David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

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.

Translating Ghannouchi’s book (“The Public Freedoms in the Islamic State”), as I stated before, has forced me to delve into political theory. Keep in mind that if you want to get a handle on the contemporary islamist movement in all its variety, you will have to think about issues related to the modern nation-state and democracy.

My title here comes from the most prolific contemporary author on Islamic law (at least in English), Wael Hallaq’s 2014 book, The Impossible State (see picture above).

Hallaq argues that the islamist call for the application of Islamic law within the context of a modern state is an impossible task. Of course, various elements of traditional Islamic fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence as laid out in the five main Islamic legal schools, which has accumulated over the centuries), especially in family law, can be incorporated within the legal codes of a state. But this is to betray the central impulse and moral intuition of the classical (he writes “normative”) Islamic state – that is, a state in which the political authorities provide only the most basic legal framework, while allowing the bulk of laws to be drawn up by the Islamic jurists, who are the primary guardians of the people (the umma, as defined religiously).

Lama Abu-Odeh in her review of Hallaq’s book, summarizes his thesis this way:


“The world of Islam is moral by excellence that rejects the separation between fact and norm, for whom the ‘political’ is confined to executive rulers of rotating dynasties that remain external to the embryonic tight embrace between jurists and community, whose role is to tax, organize armies, and regulate on the margins. In this universe, the ‘the care of the self’ by the individual Muslim to fashion oneself as moral according to the dictates of the Sharia is the organizing principle of life, which is in contradistinction to the pitiable plight of the modern Western citizen whose subjectivity is fashioned by the state for its own selfish utilitarian ends.”


There is a lot packed into that quote and I have no space to go into all the details, but only to say that a more recent review of Hallaq’s book by Yale political scientist Andrew March agrees with Abu-Odeh’s assessment. They both praise Hallaq’s erudition but deplore his ideological agenda, which leads him to ignore the historical-critical tools he uses with such vigor and devastating effect on the modern state when in turn he writes about the “normative” Islamic state.

Let me continue with some of the specifics of March’s objections to Hallaq’s blanket statements that the political never intruded on the privileged relationship between the ulama (Islamic scholars and jurists) and the people. This will then lead into how I see Ghannouchi’s conundrum on the “Islamic movement’s” objective to set up Islamic states (and even a caliphate, ideally). That topic will get fuller treatment in the second installment of this blog.


March’s critique of Hallaq

First, argues March, Hallaq seems to ignore the historical tug-of-war between ulama and rulers of Islamic states. This is a topic I have mentioned in several past blogs, and at greater length in the one entitled, "Islam Today: Who Calls the Shots?"

On the one hand, March recognizes Hallaq’s contribution to our understanding of the islamist project. In his words, “To be sure, Hallaq focuses attention on a real problem. No one will think about terms like ‘an Islamic state’ or ‘applying the shariʿa’ un-self-consciously after reading this book.” Yet if he had contented himself with pointing out the problematic relation between the mechanisms of the modern state and the islamist impulse to use them as a tool to apply Islamic law to modern society, this book would have been a wonderful addition to the existing literature.

On the other hand, says March, “the polemical rationale of the book overwhelms its scholarly aims.” This is because his main argument is stated much too strongly and remains vulnerable to quite a few counterexamples. Here is the argument in its two main clauses. Hallaq contends that:


(1) positive law, acquiring its authoritative force from the will of the sovereign state, is radically incompatible with Islamic law and …

(2) that the disciplinary and regulatory technologies of the modern state are un-Islamic, things never done in the Muslim past and things Muslim authorities may not do.


For Hallaq, the ruler was not sovereign. Only God was, as He was the only rightful Lawgiver. There is some truth to this, at least in theory. In practice, however, there was a whole area of the law called “political Shari’a,” or “Shari’a politics” (siyasa shar’iyya), which was distinct from the fiqh of the Islamic jurists, the ulama. In fact, “there are many areas of public, social and economic life for which no specific Islamic religious rules exist, but where Muslim authorities are permitted to act within broad moral constraints as long as their actions are justifiable as advancing communal welfare (maslaha).” The Ottoman Empire, already in the seventeenth century, enacted specific legal codes within these areas and declared that their legitimacy flowed out of the sultan’s will.

Islamic governance, then, was in practice a lot more than just “to tax, organize armies, and regulate on the margins,” while the ulama fleshed out all the “paradigmatic” norms within the religious law that regulated the people’s daily lives. March adds, “As ideal-theory this may be true, but legal historians have shown in great detail that under such regimes as the Mamluks and the Ottomans it was the religious jurists accommodating the rulers’ desires and prerogatives and not the other way around.”

Second, Hallaq’s contention that “that the disciplinary and regulatory technologies of the modern state are un-Islamic” flies in the face of what a good number of contemporary “Islamic scholars, intellectuals and pious believers” actually believe. For them, believers have a God-given and timeless obligation to apply the norms and objectives of divine law within the sociopolitical sphere in any possible way. This means interacting creatively and faithfully within the new circumstances of modernity and postmodernity, however one defines them.

Hallaq’s agenda, according to March, is to show that pre-modern Islamic societies were harmonious and just, and that by contrast under conditions of modernity the state rules with an amoral iron fist, systematically barring any input from religion, and from Islamic law in particular. What is more, he offers no solution. So what is to gain from such an absolutist, black and white declaration? Why not recognize, along with Rached Ghannouchi and many islamists who have struggled with these issues, not just theoretically, but also in the trenches of real-life politics that …


“…in modernity Islamic law just is this messy amalgam of what is found in the classical texts and what is pronounced by public shariʿa counsels, legislatures, shariʿa-compatibility courts, civil courts and independent religious authorities?”


In essence, this is Ghannouchi's thesis. Applying the ethical (relative to individuals) and moral (relative to creating a just society) imperatives of Islam to the changing circumstances of every nation – politically, economically, culturally, and socially – will require a patchwork of creative solutions, which always remain tentative, susceptible to modification and improvement. And the source of the authority to carry this out, he strongly maintains, is the people’s delegated authority from God – their trusteeship. That is why democracy is the only possible tool to fulfill this mission today.


Ghannouchi’s dilemma, as I see it

Ghannouchi’s book, mostly written within four prison walls in the 1980s, eloquently voices his ardent desire to see Islamic governance fleshed out within Muslim-majority nations in the postcolonial period. That is, after all, the basic definition of an islamist.

Establishing an Islamic polity is not in the sacred texts, he admits, but near the beginning of his mammoth Chapter 4 (over 100 pages), he offers three “proofs” for the necessity of the Islamic state: a) the historical argument (Medina and beyond); b) the consensus argument (the ulama have assumed this over the centuries); c) the social argument (people are social by nature; they need God’s guidance for establishing a God-fearing society). Here’s one quote under the last point:


“So the Islamic state is an indispensable means – as long as human beings are social by nature and Islam is a comprehensive system of life – to provide a social environment in which the greatest possible number of its people can live in spiritual and physical harmony with the nature that God gave humankind at creation, that is, Islam.”


And then this long sentence (typical in Arabic; I’ll probably have to shorten it in my translation):


“For the Islamic state is nothing but a political apparatus meant to fulfill the highest ideals of Islam in producing a people that naturally stands up for goodness and justice, confirms truth and dismisses falsehood throughout the earth, so that the worship of God and closeness to Him through obedience to His commands, the performance of good deeds and the establishment of justice become goals that people desire, and find easy and rewarding, and that the opposition to unbelief and rebellion, the violation of sacred rules, the spreading of evil and the committing of injustice become things that are loathed, difficult to do, and terrifying – at least on a social level.”


The “Islamic movements” (read “islamist groups” that arose in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood from the 1970s on) are the logical political extension of the postcolonial struggle for complete independence, culturally and politically. What remains to be achieved by Muslim nations, he writes, is unity (he mentions a caliphate, but for him that remains a distant ideal), democratization, and the regaining of territories still under occupation, with Palestine in the forefront.

As I explain in the next two blogs of this trilogy, the actual experience of governing in post-revolutionary Tunisia has led Ghannouchi to tone down his calls for an Islamic state, almost to the point of saying that as long as the people enjoy their civil liberties and are able to thrive as a Muslim-majority nation, then that is “Islamic” enough … for now, or in absolute terms? This we will discuss further.

Now using the 2008 edition of Ghannouchi’s book (The Public Freedoms in the Islamic State, Damascus), I’m behind in my translation (plenty of changes, plus new material), but I’m still close to three quarters done. Also, it’s plunged me into political theory – hence this blog!

Keep reading – this is more fascinating than you might think. I’m using a paper by James Dorsey and Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario that opens up a whole new understanding of the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It will also pave the way for a later blog on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.


The Dorsey-Rosario thesis

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you’ve read blogs on soccer in the Middle East by James Dorsey. In fact, his landmark book, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer (Oxford U. Press, 2016) comes out next month. Among other distinctions, this award-winning journalist is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, and Co-Director of the University of Würzburg's Institute of Fan Culture.

