Monday, 06 June 2016 00:00

The Impossible Islamic State? (3)

We now come full circle in this trilogy on the “impossible Islamic state.” Two months have elapsed since the second installment and only a couple of weeks ago a dramatic event took place that “puts the icing on the cake” in a way that I could never have anticipated. Ghannouchi himself in his opening speech to his party’s (Ennahda) Tenth Congress declared that political Islam was no longer needed for their party to contribute to the welfare of Tunisia. Ennahda was no longer a religious party but a democratic party among others, whose members nevertheless found inspiration in the ethical values of their Islamic faith.

The dream of an Islamic state seems to have come and gone.

So was Wael Hallaq right in arguing that the traditional Islamic state was conceptually and practically impossible to establish today (see blog 1)? No he was not, we argued, and following Andrew March’s critique we decided that Hallaq’s view of the “Islamic state” was more theoretical and ideological than connected with the actual facts of history. In particular, the various kinds of state powers (from imperial dynasties, to kings, to warlords) inevitably interfered to some extent between the ulama (scholars/jurists) and the people. Politics and religion invariably intermingled, but in many different configurations, depending on local conditions.

Reality is always messier than ideology.

 Then in the second blog, while reviewing Jocelyne Césari’s The Awakening of Muslim Democracy, we discovered that “political Islam” started with postcolonial Muslim states imposing their own form of institutionalized Islam. Despite all the posturing of these “secular” regimes (pan-Arab, socialist, and often in the hands of the military), they well knew to what extent Islam was an integral part of their peoples’ identity. So in order to keep it at bay, they decided to regiment the religious sphere. Each nation had some form of Ministry of Religious Affairs and the state mostly took over the religious endowments that had hitherto been owned privately. Nasser nationalized the Al-Azhar University, and I remember well from my nine years in Algeria (1978-87) that the ruling party (FLN) had three pillars: Arabic, Islam and socialism.

Starting with the blistering Arab defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967, however, the genie which had been indelicately shoved into the bottle had now slipped out. From just about every mosque in the Arab, Persian and Turkish mosques the refrain began to arise, “God has punished Islam’s umma with humiliation. He’s calling us back to Islam, and if we repent and obey, he will restore us to greatness once again.”

Egypt’s Nasser, the father of socialist pan-Arabism, died in 1970, leaving behind a vacuum that the growing wave of Islamic revivalism soon came to fill. So with a tight lid in place over the institutions of Islam, it was only natural that political opposition adopted the mantle, symbols and fervor of religion. As Césari demonstrated, this was not about belonging to Islam or even believing in it – everyone did, at least in principle. It was about how to “practice” it. Members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood were now coming into their own again, but this time on college campuses and in the professional syndicates, where they were now winning election after election. Societies all over the region were adopting this more conservative, and in some cases puritanical (in the case of Salafism) form of religiosity, and creating “political battles over Islamically correct behaviors.”

This is where Césari’s concept of secularity is so helpful. Whereas with the Enlightenment in Europe religious institutions detached from the political sphere, that kind of secularism is not likely to form in Muslim-majority nations, at least in the near future. So she chooses the term “secularity,” defining it thus: (1) “equality of all religions in public spaces” and (2) “political neutrality of the state vis-à-vis all religions.”

This is precisely the direction Ghannouchi’s thought has taken him. Let me offer you a very short synopsis of this trajectory, in three main installments.


Ghannouchi’s The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State

In this volume, started in prison and finished in 1993 in the second year of his London exile, Ghannouchi's view of the Islamic state, for all of its progressive democratic features, still fits into what Césari calls the traditional “hegemonic form of Islam.”

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, conducted a series of interviews with Ennahda cadres in Tunis, which fed into a chapter of his 2014 book, Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East. His overall thesis is that, contrary to popular belief, islamist parties moderate under political oppression and gravitate toward the more conservative positions of the rank and file members when in power. This is certainly what happened to the Muslim Brotherhood parties in Egypt and Jordan since the 1980s, as he so aptly documents his case. The title for his chapter on Tunisia tellingly reads, “A Tunisian Exception?”

In essence, Hamid uses the same caution Césari does about Ghanouchi in her book of the same year. Both see the Tunisian experiment with Ennahda as the most promising Islamic project in the wake of the “Arab Spring.” And both, while noting two contending currents within Ennahda, expect its version of political Islam to remain somewhat “hegemonic,” or “illiberal.”

Hamid offers a valuable précis of Ghannouchi in this context:


“In Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda had a towering figure, an intellectual, a strategist, and a symbol, all wrapped into one. But what held the party together more than an individual was an ideology. This – along with a commitment to democracy – is what allowed Ennahda, unlike some of its counterparts, to remain a truly big-tent party.”


