Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Islam and the Political (book review)

Couched heavily in academic jargon this book probably benefits those the least who need it the most: political activists. Nonetheless, Amr G.E. Sabet (and his publishers Pluto Press) must be congratulated for providing us with a first comprehensive attempt at conceptualising Islamic politics and political Islam, for, as he rightly observes, "[t]he absence of a relevant methodological framework ... manifests a condition of dependency on the donor civilization's epochal formations and definitions of reality." Thus "[r]einstating the dynamics of Islamic history ...largely hinges upon the dialectics of the past, present, and future creating a new consensus or a confirmation of who Muslims are, what they want to be, and how they want to be. These queries constitute structural and existential concerns over identity which must be addressed if Muslims are to confront their perceived disenchanted condition."

Sabet demarcates the relationship with the West through a "self-referential" circular political theory of Islam and reclaims, courageously, Islam's right to universal truth at the expense of all other alleged truisms: "That which makes claims to truth, and defines its source from outside of history, cannot relinquish its rights to both justice and universality without forsaking its own essence." He is scathing about "opportunity hoarders" in the Muslim world doing the bidding for secular hegemonial power and has no respect for Islamic pretentions by Muslim-majority states failing to apply Islam consistently. About the attempt of the Turkish ruling party to graft Islamic values onto a secular stem he comments that "employing all the political skills that served to bring the AKP to power may turn out to have been the easy part." And as for the Hijaz and the Arabs: "Saudi Arabia ... is neither "fundamentalist" nor Islamic ... [its policy] essentially served to render Israel the real and sole regional power." and: "when for instance Arabs complain about the atrocities that Israel commits against the Palestinians, frequently the retort is that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Falling into the discoursive trap, Arabs fret trying to prove that Israel is not a democratic state, as if democracy is the issue, instead of citing it as an example of the organic bond between democracy, on the one hand, and power and colonial discourses on the other... One should be aware, therefore, of strategic deceptions of the kind incorporated in concepts, labels, or mechanisms such as terrorism, democracy, freedom, equality, and others yet to come."

As can be seen from this quote already, he does not shirk away from calling a spade a spade when it comes to Western concepts everybody seems to these days feel compelled to subscribe to, and quite rightly describes "human rights" as a mere discourse of power behind which is hidden the ongoing attempt of making secularism dominant whilst "it may still be too early to talk about a "post-colonial" phase." "In its essential characteristics, secularism is irreligious, and therefore anti-Islamic. By extension, so is liberal democracy... Labeling an individual or group as being democratic or undemocratic in many ways becomes the secular equivalent to the religious affirmation of faith or of excommunication. The "non-democrat" becomes essentially the "non-believer" whose life and property is fair game... In confronting the Western discourse, Islam can only shape reality rather than adapt to it. If it is to do so, Islam will definitely have to be re-politicized and restored to its true essence as a political religion capable of overcoming historical conditions."

Sabet looks at the "Umma" with a viewpoint to the international order in which it exists. "The crisis that the Muslim world faces thus extends beyond the issue of the legitimacy of regimes to that of the legitimacy of the state structure itself." "No longer is the state simply a means to power and wealth from the inside shielded by sovereignty from the outside - which some may call corruption - but a structure of "durable inequality" of which the former predicament is but one source." Of course, Western liberalism, especially after the collapse of Communism, also tries to re-arrange international relations, and Sabet does not miss the fact that a lot of Western rhetoric contains subterfuge as well as hypocrisy: "To the great power society such transformation [of the state] will mean more integration and unity in the style of the European Union (EU) or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, Mexico, and the US, or the consolidation of power and hgemonic influence of the Jewish state of Israel over its neighbors... For the Muslim world, in contradistinction, the same discourse regarding the state translates into "humanitarian intervention", "minority rights", and "right to secession" or self-determination, among other supposedly lofty yet practically fragmentary principles." Thus he observes that "as globalization is being universalized as a system of durable inequality, it becomes clear that human rights is nothing more than the ideological underpinning of such a global order."

Has Sabet pondered about the post-modern phase which appears to bear out the self-destructive propensity of the liberal-secular project? He rather sees it as an exercise in justification: "In its discursive and Orwellian double-talk, post-modernity simply represents the latest attempt at universalizing Western values in the guise of modest self-denial or "unmaking"." "Marxism, which had plausibly been presented as a "form of religion" ... has provided for the visible repressive and dominative elements of secularism which, while concomitantly serving the rational interests of its Liberal counterpart, allowed the latter to plead innocence. With Marxism's collapse, liberalism has been faced with the task of having to do the job itself. And since it is not equipped by its very logic to manifestly claim universal truths, post-modernity reflects the latest took in the liberal-democratic secular arsenal to universalize itself while still pleading innocence... Post-modernity, in effect, constitutes nothing more than the appropriated euphemism for (pseudo) nihilism in the same fashion that reason constituted the appropriated euphemism for Western passion."

