Islam in power

*Hadani Ditmars* grasps the nettle.

Photo: Patrick Brown / PANOS

Much has happened in the world since I agreed to take on the challenge of editing an issue on political Islam. Protests against suspect elections in Iran morphed into a popular and brutally suppressed uprising against the constraints of theocracy, eerily reminiscent of the prelude to the 1979 Revolution.

The war in Afghanistan, with its high civilian death toll, was brought increasingly into the living rooms of the West, as NATO soldiers continued to die fighting an amorphous enemy generally labelled as ‘the Taliban’.

And in a German courtroom, a hijab-wearing Egyptian woman was stabbed to death in front of her three-year-old daughter by a right wing Islamophobe, while a British National Party-inspired plot to blow up English mosques was uncovered by police.

Even as extremists feed off each other, the so-called ‘Muslim world’ continues to turn in all its colourful, heterogeneous chaos. And despite an often simplistic reduction to an all powerful homogenous ‘other’, the planet’s 1.3 billion Muslims get on with their daily lives in the midst of a wide range of political realities.

Some live in secular nations like Turkey, governed by a religious president who does a delicate dance with Ataturk’s ghost.1 Others live in authoritarian ‘Islamic’ states like Iran or under occupation in Palestine. Some live in majority-Muslim nations ruled by Western-backed dictators where Islamist parties are the ever-ready, ever-suppressed, de facto opposition. Some live in places like Pakistan or Sudan, where Islamic brotherhoods have actually colluded with military regimes.

Still others live in war-zones like Iraq and Somalia where the presence of foreign troops has exacerbated sectarianism and civil strife and where ‘Islamist’ militias mete out vigilante ‘justice’.

And many live in majority Christian countries like France where, despite an obsession with secularism (la laicité) a strong Catholic culture permeates social and legal customs; or the US, where a significant evangelical community wields substantial political clout.

Meanwhile misperceptions about the nature of Islam – from both within Muslim communities and outside of them – can mean that complex issues are boiled down into binary Us vs Them rhetoric. And often the boundaries between Islamic doctrine and authoritarianism, tribalism, nepotism, militarism or Big Oil are blurred.

Theory and practice

With my own inter-faith background – a nominally Christian father and a mother who converted to Islam when I was 10 – my subsequent experience of Muslim communities proved interesting, to say the least. Everywhere I saw fissures in orthodoxies and exceptions to the rule that prompted questions about the line between theory and practice.

 In the immediate aftermath of the Lebanese civil war, I worked with a young Shi’a film maker in Beirut on a documentary about children caught up in the conflict. Most still refused to cross the ‘green line’ that separated the ‘Muslim’ from the ‘Christian’ sides of the city, but would meet together in certain ‘neutral’ areas. A reporting trip to Iran exposed me to the strange contradictions of life in the Islamic Republic, where the distance between public mores and private reality rivals that of Victorian England, and where educated and engaged citizens are constantly testing the limits of theocratic rule.

Time spent in Indonesia allowed me to witness the world’s biggest Muslim nation – its religious pluralism only recently marred by inter-faith violence – recovering from three decades of oppressive, secular rule under the Western-backed dictator Suharto,

And six years of reporting from Iraq showed me how decades of war, sanctions and despotism could erode the civil society of a once-secular nation, making it vulnerable to violent sectarianism, fundamentalism and a huge decline in the status of women and minorities.

The Islamic ‘world’ is of course just as embroiled in politics as the Christian ‘world’. But identifying a precedent for political Islam remains contentious.

‘I am going to light a fire in paradise and pour water on to hell, so that both veils may vanish altogether’ Rabia Al-Adhiwiya, 8th century Sufi saint and poet

Early Islam was arguably a revolutionary movement, with the Prophet Muhammad espousing women’s rights and appointing Bilal, a black man, as his first muezzin. His statement upon conquering Mecca seems uncompromising: ‘I trample under my feet all distinctions between man and man, all hatred between man and man.’2

And yet so many ‘Islamic’ states are authoritarian rather than egalitarian.

A wide spectrum of Muslims actually oppose theocracy (see page 12). Even the Ayatollah Sistani, the Iraqi Shi’a leader re-empowered by the 2003 invasion who issued a fatwa against gay rights activist Ali Hili (see page 9), theoretically opposes the fusion of mosque and state. In a position strangely reminiscent of certain religious Jewish groups who reject as apostasy the actual state of Israel – at least until the mashiach arrives – the Ayatollah Sistani believes that a truly Islamic state cannot exist until the arrival of the long-awaited 12th Imam. Anything less, goes the argument, would sully the purity of the faith itself.

In this de facto anti-theocratic stance the Ayatollah Sistani is the strange bedfellow of everyone from self-declared ‘Muslim atheist’ Tariq Ali to the likes of El-Farouk Khaki, the Canadian founder of the gay Muslim group Salaam, who was the grand marshall at this year’s Toronto pride parade.

While certain crusading atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – whose non-theist zeal rivals that of the best American televangelists – reject the notion of re-interpreting religious text entirely, many Muslim thinkers are re-examining the very precepts of Islam by going back to its origins.