As I said, then, The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State presents the most moderate version of a government that is “Islamic.” Here in his last chapter, “The Basic Principles for Combatting Injustice in the Islamic State” (over 200 double-spaced pages in my translation!), he deals with the thorny questions of citizenship. The bottom line is this: non-Muslims do not have the same rights as Muslims and the state is not politically neutral vis-à-vis all religions. In his words,


“As previously stated, no matter what a person’s religious or ethnic background, each person in the Islamic state possesses inalienable rights for leading a dignified life. But he also has the right to choose whether to believe or not in the purposes of the state, in the foundations on which it is built, and in Islam which is its backbone. If he believes in these, he’s a Muslim, and there is nothing that sets him apart from his Muslim brethren, except for his qualifications. If he chooses not to believe, then in order for him to receive citizenship, he must support the state, recognize its legitimacy, and not threaten its public organization either by raising a weapon against it or by his loyalty to its enemies.

Still, his citizenship remains at a lower status, unless he converts to Islam. Yet he continues to enjoy more freedom than his Muslim counterpart in his private life, like in what he eats or drinks, or in his marital life. Further, he is stripped of some of the rights owned by Muslims, like being able to hold the highest offices in the state, wherein the identity of the holder is particularly sensitive (especially the head of state). But from another angle he is excused from some of the duties incumbent upon Muslims, like abstaining from forbidden things. Those represent a few exceptions and do not infringe upon the principle of equality, which is the principal value observed by the Islamic state”


Ghannouchi after Ennahda had ceded power

While Mohamed Morsi was president of Egypt (June 2012-July 3, 2012), he backed the meeting of a surprisingly diverse spectrum of Arab intellectuals, islamists and secularists, in Alexandria. The proceedings of this conference was published in Arabic the next year under the title, Religion and the State in the Arab Homeland: Research and Debates from the Conference Organized by the Center for the Studies on Arab Unity at the Suwaydi Institute in Alexandria.

Ghannouchi’s contribution takes up only ten of the more than 700 pages in this hefty volume (pp. 100-10), but it’s an extremely valuable indication of how his thought on the Islamic state was evolving. His title is, “Religion and State in the Islamic Sources and Contemporary Interpretation.” In fact, he is beginning to deconstruct the traditional “religion and state” synthesis (din wa-dawla) at the heart of political Islam.

The context is clear from the first sentence. Ghannouchi has managed to coax his party to leave power in 2013 and join other political forces – and mostly, the civil society “Quartet” which was to be awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize:


“The topic of the relationship between religion and the state is among the most important challenges we face now in Tunisia, as we are in the process of drawing up a new constitution and political system. Our wish is that it be a democratic system that respects human rights.”


It’s a thorny and complex issue, Ghannouchi writes, which raises the relationship between Islam and secularism – Islam and political power, Islam and the law (qaanuun). There is nothing clear-cut here, as there are several “secularisms” and several “Islams.” Though Europe’s version of secularism arose because of the Protestant Reformation and the resulting religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, it nonetheless developed organizational measures that favored the emergence of a neutral state.

This is a mechanism we need as well, intimates Ghannouchi, “the neutrality of the state, that is, the state must remain neutral in the face of various religious traditions [diyaanaat] and not intervene in the conscience of its people. The state’s orbit is the ‘public’ sphere, whereas religion’s orbit is the ‘private’ sphere” (p. 102).

The key word in Ghannouchi’s argument is the “distinction” [tamaayuz] between the religious and public spheres. Obviously, he’s not comfortable with the word “separation.” But that is the point about the American system, he remarks approvingly. Religion impacts politics a great deal, and never more obviously than in political campaigns. Issues like prayer in the schools and abortion touch on religion, and this is because the US was founded by English immigrants who had come to escape Catholic persecution in Europe. They were coming to “the Promised Land, where the dreams found in the Torah and Gospel could be fulfilled” (102).

Quoting from De Tocqueville, he avers that “The biggest party in America is the church, because of the great influence it enjoys among the American people.” Yet secularism looks different in Europe and within various European countries. France and Britain operate quite differently in this respect. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the British Queen has both political and religious authority. In France, by contrast, its fiercely anti-clerical tradition inherited from revolutionary days polices a total separation between church and state. There are other forms of secularism in the West as well.

French colonialism left its mark on Tunisia, he adds, in that the Tunisian political elites have endeavored to rid the public sphere of all religious symbols. Then he comes back to the idea of secularism as a useful political mechanism:


“Perhaps the most important element pioneered by the secular perspective on this level is the neutrality of the state, in that the state is the guarantor of all religious and political freedoms, and it may not intervene on behalf of this or that group. We ask ourselves whether Islam is in need of this kind of measure, that is, the neutrality of the state with regard to religious traditions [diyaanaat].”