Here Dorsey teams up with Rosario to examine and compare the role of the military in the democratization process of various states in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) and Southeast Asia: “To Shoot or not to Shoot? Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern Militaries Respond Differently.” This is part of a book they’ve written together, which will also be published this year.

They argue that if you compare these nations’ militaries and their impact on political change in both regions, you discover that although all these countries came out of the colonial period with similar regimes – “The military was either the government or propped up a dominant political party” – the Asian nations succeeded for the most part in transitioning from military-backed (or security force-backed) regimes to democratic ones, whereas after the popular uprisings of 2011, apart from Tunisia, the MENA states failed to do so.


Military regimes in Southeast Asia

Indonesia and the Philippines succeeded in creating a process by which “political power changes hands as a results of free and fair elections”:


1) Indonesia: in the wake of a violent coup General Suharto mounted against the communist regime of President Sukarno in 1965. In turn, Suharto’s military regime was upended in a popular uprising in 1998. The key factor, however, was that a faction in the Indonesian army intervened to oust the president and secure a democratic transition that is now firmly in place. These officers worked in tandem with key leaders of civil society to make this happen (as it also happened in Tunisia). As Dorsey & Rosario see it,

“Indonesia is possibly the only country in both regions in which the civilian government succeeded in asserting control of the armed forces on the back of a series of well-sequenced reforms that unequivocally returned the military to the barracks.”


2) Philippines: in a similar manner, President Ferdinand Marcos managed to run an oppressive martial-law regime for 21 years, but was toppled and forced into exile in 1986 by “a group of disgruntled military officers” who defected and backed the popular uprising. The transition to democracy in this country has fared well generally, but challenges remain: “The Philippines achieved a degree of civilian control despite several failed coup attempts but institutionalisation remains a tenuous and challenged process.”


3) Myanmar, three years after the military’s declared transition toward democracy, “remains locked in a power struggle between the military and civilian forces with the armed forces continuing to exert their weight behind a veneer of democratic reforms.” Still, like in Indonesia and the Philippines, the Burmese military has decided that political opening is in its best interest and is willing to partner, at least to some extent, with influential leaders of civil society. After the November 8, 2015 parliamentary elections, Nobel Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won an absolute majority. This bodes well for the future Burmese politics. Dorsey & Rosario’s cautious phrase above was written before these elections. Still, democratic transitions take years to work out and there will likely be more ups and downs.


4) Thailand: “Thailand is Southeast Asia’s odd man out. Its military supported a popular uprising in 1992 that led to the restoration of democracy, yet intervened again in 2006 and 2014 to topple two democratically-elected regimes.” In effect, “Thailand is experiencing its 13th period of military rule in 80 years.” Nevertheless, they have tasted democratic rule, and that should make it easier to restore it in the future.


Military regimes in the MENA region

1) Turkey: as the only non-Arab ex-military-backed regime in the region, it is also its best success story (Tunisia is a close second). Yet its experience differs from the military states in both regions: “Its assertion of civilian control occurred in a pluralistic, democratic environment in which the government could rely on the European Union, which demanded civilian control of the military as a pre-condition for accession to the EU.”

That said, the Turkish military intervened four times in politics (including three coup d’états: 1960, 1971, 1980; in 1997, it was a “memorandum”). Thus it took decades to wrest power from a military that saw itself in control of the state so as to protect its Kemalist secular heritage. Amazingly (and yes, EU pressure no doubt helped), it is the current Erdogan regime led by the moderate islamist AKP Party that has done the most to expand the scope of civilian rule.

Like Egypt, Turkey has had to wrestle for decades against the structures of the “deep state,” defined by Dorsey & Rosario as “a network of vested political, military and business interests.” The difference is that Turkey’s struggle is mostly behind it, while Egypt is still in the thick of it.

I write "mostly behind," because President Erdogan has been in power for over eleven years and with his soft islamist party (AKP) has been able to muzzle much of the opposition and the press (over a dozen journalists are in prison for their views and he took over by force the most popular opposition newspaper), there are concerns about the future of democracy in Turkey. Still (now inserting this remark in June 2016), the rise of the center-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and especially with the possible leadership of Turkey's "iron lady" Meral Aksener, Erdogan may not be able to proceed with a change of Turkey's constitution in favor of an executive presidency.


2) Egypt: this nation has historically been seen as the Arab trend-setting state. President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ideology of Arab secular and socialist nationalism sparked a wave of similar regimes in the region. This section of Dorsey & Rosario’s opening paragraph is worth quoting:

“By the time of his death in 1970, Nasser’s brand of nationalism had informed various related military and security force-backed regimes across the region. These included those of the rival wings of the Arab socialist Baath Party in Syria and Iraq, the revolutionary government that emerged in Algeria from a bitter, anti-colonial war, and that of 27 year old Libyan army colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who overthrew the Libyan monarchy with the intention of molding his country’s in Nasser’s image. Regimes reliant on the military and/or security forces became the norm for Arab nations.”

Though the Arab popular uprisings of 2011 started in Tunisia, the fate of the Egyptian “January 25 Revolution” has had enormous consequences for the region – especially for what happened two years later: “Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was ousted in a military coup in 2013 that brought to power general-turned president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and a regime more brutal than that of former president, Hosni Mubarak.”

Now we come back to the “deep state,” because that reality is at the root of Egypt’s severe dysfunction today. But a little background is necessary:

“In Egypt, successive military-turned-political leaders secured the loyalty of the armed forces by giving it control of national as opposed to homeland security, allowing it to build a commercial empire of its own and establish an independent relationship with its U.S. counterparts that enabled it to create a military industrial complex, granting it immunity, and shielding it from civilian oversight. Egyptian military attitudes towards the popular revolt against Mubarak as well as Morsi were shaped by a desire to preserve these prerogatives as well as the right to intervene in politics to protect national unity and the secular character of the state. In effect, the military was willing to enter a bargain in which it would neither rule nor govern but at the same time would not be ruled or governed – a deal it ultimately failed to clinch in part because of its political ineptitude.”

Naturally Sisi, by trading his uniform for a president’s 3-piece suit, came to power by portraying himself as the only one who could save the nation from the islamist specter. But in order to accumulate more power he decided to strengthen the security and intelligence forces at the expense of the army. Still, the military theoretically retains veto power over any civilian government, and for the time being it sees President Sisi as its ally – and especially in the brutal war now being waged in Sinai against insurgents allied with the Islamic State.

In the next blog on the Muslim Brotherhood I will have more to say about Egypt, but now I must move on.


The three “Arab Spring” nightmares: Libya, Yemen and Syria

These tragedies bleed into the pages of your daily news – and they are much more complicated than I have the space to explain. I will only quote Dorsey & Rosario. Here they have just cited political scientist Philippe Vincent Droz who contends that the Arab militaries all acted as the “tipping point” in bringing down the regimes in place. Then this:


“The picture in Libya and Yemen - where the military split or suffered from significant defections and where the fall of the autocratic leader led to mayhem, insurgency, civil war and/or foreign intervention - is more complex. The popular revolt in Bahrain was thwarted by brutal government repression and the Saudi-led military intervention by friendly Gulf states. In Syria, Gulf states for differing reasons saw the fall of the regime as in their interests but increasingly funded and supplied arms to anti-regime forces that did not see greater freedom and accountability as cornerstones of transition but their own religiously-inspired version of autocracy as an alternative to the ruthless regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.”


All three nations (excluding Bahrain) are now engulfed in brutal civil wars with the interference and collusion of outside forces, including the Islamic State in Syria and Libya. The war in Syria was sparked originally in March/April 2011 by a series of peaceful protests, but to which Asad responded “with military force and brutality.” Violence bred violence, and almost five years later over 200,000 people have died.


Tunisia: like in Egypt just days after, it was the military as an institution that saw a change of political leadership as in its interest. But the reasons were different: “The Tunisian military which had been defanged and sidelined by the country’s ousted autocrat, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a product of the security rather than the armed forces, was the one Arab military with a vested interest in political transition. That eased the establishment of civilian control.” Later on, Dorsey and Rosario put it even more clearly:


“Tunisia is in a class of its own, being the only country where the autocrat, Ben Ali, in one of his first moves after coming to power, decimated the military and ensured that unlike the Egyptian armed forces, it had no stake in the system he built. As a result, the Tunisian force had no reason to obstruct real change; indeed, if anything, it was likely to benefit from reform that leads to a democratic system, in which it would have a legitimate role under civilian supervision.”


So what are the key ingredients for a transition to democracy?

The conclusion, then, is that the kind of political reform that took place most notably in Indonesia and Turkey will need to be initiated and followed through in Egypt. Further, after Syria, Yemen and Libya somehow are able to achieve a form of national reconciliation and embark on a political path that brings together all the vital forces of their respective nations, then they too will have to tackle the drawing up of constitutions that redress the military/civilian balance of power, professionalize the military institution, which includes breaking up the “deep state,” and finally, strengthen all sectors of civil society.

