July 12, 2011

The Politics of Religion

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011   No comments

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia
The so-called Arab Spring is a watershed for learning for those interested in religion and politics. In no other modern uprisings has the relationship between religion and politics been put to the test as it has been during the Arab revolutions.
In Western countries, generally, uprisings rebelled against religion. It has rarely been a platform for launching revolutions, let alone the foundation for establishing a state. Secularism became the acceptable platform that governed the place of religion and politics.

In Islamic civilization on the other hand, the common view suggests that Islam is fundamentally inseparable from politics. From the birth of the first community in Madinah, Muslims have always accorded religion and religious teachings a prominent place in politics. There is a widely shared view that suggests that the Muslim world is either modern secular or traditional theocratic. There has been less and less emphasis in the recent years on the nature of the Islamic religious discourse as dominated by politics, not by theology or ethics. A survey of the various forms of governments and dynasties since the formative period of Islam until the most recent times would suggest that Islam is principally a political religion—not a religious polity.
Even the Islamic revolution in Iran did very little to highlight the true historic interactions between Muslim politicians and Muslim religious scholars. The Arab revolutions may provide a new path into understanding the place of religion in the politics of ethnicity, sectarianism, and economic interests.
1. Western Tendencies and Political Expediency


The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions exposed the willingness of Western politicians to trade their commitments to human rights norms for preserving political and economic interests. This was evident from how hesitant Western democracies were to support the peoples of Tunisia and Egypt as they demanded their rights to be free, to be respected, and to live with dignity. American politicians’ commitment to supporting people’s quest for freedom was partially restored when it intervened in Libya and sided with the Libyan people against a 42-year dictatorship. But then came Bahrain and Yemen.
In these two cases, American resolve to drop its support for dictators and side with the people was absent. The reason is largely political expediency. The Yemeni regime has been a strong ally in the so-called war on terror as documented by Wikileaks. Moreover, Bahrain is home for the U. S. Navy Fifth Fleet. Should these two regimes fall, the U.S. and its allies would have no guarantee that the regimes that would replace them would be as accommodating. Consequently, the U.S. administration left the matter to its Gulf allies to solve the problem as they see fit.
The Saudis worked on a plan that would allow the Yemeni regime to give up power and secure immunity for Abdullah Saleh. While opposition leaders seem willing to such a compromise, the demonstrators who are leading the uprising are unwilling to let murderers and corrupt authoritarians go unpunished.
In Bahrain, the Saudis took a different approach. They sent armed troops to work under the emergency declaration by the Bahraini regime to crush the protest movement. The regime then went to arrest opposition leaders, fire workers who participated in the uprising, and try and convict others including four youths charged of killing two police officers.

In the middle of this unpredicted flood of protests, the U.S. administration, its Arab allies, and most western nations had a dream and a nightmare. They had a dream that these revolts will not bring down just “moderate” regimes. They hoped (and some cases incited) uprisings in Syria and Iran. Their wish came true in Syria. Then, the dream became a nightmare.
Some realized that the Syrian regime, despite its rhetoric, nonetheless maintained the status quo and managed to keep its warfront with Israel quiet. They realized that all that could change should the Muslim Brethren of Syria and their allies rise to power. Some thought that with Egypt’s foreign policy shift (or at least uncertain direction), Syria is no longer crucial for the “non-moderate” camp any more. The outcome has been a lesson in contradiction: people’s desire for dignity is contingent on the preservation of the interests of the powerful. That is how the lack of action against the Bahraini and Syrian regimes in comparison to the bombardment of the Libyan one can be explained away.
2. Religious Relativism
The astounding development associated with the Arab revolutions is the role played not by Islamist groups per se, but by religious scholars who generally prefer to keep religion above and separate from the passing events.
This time, however, The head of the International Union of Islamic Scholars, Yusuf al-Qardhawi, representing the Sunni religious authorities, released fatwa after fatwa declaring the Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni, and Libyan regimes illegitimate. At one point, he took the extraordinary step to authorize the assassination of Qadhafi—the Libyan leader. He reasoned that any ruler without the support of the majority of his people is illegitimate and his removal is allowed, if not mandatory, in Islamic law. He also declared Syria’s Assad to be such an illegitimate leader and threw his support behind the protesters. So far, this seemed progressive: a stand in absolute support of peoples trying to free themselves from non-representative authoritarian regimes. But Bahrain destroyed the semblance of consistency and uncovered other considerations.
When asked about his lack of support for the Bahraini uprising, Qaradawi argued that he would support the Bahraini uprising only if Sunnis were to be part of it. As if, in his religious view, Shi`is, who happen to be the absolute majority of Bahraini citizens, are not entitled to representative government unless the Sunni minority, which has been reaping the privilege of belonging to the same sect as the King, decided to forfeit their privileged status and side with the oppressed Shi`is. The Saudi government used this opportunity to move in and crush the uprising in Bahrain before the Shi`i rejecters (rafidah; a theological concept from the classical era) threaten their Umayyad-inspired rule.

Representing the Shi`i community, the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, too, strongly supported peoples’ uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain. He declared them part of a global Islamic awakening inspired by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Then, the Syria uprising happened. Outlining the general policy respecting the Syrian protests, Ayatollah Khamenei essentially declared that, while the Syrian people are entitled to a representative government, they should not overthrow the current one, not because it is representative, but because its politics are .
In all these cases, peoples’ aspiration for political life with dignity was made contingent on immediate interests. It would seem that political loyalty or sectarian affiliation trumped Islam’s commitment to human dignity in the eyes of some of these religious and political leaders. Religion then, becomes the sum of calculated interests.
Beyond the political, ethical, and legal dimension of these events lies an even more important opportunity that may lead to the reshaping of Islamic political theory and practices. The outcome of the revolutions and subsequent political re-alignments may well lead to a revival in political and religious expressions that are far more tolerant and practical than paradigms of militant secularisms or absolutist theocracies. Muslim thinkers and politicians may once again find the balance between the fundamental needs of the peoples and the exigencies of religious morality; a balance wherein the dignity of the human beings would stand tall before institutionalized power.

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