The crisis of political Islam: Problems of terminology

The crisis of political Islam: Problems of terminology
6 min read

Azmi Bishara

10 June, 2016
Comment: Political Islam is the end result of the enforced separation of religion and governance, leaving Islamist groups in crisis from their very inception, writes Dr Azmi Bishara.
The Muslim Brotherhood's failure in Egypt demonstrates the crisis in political Islam [AFP]

Groups belonging to the framework of political Islam have recently passed two milestones, each constituting a crisis and possibly a fork in the road.

The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood experience after the revolution in Egypt; and the rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria pose serious questions for the notion of political Islam.

In this context, though, it must be said that a recent move by the Tunisian Ennahdha party to break with Islamism is not an indication of crisis as much as it signals the start of an attempt to overcome the crisis.

Many experts and some influential Islamists object to the term "political Islam". Their arguments can be summarised as follows:

1. Religion is social by definition, and is concerned with the public sphere. Islam in particular has never been separate from politics since the emergence of the faith; therefore no apolitical Islam exists.

2. If the term refers to the overlap between religion and politics, and the exploitation of religion for political ends, then the term should not refer exclusively to Islamist movements. It must also include regimes that have used religion as an a legitimising ideology - especially those that claim Islam to be the religion of the state and the source of legislation, while fighting Islamist groups.

The first objection, in truth, confirms the deep entanglement between religion and politics before secularism, akin to the entanglement between social functions and tribalism and communities in general. 

At the time, the "state" was a euphemism for the power of ruling dynasties - after whom their countries were named - and other social entities with overlapping functions.
So-called political Islam, therefore, is the result of a reality where religion and politics are two distinct entities.

But with the emergence of the modern political sphere, with nation states, bureaucratic structures, security agencies and armies - and professional career politicians - the cognitive, social and political functions of religion have receded.

It is in this context through which emerged reformist religious and political movements that ideologically relied on religious discourse and scripture, with groups entering the political sphere. So-called political Islam, therefore, is the result of a reality where religion and politics are two distinct entities. 

It follows that the first objection is invalid. The use of the term "political Islam" is due to the nostalgia to link and connect the two, in response to the severance and separation between them. Or in other cases, it is the result of a strong belief inferred from analysing the post-colonial state of Islamic countries, namely, that the Islamic nation shall never rise again without returning to its cultural identity as the basis of interacting with modernity.

But I am inclined to agree with the second objection. Several regimes have used religion as a legitimising ideology, imposing their own interpretations thereof by the power of the state. 

There is no reason why these regimes cannot be considered to fall under the term "political Islam", since they politicise Islam in a self-serving manner. It is also almost natural for these regimes to become embroiled in an existential conflict with Islamist groups, which propose themselves as an alternative based on the same source of legitimacy.

In this sense, their war against Islamist groups is a fierce one because it is, after all, a civil war. For these regimes, however, the term "political Islam" should only cover militant Islamism - but that should be the subject of another study.

The dilemmas of religious political movements, meanwhile, can be summed up as follows:

1. Religion is a sacred sphere, while the function of politics is to administer the affairs of humans in an organised society, and run state institutions. The sphere of politics is power and the distribution and management of social wealth and benefits, which is often characterised by conflict among various interest groups and identities.

Non-Islamist forces often feel threatened by the Islamist movements' conflation of religion and politics.

Bridging the two spheres can only happen in two ways:

i) Secularising and politicising religion, meaning subjecting the interpretation of religion to current political considerations. Whether or not this is performed "in good faith", this effort will almost always end up abusing religion.

ii) Rendering politics sacred, by elevating some political values to the level of the religious. This is a practice of totalitarian secular movements, but it also happens when an Islamist movement - and belonging thereto - becomes sacred, even above the sacredness of religious values themselves.

The discourse of political religious groups relies on sources that emerged in historical contexts, from which we are separated by more than a thousand years, and which are themselves entirely separated from modernity and its intellectual productions in the social sciences, humanities, economics and political sciences.

Thus, these movements find themselves faced with two options: They either impose modern notions on themselves, re-interpreting scriptures and their original meanings that cannot be accepted in the modern age, with the result that such teachings end up distorted. Or, they impose scriptures on modern reality, with their perceived original meanings, causing a clash with modernity and its values, possibly even resulting in a fantastically bloody and destructive clash - as we have recently seen.

On the other hand, non-Islamist forces often feel threatened by Islamist movements' conflation of religion and politics. This is because of the implication that the ideas of religious movements are sacred, while the ideas of non-religious movements are obscene.

The worse that could happen to politics is to be invaded by either one of two forms of extremism: mass mobilisation on the basis of instincts, or elevating them to the level of holiness.

In a religious society, the purpose of this deliberate implication is to embarrass those who criticise or oppose Islamist proposals, by way of portraying them as infringing upon religion itself. This is despite the fact that Islamist movements have secular man-made structures and links just like other political movements, and have political objectives related to policy, power and dominance, and partisan if not factional and sectarian interests.

All these matters are by no means holy, and must be discussed freely, without the same kind of embarrassment that usually goes with challenging religious and divine issues in conservative societies.

The political sphere is a sphere for organising public affairs. It is also a sphere of power and monopoly of violence. Therefore, it is an arena of rivalry and conflict among different interests and visions.

The worse that could happen to politics is to be invaded by either of two forms of extremism: mass mobilisation on the basis of instincts, or elevating them to the level of holiness.

Both lead to blocking the path of rational communication and dialogue in search for the best and most appropriate and acceptable policies. They lead to the rejection of compromise when a decisive victory is elusive, thus leading to the use of violence.

At the very worst, these two forms of extremism could intersect in the case of extremist secular and religious parties that simultaneously address fear and anger while sanctifying political mundane issues.

These are not theoretical issues, but practical ones that touch upon daily lives of millions of people. The failure to resolve them has led Islamist movements into an impasse, from which there is no escape without radical change.

Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian intellectual, academic and writer.

This article is part one of five in a series on political Islam.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.