Swiss-Egyptian theologian Tariq Ramadan, for example, calls for radical reform within Islam, grounded in textual sources. Unfortunately his call for full engagement of Muslims in civil society is marred by his ambivalent stand on gay rights.3

Writer and scientist Ziauddin Sardar offers a more progressive and pluralistic stance. He views Islamic culture within a transmodern – as opposed to postmodern – context. For Sardar, postmodernism is ‘the new imperialism of Western culture’ that ‘pretends’ to give marginalized cultures a voice but actually undermines their worldviews. His concept of ‘transmodernism’ is about a synthesis between tradition that is open to change, and ‘a new form of modernity that respects the values and lifestyles of traditional cultures’.4

Simultaneously a believer, sceptic, critic and reformer, Sardar writes: ‘Muslims have been on the verge of physical, cultural and intellectual extinction simply because they have allowed parochialism and traditionalism to rule their minds.’ He rejects the concept of the Islamic state as something antithetical to Islam and traces its origins as a 20th century Muslim reaction to the concept of the Western nation-state (see page 14).

Sardar rightly argues that Islam is a universalist movement, not bound by geographical borders. Rather than being nationalistic in nature, true Islam is all about the greater global ummah or ‘community’ of Muslims. But he also argues that historically this concept of community extended beyond Muslims to include Jews (see page 10), Christians and others. This concept should be reinvigorated within a modern, multicultural context.


12th Imam: believed by some Shi’a Muslims to be the saviour of humankind.

Hadith: sayings or traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Hijab: can refer to types of head-covering worn by Muslim women, or more generally to a modest way of dressing.

Ijma: literally, agreeing upon, consensus of the community in general, and the learned in particular.

Jihad: any earnest striving in the way of God, involving personal, financial, intellectual or physical effort, for righteousness and against wrongdoing.

Mashiach: a Hebrew word which means ‘anointed one’, it refers to a human being who will usher in a messianic era of peace and prosperity.

Muezzin: a person who leads the call to prayer.

Sharia: a code of law based on interpretations of the Qur’an.

Shi’a and Sunni: the two major denominations of Islam. Their split originated in a dispute over a successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

Shura: community consulation.

Sufism: the inner, mystical dimension of Islam.

Ummah: global community of Muslims.

Wahhabism: a conservative form of Islam that originated as a reform movement 200 years ago in Saudi Arabia.

Keeping extremism alive

While progressive reformers like Sardar are articulating dynamic reinterpretations of a 1,300-year-old faith against the backdrop of increasingly violent Islamophobia and the fallout from the ‘war on terror’, in certain quarters extremist Islamism is being actively funded and encouraged.

As 30-year-old British author Nafeez Ahmed writes (see page 17) the old Cold War relationships between certain national intelligence agencies and Islamist extremists are still alive and well.

While researching a doctoral thesis on imperialism and the ‘war on terror’, Ahmed found that in most Muslim countries where there is a significant petroleum industry, Western intelligence agencies have formed close relationships with Islamist groups – and in many cases are supplying them with arms and funds.

As strange new Wahhabist militias appear in, for example, Somalia and Chechnya , local Muslim communities with populist Sufi or other indigenous, moderate forms of Islam suddenly find their faith hijacked. Wherever sharia law is used as a tool of authoritarianism, there are often, it seems, hidden political agendas at work.

While some secular nationalist governments in majority-Muslim countries have engaged with Islamist extremists ( like Algeria’s ruling party – see page 18) to further their own agendas and co-opt the power of religion, similar tactics by Western governments and intelligence agencies can be new versions of the old divide-and-conquer imperialism.

Even as the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq empowered extremist Shi’a death squads via the new Ministry of the Interior, the CIA continued to support Salafist, Sunni militias throughout the region (see page 17). Sectarian strife would seem almost unavoidable under such circumstances.

A way forward

While realpolitik continues unabated, the case of Iraq remains instructive. The troubled nation is a tragic model of how sustained assault on civil society can foster fundamentalism.

It now seems incredible that Iraq once had the best publicly funded health and education system, highest literacy rate and highest status of women in the Arab world. But funds for social programmes were drained during the eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s. This was followed by Saddam’s disastrous invasion of Kuwait and 12 years of draconian UN sanctions that ruined what was left of the economy. A whole generation came of age knowing only war, poverty and a socio-cultural vacuum – one that was filled by the promise of fundamentalist Islam.

Under the sanctions regime and in the post-invasion years, mosques were distribution centres for food and medicine, meeting places and informal employment agencies – especially for alienated young men offered jobs and guns. These foot-soldiers for the violent militias that now rule Iraq fell back on faith when the state collapsed, with terrible consequences.

As ever, the way to build peaceful, pluralistic and democratic societies is to support public institutions – health and education being the primary pillars – not sectarian militias.

Daughters of the Prophet

While Iraq remains a dramatic example of what can befall an educated, secular yet majority-Muslim state, the statistics for many predominantly Muslim nations remain appalling. The education levels for girls and women, for example, are abysmally low in many countries and reformers cite this issue alone as one that could effect profoundly positive change if the trend were reversed.