That last point is something that Ghannouchi in his book emphasizes again and again. But I’ll give the last word to Dorsey & Rosario, who explain the needed transition in this way:


“The record shows that successful transitions depend on participation of at least one faction of the military as well as on civil society engagement in line with game theory that postulates that democratisation is possible when moderates in the ruling elite cooperate with civil society and/or opposition forces to fend off advances by hardliners. It often involves the military increasingly viewing the cost of governing rather than ruling as too high and seeing controlled liberalisation as the solution” (emphasis mine).


If some of this is a bit technical for some of you, take heart. This will really help to explain how in Egypt a democratically elected president could be shaken by a popular revolt one year later, and then be removed within days by the army, spurred on by the security forces. And, by the way, if you noticed in this blog, nothing was said about religion, whether in Southeast Asia or in the MENA. That is part of my point. The turmoil surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is all about the swirling and crashing of political forces. In fact, when religious symbols are manipulated for political purposes, almost inevitably religion gets hijacked and then betrayed. Ghannouchi, the islamist, is very anxious about this. In the trilogy of blogs that follow ("The Impossible Islamic State?"), we’ll see his solutions to this dilemma. We'll also establish a better foundation in political theory to understand his evolving positions.



This was one of my earliest articles, published in the The Maghreb Review:

“The Fuzzy boundaries between Reformism and Islamism: Malik Bennabi and Rashid al-Ghannushi on Civilization.” The Maghreb Review 29, 1-2 (2004):123-52.

If you want to go into Bennabi's thought in greater depth and discover how he influenced a whole generation of thinkers, including Rachid Ghannouchi and his Ennahda Movement, this will be worth your time! In particular, long before the 1990s theory of the "Clash of Civilizations" (Samuel Huntington), Bennabi was theorizing about the rise and fall of civilizations, about the pathology and diagnosis of civilizations. His thought also falls within the postcolonial thought of French Caribbean thinker Aimé Césaire. In the end, Ghannouchi borrows much of his mentor's framework but adapts it adroitely to his particularly aims in Tunisia.

Two events have taken place since I wrote the second installment of this trilogy of blogs on Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi.

That said, the Quartet’s work could not have succeeded had their advocacy with Ennahda, the ruling party, not borne fruit. Ennahda did what rarely any party has done anywhere else, by stepping down from power before their mandate had come to an end. True, the country had been shaken by the assassinations of two secular opposition politicians that year. Still, the fact that Ghannouchi’s Ennahda willingly gave up power to join the other political forces of Tunisia in drawing up a new constitution and reconvene a new set of parliamentary elections in the next year is nothing short of phenomenal.

Ennahda, among all other political currents, was justified in taking some credit for this honor. Thanks to all the political factions, the so-called Arab Spring would continue to live on – with all its ups and downs – in the land where it was born.

The second event was more personal. Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi addressed a packed conference room (I know, as I was sitting on the floor in the overflow room!) at the Washington, DC United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on the theme “Democratizing under Fire: Can Tunisia Show the Way?” His presentation was followed by a panel with two USIP scholars, and questions from the floor. Even though it took a lot of effort to drive there and back on a rainy day from Philadelphia, it was very rewarding – both the content of the seminar and the opportunity to meet him and several of his aides, including one of his daughters who will coordinate with me on the translation of her father’s book. Sheikh Rachid, as he is affectionately called, is indeed a gracious man, and I certainly felt privileged to have met him in person.


Ghannouchi on the emergence of human rights in the West

In the previous blog post, I quoted from his Chapter 3, “Basic Democratic Principles.” Here I back up to the previous chapter, “The Islamic Perspective on Freedom and Human Rights.” Here is the first paragraph:


“Since the declarations of human rights on civic freedoms were only guarantees for the bourgeoisie against the feudal lords and the papacy, in the end their deceitful nature and partiality betrayed them. Then came the various socialist currents aiming to expose their empty rhetoric and emphasize social rights for humanity – while acting in fact as another set of tyrants.”


Let me unpack this a bit. Ghannouchi is saying that the 18th-century Enlightenment philosophy was a declaration of independence from the absolute reign of Europe’s feudal kings (an idea violently carried out in the French Revolution), just as the papal grip on much of Europe had been gradually eroded by the Protestant Reformation two centuries earlier. Following thinkers like John Locke, the beginning of human rights discourse was mostly about individual rights against the encroachment of political rulers, and much more about the elites than about poor peasants and the growing urban poor.

So who benefited from the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries? It was largely Europe’s urban middle classes, says Ghannouchi, who were able to maintain their power over a largely disenfranchised working class employed in often sub-human conditions within the coalmines and factories of the day.

Marxism in its various shades built upon the reality of this class struggle and defined freedom as the downtrodden overthrowing the monopoly of the bourgeoisie over the means of production, which then would lead to a transitional dictatorship of this proletariat. In the end this process would create a utopian, classless society. The reality, as alluded to in his above quote, was the complete opposite.

Still, European colonialism and its attendant ideologies had an enormous impact on Muslim nations, for instance in the 19th century in places like Egypt and even in the heart of the Ottoman Empire (today’s Turkey), where many of the elites had been educated in the West and chose to adopt Western ideas and implement political, legal and economic reforms.


Shari’a and freedom

Ghannouchi mostly wrote his book, The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State, from a prison cell. He knew the underbelly of state repression first-hand. What is more, in the 1980s his generation was the first one raised in the postcolonial era, when the nations’ “right of self-determination” had become the main paradigm of human freedom (still to be achieved by Palestinians). It was also a time when global condemnation and boycotting of the Apartheid regime of South Africa was beginning to mount. Further – and Ghannouchi would not have known this – a movement of both Catholic and Protestant theologians in Latin America (and South Africa) were developing a “liberation theology” leaning on the teaching and practice of Jesus to launch a grassroots (mostly) nonviolent movement designed to empower the poor who were often brutally exploited by the capitalist elites propped up by US political and economic interests in their region.

That is the context, I believe, in which this paragraph makes the most sense:


“Since Islam is a comprehensive revolution seeking to overthrow tyranny and darkness, freeing the human will from all subjection to what is not God, it would be possible for those who study Islam to summarize it in the words, ‘a comprehensive revolution of liberation.’ One should not understand from the common usage of ‘freedom’ that it’s simply about permission or permissiveness. The logic of truth cannot entertain that the liberational message of Islam – brought to humankind from creation by thousands of prophets and messengers, in addition to their successors in the general announcement to people – would be summarized as God allowing you to do what you desire. No, Islam’s conception is quite the opposite. God created you and he forbids you to follow your every ignorant whim, and he commands you to follow – as a conscious decision of your own will and design – the path that pleases Him for your life, the only one in which you will find happiness and development in this life and the next. But if you turn your back on it, you will find eternal calamity.”


“The path that pleases Him for your life” – quite literally – is the Shari’a. Etymologically, it’s the desert path that leads to the watering hole, or the path that guides people to a full life in this world and the next.

Still, that sounds like a very different definition of “freedom,” you might say. Yes, but it’s no different than in Judaism (replace Shari’a by halakha) or Christianity. In the gospels, Jesus’ first call to people is to follow him. In fact, to do so requires the disciple’s death to self-will and ambition (symbolized by picking up our own cross, as for instance in Luke 9:27). Freedom means that you get to choose or refuse this offer.


Human trusteeship and human rights

To some extent, Ghannouchi is right that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) offers “the marks of secularism or a human religion based on the divinity of humankind in the universe and on people making themselves the source of every right and legislation.” But that’s not a necessarily so.

In fact, the UDHR was hammered out in a long process of negotiations between people who represented the world’s main religions, as well as strong secularists. So in practice, it can certainly be interpreted in that fashion. Still, influential voices in their midst included two Christians, Eleanor Roosevelt and Charles Malik (the Lebanese representative), and the Chinese Confucian philosopher and playwright Pen-chun Chang. Moreover, seven Muslim-majority nations contributed handsomely to the discussions (see my paper, “A Muslim and Christian Orientation to Human Rights”).

I have always argued that human rights discourse is only a framework into which people from many faiths and no faith can inject their own theology of humanity. That certainly was the main theme of my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text – Muslims and Christians converging in their doctrine of creation by seeing God empowering humans to rule on earth as his trustees and thus being fully accountable to Him for the way in which they manage its resources and people. Notice how important this concept is to Ghannouchi here:


“[God] alone is Creator and Owner of all his creatures, and the Definer of their way of life (Shari’a). And human beings are His trustees, whom the Creator honored by granting them a mind, a will, freedom, and by the sending of messengers in order to help them discover the way of truth and follow the path of perfection by means of their commitment to the Shari’a or law of God, which He defined in its final form, revealed as it was through the agency of the Arab prophet Muhammad. This Shari’a is the general framework meant to guide human life individually and collectively, but also granting humanity within that framework wide empty spaces, requiring them to fulfill their God-given trusteeship by managing everything within their scope, and thereby joining together in harmony, freedom and commitment, unity and plurality.”


