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Political Islam - Image and Reality - Mohammed Ayoob

Political Islam - Image and Reality - Mohammed Ayoob

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Published by: Political Islamism on Feb 07, 2010
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 Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations, James Madison College, Michigan State University.
Political Islam: Image and Reality
 Mohammed Ayoob
Three, often unstated, assumptions have in-spired much of the discussion in the Westregarding political Islam over the lastdecade and a half—especially since 9/11.These are: one, that political Islam, like Is-lam itself, is monolithic; two, that politicalIslam is inherently violent; and, three, thatthe intermingling of religion and politicsis unique to Islam. These assumptions arefalse. Moreover, although an argument canbe made that there are a number of vari-eties of transnational political Islam, suchtransnational manifestations form a verysmall part of the activity referred to as polit-ical Islam.
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There is, however, one widelyshared ingredient in the mix referred to aspolitical Islam that may be responsible forprojecting a monolithic image to Westernaudiences; I will return to this point later inthis essay.We must begin with a definition of theterm “political Islam,” or “Islamism,” thatis, Islam as political ideology rather than asa religious or theological construct. At themost basic level, adherents of political Islambelieve that “Islam as a body of faith hassomething important to say about how poli-tics and society should be ordered in thecontemporary Muslim world and imple-mented in some fashion.”
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However, thisgeneralization does not get us very far in ex-plaining the political activity undertaken inthe name of Islam. A more analytically use-ful definition is that provided by the politi-cal scientist Guilian Denoeux, who writes of Islamism as “a form of instrumentalizationof Islam by individuals, groups and organi-zations that pursue political objectives. Itprovides political responses to today’s socie-tal challenges by imagining a future, thefoundations for which rest on reappropri-ated, reinvented concepts borrowed fromthe Islamic tradition.”
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The reappropriation of the past, the “in-vention of tradition” in terms of a romanti-cized notion of a largely mythical goldenage, lies at the heart of this instrumentaliza-tion of Islam.
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It is the invention of tradi-tion that provides the tools for de-historiciz-ing Islam and separating it from the variouscontexts in which it has flourished over thepast fourteen hundred years. This decontex-tualizing of Islam allows Islamists in theoryto ignore the social, economic, and politicalmilieus within which Muslim communitiesexist. It provides Islamists a powerful ideo-logical tool that they can use to “purge”Muslim societies of the “impurities” and“accretions” that are the inevitable accompa-niments of the historical process, but whichthey see as the reason for Muslim decline.However, context has a way of reassert-ing itself over abstract theory when at-tempts are made to put theory into practice.This is exactly what has happened with Is-lamism. In practice, no two Islamisms arealike because they are determined by thecontexts within which they operate. Whatworks in Egypt will not work in Indonesia.What works in Saudi Arabia will not workin Turkey. Anyone familiar with the diversi-ty of the Muslim world—its socioeconomiccharacteristics, cultures, political systems,and trajectories of intellectual develop-ment—is bound to realize that the politicalmanifestations of Islam, like the practice of 
Political Islam: Image and Reality1
 
