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Islam Who Needs An Islamic State?

Discussion in 'Interfaith Dialogues' started by Aman Singh, Sep 29, 2009.

  1. Aman Singh

    Aman Singh
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    Jun 1, 2004
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    Who Needs an Islamic State?
    - Yoginder Sikand

    Abdelwahab El-Affendi is a well-known Islamic scholar and political philosopher from
    Sudan, presently based in London. Author of numerous works, his latest book,
    provocatively titled ‘Who Needs an Islamic State?’ discusses what he regards as the
    serious lacunae in contemporary Islamist political thought, which, in his view, have
    caused Islamist movements to reach a virtual dead-end, creating many more problems
    (for Muslims as well as others) than they have been able to solve. El-Affendi seeks to
    argue the case for a paradigm shift in Muslim political thinking in order to fashion a
    contextually relevant understanding of Islam and its role in, and relation to, the public
    Islamism may be described as a version of Islam predicated on the centrality of the notion
    of an ‘Islamic state’ whose principal function is to enforce, and rule by, what is
    conventionally regarded as shariah law. Islamism is far from being the homogenous
    phenomenon that it is often taken to be. Nor are all versions of Islamism necessarily
    incompatible with democracy. Undeniably, however, many forms of Islamism are.
    Islamist ideologues, driven by triumphalist, even apocalyptic, fervor, have failed to a
    develop consistent position on such crucial issues as limits to state authority, people’s
    participation in law-making and governance, the role and status of non-Muslims and
    women and the question of violence. Almost all recent experiments in setting up ‘Islamic
    states’ have involved tremendous bloodshed, conflict and large-scale suppression of
    democratic rights, including of Muslims themselves. The tantalizing utopian society that
    Islamists promise to usher in seems to recede even further into the realm of possibility
    once Islamists come to power.
    This, in brief is what El-Affendi argues in his book. He contends that, once in power,
    Islamist parties inevitably turn sternly authoritarian. This is inevitable, he suggests,
    because the leaders of these parties firmly believe that their understanding of Islam
    corresponds most closely to the Divine Will and hence cannot be opposed and must be
    imposed, even against the opposition of a significant section of the population, Muslims
    as well as others. Islamists in power generally have a very poor record of respecting
    democracy, though the author rightly notes, it is unfair to blame them alone for the
    serious democratic deficit in much of the Muslim world since they are more often than
    not the victims of despotism, both of Western imperialist powers and of regimes in
    Muslim counties closely allied to the West. Yet, he insists, even victims have choices.
    When out of power, the ‘misguided anti-democratic rhetoric’ of Islamists provides many
    a despot with ‘an alibi and a pretext to oppose democratization’, and in the few instances
    when Islamists have managed to acquire power, their record in upholding democratic
    rights has generally been dismal.
    El-Affendi critiques the Islamists obsession with the struggle for acquiring power as a
    means to enforce shariah. Instead, he advises that it is not primarily political but, rather,
    moral influence that Islam requires its followers to seek to acquire. The best way to
    communicate Islam to others, which is the principal duty of Muslims, is not through the
    force of arms, but, rather, for Muslims to exemplify Islamic virtues in their own lives and
    to offer an alternative model of life to the rampant consumerism and centralization of
    power characteristic of Western-inspired models of ‘modernity’. Sadly, he says, this is
    not happening. In fact, or so he claims, Muslims are even more materialistic than others,
    while contributing little or nothing to the world in terms of science and technology. As he
    very aptly, though bluntly, puts it, ‘We sound a lot sillier today when we claim that the
    Muslims should be a light unto mankind and show exemplary conduct and moral
    leadership. Now, it would be more realistic to just say we wish that Muslims should stop
    blowing themselves up and getting innocent people killed in the process.’
    El-Affendi recognizes continued injustices directed by others against Muslims, as in
    Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq, and also admits that violence in the name of Islam is
    often a response or reaction to the oppression of Western powers and of their client
    regimes in the Muslim world. Yet, he suggests, reacting to this with indiscriminate
    counter-violence, as some Islamist groups have, is not in line with Quranic teachings.
