Friday, June 09, 2006

What Makes an Islamic State?

Pakistan Link, Commentary, Nayyer Ali,
Jun 02, 2006

What is an Islamic state? What makes a state “Islamic”? How should Muslims answer this complex question in the modern context? I will put forth my views on this issue, but first I will delve into the historical context of where we find ourselves, and why this issue is currently so important.In 1789 the French Revolution began, as did the Presidency of George Washington. In hindsight, one can see that the birth of the modern world was occurring. From 1800 to 2100, we are in the midst of the modernization of Eurasia and its offspring, which includes North America. This three-hundred year process involves two distinct phases. The first was the modernization of the European civilization, which lasted from 1800 into the end of the 20th century. The second phase began rather slowly after World War II and de-colonization, but is now switching into high gear, namely the modernization of Asia and the Middle East. This will take another 100 years to fully play out.European modernization was associated with enormous stresses and conflicts: political conflicts, class conflicts, social conflicts, religious conflicts, and economic and resource conflicts. These struggles led to the rise of three great historical political trends that were the consequence of European modernization. These trends being imperialism, right wing extremism that manifested as fascist ethnic nationalism, and left-wing extremism that gave birth to communism. The death toll of these trends literally ran over 200 million people. It is to the credit of the United States that although not always consistently, it did take the leading role in defeating and undoing all three of these manifestations of Europe’s modernization. It was the defining central task of American foreign policy in the 20th century, even up to the Dayton Accords and the Kosovo War.We are now faced with the second phase of Eurasia’s modernization, that of Asia and the Middle East. This too is a complex challenge. The challenge, in fact, comprises three distinct challenges. This region of the world is dominated by three groups: China, India, and the Muslim-majority countries. Peacefully integrating the rise of China and India into the international commercial and political system represents obvious American priorities. But the third group, the Muslims also should be seen as an American priority. In total population, geographic extent, and economic significance, the Muslim world equals or exceeds the significance of India or China. In population terms it is not only larger, but faster growing, and it is highly probable that a plurality of the world’s children are Muslims.There are some obvious differences between the Muslims and China and India. China and India are both unified single nation-states, with populations over 1 billion each, while there are over 50 Muslim countries, and only three have populations of over 100 million. Both China and India are accepted nuclear powers, while only Pakistan has a grudgingly tolerated nuclear capability among the Muslim countries. Finally, neither China nor India appears to offer an ideological challenge to the US at par with European challenges of the last century. But the Muslim world may be offering an ideological challenge.The ideological challenge is in fact quite broad, and is rooted in a conservative, but modern, interpretation of Islam. Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda are just an extreme manifestation of this ideology, and are not its core. Other manifestations include Wahhabism, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Iranian clerical state, the FIS in Algeria, the Taliban, and the religious parties in Pakistan and Southeast Asia. The movement has both strong local and trans-national characteristics. It is being fueled by two sources. The first is internal, as a reaction to modernization, and the second is external, related to the weakness of the Muslims in international affairs.The internal forces that are tearing at societies throughout the Muslim world are the forces of modernization. These are the obvious things like urbanization, mass literacy and higher education, industrialization, women’s empowerment, and the creation of very powerful centralized governments. These changes are forcing Islam to adapt. Traditional Islam was well-suited to pre-modern rural illiterate societies. But with tremendous social change, the practice of Islam is also changing. In country after country there is a full-throated conflict between new interpretations of Islam, some liberal and some conservative or reactionary. Both Khomeinism and Wahhabism are modern views of Islam, and do not represent traditional Islam. There is no precedence in Muslim history for the religious Ulema to have supreme political power; this is a startling innovation of Khomeini. Likewise, there is no historical Muslim precedent for the religious police system that is used in Saudi Arabia, and was copied by the Taliban. What then is the correct interpretation? What does Islam really say about gender equality, free speech, democracy, minority rights, and a whole host of modern issues?Let me illustrate the situation by looking at the status of women in Pakistan. Can we say Pakistan is a liberal or conservative society at present? For women in rural Pakistan life can be very oppressive. There is still significant resistance to education in some areas, there is honor killing, there is widespread domestic violence, and women furnish much worse health and education statistics than men. The legal code in Pakistan states that a woman bringing an accusation of rape must be simultaneously humiliated with a charge of adultery until the court can resolve the claims. But on the flip side, Pakistan was the first Muslim country, in 1988, to elect a woman as Prime Minister. One in six seats in the Parliament are reserved for women. The current governor of the central bank and the ambassador to Britain are both women. The Air Force just graduated its first class of women fighter pilots, and the majority of doctors in Pakistan are female. And the government allowed the first mixed-gender public marathon last September and deployed a heavy police and army presence to protect the runners. So should we say Pakistan’s women are liberated or are they shackled? This struggle between liberals and conservatives must be won on the grounds of Islamic interpretation. The notion that Muslim societies, as they modernize, will follow the European path of secularism does not appear to be happening. Instead, for a liberal view of how Muslim states should be organized to take hold, it must be rooted in an authentic Islamic foundation that is accepted by the public. We must go to the sources of Islam, particularly to the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet, and also to the juristic tradition, and forge strong arguments on these questions. It is incorrect to assume that Islam does not separate religion and politics. After the Prophet, there was always separation between the temporal rulers, who were usually dynastic monarchies, and the religious thinkers and jurists. What was Islamic about the system is that the law was sourced in jurisprudence that was developed over time, in a manner similar to English common law, but on the basis of Islamic religious principles and precedents. This gave the legal schools of thought that evolved a sense of being “God’s law”.This same framework can still be utilized by Muslim societies. The ultimate expression of a polity’s values is in its constitution. And it is in the constitution that an Islamic state is created by a Muslim society. They should write a constitution, through a democratic process, that expresses fundamental Islamic values that will shape the state. They should then develop democratic institutions that function under that constitution to write laws, interpret them, and enforce them. There is no need for a privileged group of Muslims to do that. The system is Islamic because the constitution is consistent with how the polity interprets Islam. Therefore there is no need for a group of “experts” to decide whether individual laws are consistent with Islam, they just need to be constitutionally permitted. As society’s interpretation of Islam changes, it can amend the constitution to reflect that. Liberals and conservatives can argue for their specific interpretations of what are core Islamic values to be enshrined in the constitution.I would do exactly that. I would make the argument for why free speech, democracy, basic principles of justice, freedom of religion, gender equality, economic freedom, and a whole host of other human rights are core Islamic values that should be in the constitution. A state with such a constitution is an Islamic state, regardless of the particular religious beliefs of its officers. There is in fact strong historical precedence for a written constitution that enshrines the state’s powers and obligation. When the Prophet came to Medina at the invitation of its residents, who were involved in prolonged civil conflict, he drew up a constitution, known historically as the Compact of Medina, which bound the polity of Muslims, Jews, and pagans, together on an equal basis. The Compact gave the Prophet temporal leadership and judicial power, but did not recognize him as having religious authority over anyone.The entire Ummah is in turmoil precisely over these issues. What does Islam say? Who has authority to rule, and how is that authority limited? What is the role of democracy? How Muslims answer these questions will have a decisive impact on the history of this century.

image courtesy of Nezam.Org

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