I have no space here to go into the details of his argument. Some of them are present in The Public freedoms (like the Prophet’s “distinction” between his political work in Medina and his religious calling) and some are new, like in his sixth and last section. Throughout, however, the one theme that seems to bring all the various strands together is his assertion that in Islam there is no “state church,” as was the case in Europe, which led to so much bloodshed. This is so, he argues, because religion and politics have different goals. He explains,


“Religion’s basic domain is personal contentment, not the instruments of state. As for the state, its mission is above all to provide services to people as citizens, like employment, good health, and quality education, whereas God’s domain is people’s hearts and religious practice, since the highest value in Islam is freedom” (p. 109)


Then in a footnote explaining why there should be no civil punishment for apostasy (someone choosing to leave Islam), he asserts the following (the bold is in his text):


Therefore the state belongs to Islam to the extent that it is vigilant in its adoption of Islamic values without any supervision from a religious institution, since there is nothing like this in Islam, but only a people and an umma that both decide for themselves by means of their institutions what religion is.”


This is my first time to witness in his writing a distinction between people [sha’ab] and umma. I take it he means by "people" all the citizens, assuming that not all are actually Muslim. This seems to leave room for people of other faiths to determine how to regulate their own religious lives. He is clear too that there are many “Islams” – this has never been more obvious than today. A state may not step in and decide what the “true Islam” is.

I’ll close this section with the last paragraph of his essay, which he has all in bold. I will try to pursue this thought in a separate academic article, but it seems to me this is exactly what the Sudanese American scholar Ahmed An-Na’im was arguing in his 2008 book, Islam and the Secular State:


“We must therefore accept the concept of citizenship and the fact that the country is not the private possession of Zayd or Amr (Paul or John), nor of this or that political party, but it belongs to all of its citizens. Islam grants to each one of them, whatever their religious convictions or ethnicity, male or female, the right to be citizens who enjoy the same rights. One of those rights is for them to believe whatever they choose to believe as long as they respect one another and they behave in accordance with the law that they have enacted through their representatives in parliament.”


Ghannouchi’s speech and reelection at Ennahda’s Tenth Congress

The above photo shows the two men who co-founded Ennahda (though with a different name at that stage) in 1981, Abdelfattah Mourou and Rached Ghannouchi. You witness a teary-eyed Ghannouchi acknowledging the crowd of party faithful and their overwhelming support by just reelecting him as their party leader. The New York Times writes that Ghannouchi was vindicated “for his effort to move the party away from its Islamist roots and stay in tune with the country’s five-year-old democratic revolution.” In an interview with the French paper Le Monde, Ghannouchi surmised, “There is no more justification for political Islam in Tunisia.”

Why is this so? The answers are clear in his opening speech to the Tenth Congress of his party. First, he salutes the Tunisian state and its winning battle against the forces of terrorism: “As we reaffirm Nahdha's absolute support for the state in its war against ISIS and takfiri extremists, we say to them that Tunisia, despite all the sacrifices, is stronger than their hatred, and it will, God willing, defeat them.” Then this proud revolutionary manifesto:


“The path of the revolution, therefore, is one of political successes, re-establishing security, and strengthening international solidarity, culminating in Tunisia being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the National Dialogue Quartet. Tunisia remains the shining candle among countries of the Arab Spring, having sparked the revolutions, demonstrating that democracy in the Arab world is possible.”


The second reason is that Ghannouchi is plainly advocating the “neutral state” and making sure that Ennahda is committed first and foremost to the stability and prosperity of the Tunisian state: “Tunisia’s ship can only sail safely if carries all Tunisians.” Then this crucial statement, which underscores again the necessity of a state being for all of its citizens:


“Thus we have said repeatedly, we are for a comprehensive national reconciliation and for cooperation and consensus-building with all those who recognize the revolution and its martyrs and respect the Constitution, a partnership with all those who regard the revolution as an opportunity for all of us - islamists, destourians, leftists, and all intellectual and political trends, so we can all go forward steadily towards a future that is free from grudges and exclusion.

Nor is it a 'deal under the table' but rather a national vision of reconciliation between the state and citizens, between the state and deprived regions, between opposing political elites, between the past and the present - because Nahdha is a force of unification not one of division.”


Then finally, political Islam has no more role to play in Tunisia because as a result of the revolution civil liberties and human rights are now guaranteed for all citizens. Religion when manipulated by politics becomes divisive, whereas its main vocation is to unite its followers. So I end with this earlier part of his speech, which seeks to explain this “distinction” between the religious and political spheres to the party rank and file:


“The specialization and distinction between the political and other religious or social activities is not a sudden decision or a capitulation to temporary pressures, but rather the culmination of a historical evolution in which the political field and the social, cultural and religious fields were distinct in practice in our movement.

We are keen to keep religion far from political struggles and conflicts, and we call for the complete neutrality of mosques away from political disputes and partisan utilization, so that they play a role of unification rather than division.”


In the end, we can only join Ghannouchi with our own wishes and prayers that Tunisia’s democratic experiment succeeds, and that it be emulated by all the surrounding states of the region, for the peace and prosperity of all its people, Muslims, Shia and Sunni, Christians of many stripes, Yazidis and other religious minorities. Let our faith in the One Creator God truly inspire and translate into action our conviction that each and every human being is worthy of our respect and love. On that basis, then, each nation can forge its own path of democratic governance.

And yes, maybe today an Islamic (or Christian, or Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist) state is an impossibility.