So does the author have the answer to the problems faced by a disenfranchised Muslim Umma? Throughout the book he claims he does by citing the example of the Iranian Revolution and advocating that a leadership vacuum could be filled by Iran as having successfully defined a new concept of an Islamic state in the process. In fact, he goes as far as saying "I propose Iran for Islamic world leadership." In support of this stance he argues that "It is more than a coincidence that the only time and place where Israel has been forced to withdraw unconditionally [in the Lebanon] where the Iranian revolution has been relatively successfully exported."

It appears, that the author is somewhat blinded by wishing a success which has not been sustained. There is no denying the important, even catalytic, effects of the Iranian revolution, however, whether it has provided effective leadership is doubtful. It could be claimed that in fact it failed to effectively communicate its vision to its following and did rely too heavily on charismatic leadership. This is less a criticism of the Islamic revolution in Iran than an assessment of reality. The Islamic Party of Britain, for example, which I co-founded, suffered from the very same failings. What Sabet misses entirely is how even leadership is today mediated by the rhetoric of mass media image making, largely successful because of the anonymous nature of society in which traditional means of leadership selection have been eroded.

When Sabet cites that B.H. Liddel Hart "emphasized the crucial importance of conception as a guiding principle in peace and/or conflict. He understood the fact that distracting the mind and expectations of opponents deprives them of their freedom of action as a sequel to their loss of freedom of conception... Fighting becomes secondary or redundant as opponents lose their sense of self-representation and consequently change their purpose, consciously or otherwise." In this he is entirely correct, but it seems he fails to perceive the detrimental effects such intellectual warfare can have even on the attempted rebellion against and recovery from it.

However, there is another omission, much more grave: Sabet restricts his analysis to matters social and political. In his criticism of the Moroccan writer Muhammad Abed al-Jabri's book "The Arab Political Mind" he tells us that the latter "...identified three key organic determinants which he believed to have constituted the basic components of a pre-modern Islamic historical superstructural order: The tribe (collectivity); the spoils (economics); and the faith (Islam)." That the societal order is a three-legged stool is also clear from the description of the Pharaonic system in the Qur'an of being represented by "Qarun, Haman, and Fir'aun" - representing the economic, the intellectual and the collective respectively. Sabet has eloquently addressed issues of conceptualisation, indoctrination, (media) rhetoric, ideology (Haman) and political power and domination (Fir'aun/Pharaoh), but a state or entity having only appropriated those two aspects without being in charge of its own economy (Haman) will still fall.

The sad observation that actual interest rates in Iran currently are at around 36% is probably the most striking indication that the Islamic revolution in Iran was ultimately not a success since economic injustice prevents and violates political and social justice. This is not a Shia-Sunni issue, and the author is correct that such "mazhab" issues must be overcome; Sudan is a Sunni example where both the education system (Haman) and the political system (Fir'aun) were reformed, but the IMF remained in the driving seat regarding the economy, turning the political success ultimately into a false hope and betrayed sacrifice by the people. Unless the monetary system underlying the economic organisation is seriously addressed, "durable equality" persists, and any talk of Islamic State or Islamic Revolution remains a mere marketing ploy, hence it seems appropriate to refer to a quote from Ignacio Ramonet the author cites in his book: "Marketing has become so sophisticated that it aims to sell not just a brand name or social sign, but an identity. It's all based on the principle that having is being." Whether Western companies sell halal banking, halal mortgages, and now even halal car insurance to profiteer from the "modern and moderate Muslim" whose image they create, or whether political regimes try to stay in power by internally dressing up as an Islamic state allegedly combatting the West whilst externally submitting and conforming to the global financial elites, the difference is only one of scale. As Sabet rightly observes: "Once the religious regime is securely situated in power, and especially after the inevitable demise of charismatic leadership, it will eventually attempt to institutionalize and preserve the status quo. The revolutionary regime will adopt a conservative attitude and will not be inclined to change." Thus the success of Hizbullah in the Lebanon may not be so much due to having imported the Islamic Revolution, as the author asserts, but due to the fact that it operates outside the constraints of its own state structure.

"Islam and the Political" is an important starting point in addressing issues long overdue. Its serious limitations, however, give rise to the not unfounded fear that Muslims will continue to be overtaken by world events rather than begin to shape their own destiny.

Amr G.E. Sabet's book Islam and the Political - Theory, Governance and International Relations was published as a paperback (309 pages) by Pluto Press in 2008.