Therefore, the God-given dignity conferred upon the human person is what impels Muslims to set up a polity that allows all citizens to enjoy these rights:


“ … human rights should be grounded in humanity’s Creator:

a) This gives them a sanctity that pulls them out of the orbit of a regime’s domination, or that of a political party that manipulates them at will.

b) It renders them a trust that believers can hang around their neck, holding them accountable for their protection, for their establishment in human society, and for resisting the tyrants’ violation of them, because that is a religious duty that will be rewarded if fulfilled, and punished if neglected.

c) It gives them the true dimensions of humanity, and thus warding off any discrimination based on race, nationality and class, since He is “God of the Worlds,” and not of only one nation or umma.

d) It gives them a comprehensive and positive dimension that moves them away from mere formalism or selectivity in legislation, because God is the Creator of humanity and He alone knows the true needs of his creatures.

e) Tying rights to the Divine Legislator is not to enforce the despotism of a theocratic polity, for there is no clergy in Islam that sanctions or forbids. Rather, the One who loosens or binds is God, who shows no partiality nor treats anyone unjustly, for He is in no need of anything or anyone in the universe, and thus finds no benefit when he is obeyed and no harm when he is disobeyed. Therefore, he grants rights in an absolutely just manner and enlists every believer to defend them when they are violated, whether the enmity is directed toward him personally, or toward someone else, whether believer or not. It is a duty to both remove injustice and to achieve righteousness.



But what are these rights recognized by the Divine Legislator? I have no space to delve into the details here. But we do know from contemporary debates that there’s clearly a tension between how Islamic law was traditionally interpreted and contemporary norms of human rights and citizenship in a democratic polity. For Ghannouchi, however, the latter trumps the former, and this mostly because of his theology of humanity:


“Islam is not content to declare the human person’s right to life, freedom and personal integrity; it considers that a sacred duty enjoined upon the community and the individual. The human being is appointed as God’s trustee, that is, his deputy charged with the responsibility to judge among his creatures with justice. Thus anyone who sets out to obey God and judge his creatures aright is God’s trustee.”


Apostasy as an example

But what about the Muslim who decides she no longer wants to remain Muslim? Apostasy and blasphemy laws in conservative countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan account for egregious human rights violations one can regularly read about in the press.

Ghannouchi devotes several pages to this issue, stating that the majority opinion traditionally – based on one particular hadith, and not the Qur’an – was that the apostate should incur the death penalty, because it came under the category of the hudud offenses (those which violate “God’s rights,” and are stipulated in the Qur’an and Sunna, like hand amputation for theft).

At the same time, there was always a minority view, which has become even more mainstream today, which sees apostasy as something between God and the individual. The Qur’an in several places warns those who abandon their faith of tragic consequences in the life to come, but mentions no punishment in this life. In fact, according to this view, the words and deeds of the Prophet and the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs show that apostasy was a political crime for them, which was committed by people who posed a material threat to the young Islamic state in Medina. It would be like people put on trial for treason today. That is also Ghannouchi’s view.

Characteristically, he then looks at the wider context of Tunisia’s Muslim society, deploring the inroads that Western-style secularism has made on many people’s minds. They have bought into a distorted view of Islam and often turn their backs on religion. Is this apostasy, he asks? No, the blame goes to the Muslim leadership in mosques and schools. A new and more relevant approach is needed. As such, education captures a key role here and in many other parts of his book.

Let me wrap up here. Ghannouchi’s emphasis on genuine, full-fledged democratic political procedures and state institutions, on the one hand, and on the necessity for a wider culture of respect for the ethical values put forward by religion on the other, opens a wide area of agreement between people of all faiths – and in particular, between moderate “islamists” like the followers of Ennahda, and American evangelicals, who also deplore that loss of basic values within their own political system. This is an issue I take up in part in a forthcoming trilogy of blogs on “The Impossible Islamic State?”

A coalition of Muslims and Christians have come together to address the rising tide of discrimination, intolerance, and at times downright hatred against Muslims in the United States. This is what is called today Islamophobia (see my 2011 blog on the 138-page report by the Center for American Progress entitled, "Fear, Inc.: Exposing the Islamophobia Network in America"; also my blog examining Robert Spencer's work).

Among these are the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) based in Washington, DC, Peace Catalyst International (PCI) headquartered in Denver and the Dialogue Institute (DI) at Temple University in Philadelphia.

In January 2014, ICRD convened 19 U.S. and Pakistani religious leaders for a week in Nepal to establish an Interfaith Leadership Network (ILN) that will develop and jointly pursue capacity-enhancing initiatives to ease the plight of religious minorities in Pakistan and to arrest the spread and impact of Islamophobia in the United States. Among other goals, this Network proposes to bring together American religious leaders, predominantly from the Evangelical movement, to educate, discuss and ultimately limit the impact of Islamophobia in the United States.

The next step was for Douglas Johnston of the ICRD, Rick Love of PCI, and Leonard Swidler of Temple University's DI to convene a conference on Religious Freedom and Islamophobia (October 6-8, 2015), which sought to help evangelicals and others understand the consequences of and develop thoughtful responses to Islamophobia in the United States.

This was the paper I presented -- a look at the historical roots of American evangelical Islamophobia. My thesis was that from the late seventeen century to now there has been a sad continuity in evangelical polemics against Islam and Muslims, but that there were nevertheless signs of hope today as well. We should continue to vigorously build on those!

It was subsequently published in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies (Temple University) 51, 2 (2016), 224-35.


27 September 2015

Glenn Beck, Can We Talk?

Glenn, I’ve never met you, but I just read your new book, It IS about Islam. Congratulations to you and your team for a well-written book, with good sources (though very selective), and a great passion for the welfare of our country!

Can we talk about it? As someone who lived for sixteen years in Algeria, Egypt, and Israel/Palestine, and as a scholar of contemporary Islam, I see much that is true, but also much that is skewed, mostly because you were so intent on proving that “the world is going over the cliff,” and that Muslims are pushing us over it. If we don’t speak out loud and clear, you warn us, America is next. It’s that serious, you believe.

Let’s take a deep breath and consider the evidence. Let’s start with what you get right.


Classical Islamic Law, Jihad, House of Islam and House of War

Islam, indeed, is unique among the three monotheistic faiths, in that its founder was both prophet and statesman. But it’s less unique than you think. The Israelites coming out of Egypt under Moses’ leadership functioned as a theocracy. After much chaos and some divine reticence, God allowed them some kings, though it turned out badly for them in the long run. Still, King David is revered in all three faiths, and for us Christians he foreshadowed the Messiah, Jesus Christ, whose kingdom was “not of this world,” but will become a comprehensive rule of justice and peace over a New Heavens and a New Earth when he comes again. So the picture of just rule is actually common to these faiths, though playing out very differently in each case.

Here are some points worth reiterating about classical Islamic law:

1. Muhammad did initiate military conquests, which his successors continued with astonishing success.

2. The “sword verses” in the Qur’an that you cite were deemed by the consensus of scholars/jurists from all five schools of law to have abrogated the more peaceful, “live and let live” ones.

3. As a result, by the 10th century Muslims assumed a binary view of the world – the House of Islam versus the House of War, implying that through jihad they should strive to bring the whole world under the authority of Muslim rule.

4. You rightly single out the 18th-century Wahhabi revolution in Arabia as the launch of the modern Islamist revolution, which was then given ideological and practical expression as an urban mass movement by Hasan al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood (MBs) in Egypt and Mawdudi’s parallel movement in India/Pakistan. Sayyid Qutb, a latecomer to the MBs, nevertheless spearheaded the radical jihadi ideology picked up by many splinter groups starting in the 1970s.

5. You emphasize the Shia millenarian stream (the coming of the Hidden Imam as the Mahdi), the powerful influence of the Iranian Revolution across the Islamic spectrum, and the eschatological fervor evident in the ideology of ISIS, along with its horrific record of bloodshed, ruthless authoritarianism, and religious persecution of all who disagree with them, starting with other Muslims.

6. You’re right about the classical formulations of Islamic law butting against current norms of human rights – for women’s rights, freedom of expression, and especially freedom of religion in Muslim-majority states like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and others (though each case is different).


I do have some sharp disagreements with your book, however.


Religious interpretations evolve with changing times

Islam is like any other faith tradition – it evolves over time, as people come to the texts and customs of the past with new questions borne out of the worldview and concerns of their day. So you wrongly equate “political Islam” (Islamism) with “Islam.” You acknowledge that most Muslims are “moderate,” but then add: “But increasingly I fear these Muslims are the exception” (p. 9).

