May 13 2019

The Multi-Polar World of Islam

Source: https://bit.ly/2ViKKit

By: Ali Salman
Dec 2018

Do we have any singular, sacrosanct version of Islam with any central authority? The obvious answer to this question is No, however, what is important is to realize that how differences in the interpretations influence the political regimes in which these narratives thrive.

The global debate on Islam is largely situated around the Middle East, which is a diverse region comprising monarchies like Saudi Arab, Jordan, and the Gulf States; democracies such as Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, and Iran; and then military dictatorships such as Syria and Egypt. Some countries like Libya and Iraq are facing deep internal conflicts after the toppling of long-serving military dictators.

Beginning in 2010, Arab Spring unleashed new dynamics noting both progress and reversals. The Muslim Brotherhood after decades of political and social struggle swept into power as a result of elections but then Egypt has gone back to military rule, unfortunately. On the other hand, Tunis is showing impressive democratic credentials where Rached Ghannouchi has led a peaceful democratic transition with successfully negotiating its Islamic identity. Though not a part of the Arab Spring, Turkey is experiencing an increase of democratic authoritarianism after a long spell of secular nationalism under military tutelage.

In the Middle East itself, we see four very different brands of Islam. One is Saudi Islam- which is led by an increasingly intolerant regime- as is shown by its Yemen invasion, increasing penchant for arms procurement, arm-twisting of weaker nations like Lebanon and Jordan, blockade of Qatar and formation of a multi-national armed alliance. Its brutal treatment with dissidents such as Jamal Khashoggi has sent shock-waves throughout the world. Saudi Islam is un-democratic, socially conservative, and increasingly militarized.

Then we have Iranian Islam- which is more complex. It is backed by revolutionary forces, which enjoy formidable democratic support and also exhibits a superior degree of knowledge- both in modern and religious disciplines. Iranian religious scholars lead reformist and innovative interpretations of Islam but they also define the political outlook of the country. Iranian Islam has a democratic element, intellectual vibrancy, and economic nationalism, though its society is more liberal and open than what is commonly perceived.

Then, we have Turkish Islam. This represents the wider phenomenon of Islam-inspired political and social movements which we have observed earlier in Algeria, Egypt and in Tunis as well. However, the key difference is that in the case of Turkey, the AKP has been largely successful in economic delivery and urban development, the latest currency crisis not-withstanding. This gives the Turkish brand of Islam a much prominent democratic flavor along with a belief in open markets. However, it is obvious that this does not mean it is equally liberal.

Within the Middle East, we have the non-Saudi Gulf Islam- the type exhibited by the Gulf states like UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman. All of them are small states, with a large immigrant population. All of them are un-democratic but practice open and liberal economic orders. The civil freedoms are largely available under a strong rule of law. All Gulf states do control Ulema more centrally.

Outside the Middle East, the Muslim-majority countries, especially in the South and South East Asia represent maturing democracies. In particularly, Indonesia and Malaysia have shown remarkable democratic stability. Indonesia had its share of military rules, but Malaysia has been led by civilian, elected leadership throughout its history. In its 14th General Elections held in May 2018, Malaysian have ended 61 years old kleptocracy and Malaysia has become a poster-child of successful democratic change.

The Malaysian version of Islam is heavily centralized and bureaucratized. It imposes strict controls over both the sanctioned and non-sanctioned versions of Islam. The political Islam, in Malaysia, has become more diverse recently with the progressive spin-off- Amanah- from the conservative PAS- not only winning but also enjoying several key posts in the federal cabinet.

The Indonesian brand of Islam is by far more open, liberal and plural than is practiced anywhere in the world. It is dominated by the world’s largest religious movements like Nahdatul Ulama and Muhammadiya which are peaceful and apolitical. The constitution is secular and acknowledges all five major religious traditions of the country.

In South Asia, we see a Pakistani brand of Islam, which at one point provided the main intellectual ammunition to the political Islam at the global level. However, it has lost its appeal, largely due to an outright rejection of the electorate. There are some prominent religious groups but none of them enjoy mass following and are instead backed up by state elements. Islam is the state’s official religion however the Parliament, government and military are largely driven by secular elements- and concerns.

In July this year, Pakistanis voted out traditional political and religious parties and replaced it with new radical leadership, which commits itself to an Islamic welfare state. Bangladesh is currently struggling due to weakening of internal institutions and rule of law has suffered significant blows at the hand of current political leadership.

Next to Pakistan is Afghanistan, in which the Taliban once ruled and represented a very narrow, illiberal and autocratic version of Islam. This regressive Taliban Islam has, unfortunately, became a symbol of Shariah for many observers in the world.

Given the incredibly rich and diverse brands of Islam, that this brief and admittedly sketchy account of the Islamic world has presented, it is obviously impossible to present a monolithic version of Islam. As we should remain committed to the larger goals of liberal democracy, economic freedom, and religious freedom, it is important to support reform and freedom champions within these societies. Long term social change can only be brought by indigenous intellectual introspection. The gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi- an insider turned dissident- and the power-play by the world powers once again remind us that peaceful, gradual and internalized shift to democracy should be our shared vision for the future.

Ali Salman is the CEO of Islam & Liberty Network Foundation.  

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