Thursday, December 2, 2010

Towards Understanding Islam in the Postcolonial World Order 2/5

Political Islam in the Muslim World

by Taj Hashmi

The situation in Egypt, Sudan and Somalia is not that different from Algeria; the only major difference being their different colonial experiences. Unlike Algeria, Egypt was not sharply polarized between Western and Vernacular elites, as the titular heads of state or the khedives (later glorified as kings up to 1952) ran the administration with both Western and Arabic elites. By gagging the freedom of expression, proscribing all opposition parties and even executing dissenting politicians, postcolonial rulers have left no space for constitutional politics either in Egypt. As under Nasser and Sadat, Hosni Mubarak’s government also does not allow political dissent. Since April 2008, there has been a crackdown on the anti-Mubarak “Facebook Revolution” by Ahmed Maher. This youth movement through Facebook and Twitter has been mobilizing support for boycotting sham elections under Mubarak.[3] Dissident Muslim Brotherhood and others also face persecution on a regular basis. This has paved the way for clandestine organizations, especially the Jihadists. It is noteworthy that Pan-Islamist thinker Jamal al-Din Afghani’s Egyptian “great-grand-disciple”, Hassan al-Banna was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Banna’s disciple, Sayyid Qutb directly inspired Ayman al-Zawahiri “who in 1967 established the first jihadist cell in the Arab world”. [4]

It is noteworthy that Indian (Pakistani after 1947) Islamist Maulana Maududi (1903-1979), who founded the Jamaat-i-Islami (Party of Islam) in 1941, was both influenced by the Brotherhood and his writings also influenced the latter. However, Jamaat and Brotherhood were (are) different as well; while Maududi admired fascism, Banna had admiration for socialism and wanted social justice for the poor. Interestingly, although the Egyptian Brotherhood holds a supranational ideology, the FIS in Algeria has been primarily an Algerian nationalist movement for “Islamo-nationalism”.[5]  


Islamism is not a new factor in Sudan. In 1881 Muhammad ibn Abdallah proclaimed himself the Mahdi or Messiah and declared “jihad” against Ottoman rule. The Mahdi, and after him his son Sadiq al Mahdi, ran a theocratic Mahdi State (1883-1898) in northern Sudan. The country became a military-backed theocracy during 1989 and 1999 while General Omar Bashir and the “de facto ruler”, militant cleric Hassan-el-Turabi, were in good terms. Since its relatively smooth transition to democracy after the first multi-party elections in April 2010, we may see the end of Islamist resurgence and militancy, which dogged the country for almost two decades. Sudan provides an example of how international pressure to de-Islamize the polity and the fear of total disintegration of the country worked towards democratic transition.

 Then again, we must not lose sight of the fact that Western biased media, leaders and people with extreme prejudice against everything Islamic or Muslim represent did not miss the opportunity to misrepresent the tribal civil war in Darfur as an “Arab and Islamic” onslaught on “non-Arabs” – Muslim and Christian – in southern Darfur.

Somalia is another example of colonial misgovernance and plunder. Once resourceful and fertile, Somalia went through about a century of Egyptian, Italian, British and French colonial rule. Italy and Britain controlled the country for eighty years up to 1960. While northwestern Somalia, which was under the “benign” British has a semblance of governance and law and order; the “not-so-benign” Italian controlled (1880-1960) southeastern region, under Islamist warlords and pirates is one of the least governable regions in the world posing grave threat to the security of the entire region. It seems Somalian Islamist groups, the Al-Shabab and their likes, are being inspired by the fighting traditions of Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, the “Mad Mullah” of the British colonial rulers up to World War I. [6] 