Here you rightly point to a fact picked up by social scientists studying religion. Muslims have become generally more religiously conservative over the last few decades. But there are reasons. Among the three most important ones:

1. Globally, people of all religions have gotten a lot more religious since the 1970s (see the Fundamentalism Project, five volumes coming out in the late 80s and early 90s, and my blog on fundamentalism).

2. Saudi Arabia's petrodollars bankrolling the spread of their Wahhabi/Salafi ideology all over the world since the 1960s. This ultraconservative and literalistic reading of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s sayings (the Sunna) is a huge factor working in conjunction with Qutb’s writings.

3. Most Muslims feel angry about all kinds of perceived injustices against Muslims in Bosnia (1990s), Palestine and Kashmir, and Western (mostly American) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including US drone attacks killing scores of civilians. Glenn, you yourself recognize in your book that the US war in Iraq helped to create ISIS.


Sharia and American Muslims

Your description of Sharia (p. 121ff) is skewed. You define it as the “codification of the rules of the lifestyle (or deen) ordained by Allah.” Sharia was never codified – that’s a modern, nation-state term implying law codes drafted by a country’s legislative body.

Islamic history is the story of two competing powers – the caliph, sultan, shah, warlord or dynastic king versus the thick network of Islamic scholars/jurists (ulama) and their institutions, including a powerful network of endowed mosques, schools (madrassa), sharia courts, and Sufi centers. The latter generally supported the political status quo, but more often than not looked the other way, resisted political appointments to the state courts, and sometimes even opposed regimes they considered iniquitous. Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), whom you mention, spent a good deal of his life in prison.

So no, in practice Islamic societies experienced a near constant tug of war between religion and state, with a large space for what we call today “civil society.” Religion and state were never automatically welded in Islamic societies. Further, Sharia was very weak on constitutional law, even if you choose to call the political theory writings in that context by that name. It was more an exercise in justifying the less than ideal status quo by jurists who sought to curry favor with the rulers.

Now to the present day. First, the binary view of the world fell off a cliff, to use your terms, in the 18th century among the ulama establishment. Seeking to make their peace with Western colonial hegemony over their territories and lives (most puppet rulers put in place by the West also imported Western law codes and limited Shari’a courts to family law). Jihad now became a defensive ideology in the service of a modern nation-state eager to at least seem to be fitting in with the new world order, and this especially after WWII and the birth of multiple new nations.

That’s why many Muslims resisted, like Hasan al-Banna and his ilk, especially after the Ottoman caliphate was dissolved by Kemal Attatürk in 1924. No, they said, let’s get back to the classical theory of the House of War and the House of Islam. “To h… with the defensive jihad of the ulama!,” roared Sayyid Qutb, “We cannot rest till the whole world comes under the dominion of God’s law!” And so the modern jihadi movement was launched (he was executed by Egypt’s Gamal Abd al-Nasser in 1966).

Second, with the redefinition of jihad came an acceptance of democracy as the best way to rule a modern state. Among the 48 nations that signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) were Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey and Syria. No Muslim country opposed it; only Saudi Arabia abstained. Naturally, one has to point out the irony here – in practice most of these countries have never been able to establish a working democracy. But then, you cannot blame “Islam” for that. Look at the postcolonial states in Africa! And recall too that it took us over 200 years to get our democracy working, in spite of a bloody civil war that just about destroyed us!

This is why, Glenn, I cannot accept your statement, “Democracy itself is un-Islamic … Sharia does not respect individual rights.” I’ve written a great deal about Islam and democracy (see, for instance, this most recent publication). The largest Gallup poll ever conducted was from 2001 to 2007 in 35 different Muslim countries. Vast majorities said they wanted to be able to elect their government and that civil and political freedoms were important to them. Specifically, when asked whether they would guarantee freedom of speech if drafting a new constitution (defined as, “allowing all citizens to express their opinion on the political, social and economic issues of the day”), 94% answered yes in Egypt, 93% did so in Iran and 90% in Indonesia.

What also comes out clearly from this poll is that substantial majorities want both democracy and sharia – with majorities only in Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh wanting it as “the only source of legislation.” Most others want it as “a source.” Also, both men and women score within a similar range on the issue of women’s civil and political rights. Having the same rights as men was chosen by 90% of respondents in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey and Lebanon; 85% in Iran. So obviously, their definition of sharia is quite different from yours!

Third, your statement that all the major US Islamic organizations are beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood is completely overblown. There were certainly students who have come to the US over the years who were related to this movement – it’s been so very influential all over the ME since the 1930s, and because Hamas is popular with at least a third of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, it has representation in this country as well. But from there to say that political Islam dominates the US Islamic landscape is an impossible leap.

You make a lot of Ismail Elbarasse’s arrest in 2004, but apart from a Washington Post article following the incident of the filming of the bridge and subsequent search of their home, I could find no more articles on this affair except on the various sites that purport to “expose jihad”: “global Muslim Brotherhood watch” and counter jihad report. He was never indicted for wrongdoing, let alone convicted.

The closest to a juridical body that most Muslims see as authoritative in this country is the Fiqh [jurisprudence] Council of North America (FCNA, see my blog showing that on the basis of the 2011 Gallup poll in the US we see that most American Muslims distrust their own organizations). It’s closely associated with the conservative, but also mainstream, Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). If you point to “About ISNA” on their website, you will see “ISNA’s position on terrorism and religious extremism,” which is taken from a fatwa (legal opinion) handed down by FCNA. Here I quote one of the paragraphs, which follows an exposition of jihad that is the classic modern one I mentioned above.


“Third, it is a disingenuous and misleading tactic to focus exclusively on verses that deal with the contingencies of legitimate self-defense, and to ignore the repeated and consistent statements of the Qur’an that emphasize the sanctity of human life [5:32], respect for human dignity [17:70], acceptance of plurality, including plurality of religious convictions [5:48, 11:118], peaceful co-existence with all [60:8-9], universal and unbiased justice even with the enemy [4:135, 5:8], universal brotherhood [49:13] and mercy to all creation [21:107]. The Qur’an is a whole and cohesive book, and should not be interpreted in a piecemeal fashion” (emphasis theirs).


One last example … Imam Sayyid M. Syeed, one of ISNA’s top leaders for decades and also a personal friend of mine (we’ve worked together on several dialogue initiatives) said this to the press about Pope Francis’ recent visit to the US: “Francis’ visit is even more important for Muslims than it is for Catholics.” He explained that in contrast to the pope who 1,000 years ago helped to launch the First Crusade against Muslims, “now there is a pope who wants to destroy hatred the world over, a pope who named himself for a 13th-century saint who counseled Christians to cease their violence against Muslims.”

He concluded, “This pope is our pope.”


Your ranting about the threat of Muslims IS an infringement on religious freedom

I’m guessing that in reading these statement made by American Muslims you thought, “but that’s taqiya, or lies; they just say that …” I reply, based on just the little evidence I’ve presented here, that you’ve bought into conspiracy theories that are warranted by your version of right-wing politics. You constantly rail on the liberal Washington establishment and mainstream media, but that also makes it very difficult for you to listen to any other voice.

Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University, wrote a telling column in USA Today. Reacting to Donald Trump’s refusal to question the man who said Obama was Muslim and Ben Carson’s stating just like you that Islam and our freedom were incompatible and that therefore no Muslim should be president, he reminded his readers that religious freedom in this country has a checkered past. Muslims are just the latest bogeyman.

Thomas Jefferson was the first president to have been called a Muslim (an atheist and more), Catholics, almost until Kennedy was elected, were denounced as “fake Christians, amoral villains and traitors to the nation.” Jews have suffered at least that much discrimination and rancor. But also your own people, the Mormons, “were targeted as slaves of a religious despot whose liberty was incompatible with our own. Before this culture war was over, Mormon leaders would be sued, jailed, beaten, stripped naked, tarred and feathered, and murdered.”

Glen, you emphasize the good example of the Nazarene. Jesus surely would want us to speak kindly and truthfully about one another. His first commandment was love.

I challenge you to make friends with fellow Americans who are Muslims, as many of us have done. They are wonderful people you and I can learn a lot from. Yes, they will continue to work out their beliefs and practices within the context of this pluralistic, democratic society (that’s the thrust of my own academic work). And yes, law enforcement will bear down without mercy on all of those who threaten the security of our nation, whether Muslim or Christian extremists, or militia members like Timothy McVeigh. And by the way, terrorism specialists are not nearly as worried as you are about global jihad.

Glenn, I hope we can keep talking about these issues.

How does the youngest of ten in a poor, remote Tunisian village, became at age 70 his nation’s most influential politician and thinker in the wake of the revolution that had just toppled its dictator of 24 years? Rached (or Rachid) Ghannouchi’s islamist party Ennahda (or al-Nahda, with the article, “Renaissance”) won the most votes in 2011, ruled in a coalition with a secular party, then in 2013, stepped down so it could play a constructive role in drawing up Tunisia’s Constitution promulgated in 2014 – plainly the most progressive and pluralist constitution in the MENA region (North Africa and the Middle East). Without Ghannouchi, the one success story of the Arab Spring would not have happened (see this March 2015 article for a balanced perspective).

