowed from them, took a highly sceptical view of state power. Though the sultans and amirs who took over after the collapse of the Arab caliphate were theoretically subject to the divine law of Islam, there were no mechanisms other than moral suasion for calling the rulers to account. Islamic civil society existed more- or-less independently of the state. Not only did the ‘privileging of state power’ represent a radical break with the ‘decidedly cautious treatment of the state by generations of Islamic jurists’; it soon became apparent to ideologues such as Sayyid Qutb, executed by Nasser in 1966 but whose prison writings continue to inspire today’s jihadists, that the state had a secular agenda wholly at variance with the aim of creating a ‘good’ Islamic society based on the example of the Prophet and his immediate successors, the ‘rightly-guided’ caliphs. Disillusionment with state systems that were authoritarian, repressive and corrupt divided the Islamist movement between a pragmatic majority (represented by the main body of the Muslim Brotherhood) prepared to lobby for its values within the existing order, and the revolutionary utopians belonging to an array of different groups who followed Qutb’s call for a vanguard preparing for power in order to subject society to true Islamic governance. As a result mainly of the military disasters in Iraq, Afghanistan and the continuing crisis in Israel-Palestine, the Qutbists are gaining ground after a period of eclipse when (following massacres of tourists in Egypt and the carnage inflicted by al-Qaeda in East Africa and New York) the radical hinterlands had been alienated by attacks on civilians and damage to tourism livelihoods.

The rebirth of Islamist extremism, however, tells us little about the alternatives to market liberalism and socialism proclaimed by the slogans. In the economic realm, ambiguity continues to reign, without a clear definition of what is meant by ‘Islamic’ economics. In many cases, as Tripp points out, Islamist writings echo the critiques of market forces advanced by Fabians and Christian socialists, while the influence of Keynes is pervasive. In essence, the moral critiques of capitalism, and of socialism, advanced by Muslim intellectuals are not substantially different from those offered by Fabians or neo-liberals, leaving the impression that in this arena (as in others, including arguments about political activism) ‘Islamic’ is simply a label attached to imported intellectual goods. Digging deep into texts of influential Islamist writers such as the Iraqi Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (executed by Saddam Hussein), Tripp discerns the foundations of ‘Islamic economics’ as lying uneasily between the classical occidental model of the self-interested individual as the agent of economic motivation, and the construction of an ideal-typical ‘Islamic personality’ who is supposed to act in accordance with Islamic teachings because he remains mindful of his responsibilities before God. However, it is far from clear how a ‘calculus of utility which incorporates the hereafter’ can influence action in the world by contributing to greater social justice, or how it could transform economies configured around the existing right-left spectrum by creating innovative new methods or institutions. When institutionalised by governments, zakat - the charity to which Muslims are obliged to contribute - is liable to meet with resistance, since governments are considered unreliable; while, as socialists have often argued, charitable giving to the ‘poor’ may simply serve to uphold economic inequalities. Similarly, the prohibition of riba, or usury, widely interpreted by latter-day Islamists (though not by earlier reformers such as Abduh) as meaning fixed interest payments on deposits and loans, has generated an array of financial institutions in which lenders and borrowers are supposed to share the burden of risk in equal measure. The results are not impressive. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the prohibition of riba has contributed to a flourishing black economy. And elsewhere, despite earlier promises that the new financial system would offer a ‘third way’ between socialism and capitalism, the whole system has become fragmented and subject to arbitrary rules, with well-paid Islamic scholars scouring the corpus of the legal tradition to find ways of legitimising transactions developed in the larger context of the global financial markets. ‘In reality,’ comments Tripp, ‘the Islamic banks have challenged neither the idea nor the institution of the capital market which is at the heart of global capitalism. On the contrary, they have merely created a niche in that market for themselves.’

A comparable ambiguity in the relations between Islam and modernity in the era of global capital pervades the most egregious of the symbolic markers erected by the Islamists to distinguish themselves both from outsiders and from their ordinary co-religionists: the various forms of female covering loosely termed the ‘veil’ in English. In a chapter rich in irony, Tripp shows how women clad in these shapeless garments have turned on its head what was originally an exclusively male discourse in which women were ‘passive participants on whom could be inscribed all the moral preoccupations of their male counterparts’. In fighting capitalist domination and colonial occupation, the Muslim family was seen as a final refuge, a ‘strategic point of departure for a more general Islamic order’, or even a ‘revolutionary cell which, in concert with others, would organise effective resistance to the structures of political and economic power’. Disconcerting as it was for such male intellectuals, women ‘were now determined to inscribe themselves into the narrative, not as ideally constructed clusters of virtues, but as active interpreters of their own fate’.

Far from heralding resistance to the pervasive capitalist order, the veil represents a type of accommodation, with ‘license now given to women to join the labour force on a par with men’. This development, would have horrified Qutb - who argued that by going out to work women were contravening the divinely instituted natural order and threatening the very foundations of social life. The veil, however, is not just an empty token: while defining Islamic identity and symbolising rejection of the supposed ‘commodification’ of female sexuality, the veil has enabled a growing body of assertive women to ‘emerge as actors in spheres the contours of which are not necessarily dictated by men’ and to open up ‘key questions about social roles, equal rights, social utility and the gendering of knowledge’.

This is a far more constructive response to capitalist hegemony than resorting to violence, the subject of Tripp’s final chapter. Here, his insights are no less penetrating than his deconstruction of Islamic economics. The protean nature of capitalism renders violence both politically futile and symbolically meaningful. On the practical level, its use merely enmeshes its perpetrators in the coils of state power. Symbolically, however, the ‘propaganda of the deed’ such as 9/11 may succeed in its aim of removing the ‘false consciousness’ from Muslim minds, making them aware of the parlous nature of their situation: here, as elsewhere in the book, Tripp reveals how ideas adopted from European anarchists such as Bakunin and Malatesta are rebranded with Islamic labels. Appropriately for the world’s most scriptorally-driven creed, Islam provides the ‘alphabet’ by which ideas in the world’s intellectual superstores are appropriated. But the ‘grammar’ is far from being ‘Islamic’. It is already ‘out there’, external to the tradition, shaped by the hegemonic power of global capitalism.

Published in The Times Literary Supplement,26 January 2007.

The book reviewed was:_

Charles Tripp (2006) Islam and the Moral Economy: The Challenge of Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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