    Further, he adds, ‘The quest for the moral high ground is for Muslims not just a
    requirement of a higher moral order but an imperative of survival.’
    El-Affendi believes that values underlying democracy, such as justice, fairness, decency,
    rational conduct, can be said to be ‘total harmony’ with a certain broad and inclusive
    understanding of Islam. The anti-democratic thrust of much contemporary Islamic
    political thought is thus not a necessary outcome of Islam itself. Rather, the he argues, it
    owes much to the fact that Islamism emerged as a response to Western colonialism and
    the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate at the hands of Western powers. That historical
    context in which it emerged favored an authoritarian vision of state. Yet, El-Affendi says,
    that model of the state is outdated and does not do justice to the demands of Islam, for it
    miserably fails to guarantee justice and basic freedoms that, in his view, Islam insists
    upon. At the same time, he is not unmindful of the present imbalance of power at the
    global level that is heavily tilted against Muslim countries.
    One way to address the problem, he suggests, is for at least one leading Muslim state to
    be set up or promoted that would be accepted by other Muslim countries as a sort of
    leader, in the same manner in which the USA is accepted as the leader of the West. This
    would be less ambitious than the classical Muslim Caliphate, and would fall short of
    leading to a European Union sort of arrangement, though it could eventually lead to it.
    Such a state, which should be a viable democracy with a strong economic base and
    vibrant cultural life, could, he believes, play a major role in addressing the endemic
    instability of the Muslim world. He holds this out as a realistic alternative to the utopian
    vision of the Caliphate in Islamist circles.
    A major concern of El-Affendi is to critique certain key aspects of traditional and
    contemporary Muslim political thought and discourse. He laments that many Muslims are
    reluctant to review the Muslim political heritage, somehow treating it as sacred, and even
    ardently defending those aspects of it that are patently immoral and, therefore, un-
    Islamic. For Muslims to critically reassess this heritage, he points out, does not mean
    abandoning the absolute commitment to the ideals that shaped it. A major aspect of
    Muslim political thought that he subjects to incisive critique is what he regards as its
    extreme idealism and the related tension between the ideal and the reality of Muslim
    political life. Islamists, he argues, are impelled by an extremely idealistic, indeed utopian,
    vision of the world, one that has scant concern for realism. Hence their willingness to
    resort to violence and authoritarianism to serve what they believe are divine ends. Hence,
    too, their ultimate failures. Commitment to Islamic ideals must go, El-Affendi advises,
    with what he calls a ‘healthy realism’.
    While defending democracy and the rights of minorities, El-Affendi does not advocate
    that Muslim countries uncritically adopt Western-style secular, democratic state
    structures. In fact, he is bitterly critical of the modern state, which, instead of serving
    society, demands that society serve it. He draws inspiration from the polity set up by the
    Prophet Muhammad, which was, he says, characterized by voluntary participation, and
    was based on morality rather than coercion.
    The ideal polity established by the Prophet was, however, subverted shortly after the
    Prophet’s demise, when the proto-democratic Caliphate was transformed into
    authoritarian monarchy that heralded the collapse of the idealist project. This, El-Affendi
    notes, resulted in the decline of the role of the wider community in political affairs and
    the further narrowing of Muslim political theory. It was at this time that doctrines were
    invented, including by some court-related ulema, making obedience to rulers compulsory
    even if they were tyrants. This justification that was sought to be bestowed on tyranny
    remains a greatly problematic aspect of Muslim political thought.
    Another major drawback of traditional Muslim and modern Islamist political theory is,
    El-Affendi tells us, that since it is based on the notion of the Caliph as a virtually saintly
    leader, there are no proper checks and balances to his powers. The insistence on
    perfection in the Caliph, he perceptively notes, ‘has automatically removed from the
    community the right to criticize him, for everyone is by definition less pious, less learned
    and less wise than he is.’ The solution to the problems of the Muslim ummah was
    believed to depend on the arrival of an individual saintly ruler, which is precisely what
    leaders of various Islamist groups and Muslim messianic movements projected
    themselves as. The waiting for this ‘impossible arrival’ was, El-Affendi comments,
    ‘bound to relegate Muslim thinking to the realm of mythology and passive ineptitude.’