Ghannouchi’s picture at the top is taken from a BBC article taking a little pride in Ghannouchi’s 20-year exile residing on a leafy street in West London. This was a year after he had returned triumphant to his home country and the author celebrates his stay in London:


The green lawns of suburban London appear to have been more than just a base for Mr Ghannouchi. He once famously declared that Britain embodied the values of his ideal Islamic state more than most Muslim-majority nations - a shocking statement at a time when many Muslim ideologues saw the West as a mortal enemy.

"We consider that a state is more Muslim, more Islamic, the more it has justice in it," he says.

"When people asked me why I came to Britain, I explained that I was going to a country ruled by a queen where people are not oppressed and where justice prevails."


Actually, that statement is also in the book of his I’m translating, and this is the second blog out of three I’ll be writing on him. In the first one, I set the stage by giving a brief history of Egyptian and North African Islamic thought in the last century, with a little primer on political Islam (“islamism”). Here I’m answering a question I posed in the first blog relative to the Algerian philosopher, Malek Bennabi, Ghannouchi’s mentor:

How does a secular-leaning Muslim anti-colonial activist become an inspiration to a nascent islamist movement in neighboring Tunisia?


An improbable web of influences

I’ll list them in chronological order with a minimum of commentary:


1. A strong traditional Islamic upbringing: his father was the village imam. He had memorized the Qur’an and expected his boys to do so as well. The extended family cultivated their land and Rached had to quit school for four years till he was 15 to help his ailing father. At 18 he followed his brothers and from 1959-62 attended the oldest Islamic college in the Maghreb (built in 732), al-Zaytuna, in the capital, Tunis. But by then this traditionalist Islam only convinced him it had nothing to contribute to the modern world and he stopped practicing and even believing.


2. An admiration for Nasser’s Arabism: this started during the many evenings he spent with others at his uncle Bashir’s house, an influential man who had fought for independence with Bourguiba (Tunisia’s first president and dictator, 1975-87) and still involved in his ruling party. They would listen to broadcasts from Egypt and talk with great enthusiasm about President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policies. This love for the Arab East (Mashreq, as opposed to Maghreb) is what sent him later to Egypt and then to Syria.


3. A disillusionment with Nasser’s ideology: this happened, starting with his three months in Egypt. He had begun to study agriculture, but an accord was signed between Nasser and Bourguiba and all the “fugitive” (read “anti-Bourguiba”) students were to be repatriated by force. Rached managed to escape to Syria, where he stayed 7 years (1961-68), obtaining a BA in philosophy, among other things. He also spent 7 months in 1965 traveling and working odd jobs in Europe. But he came back mostly shocked at how decadent the youth were there. He was starting to shed his socialist and Arab nationalist ideology and was moving closer to the islamist groups that were springing up at the time (especially after the 1967 humiliating Arab defeat at the hands of Israel). The ringleader of a small group of students like himself, Rached directed them to enter into dialog with several islamist groups. It was with the Muslim Brotherhood, especially, that he realized that their Islam was more authentic (it was “comprehensive,” encompassing all of life including politics) than the Islam he had grown up with.


4. A conversion experience: that gradual attraction to Islam in his mid-twenties culminated with a profound experience in the night of June 15, 1966:


“That night I shed two things off me: secular nationalism and traditional Islam . . . That was the night I was overwhelmed by an immense surge of faith, love, and admiration for this religion to which I pledged my life. On that night I was reborn, my heart was filled with the light of God, and my mind with the determination to review and reflect on all that which I had previously conceived” (in Azzam S. Tamimi’s Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism, p. 22).


5. His Salafi stage: this should be qualified – not technical salafism as we know it today (the ultraconservatives with women completely covered in black and men in white robes half way down from the knees), but as he came to France in 1968 to work on a doctorate in the philosophy of education, he ended up joining a Tabligh community, a very conservative apolitical group started in India in the 1920s, whose members go door to door to get Muslims to practice their faith and follow their particular teachings. For the next few years (remember, his conversion experience was still fresh), he felt pulled in the direction of a very literalistic, ritualistic spirituality. In fact, when word got to his family that he was going door to door in Paris with a long beard, a long white robe and cap, they thought he had gone mad and sent the older brother to Paris to bring him home, under the pretext that his mother was very sick and needed to see him. That was the end of his stay in France, just over a year.


Bennabi’s influence on Ghannouchi

You’re probably wondering, how did Rached Ghannouchi move from this very conservative, apolitical religious practice to an intellectual and politically active one?

First, there was this serendipitous encounter he made at the al-Zaytuna mosque in Tunis on his way back to France. He spotted an unusual sight: a shaykh with a large circle of students around him, mostly children and old people. But there was one young man. Intrigued, he spoke to him and the latter led him to a small Tabligh circle, recently started by a Pakistani man. There he met a law student who would become a life-long friend and collaborator, Abdel Fattah Moro. Then and there Ghannouchi decided to stay in Tunisia.

Second, Ghannouchi soon founded a clandestine organization that grew out of that cell, but with a mission much wider than Tabligh ideas and practice. These were Muslim intellectuals with a bent for political activism and because of the books he had read by Bennabi, he took some of these to Algeria to attend Bennabi’s yearly Annual Islamic Thought Seminars. They attended three years in a row (1970-72), just a years before Bennabi died.

This is what Bennabi loved to do at this stage – inspire and train young leaders. He took these Tunisians under his wing and gave them a vision for what could happen in Tunisia through their concerted efforts. They would sow the seeds of an enlightened Islam that would bring out the best of their heritage from the past, speak out against tyranny, and find solutions to the cultural, economic and political morass now plaguing their nation.

The fruit of that mentorship would be seen in Ghannouchi’s and Moro’s co-founding of the Movement for the Islamic Tendency (MTI) in 1981.

What Bennabi taught them, above all, is the dynamic interchange between faith and reason. Yes, you start with the sacred texts (Qur’an and Sunna) and then you look at your particular context and study the specific cultural, historical, economic and political elements that make up the personality of your nation. Islam is a comprehensive system, but not a cookie-cutter model you impose everywhere willy-nilly. No, God created human beings to build civilizations, inhabiting the earth and shaping human societies in creative and just ways.

I leave you now with two excepts from the book he mostly wrote from prison, which was then reviewed and enlarged after arriving in London, The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State. Just remember this translation is still a draft. My editor, Andrew March, a Political Science professor at Yale, told me that Ghannouchi himself wants to be involved, and possibly his daughter, who is finishing a PhD at the prestigious Sciences Politiques university in Paris.

This is from Chapter 3, “Basic Democratic Principles.” This is a very Bennabian way of dealing with history and civilization. Islamic civilization, though it is superior (because as a Muslim you see it inspired by the last and most authoritative revelation), builds on previous ones, learning from them, developing that knowledge and research, and thereby enriching human collective civilization. That touches on the idea of creation and human trusteeship, a topic I take up next time. But here, a discussion about the historical appearance of the democratic system of governance:


“It wasn’t theoreticians, legal specialists, or political scientists who came up with the democratic system; rather, it evolved out of far-reaching historical developments. Many of its laws derive from political systems that prevailed in the Middle Ages or simply from the common legacy of human civilization, and gradually evolved to become the foundation for the new system that incorporated old elements that agreed with its logic. The development of science had its impact on the growth of production and the advancement of the means of transportation, while Europeans in the course of their pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Crusades came into contact with Muslims, something which upended their social structure and values. A fruit of all of this was the free democratic political system. In fact, the European contact with the Islamic world caused a psychological shock that awakened it from the slumber of feudalism, the stupor of the church’s religion, and the dictatorship of the aristocratic kings” (al-Hurriyat al-‘amma fi-l-dawla al-islamiyya, Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-Arabiyya, 1993, pp. 73-4).


You may not agree with the last sentence, because if anything, the Islamic contributions to Western civilizations up till now have been seriously downplayed in our Western educational systems. That’s changing, and it’s at least plausible that because of the Crusades, but especially the commercial and intellectual exchanges with Umayyad Spain from the 8th to the 11th centuries, a good deal more than just mathematics, science and philosophy were passed on from Muslims to Europeans.

Then the same chapter ends with this interesting paragraph. Note that democracy for him is a neutral set of institutional and political mechanisms applicable in a variety of settings and therefore infinitely adaptable:


If the said democratic apparatus had functioned within the framework of Christian values, it would have produced Christian democratic characteristics; if in the framework of a socialist philosophy, it would have produced socialist democratic characteristics; if in the framework of Jewish values, it would have produced a Jewish democracy. So is it impossible for it to function within the framework of Islamic values and produce an Islamic democracy? We support that perspective and see in it a great good, not just for Islam’s umma and those oppressed by tyranny, but for all of humanity. Even an Islamic regime that excludes the democratic apparatus offers no sufficient guarantees. This does not make the Islamic alternative a break with the heritage of contemporary civilization, but rather an extension of it that preserves the best of that heritage and transcends its destructive flaws, since this is the path of development, as it was the work of the Prophet (PBUH) as he fulfilled the work of the prophets before him, may God’s prayers be upon all of them!” (al-Hurriyat al-‘amma, p. 88).

