One of my correspondents has suggested that islamist economic policy cannot improve the dire social conditions of Muslim countries. I think it is being overly generous to islamism to think that it has an economic policy, or any kind of policy at all. Beyond vague promises to implement sharia law (and there’s a concept that means very different things to different people), islamism is best understood by what it is not. It is a rhetorical function rather than anything of substance.
Of course, there are as many different islamisms as there are contexts in which it thrives. Sunni and Shia islamism, right and left islamism, peaceful and violent, macho and feminist, and so on. Perhaps one good way to divide islamisms, however, is into two kinds: islamism to protect established power and islamism to challenge it.
Islamism which protects established power is the older form. The West complained less about it, because the West was happy with the status quo. The classic manifestation of this kind of islamism is the Wahabism of Saudi Arabia, which takes Ibn Taymiya’s anti-Shia, anti-Sufi, anti-innovation discourse to ever more puritan lengths, and which designates the Al-Saud family as guardians of the doctrine. So long as the Sauds suppress religious diversity, demolish shrines, allow full rein to the religious police, they are free to make whatever decisions they wish on the country’s oil wealth and foreign alliances. The king is ‘wali al-amr’ and it is part of religion to obey him.
So Wahabism is an islamism which is Not Shia, Not Sufi, Not innovative, Not democratic, Not anything that the king doesn’t want it to be.
And then, because of the alliance between the House of Saud and the United States, Wahabi islamism became Not Communist. The supposed ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan began before the Soviet invasion with Saudi Wahabis being sent to destabilise the Soviet client Afghan regime. When the Afghan government took the bait and called on its sponsor to help, and the Russians fell for it, Cater’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinsky rubbed his hands and said, “Now we’ll give them their Vietnam!” And so they did. And a third of the Afghan population fled. And the country’s infrastructure, all the schools and hospitals and economic machinery except for the opium plant, was destroyed. Neighbouring Pakistan, whose US-backed General Zia justified his rule by ‘islamising’ the country, was flooded with heroin and kalashnikovs. Hooray for islamism! And the Sauds and the USA!
When the various ‘mujahideen’ warlords had spent long enough fighting each other and the time came for America to build gas pipelines, America backed the Taliban. This was a group of refugee teenagers indoctrinated in Saudi-built religious schools on the frontiers of Pakistan. But to continue this story we have to move to the kind of islamism that opposes power. That comes later.
In the seventies other Sunni islamisms became attractive to the powers that be because they were Not nationalist. In Egypt, Sadat encouraged the Islamist groups (that later killed him) as a counterweight to the Nasserist and Arabist left. Israel encouraged the young Hamas movement as a means of diluting Palestinian support for Arafat’s still vital PLO. Israel and Jordan funded Syria’s Muslim Brothers so as to cause trouble for the Arabist regime in Damascus. Wahabis were sent into action to continue weakening the Soviet Union in Central Asia.
In economic terms, most of these groups, because they were pitched against nominally socialist regimes, were by default ‘capitalist.’
In 78 and 79, islamism showed that it had revolutionary potential. The Iranian masses of the left and centre supported Khomeini because he was Not the shah and Neither America Nor Russia. When the dust had settled, the Iran-Iraq war had set in, and Khomeini’s rightist islamists had defeated their leftist islamist, liberal and socialist opponents, opinion was much more mixed.
Now we have crossed the bridge to the islamism that challenges power, the more contemporary form of islamism, an islam that is essentially reactive.
With the proviso that some islamists (Hizbullah/ Hamas) can be more realistic and logical than their competitors, islamism's raison d'etre is to react against complex and painful reality. Like all fundamentalism (religious, market, nationalist, secular), it expresses a desire for the world to be a simpler place. Al-islam, huwa al-hal, is the slogan. Islam is the solution.
It reacts against the urban experience. Islamism is often the attempt of newly urbanised and deracinated people to recreate the (imagined) secure social setting and certainties of their lost villages.
It reacts against occupation. Very specific this one. The Palestinians didn’t vote for Hamas because they wanted sharia law (and of course Hamas has not tried to impose it) but because of the party’s reputation for uncompromising resistance. Hizbullah has become a beacon far beyond the Shia heartlands of Lebanon for its successful resistance against zionist attack.