    He suggests that Muslim political theory be revised by detailing the ideals inherent in
    Islamic history and norms in a more realistic fashion, and by insisting that they be
    adhered to in practice.
    El-Affendi is bitterly critical of the tendency in Islamist circles to project the Caliphate as
    an end in itself, rather than as a means to certain desirable ends, such as justice and
    democracy. He finds fault with key Islamist ideologues, such as Maududi and Syed Qutb,
    for their aversion to democracy and their advocacy of a totalitarian, fascist-like state in
    the name of the Caliphate, whose ruler would be advised by a shura council but who
    could override its opinion. This would allow him to be a virtual dictator. In such a set-up,
    El-Affendi argues, totalitarianism would be further reinforced because the Caliph and the
    state he presides over would be charged with the responsibility of promoting virtue and
    combating vice, which could easily result in malpractices as well as gross interference in
    people’s private affairs. This, in turn, would surely lead to people opposing the Islamic
    state, as the experience of numerous countries where such experiments have been sought
    to be imposed so tragically illustrates.
    In this regard, El-Affendi argues for effective checks on the powers of the Caliph or amir
    or leader of the Muslim state, because, he says, the conventional notion that the Caliph
    cannot be a tyrant because only the most pious persona can be selected for the post is
    wholly unrealistic. He notes that some scholars suggest that the amir be bound by the
    consensus (ijma) of the ulema, but he prefers to concur with the suggestion of Hasan al-
    Turabi, head of the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood, who argues that the amir should
    follow the ijma of the people, whose choice should be enlightened by religious as well as
    secular experts. El-Affendi also approvingly refers to the noted Tunisian Islamist Rashid
    al-Ghanoushi, who stresses that Islamist movements should consider themselves as just
    one among many actors within a liberal-democratic state and that they should regards
    themselves neither as the guardians of Islamic morality, nor as the sole authority as
    regards the interpretation of Islam. In other words, an Islamist party must shed its
    monopolistic tendencies and see itself as just another political party offering its
    programme to people, inviting them to decide freely between it and its rivals. In such a
    scheme of things, Islamic parties must acknowledge that there is always a possibility that
    they could lose to non-Islamic parties in freely-held elections, and they should respect the
    verdict of the electorate.
    Another key aspect of Islamist political thought that El-Affendi scrutinizes is its vision of
    the state that is based on the notion of what he aptly terms ‘a principle of restriction’,
    which he contrasts with the original Islamic vision of the polity as based on ‘a principle
    of liberation and self-fulfillment’. This model is based on the notion of a benevolent
    autocrat who rules mainly though punitive powers. Not surprisingly, this model has
    throughout Muslim history been used by despots to shore up their own legitimacy and
    powers. Another crucial flaw of this model is what he terms as the ‘totalitarian quasiutopian
    vision in which the Islamists conceive of a mighty state dragging an unwilling
    community along the path of virtue and obedience to the law’. This is reflected in their
    concern mainly with legal prohibitions and restrictions in the law. The citizen that
    Islamists seek to mould is essentially someone who is deprived of the freedom to sin, but,
    ironically, also one who lacks the freedom to be virtuous either. El-Affendi argues that
    this was certainly not God’s purpose when He created human beings endowed with free
    The issue of community identity in an Islamic state also remains a subject of intense
    debate, El-Affendi points out. While many Islamists insist on following the medieval fiqh
    tradition in treating non-Muslims as dhimmis, with several restrictions on their rights, he
    refers to some Islamist ideologues who are now willing to revise the notion of dhimmi
    and consider non-Muslims as co-founders of the state and as full citizens with equal
    rights as Muslims. This reflects a growing realization that the division of the world in the
    classical fiqh tradition between dar ul-harb (‘Abode of War’) and dar ul-islam (‘Abode of
    Islam’) is a post-Quranic development that has no sanction in the Quran. El-Affendi
    eagerly supports the notion of dar ul-ahd (‘Abode of Treaty’) that some Muslim scholars
    have proposed, connoting states where communities agree to peacefully coexist. In such
    states, democracies where Muslims have equal rights, including the right to follow and
    propagate their faith, there can be no room for armed jihad, and Muslims must seek to
    cultivate peaceful and harmonious relations with non-Muslim fellow citizens.