This is the first blog post on this site by someone other than myself [despite my name still being on it -- to be worked out!]. This will happen from time to time, as opportunities arise. In this case, my friend Allan Christelow, Professor of History at Idaho State University (also mentioned and quoted in my last blog on the rise of islamism in the Maghreb) sent me this piece originally published in the Indian publication, the Diplomatist.

It was written right after the March-April 2015 presidential elections in Nigeria and I see it as a follow-up to my 2012 blog, "Reconciliation Possible in Nigeria."

As I have often put it, Nigeria is Africa's "ground zero" for Muslim-Christian relations. What happens there between Muslims and Christians spreads to other parts of the continent.

And as it should be, Christelow's piece is very much in the spirit of this site.



April 2015, Allan Christellow

Nigeria's Presidential Election: What the Global Media Miss

 On March 28, Nigerians entered an exquisite ordeal – the first presidential election where it seemed that either candidate had a good chance to win. They dressed up in colourful clothes. Civil servants and politicians living in the capital city of Abuja travelled to their home towns where they could meet their extended family as well as vote. But they had to worry about attacks by terrorists or youth gangs. And they had to hope that the complex, new biometric machines would successfully read their new, permanent voter cards.

Beyond the Headlines

Global media commentary on these elections often mentions that Nigeria is close to equally divided between Muslims and Christians, implying that this was an election that pitted one religion against the other. Yet, Nigeria is a society that demonstrates that there can be great diversity among both Christians and Muslims.

The voters chose not just a president, but also a vice president. Nigerians are well aware of the importance of that second slot, for they can remember that Goodluck Jonathan was elected as vice president in 2007. Then, in 2010, President Umaru Yar’Adua entered a prolonged health crisis, and finally died.

Jonathan succeeded him, and then won the next election in 2011 against Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general, who had briefly served as Nigeria’s military ruler in 1984-86, then run for president and lost in 2003 and 2007. Nigeria had initially made the transition to elected rule in 1999, with regulations stipulating that the presidential candidate and his running mate should be from different regions.

Former President Jonathan, candidate of the People’s Democratic Party is a Christian from Bayelsa state in the southeast, close to the Niger Delta, where Nigeria’s oil is located. His vice president since 2011, Namadi Sambo, had been governor of Kaduna state, an area where Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north intersects with the mainly Christian south.

Kaduna, and nearby areas of central Nigeria, had been the site of violent clashes between Muslims and Christians after Buhari’s defeat in the 2011 election. But since then, there have been important efforts to build understanding between Muslims and Christians in this area and curtail violence. Yet, for the global media, conflict resolution is far less interesting than outbreaks of violence.

Buhari is the candidate of the All Progressives Congress, a new party formed in the wake of the 2011 election. He is from Katsina state in Nigeria’s far north, and a member of the Fulani, the Muslim group who supported the building of an Islamic state in north central and north-western Nigeria in the early 19th century. Descendants of that movement’s leaders still serve as traditional rulers in the Muslim north, notably Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar, the Sultan of Sokoto. He is a strong supporter of modern education and of interfaith dialogue – as illustrated by the fact that he was invited to speak on this topic at Harvard Divinity School in 2011. Buhari’s vice presidential candidate, Yemi Osinbajo, is a lawyer and a Pentecostal Christian from Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos.


Analysing the North’s Security Crisis

A major problem for Jonathan has been the Boko Haram rebellion in the northeast. Since 2009, the rebellion led by this Islamic movement has spun out of control. These rebels have only been pushed back since early March of this year with help from the armies of neighbouring countries, especially Chad. And it has needed the help of security contractors based in South Africa, who have also contributed to efforts at maintaining security in the Niger Delta.

Neither Buhari nor Jonathan produced an effective analysis of the problems underlying the security crisis in the north, which include the poor performance of the Nigerian armed forces. This stems not only from poor funding and lack of equipment, but also from the difficulties facing the army of a nation made up of hundreds of different ethnic groups fighting rebels who come mainly from one group, in this case the Kanuri. Inciting large scale defections, a key step towards defeating the rebels, requires local cultural skills. Neither candidate presented an effective understanding of the geopolitical and socio-economic problems underlying the rebellion, and ways to address these problems.


The Road Ahead

Nigeria has the largest population and the largest economy in Africa, so one might expect it to play a dynamic role in the continent’s politics. But a recent incident highlighted Jonathan’s shortcomings in this area. Nigerian government sources proclaimed that he had spoken at length by phone to Morocco’s King Muhammad VI, yet the Moroccan government denied this saying that the king had rejected Jonathan’s request for a discussion. Morocco then withdrew its ambassador.

But Buhari seems to have made no comment on this. When he was president in 1984, Nigeria recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic set up as the government of what had been the Spanish controlled Western Sahara. But the territory was taken over by Morocco, and this remains a contentious issue. Buhari also took an aggressive stance against an intrusion by Chad into north-eastern Nigeria when he was president. Given Chad’s key role in that area today, memories of the earlier clash could bring trouble. 

The most serious problem facing Nigeria today is widespread poverty and ineffective government services in areas such as healthcare and education, above all in the predominantly Muslim north. Both candidates expressed concern for these problems, but neither presented an effective strategy to deal with them. The sharp decline of revenues from oil exports has made these problems more difficult to address.

In the area of healthcare, Nigeria has had one remarkable success recently, with the prevention of the spread of the Ebola virus after it was brought into the country from the epidemic’s centre in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, to the west of Nigeria. This showed how Nigerians, led by their medical professionals, could meet a serious challenge. Another area where they have had some success has been in developing a way to surgically repair the damage caused by fistula, a problem affecting young women married at an early age when they bear a child before being physically mature enough to do so.


Contributions by Civil Society

There is no surgical solution for young men who have been recruited into violent gangs such as Boko Haram in the northeast, or the Bakasi boys in the Niger Delta, but it may be possible to develop ways to bring them back into mainstream society through counselling and job training. Federal and state governments may have limited skill in this area, but voluntary organisations can prove effective. They can also be useful in addressing the larger problem of working with marginalised youth; both male and female, to provide them with the skills and resources needed to avoid becoming a child bride or a gang thug. The federal government can provide financial assistance in this area.


Sterling Contribution by the INEC

Technical skills have played a pivotal role in building the Independent National Election Commission, or INEC, which has been instrumental in developing the technology of electronic biometric tests to ensure that the person registered to vote is in fact the person voting. But the new technology introduced by the INEC had its glitches. One of their machines failed to confirm the identity of then President Goodluck Jonathan. Perhaps this was because he was smiling so brightly knowing that even if he lost the election he could return peacefully to his hometown and take up fishing from a boat driven by solar power!

The INEC successfully assisted in the vote counting process, and by March 31 it became clear that Buhari had won the election. The vote count helps to show both the challenges that Nigeria faces, and also its potential for overcoming the challenges. A dramatic aspect of the vote count is the small number of votes for Buhari in the southeast (in several states less than 5 percent), and his overwhelming majority in the far north (80 percent or more). But the central states and the southwest show a closer balance. They illustrate Nigeria’s potential for dialogue between religious and ethnic groups. The global media simply focus on the winner. They need to recognise the challenges for the winner shown in the statistics. 


Boring title, right?

Actually, the explosion of anger among the masses in North Africa (the “Maghreb”) in December-January 2010-2011 initially called the Arab Spring, which toppled three regimes in the region (Tunisia, Libya and Egypt), had roots in 1930s Algeria. Let me explain.

And by the way, this is the beginning of a series of three blogs on Rached Ghannouchi, that spin out of his book I am translating (Arabic to English), The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State. Ghannouchi is the founder (and still leader) of the islamist party Ennahda (“Renaissance”), which was voted into power in Tunisia on the heels of dictator Ben Ali’s desperate escape from the country. Ghannouchi wrote this book mostly as a political prisoner in the 1980s as a doctoral dissertation. Back to him later . . .

What we call “political Islam,” or islamism (I use the lower case ‘i’ to mark it off as an ideology), or the 20th-century movement to bring specific Islamic values into the sociopolitical sphere of the nation-state, goes back to the great modern Islamic reformer Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905). Abduh, who spent the last decade or his life as Egypt’s top cleric, or Grand Mufti, wanted a “modern” Islam that could help Muslims deal with the momentous and frightening changes wrought by Western colonialism. To accomplish this, he argued, you have to cut through all the dead wood, fanciful traditions and superstitions that accumulated over time, and learn from the luminaries of early Islam and the masters of its classical tradition. In one word, you turned to the salafs, or the “pious forbears.” Hence, Abduh labeled his thought salafi (see my blog, “Whence the Salafis?” for fuller treatment of this trend).

