Arab politics - and the end of the world

Arab politics - and the end of the world
3 min read
27 Aug, 2015
Comment: Removing religious belief from politics is the only way for the Arab world to advance. Medieval Europeans did it, and so should we, writes Karim Barakat.
Rival religious revelations regarding rapture have no place in determining political governance, says Barakat [Getty]
Divine narratives have not ceased to influence the course of Arab politics. This has become especially clear with the resurgence of Islamism over the past few decades.

But when most of the key political players have come to endorse some version or another of the end of time, it seems justified to ask the question of what becomes of politics itself.

The belief in eschatology - that a particular series of dramatic events will usher the end of the world - has come to occupy a major role in determining political decisions today.

This belief's hold over politics is neither new nor specific to the region. It has historically also played a significant role in motivating political decisions that have accentuated the cleft between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Europe's experience

Diverse eschatological views fuelled conflicts and debates in medieval Europe, such as the conflict between the Church and Franciscan figures in the 13th century. 

But Europe began to turn away from such beliefs with the introduction of alternative political ideas, such as those of Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, opening up the space for politics as an independent sphere.

Politics was then no longer concerned with preparing for Judgment Day, but brought forward ideas of state and the rights of citizens.

How can we conjure such a transition within Arab and Islamic politics? Can we identify a goal for politics that is not subservient to conditions dictated by religion?

Is it possible to understand politics in terms of rights as opposed to religious doctrines?

Hizballah has made steps in this regard, with the adoption of non-sectarian goals that accompany the religious. Since 2006, Hizballah has maintained that its arms protect the Lebanese state against Israel, and more recently against violent fundamentalism.

Hizballah has policies that are neither limited to nor involve all Shia Muslims. Similar changes can be spotted in the general Iranian policy, which has moved towards more diplomatic positions not exclusively linked to the doctrines of Shia Islam.

Similar adaptations have not been seen in Sunni movements. On the moderate wing, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for instance, ramped up its religious rhetoric after Mohamed Morsi was elected president in 2012, and has continued to do so since his removal.

On the extremes, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group are completely committed to political eschatology.
     On the extremes, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group are completely committed to political eschatology.

Ayman al-Zawahiri's recent pledge of loyalty to Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the new Taliban leader, is indicative of a continued attempt to reestablish the Muslim caliphate.

IS, having already announced its caliphate, awaits the fulfillment of prophecies - a final battle of Dabiq that will lead to the triumph of true believers over non-believers, and pave the way for the end of time.

The spread of IS and other violent fundamentalists has lead to the retreat of the influence of secular regimes.

And in the complete absence of any concern for the welfare of citizens from political decisions, it should be no surprise that violence becomes the response. This can be the only result when deeming one's own cause as holy and demonising all others.

The emergence of IS and its like is thus the product of a gap, one constituted by a deficiency in political reason. The problem of "de-eschatologising" politics is merely a restatement of the question of secularism.

Unless the state is capable of developing its own sphere of political rationality, independent of the influence of religion, it will only reproduce models of religious tyranny.

The pervasiveness of the problem, however, becomes clearer only when we realise the complete lack of an infrastructure upon which this proper political consciousness can be built. Perhaps a top-down approach may be the only way for effecting political reform.

Karim Barakat is an instructor of philosophy in the American University of Beirut.

Opinions experessed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.