    This, however, does not mean, El-Affendi clarifies, that Islam is reconciled to the present
    Western-inspired international order, for, he says, it must play its role of being the sole
    remaining major challenger to the liberal-democratic Western-dominated international
    system in order to establish justice, first within Muslim communities and countries, and
    then, internationally.
    Similarly, with reference to the notion of ummah, which some radical Islamists argue
    must translate into political unity of all Muslims across the world, El-Affendi chooses to
    side with those Muslim thinkers who consider that the notion does not preclude
    allegiance to a particular state. True, he argues, a Muslim’s ultimate loyalty must be to
    God, not to a community or state. Yet, other loyalties, such as to the family, tribe, nation
    and country, need not be seen as necessarily contradictory to this ultimate loyalty. This is
    why, he says, Islam recognized these other facets of identity, but sublimated and gave
    them a new expression within the new context of belief. In some ways, he adds,
    modernity and the modern system of nation- states can actually help advance some
    Islamic ideals. In theory, modernity allows for democracy, freedom (albeit one controlled
    by social responsibility and spiritual welfare), justice and peaceful interaction between
    different peoples, thus promoting the creation of a truly global community, which, El-
    Affendi says, is in accordance with Islamic teachings. In this regard, Islam, properly
    understood, can play an important role as a source of moral guidance to create a peaceful
    and just world order and to end the present heavily-skewed global imbalances of power
    and resources. El-Affendi sees this as part of the mandate of a community that regards
    itself as a ‘witness over mankind’, which should manifest itself in transcending selfinterest
    in favour of global responsibility, attacking consumerism, nurturing the
    environment and offering an alternative to the international order based on the notion of
    the egotistic nation-state as a collection of individuals and groups motivated largely by
    narrowly-defined self-interest. These notions should, he argues, be recast in a moral
    context by redefining the role of the Muslim ummah as the conscience of mankind.
    One of El-Affendi’s serious concerns with traditional as well as contemporary Muslim
    political thought is that it does not adequately provide for formal decision-making
    mechanisms suitable for a complex, modern state. One reason for this is that both are
    based on the model of the small-scale and closely-knit polity established by the Prophet
    in Medina, which, in turn, was built on a society characterized by mutual trust, close
    personal interaction and easy, mainly face-to-face communications. The charismatic
    nature of the leadership provided by the Prophet made it unnecessary to have formal
    decision-making structures that would require all leading figures to take part in the
    political process. Today, however, El-Affendi notes, the situation is vastly different, and
    more institutionalized and formal arrangements for decision-making and power-sharing
    are required in order to administer large nation-states. This is something that Muslim
    political thought has not devoted sufficient attention to. In this context, El-Affendi
    argues that that the idea of a single Caliph, so central to traditional Sunni political
    thought, may have to be replaced in favour of rule by a council of people, a system more
    in tune with the concept and realities of the modern state.
    El-Affendi is also critical of the Islamists’ tendency to hanker after a single saintly hero,
    in the model of an ideal Caliph or a Mujaddid or a Mahdi, who could, almost
    miraculously, solve all the problems of the Muslims in particular, and the world in
    general. He rightly regards this as misplaced utopianism, pointing out the impossibility of
    applying political techniques suitable for small city states to vast countries. The classical
    Sunni caliphate model that both traditional ulema and Islamists seek to recreate, he
    insists, belongs to the category of republican city-states of the past and is unworkable in
    today, in a world of vast, multi-ethnic, modern states.