So the new salafi teaching that Abduh was able to establish at the most prestigious center of Islamic learning, Cairo’s al-Azhar University, spread to other centers around the world, and notably to the Zaytuna mosque complex in Tunis, where the Algerian reformer Ben Badis (d. 1940) went for training in the 1910s. His own efforts led to the founding of the Algerian Association of Muslim Ulama (“Islamic scholars”), or the AUMA in 1931, a movement that was sowing the seeds of Islamic reformism (islah) in this French territory.

[Note: Algeria was not a “French colony,” like Tunisia or Morocco. The French had simply annexed it in 1830, and native Algerians carried identity cards branding them as “French Muslims.” This was discrimination every bit as thorough and brutal as South African apartheid].

Meanwhile, a bright young Algerian man, Malek Bennabi (d. 1973), was sent to the town of Constantine, where the premier institute for training lawyers and clerks for the Islamic court system was located. By then, Bennabi, a voracious reader, had not only read Abduh’s magnum opus in Arabic, The Message of God’s Unity, but also anti-colonial writers like India’s Rabindranath Tagore in French. His morning ritual included perusing the French communist paper, LHumanité. Islam remained Bennabi’s compass and soul mate all his life, but he was also an Algerian nationalist through and through, with an insatiable curiosity for current events all over the globe. Long before the Non-Aligned Movement emerged, Bennabi was an internationalist.

How does a secular-leaning Muslim anti-colonial activist become an inspiration to a nascent islamist movement in neighboring Tunisia? That is what makes this story fascinating.

Ben Badis lived in Constantine and in his autobiography (in French, like most of his many books) Bennabi relates that he would often observe him walking to his office in the morning, as he and his friends sat in their café discussing the latest news. One day, though, he got up the courage to pay him a visit. As he recounts the meeting, it was a disappointment. Dressed in his Western attire, he was not even invited to sit down. The Shaykh in traditional scholarly garb listened to him politely as he waxed eloquent about Algerian independence and, among other items, the urgency of exploiting neglected farmlands. But Ben Badis stayed mostly silent.

Bennabi remained at least sympathetic to the Islamic reformist movement, but his driving passion was elsewhere. In 1930 he moved to France and obtained a degree in electrical engineering. And though he kept in touch with the political activities of his compatriots in the homeland, he was consumed by social issues, which he also discussed with members of a Catholic students club in Paris. There he made some lasting friends with peers who were doubly “other” to him – French and Christian. Alan Christelow, historian at Idaho State University, noted how these encounters helped to widen Bennabi’s horizons and develop a certain “ecumenical” spirit. He wrote this about him in a 1992 article:


“For Bennabi, dialogue between Islam and other civilizations was possible, indeed highly desirable, but such dialogue could not take place within an asymmetrical colonial framework.”


[For more on Algeria by Allan Christelow, see my blog reviewing his 2012 book around the theme of 19th-century patriot and Sufi Shaykh, the Emir Abd el-Kader]

After his graduation he married a French woman who converted to Islam and he began to write several books – some defending Islam (The Qur’anic Phenomenon, 1946), but most developing his thought as a self-taught philosopher of civilizations, like his seminal 1948 book, Les Conditions de la Renaissance (“Conditions for Renewal”).

Meanwhile, the Algerian resistance movement launched its guerilla war against French occupation of their nation in November 1954. Two years later, Bennabi went to Egypt, partly to join the patriots in exile and partly to improve his Arabic. President Gamal Abdel Nasser provided him with a stipend so he could spend his time writing. He stayed there until 1963, just a year after Algerian independence.

During those years, Bennabi lectured often in Arabic in Lebanon and Syria, as well as in Egypt, and developed a strong reputation as a thinker who could skillfully weave themes of anti-colonialism, Arab-Islamic pride, democracy and social justice. Further, he neither lost his passion for the dialog of civilizations, nor his thirst for knowledge. By then he was also reading about economic development, sociology and political science and blending his conclusions into a series of books.

More than anything, however, Bennabi was fascinated with the idea of civilization, and in particular, he wondered why after towering over other parts of the world for so long, Islamic civilization went into such a steep decline in the late medieval period. For an explanation, he looked to 14th-century historian, the Tunisian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), who is considered today as the forerunner of sociology, historiography, demography and economics, and who served as advisor to several rulers in North Africa and the Middle East of his time.

Here is a sample of Bennabi's thinking, quoting from an article I wrote, which appeared in the Maghreb Review in 2004 (“Fuzzy Reformist-Islamist Borders: Malek Bennabi and Rachid Ghannouchi on Civilization” (which you can now read in "ressources"):


“Significantly, Bennabi never writes about Shari’a. In fact he totally sidesteps the classical formulations of Islamic law (according to the various schools) and speaks only of the 'qur’anic spirit.' These are the values, he argues, that reflect the qur’anic virtues with which true Muslims should adorn themselves. Muhammad himself lay great stress on the moral virtues that form the bulwark of civilizations. A civilization can coast (or even expand for a while) on the basis of technology, science and reason, but without the strength of moral character ('l’âme seule permet à l’humanité de s’élever'), it will go downhill, lose its ascending force, 'drawn by an irresistible force of gravity.'

Here is Bennabi’s diagnosis:

‘When a society reaches this stage in its evolution, when the breath that gave it its first impulse ceases to animate it, the cycle comes to an end and that civilization makes its exodus to another arena (aire), where a new cycle begins, feeding on a new bio-historical synthesis. But in the arena that is vacated, the work of science loses all meaning. Whenever the outward radiance of the spirit ceases, rational work also ceases; it is as if the human person loses his or her thirst for understanding and the will to act—as soon as that momentum is lost, the 'tension of faith.' Reason disappears because its products perish in a milieu which can no longer understand or use them. Thus Ibn Khaldun’s work seemed to come too soon, or too late: it could no longer imprint itself on the Muslim genius which had already lost its own plasticity, its ability to progress, to renew itself. The qur’anic impulse progressively lost its momentum, and the Muslim world stopped like an engine that has consumed its last liter of gasoline’” (from his 1970 book, Le Problème des idées, pp. 25-6, my translation).


The other great contribution Bennabi made, as I see it, is his concept of “colonizability.” In his attempt to shake his fellow Muslims from what he saw as cultural and spiritual lethargy, he tackled several “myths.” One of those was, “we cannot move forward because of colonialism.” “Baloney!” he retorts. Well, actually, in his own words:


“There is an historical process that one should not neglect for fear of losing sight of the essence of things, of seeing only what they appear to be. This process does not begin by colonization, but rather by the colonizability that provokes it. In fact, to a certain extent, colonization is the most happy effect of colonizability because it inverts the social evolution that gave birth to the colonizable being in the first place: he only becomes aware of his colonizability once he is colonized. He then finds himself obligated to 'denativize' himself in order to become uncolonizable, and it is in this sense that one may understand colonization as an 'historical reality'” (Vocation de l’Islam, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1954, p. 83).


Bennabi’s loyalty to the cause of Algerian independence was rewarded as he came home in 1963. He was made Director of Higher Education and given the mission of guiding the nascent Algerian University of Algiers, as well as those that were being built from the ground up in other major cities. He also gathered around him a number of students who discussed his ideas and implemented them in their own projects in one way or another.

Bennabi was also influential in the founding of the first islamist organization in post-independence Algeria (1963), al-Qiyam (“Values”). Although the reformist leaders of the AUMA had stood and fought with others for independence, the main organ of the nationalist fight (FLN: Front for National Liberation) took charge of Algeria’s government from the start as a one-party authoritarian system, much like their mentors in Egypt. It was Muslim in name, but mostly secular in practice and socialist in ideology, and its leaders banned the AUMA.

Hence, Bennabi’s helped to establish the al-Qiyam movement. But right from the beginning, two tendencies emerged within it. The first was led by some of the religious scholars issued from the AUMA who also had close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Bennabi, by contrast, was a leader of the more pragmatic, nationalist and bilingual current.

Either way, the political movement focused on Islam was a threat to the ruling FLN party. They were closely watched, then seriously curtailed, then in 1970 they were banned.

By the 1980s, the leaders of the islamist movement that emerged at that time were all leaders who had been active with al-Qiyam. And by then Bennabi’s more reformist and pragmatic current had waned significantly.

Yet in the late 1960s, in neighboring Tunisia, a student movement was growing, which saw in Bennabi’s work the seeds of a political Islam that could bring democracy and positive socioeconomic development to their society. Rached Ghannouchi was already emerging as leader, and to him I will turn in the next post.

[This week I reconnected rather emotionally with Algeria, where I lived from 1978 to 1987, through an interview conducted in French with me and published in the daily Kabyle (the most influencial Berber tribe in Algeria) newspaper La Cité]