Items filtered by date: April 2016

In the first installment of this blog we looked at Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State (2013) and in following the assessment of two reviewers, Lama Abu-Odeh and Andrew March, we felt Hallaq helpfully highlighted some of the challenges of pressing traditional Islamic legal norms into the service of a modern nation-state.

On the other hand, his rather rigid and dogmatic portrayal of the “normative” Islamic state painted an ideal picture of the privileged relationship between the ulama (Islamic scholars and jurists) and the people, as if the political powers never interfered with the ulama’s role as the umma’s moral guardians in God’s name.

In fact the rulers, in the name of Shari’a politics, set up their own norms in several crucial areas, like controlling the markets, setting up their own courts for a variety of criminal offenses, and enacting regulations in the name of public utility (maslaha). This happened to such a degree that under the Mamluks and Ottomans it was the jurists who had to adapt to the rulers, and not the other way around.

Before getting to Ghannouchi in our third installment of this trilogy, I look at another recent book, one without which we cannot make sense of what happened after the 2011 Arab uprisings, French scholar Jocelyne Césari’s The Awakening of Muslim Democracy (Cambridge U. Press, 2014; here she is, lecturing on her book).


Césari’s Wider Definition of Political Islam

In a sense, Césari’s analysis builds on Hallaq’s view of the modern state but takes it in a much more constructive direction (Hallaq’s Impossible State is in her bibliography, but she makes no mention of him in her text). She can do this, partly because she has a more sophisticated understanding of the sociology of religion. Drawing mostly from Talal Asad’s landmark book Geneologies of Religion: Disciplines of Power in Christianity and Islam (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1993), she points to the useful distinction in modern religiosity between believing, belonging, and behaving (practicing religious rituals and the like).

Asad argued that in medieval European society Christianity possessed an “all-embracing capacity” to define the full spectrum of a person’s identity as both a king’s subject and a believer. It was the “great cloak” that “disciplined a religious subject and nurtured certain virtues” (p. 116, note 12). People’s faith completely colored their worldview. On the heels of the Enlightenment, however, the French Revolution and the rise of modern nation-states, religious institutions detached from the political realm, and the state created a legal order that (mostly) guaranteed the freedom to believe or not to believe. From then on, some form of secularism became part of Western nations’ political ideology.

In the Muslim-majority nations that were born in the postcolonial era, however, secularization played out very differently, with the almighty state welding the notion of “belonging to the state” to that of “belonging to Islam.” In parallel fashion, Césari describes how in different ways countries like Pakistan, Egypt and even Turkey and Iraq all implemented from above a “hegemonic form of Islam” (see below). Practices, which until then had been personal, now were becoming public ones. But the imposition of a certain form of Islam meant that from the 1950s to 1970s Muslims were gradually adopting a more secularized form of dress code and gender relations, and that with greater urbanization, industrialization, and education, Muslim societies were undergoing radical change. (For a graphic picture on how this played out with regard to women’s bodies, and the veil in particular, see my two blogs on Leila Ahmed’s The Quiet Revolution)

Notice too that the institutionalization of religion was now in the hands of a powerful state. This marked the beginning of political Islam. Among other things, it controlled what aspects of traditional Islam would be kept in the laws and the courts, what could be taught in Islamic institutions, and how popular piety could be expressed. Thus it not only created for the first time a disjunction in Islamic societies between believing, belonging and practicing religion, but it also forced many opposition groups to resort to Islamic symbols and discourse in order to register their discontent.

Yet these political tensions that arose from the late 1970s on had nothing to do with belonging. The state had by now inextricably linked politics and Islam in such a way that to be a citizen was to belong to Islam, making life more difficult for minority groups like Christians and others. In fact, the rise of islamist parties had everything to do with a wave of conservative religiosity that swept over the globe at that time (see my blog on fundamentalism). It was not about belonging or believing, but about how to “practice.” This led to a social movement from the bottom up of “Islamically correct” behavior and dress, which especially affected women’s dress and social segregation.

In turn, this dynamic interaction of belonging and practicing helps to explain how secular projects initiated by states created such “political battles over Islamically correct behaviors.” People’s religious beliefs weren’t necessarily becoming stronger. Rather, they were renegotiating their belonging to state and religion through different practices. It also means today that “collective identifications and public norms are reshaped by Islamic values or principles and vice-versa, even in the case of secular regimes such as Turkey, Tunisia, or Pakistan” (117).