    An aspect of the political practice of many contemporary Islamist groups that engages El-
    Affendi’s concern is what he regards as their overwhelming focus on the fight against
    foreign enemies, whether real or imaginary, which has been at the cost of the struggle for
    internal reforms within the Muslim community. This indicates a lack of sufficient
    introspection and self-critique and an unfortunate tendency to blame others wholly for
    one’s own weaknesses, failures and travails. Because of this, he argues, all sorts of
    corruption, despotism, mismanagement and ineptitude have been tolerated among
    Muslims ‘in the name of the fight against this enemy or that’, while ‘the enemy within,
    the biggest of all, was left untouched’.
    A key aspect of the practice of modern Islamist movements that El-Affendi finds greatly
    problematic is their near obsession with ruling through restriction, control and
    punishment, rather than through working for the positive enablement of their citizens.
    This has made for proto-fascist tendencies to emerge within their ranks, ultimately
    causing the very people whom they supposedly wanted to reform in the name of Islam to
    oppose and even, as in some places, revolt against them. This, so El-Affendi says, was
    not the original Islamic idea of a political community, and can only be counterproductive
    to the cause of building up a truly moral Islamic society and polity.
    By seeking to ‘establish’ Islam through coercion, and thus making capture of the state
    and its coercive powers their first or major concern, Islamist forces might thus only be
    causing their own downfall, El-Affendi argues. Their harsh, authoritarian approach to
    enforcing Islamic morality can only lead to corruption and widespread hypocrisy, causing
    alienation from, rather than genuine commitment to, Islam.
    This means, El-Affendi writes, that the search for an ideal state must begin with the
    search for freedom for Muslims, including the freedom to think, to act, to even sin and to
    repent, to find oneself and one’s fulfillment in obeying God—only then can a truly
    righteous Muslim community and state emerge. This requires that, for the present,
    Muslims must participate wholeheartedly in the struggle for democracy, for right of every
    individual not to be coerced into doing anything his or her will. Only in this freedom will
    society be able to evolve an ethics based on the Prophetic model, wherein people submit
    to Islam voluntarily and abide by its rules by their conscience, not through fear of the
    state and its agencies of punishment. At the same time, El-Affendi adds, the freedom that
    he advocates is not one without moral restraints. To be free is not to be amoral. Rather, it
    means to be free from external, undesirable constraints. Yet, to be genuinely free also
    requires that the state must not be totalitarian, contrary to how several modern Islamist
    ideologues have conceived of it. The ideal Muslim state, as well as the Muslim
    community in general, does have the duty to help each individual achieve his or her
    moral potential, but it cannot shoulder the individual’s ultimate duty with regard to his or
    her own actions. El-Affendi recognizes that for any political community to function there
    has to be an element of coercion involved, but, he says, the ideal polity cannot approve of
    any element of coercion other than the minimum inherent in the principle of community
    itself. The Muslim state or the Muslim community cannot compel people to be righteous
    against their will, for that would only lead to hypocrisy, which Islam abhors. This is also
    a sure recipe for despotism, as the state, imagining itself to be the instrument of the
    Divine Will, can easily assume its moral duty to be to compel people to act against their
    own conscience. In other words, then, the state must be a democratic one, based on the
    free will of its citizens and the principle of peaceful resolution of differences and free
    debate about the demands of Islam and the operation of the community. It should also
    respect cultural and religious pluralism, and accommodate non-Muslims as equal citizens
    with equal rights and freedom. El-Affendi argues the case for a polity in a plural society
    as being an association of independent religious communities coexisting with each other,
    governed by a treaty rather than by a rigid Constitution in order to give the communities
    greater autonomy. Such a treaty would detail the rights and duties of all communities and
    would safeguard their common existence, similar to covenant of Medina covenant that
    brought the Muslims, under the Prophet, with the non-Muslim communities of Medina, in
    a common polity.
    This would be a different sort of polity to the conventional modern state. Communities
    would join together not as subjects of an all powerful state, but as members of
    communities united voluntarily, each pursuing its own way of life in full freedom. This
    polity would allow for only that much coercion as is needed to safeguard and maintain
    the polity itself, but coercion would not the basis of the polity. In such a polity, a person
    would be free to join the community and polity of his or her choice or leave freely,
    something that is absent in the current international order, where citizens must conform to
    state-dictated norms and where freedom of movement to join other polities is severely
    restricted. In place of the territory-based modern state, El-Affendi suggests a polity which
    is not strictly territorial, and an international order based on peacefully co-existing
    communities rather than territorially-based and mutually exclusive nation states. It
    would not be an intrusive, coercive organisation that seeks to impose specific norms.