It reacts against cultural domination. The Muslim who feels pained when he sees his compatriots wearing Western clothes, watching Western films, listening to Western music, eating Western junk, buying Western products, and who knows that in most of these areas Muslims can’t begin to compete, feels that a retreat within may be an answer. Does anyone remember the Buy British campaign? It’s something like that, with the provocation magnified a million times.
It reacts against forced secularisation and Westernisation. In Turkey in the 20s, Iran in the 30s, Syria in the 80s, women did not unveil as a result of a popular feminist movement. They were unveiled at gunpoint. Ataturk not only built opera houses and latinised the Turkish alphabet, he actually made it illegal to listen to Oriental-style music or to read Ottoman Turkish books.
It reacts against corruption, financial and moral. In places like Egypt, Pakistan and Syria, corruption is so all-pervasive it is a key part of the national economy. From the president’s relative ‘winning’ big government contracts to the petty bureaucrat or policeman supplementing his tiny income with bribes, everybody’s doing it. Most people do it because they can’t afford not to, and they feel guilty about it. If only this were a real Islamic country, they say, this wouldn’t be necessary. And the rich abuse the poor, the light-skinned abuse the dark-skinned, everybody scrambles for himself and the weak are left bleeding on the floor. If there were real Islam, they say, this wouldn’t happen. Al-Islam, huwa al-hal.
It reacts against the perceived failure of other oppositional forces. Forty and fifty years ago the Arab masses were socialist and nationalist. Then supposed socialist and nationalist regimes came to power. They were either unwilling or unable to solve problems, so built police states instead. What’s left?
And what to do about it? If islamists are ready to accept elections, it is logical to allow them to stand for election, and to let them win. If the Algerian FIS had been allowed to rule after their election victory in 1992, the country would have been spared a civil war in which 100,000 died, in which atrocities were committed both by the police state and the islamists. If the FIS had made a mess of Algeria (it's difficult to imagine a mess bigger than the one made by the police state, except for the civil war) then the people would have learnt a lesson. Perhaps Islam isn't the solution. Perhaps it's more complicated than that. That's how nations develop. That's how history happens. After almost 30 years of islamist rule in Iran, Iranians are markedly more secular than other people in the region. The regime still stands because it has not mismanaged the state enough for people to do much more than grumble, because it has provided the safety valve of a semi-democracy, because it has eased off on its (still annoying) interference in people’s private habits, and because Western sabre-rattling makes Iranian nationalists close ranks.
But then there are the Salafis. These are Wahabis who are as Not as ever, if not more so, but have given up the idea of loyal allegiance to any state leader. In fact, (quite understandably) enraged by the presence of US military bases in the Arabian peninsula, they have declared war on the Al-Saud. Here comes bin Laden, formerly the CIA’s man on the Pakistani-Afghan border, and his ever more crazed descendants. They are not, as many non-Muslims imagine, a product of Islamic civilisation, but a reaction against the collapse of Islamic civilisation. Uprooted from their traditions but not finding any replacement, alienated from their fathers and the failed regimes, their ideology is nihilism. They want to destroy the Shia, the mystics, the intellectuals, the traditional Sunni hierarchies, the Arab states, the West, and the list goes on. They have more in common with characters from Dostoyevsky than with Ibn Arabi or Al Ghazali.
They are a tiny but noisy minority. The danger they pose is not in their strength but in the weakness of the Arab state system and the stupidity and barbarism of the West. The Arab state system seems to be slowly but surely falling. Nobody knows what will replace it. Its failure to educate or even feed the people, let alone fight America and Israel for Arab independence, means that the Salafis, insane as they are, hold centre stage. All Arabs and Muslims, in these desperate times, need to do what is almost impossible, and find alternatives. Intelligent, tolerant islamists like Hizbullah and self-sacrificing liberals like Ayman Nour each hold some possible answers. And the West must stop occupying Muslim lands, must stop supporting the terrorism of its Israeli friend, must stop interfering to prop up or bring down governments. The West has failed in the Muslim world, dismally, over more than a century. Each intervention makes things worse. The best the West can do is leave the Muslims alone.