Césari’s Concept of Secularity

Césari contends that this back and forth dynamic between religious and political belonging is not so much about secularism, at least as it evolved in Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That is why she prefers to use the term “secularity,” which includes two basic principles: “equality of all religions in public spaces and political neutrality of the state vis-à-vis all religions.” Western nations implement these through a variety of legal means. Because of its prior experience with religious persecution, the American nation, for instance, moved from an early principle of toleration to a later stage in which all individuals had the freedom to believe what they liked, or not to believe. Césari continues,


“European democracies, on the other hand, are characterized by more ‘invasive’ forms of secularism, exemplified in multiple forms of cooperation between state and religion and religion at the institutional level, different degrees of social illegitimacy of religion [think of Islam in Europe nowadays] and restricted forms of religious expression at the individual level” (119).


This is not the case in Muslim-majority nations, which have all instituted some form of “hegemonic Islam.” Turkey is usually defined as “secular,” but “the status of citizens, family life, and the definition of the nation involve a dominant religious element imposed on all members of the political community, Muslims and non-Muslims alike” (6). So in all Muslim countries we witness a “lack of institutional separation, exclusive social role of one religion, and limited recognition of religious pluralism at the individual level” (119). That said, this is also the case with “Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the Orthodox Church in Greece, and Judaism in Israel.”

So this standard of secularity has to apply to all three levels – the institutional, the social and the individual. While most islamists are now comfortable with some form of religious equality at the institutional level, they and other factions fight over the expansion of secularity at the social and individual level. Put otherwise, “how to belong as a believer or a nonbeliever to the nation and how to act politically and religiously in the public sphere have become crucial to the evolution of both secularity and religiosity across Muslim countries” (119). How so?


The Rise of “Unsecular Democraties”

Building on the typology of political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, Césari distinguishes between “competitive authoritarianism” and praetorian regimes. The former exhibit the classic four domains of democratic governance,


“(1) open, free, and fair elections; (2) all adults possess the right to vote; (3) political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom to criticize the government without reprisal, are broadly protected; and (4) elected authorities possess real authority to govern, in that they are not subject to tutelary control of military or clerical leaders” (238).


The problem is, however, that they frequently violate one of these domains, “especially when it comes to independence of the judiciary, independence of executive and legislative power, and/or freedom of the press and political opposition.” Césari adds that Turkey and Iraq nicely illustrate this aspect of competitive authoritarianism (consider President Ergogan’s recent seizure of opposition newspapers and TV channels and his incarceration of at least 13 journalists).

On the other hand, Egypt and Pakistan are examples of praetorian regimes, in which “military rulers overturn the legal and political rule of elected institutions through the application of emergency laws” (238).

Only Tunisia seems to be on a path leading to democracy, and Rached Ghannouchi’s Ennahda deserves much credit for that. As mentioned in previous blogs, it was his party, still only half way into its term as the ruling party in 2013, which in negotiating with the powerful Union of Tunisian Workers (backbone of the Quartet awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize) relinquished power and joined the other political forces to help draw up a new constitution.

Still, we come back to the issue of the quasi-universal hegemonic role of Islam in these nations. If democratic secularity calls for a level playing field for all religions, legally and institutionally, and for their equidistance from the state, then nations like Tunisia and Indonesia at some point will have to dismantle the scaffolding that props up Islam above other faiths. Or they might choose to remain “unsecular democracies.”

Think too about the “inclusion-moderation paradigm” that is now generally accepted in the political science literature. It is now proven, Césari states, that “greater inclusion of religious parties in the political system leads to greater moderation” (240). But this doesn’t automatically entail an expansion of rights for women or greater religious freedom for all. Whether it be at the level of a political party or inscribed in the constitution and in the law of the land, the “boundaries of public space” can be drawn up to the advantage of one religious tradition. This again is an unsecular democracy.

This happens anywhere, notes Césari, and in particular in the United States where, for example, “the rise of religious claims to prohibit abortion or same-sex marriage” trumps more secular claims. This can also be seen in Poland, Mexico, or Argentina, where the right to abortion and contraception is denied. So the “defining feature of an unsecular democracy is not the rejection of all civil liberties but of some that are seen as a threat to the national community” (240). Whereas most political and civil rights are recognized in Muslim-majority countries (at least on paper), “the rights granted to the person, from sexual freedom to the right to exit or criticize Islam” are not. Liberties are curtailed in the name of religion.


What about Ghannouchi?

In the last installment of our discussion about the “impossible Islamic state,” I will contrast Ghannouchi’s position on the Islamic state in his classic book (“Public Freedoms in the Islamic State”) with the position he puts forward in a 2013 text published in a compendium of papers presented a year earlier at a conference in Alexandria that drew a fairly wide spectrum of Arab political thinkers together (the book is entitled, “Religion and State in the Arab Homeland”). In that piece, Ghannouchi argues for the necessity of a “neutral” state that makes no religious determinations favoring one sect over another, one religious tradition over another. Has he given up on the Islamic state? This merits a closer look.