    Instead, it would be a co-operative association to help people to live freely according to
    the dictates of their conscience. It would conform to the shariah, but the shariah would
    not be imposed. Rather, the conformity to the shariah would be to the extent of the free
    expression of the free will of its Muslim citizens.
    Such a state is to be distinguished from conventional states in that it has a higher moral
    purpose. It should, El-Affendi says, serve as a light for all humankind, and not being
    engrossed, as all other states are, in an endless search for comforts and material goods for
    its people. It must be characterized by a philosophy of giving and sharing, unlike
    conventional states, whose component groups vie with each other for the maximum
    possible self-aggrandisement.
    This brings El-Affendi to the greatly controversial issue of the imposition of the shariah.
    He persuasively argues that attempts to force Muslims to abide by the shariah have
    inevitably failed in the past, and have even proven counter-productive. In this regard,
    then, conventional Islamist political thought is gravely lacking. The shariah, El-Affendi
    says, can rule only through the willing consensus of Muslims, when the community
    observing it perceives it as a liberating act, as the true fulfillment of the self. In other
    words, since the shariah must entail willing compliance to its rules, in actual fact it can
    never be imposed, whether by the state, an Islamist party or by Muslim clerics. When it is
    imposed against the will of the people, it is no longer shariah. When only coercion, not
    consent, underpins the rule of the shariah, it becomes hypocrisy.
    The issue of the enforcement of the shariah by the state also shapes the way in which
    Islamists conceive the state itself—as almost an end in itself, or, at least, as the principle
    means to enforce the shariah. El-Affendi points out that this displaces the role of
    individuals in establishing justice, making social activity, including the dispensation of
    justice, dependent on the will of rulers, who can thereby easily turn into despots.
    Islamists often take the state as end in itself. And, since the Islamist party or the ‘Islamic’
    state comes to be seen as an end in itself, in many cases self-styled Islamic movements
    have exhibited an unfortunate tendency of allowing their ends to govern their means, not
    stopping from engaging in blatantly un-Islamic and criminal acts, such as killing innocent
    people and engaging in terrorism, in order to achieve what they regard as noble ends. El-
    Affendi insists that Islam does not allow for this sort of approach at all.
    El-Affendi is particularly critical of modern Islamist ideologues, such as the Egyptian
    Syed Qutb and the Pakistani Abul Ala Maududi, who conceived of an ideal Islamic state
    as being totalitarian, anti-democratic, authoritarian and coercive. He is bitter about what
    he calls the Islamists’ ‘self-righteous pretensions’, which translates into ‘a readiness to
    resort to violence at the slightest pretext’. He likens them to the Khawarij or Kharijites,
    an early splinter group from among the Muslims, who saw themselves alone as true
    Muslims, and the rest of the world, including other Muslims, as deviant, aberrant, even
    anti-Islamic, thus ruling out any room for compromise.
    While still upholding the notion of a Muslim state moulded or guided by religio-moral
    concerns and principles, el-Affendi points to the serious gaps in modern Islamist political
    thought, indicating the way forward for the emergence of a genuinely democratic,
    pluralist and contextually-relevant Muslim political discourse.
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  3. spnadmin

    spnadmin United States
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    Jun 17, 2004
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    I appreciate sound articles like this. Excellent article.
    • Like Like x 1
  4. harbansj24

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    Feb 19, 2007
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    Do not Sikhs also sometimes get dangerously close to this?
  5. Zahim Nasir

    Zahim Nasir
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    Jan 30, 2010
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    Well your question was not answered.

    But here's one for you...

    How many sikhs would object to sikh state vs a secular state ?

    Insulting comment based on misunderstanding of a forum member's reaction deleted. Narayanjot Kaur
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