Islam itself, are to a great extent contextspecific, the result of the interpenetration of religious precepts and local culture, includ-ing political culture.
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It is true that there is an Islamic vocab-ulary that transcends political boundaries.However, this vocabulary is normally em-ployed to serve specific objectives in discretesettings. Thus, although the Islamic idiommay appear to be the same everywhere tothe uninitiated observer, it differs from set-ting to setting. As the anthropologist DaleEickelman and the political scientist JamesPiscatori note, politics becomes “Muslim”by “the invocation of ideas and symbols,which Muslims in different contexts identifyas ‘Islamic,’ in support of...organized claimsand counterclaims.”
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Since such claims andcounterclaims, and the contesting that ac-companies them, are normally specific to aparticular sovereign state, the political ac-tivity engendered by such claims—oftencarried out in the name of Islam—is gener-ally confined within the boundaries of thatstate.It becomes clear that the Islamist polit-ical imagination is largely determined bycontext when one looks at the politicaldiscourse and, more importantly, the activi-ties of the various Islamist movements. Jamaat-i-Islami is as Pakistan-specific asthe Islamic Salvation Front is Algeria-spe-cific. The strategies of the Muslim Brother-hood, which was founded in Egypt and hasbranches in various Arab countries, differfrom country to country. The Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian variants have adoptedradically different political strategies in re-sponse to local challenges. Indeed, the par-ent organization in Egypt has itself mutatedover time, its leadership in the early 1980sunequivocally rejecting the more radical andmilitant ideas associated with Sayyid Qutb,its chief ideologue of the 1960s.
 A Modern Phenomenon
Political Islam is a modern phenomenon,with roots in the sociopolitical conditionsof Muslim countries in the nineteenth andtwentieth centuries. It is a product of theMuslim peoples’ interaction—military,political, economic, cultural, and intellec-tual—with the West during the past twohundred years, a period when Westernpower has been in the ascendant and Mus-lims have become the objects, rather thanthe subjects, of history.Modern Islamist political thinkers de-vised the term “Islamic state” in order toreconcile their romanticized vision of the Is-lamic polity with the existence of sovereignstates on the European model that wereproducts of the twin processes of coloniza-tion and decolonization.
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In practical terms,the Islamists’ preoccupation with the Islam-ic state has meant the attempt to Islamizeexisting Muslim states. Only a very smallminority of Islamists thinks that mergingthe Muslim world into a single Islamiccaliphate is a feasible proposition.
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Mostly,the search for the pristine Islamic state hasled to the emergence of what the Frenchscholar Olivier Roy has called “Islamo-nationalisms.”
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Many such Islamo-nationalist move-ments, from North Africa to Southeast Asia,were fashioned in the crucible of resistanceto colonial domination. During the colonialperiod, the Islamist movements had to sharethe stage with secular nationalist forces thatwere in most cases the leading vehiclesthrough which the anticolonial struggle waswaged. However, Islamist resistance move-ments, like their Marxist counterparts, oftendeparted from the exclusively political pre-occupations of the more secular groups bydevising strategies for social as well as polit-ical transformation. Unlike the Marxists,however, the Islamists were less interestedin socioeconomic change than with moraland cultural transformation.This emphasis on the cultivation of cer-tain cultural traits and moral values that aresupposedly in conformity with Islamic pre-cepts continued in the postcolonial era. Inseveral cases, Islam had already underpinned
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the formation of national identity in reac-tion to colonization. This was the case withPakistan. In Algeria, the colonial powerhad characterized the subject population as“Muslim” in order to deny it the epithet“Algerian,” which would have legitimizedAlgerians’ quest for self-determination.In most cases, defining oneself as Mus-lim was not considered antithetical to thenationalist project since this described thevast majority of people. Paradoxically, thisapplied even to the secular republic of Turkey, despite the attempt on the part of the Kemalist elite to denigrate Islam. Dur-ing the Turkish war of independence, Islam-ic identity was the primary vehicle for pop-ular mobilization, and it became the princi-pal defining element of the territorial con-tours of the Turkish Republic. Thus, hadTurkey not been Muslim, it would not havebeen Turkey.
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The acceptance of Islam as integral toidentity formation in most Muslim coun-tries may have been inevitable, but itopened the gates to Islamist intrusion intothe postcolonial political process. The at-traction of political Islam increased as thegoverning elites failed to deliver on theirpromises of economic progress, politicalparticipation, and personal dignity to expec-tant populations emerging from colonialbondage. It is in this era, from the 1950s tothe 1970s, that political Islam, as we knowit today, came of age. Abul Ala Mawdudi inPakistan and Sayyid Qutb in Egypt, bothadvocates of the Islamic state and opponentsof secular nationalism, became its foremostintellectual standard-bearers.As their legitimacy declined, manypostcolonial regimes in the Muslim worldbecame increasingly authoritarian and re-pressive, eliminating, or at least severelyweakening, much of the secular opposition.In so doing, however, they created the po-litical space in which Islamist formationscould entrench themselves. Their strategiesfor dealing with Islamist elements—co-op-tation, competition, and suppression—eachhad major downsides. The attempt to co-optIslamist elements only provided them withgreater political and media opportunities.The attempt to compete with Islamists ontheir own terms by projecting the regime asequally committed to Islam, as the “believerpresident” Anwar Sadat did in Egypt, sur-rendered the rhetorical ground to Islamistelements who vigorously criticized therulers for not living up to their own words.The attempt to suppress Islamist elementsby coercion forced them underground andled to violent acts against the regime and itsmost visible symbols and supporters; it alsomeant that Islamists could claim the highmoral ground as victims of human rightsabuses.Suppression of Islamist tendencies couldnever be fully effective. Unlike secularists,who could be neutralized by preventingthem from speaking in public or spreadingtheir message through the media, Islamistscould not be effectively curbed because of the idiom available to them and the institu-tions they could exploit. Islamic religiousvocabulary, like the vocabulary of most oth-er religions, lends itself to political ends. Atthe same time, it can appear politically in-nocuous, rendering those who employ it im-mune to prosecution. Mosques and their af-filiated institutions could be used to sendout political messages dressed up in reli-gious garb—the sermon as manifesto.While a great deal has been written aboutSaudi petrodollars paying for the construc-tion of mosques promoting conservativeWahhabist ideas throughout the Muslimworld, what has often gone unremarked isthat the political content of the sermonspresented in these institutions usually re-flects local concerns rather than an interna-tional or Saudi Islamic agenda. This is trueeven in Pakistan, where Saudi-financed reli-gious schools are often cited as a breedingground for jihadists. It is a fact that theSaudis did finance many madrasas in Paki-stan, especially on the Afghanistan border,in the 1980s and 1990s. However, it was
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