And yet, if Islam’s original message of equality for women were revived, the faith could be a real tool for change. This is the argument made by Muslim feminist Amina Wadoud and others. There is a tradition of female leadership in Islam that goes back to the time of the Prophet. His wife Aisha was politically active and an authority on hadith, while women like Ume Warqa and Samra Binte Wahaib were appointed heads of the market committees of Medina and Mecca by Umar, the second Sunni Caliph.

At a more grassroots level, I have experienced the powerful sense of sisterhood and solidarity engendered by communal women’s prayer in mosques around the world. At the al-Gaylani mosque in Baghdad, I listened as an Iraqi grandmother railed against US soldiers who had killed her son, even as the imam continued his Friday sermon. For her, the women’s prayer section was the only public platform where she could vent her concerns. Later, a woman implored me to help her rescue her young daughter who had been kidnapped by her abusive, estranged husband who, she said, had become increasingly violent after the invasion.

In Jerusalem I prayed side by side with Palestinian women at the Dome of the Rock mosque. Later they told me of the trials they faced living under occupation in an increasingly conservative society.

While Western critics of the status of women in majority-Muslim countries abound, people like Saudi activist and writer Wajeha al-Huwaider (see page 8) are working from within their own cultures for change. Al-Huwaider challenges the all-powerful male guardianship laws that infantilize Saudi women and makes doing anything without the approval of a male relative or husband next to impossible. Yet she does this from within the kingdom and chooses not to denigrate a people or the place she loves, but rather the laws that maintain an oppressive system.

Towards a new Andalucia

Islam is a culture as well as a faith, but there are as many different cultures within Islam as there are ethnicities and ideologies.

Many look to Andalucia as an example of how Islamic civilization was at its height when it was at its most pluralistic. Although there was Muslim rule in Spain for 800 years, the period of the caliphate of Abd al Rahman III in the 10th century is seen by many as one of the highlights of Islamic history. It was a time when scholars from around the world came to study in Cordoba. Later the works of Ibn Rush (Averroes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) helped fuel the European Renaissance.

Certain elements of Andalucian society might well have made the puritans of present-day Islamist movements blush. Women like the 11th century Cordoban poet Wallada bint-al-Mustakfi, who went unveiled and wore translucent garments, and wrote overtly sexual poems to her lover that were discussed alongside religion and philosophy at her literary salons.

Not all share the view that this was the high point of Islamic civilization, but it was certainly a time of cultural pluralism and tolerance.

In contrast with much of ‘Christian’ Europe, in Andalucia Jews, Muslims and Christians lived, worked and created together in relative harmony. The celebrated mystical works of Ibn al Arabi, the glorious Alhambra and even flamenco music are products of that unique fusion.

Monoculture and extremism are inexorably linked. And so narrow-minded Islamism, so often fuelled and exploited for political gain, meets its natural counterpart in the thugs who planned to blow up mosques in Britain.

A Bosnian imam who survived the Serb massacres of his war-torn homeland only to find himself a refugee in polyglot Vancouver, once told me: ‘multiculturalism is the real jihad – learning to live peacefully with other people.’

I am reminded of this call for peaceful pluralism as I add my voice to the growing chorus of those who say that the ummah should extend to the whole of humanity. Increasingly – from the grieving grandmother in Baghdad to the queer Muslim parade marshall in Toronto to your neighbour’s son who died in Afghanistan – our destinies are entwined.

Let us use this juncture to augment our sense of community, not to deny it.

  1. Kemal Ataturk was the founder of the Republic of Turkey and a fervent secularist.
  2. Charles Le Gai Eaton, The Book of Hadith: Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad from the Mishkat Al Masabih, The Book Foundation, 2007.
  3. Tariq Ramadan
  4. Ziauddin Sardar, ‘Beyond Difference: Cultural Relations in a New Century’, in How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations edited by Ehsan Masood, Pluto Press, London, 2006.

Islam in power?

Defining ‘Islam in power’ is not easy. Here are a few variations on how Islam and politics interplay at a state level.

Style of government
Reality check

Islamic Republic

Authoritarian regime with an active and youthful broad based opposition/reform movement

Islamic Republic
Nominally secular, authoritarian Western-backed regime with active Islamist opposition. Near ‘failed state’

Procedural Democracy         
Authoritarian regime led by a former military man, democratic window-dressing with some encouraging signs

Elective monarchy and parliamentary democracy
More power in the executive branch of government than in the legislative, weak judiciary, multi-party system plagued by corruption

Presidential Republic
Since resignation of Western-backed dictator Suharto in 1998, major democratic reforms have taken place; still a long way to go

Parliamentary Republic     
Brutal discrimination against ethnic minorities and human rights abuses mar democratic nature; ongoing tension between secularists and Islamists

Semi-Presidential Republic
De facto
dictatorship backed by the West, with significant Islamist opposition

Islamic Republic  
Taliban rule replaced by corrupt warlordism, a country shattered by three decades of war and invasions