The unique Islamist regime of Saudi Arabia, which openly practices and promotes the age-old Shariah code beyond its perimeter, is a Western ally. Although scholars and leaders across the world despise the pre-modern Wahhabism, the state-ideology of the country, the oil-rich monarchy has love-hate relationship with the West. Ultra-orthodox Wahhabism emerged as an alternative to the colonial Ottoman caliphate which ran the country and the neighboring regions of Iraq-Kuwait and Greater Syria up to the end of World War I. Had there been some space for liberal nationalist movements under the autocratic Turkish caliphate, the more stringent and backward-looking Wahhabis would not have succeeded in establishing what Saudi orthodoxy represents today. The Saudi promotion of Sunni orthodoxy reflects the regime’s paranoia about pro-Iranian, anti-monarchical “Shiite heresy” and the growing Muslim Brotherhood-Iranian understanding.[7] 


Iran is very different from other Muslim-majority countries in many respects. Although never formally colonized by any European power, this predominantly Shiite polity remained subservient to the West until the 1979 Revolution. Iranian mullahs did not always oppose the West. The well-entrenched formally hierarchical clergy, a class of privileged landed gentry that virtually was “running a state within the state” under Muhammad Reza Shah; unlike Sunni clerics, have been well-educated in Western sciences and philosophy, including comparative religion and Marxism. [8] Had the Shah left the ayatollahs and mujtahids to themselves by not adversely affecting them by his problematic land reform program or the White Revolution, there would not have been any Islamic Revolution. [9]

In neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamic resurgence is a by-product of what foreign invasions, ethno-national conflicts and civil wars turned them into, failing if not totally failed states. Saddam Hussein’s minority Sunni autocracy in Iraq; and more than three decade-long civil wars – fought on ethno-national / tribal and even on sectarian lines – caused and accentuated by foreign invasions and interventions in Afghanistan, led to the ongoing Islamist terrorism and ethnic cleansing in these countries. Colonial rulers’ arbitrarily drawn lines to reconstruct the political geography; and the postcolonial rulers’ denial of any space to civil societies and freedom of expression in both Iraq and Afghanistan made room for Islamism, a hotchpotch of tribal, sectarian, ethnic and other identities. Al Qaeda’s exploitative-cum-hegemonic mobilization of Sunni and Pashtun  ethno-national groups, respectively in Iraq and Afghanistan; and most importantly, American (Western) sponsorship of the “jihad” against Soviet Union in 1980 were the catalysts of Islamism in both Iraq and Afghanistan and beyond. Islamist violence in Iraq may be attributed to the Shiite assertion, Sunni retaliation and the invasion of 2003. The Afghan situation is quite complex; tribalism, ethno-nationalism, narcoterrorism and proxy wars by India, Pakistan and Iran are the main factors behind the Afghan crisis, or “quagmire” as some analysts love to use the expression with regard to Western intervention in the country. Despite the hyperboles about the “success” of the “Surge” in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact remains that even if they emerge as stable democracies in the distant future, the Ummah is least likely to forget and forgive the US and its allies for directly or indirectly killing around a million Muslims in these countries since 1991.

Tom Friedman has aptly described the bleak, undesirable situation in Afghanistan on the CNN. To paraphrase him: “Americans’ Training Afghans to fight is like someone training Brazilians to play soccer…. Who are training the Taliban? They even don’t have maps and don’t know how to use one….America needs nation-building at home, spending another trillion dollars in Afghanistan won’t work …. American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan may be compared with an unemployed couple’s adopting a child.”[10]  

While the situation in Pakistan to some extent is similar to that in Bangladesh vis-à-vis Islamist politics, Pakistan has probably more in common with Afghanistan and what Algeria was going through in the 1990s with regard to Islamist terrorism. It is rather too early to assume that Islamist terror in these countries is going through its passing phase. Undoubtedly al-Qaeda and the Taliban are retreating, having very little support among Pakistanis, and their support base has always been very weak and insignificant in both Pakistan and Bangladesh. Yet, both these countries are paying the price of state-sponsorship of political Islam. Again, factors responsible for the growth of proto-fascist intolerance and extremism – secular or religious – such as youth bulge, mass poverty, illiteracy, misgovernance and corruption are very much around in both Pakistan and Bangladesh. Last but not least, they are still struggling over their identities. The polities are not sure if they are primarily multi-ethnic / multi-lingual or “Islamic”.
Source:  Wichaar

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