Explaining the Challenge of Chronic Autocracy in the Muslim World: Is liberal capitalist democracy the only way?

The revolution that has begun in the Middle East constitutes a watershed moment in Islamic history as well as in the world today. What has happened so far is only the beginning. Despite the multiplicity of countries and specific challenges in each it is but a single event connected not only through inspiration for change that spread like wildfire throughout the region, but also through a shared heritage, language and faith. Like the impetus for change, the essence of the problem, as well as the solution, is one. The events of 2011 raise two questions: Is there anything in the shared Islamic tradition that has contributed to the chronic problem of autocracy in the Muslim world, and would the liberal capitalist democracy that is envisaged to be the panacea for the Middle East (and everywhere else) by world pundits in fact be an improvement over the existing tyrannies? The question of autocracies in the region is often discussed in simplistic terms as the lack of democratic will, institutions or compatibility with Islam, while the complexity of choices involved and lessons from the many Third World democratic experiments are neglected. To combat this simplistic triumphalism, it is necessary to address both sides of the story.

The current wave of revolutions has brought to the fore the question of why there are and have been so many autocratic rulers in the Middle East. The problem is commonly understood as the lack of democratization, modernization or progress of Muslim countries. To address this question, we must first reclaim our terminology from intellectual imperialism – I will therefore ask a question indigenous to Islamic tradition: Why are Muslim countries and societies today so poignantly lacking in justice (adl) and beauty or charity (ihsan) at political and economic levels – justice and beauty being the two prime Qur’anic virtues? In one form or another, this question is on the minds of many. It particularly haunts young Muslims trying to understand and defend their faith. They want to find an explanation for the disparity of this reality with what they see as the true faith, as envisioned in the divine message, that incessantly encourages reasoning and truth-seeking, religious freedom, equality, justice, consultation and mercy.

The cliché that Muslims are not the same as Islam and that every religion has good and bad people offers only a little comfort. External factors such as colonialism and a fundamentally unfair global political economy prejudiced against peripheral nations certainly go a long way in explaining the plight of Muslim and many other Third World countries. These are veritable historical and global realities, but dire and unfair as they are, they cannot be used to explain all our problems. Rather than surgically figuring out where our agency, and hence responsibility, begin, many people so exaggerate the contribution of exogenous factors that it seems absolute and all-encompassing. Any gaps are filled in with conspiracy theories. But in succumbing to explaining everything by external factors, we give up not only any blame in our plight but also our agency to change. On the other hand are today’s younger Muslims (not just in the West) – sorely unaware of their own history and tradition – who fall either into quick and righteous self-deprecation and self-hatred or romantic religiosity of one kind or another devoid of historical and rational analysis.

We may ask whether the core Muslim countries’ long-standing political failure – which goes back centuries before the onset of Western colonialism –has been merely accidental and attributable to exogenous factors, or whether it can be attributed to some feature or flaw of Islamic tradition itself. While the role of accidents and contingencies, all doubtless within God’s power, cannot be discounted, the frequency and pattern of the shared problems suggest that there is something more to it.

When Ibn Khaldun – a great 14th/15th century jurist and pioneering philosopher of history – observed the seemingly perpetual cycle of nomad warriors conquering sedentary cities, ruling for about a century and then being invaded by new warrior elite, he explained it through what he called “group solidarity.” He believed that the four righteous Caliphs after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, known as the Rashidun Caliphate, were an exception to the cycle because their rule was based on a new kind of solidarity: of faith. But when that eroded and natural forces of desire for domination overwhelmed those in power, the same laws that ruled the rest of history clasped the fate of Muslim societies.

According to Fazlur Rahman, a Pakistani modernist scholar at the University of Chicago, one modern explanation of why Muslim countries today are doomed under the yoke of dictators is that classical Islamic scholars failed to uphold the Qur’anic commandments of shura, or group consensus, and equality, and failed to translate these into viable institutions. Hamilton Gibb, a perceptive orientalist, similarly observed that under the influence of the Persian and the Byzantine heritages, Muslim rulers – in particular the Abbasids – succumbed to an imperialist culture while the classical Islamic scholars failed to resist, ultimately ending up with a Caliphate Theory, which did little more than justify the practice of the actual imperial caliphs and failed to enact political institutions truer to the spirit of Islam. These scholars blame the Islamic scholars for not insisting on democratic or shura-centered legitimate political institutions whose seeds we find in Islamic texts and early practice, such that the community could hold its rulers accountable. While this is not without some grain of truth, subsequent historical studies have shown a far more complex picture.

Perhaps the most influential (but misleading) thesis today explaining the attitude of Islamic scholars toward politics is one advocated by many Western scholars in 1970s-80s, including Ira Lapidus, Tilman Nagel and Patricia Crone. They said the problem was not with the attitude of the classical Islamic scholars but with the model of the Rashidun Caliphate itself. What the classical Islamic scholars did by ignoring politics was to safeguard religious authority in their hands, leaving politics in the hands of the state. In this view, the political setup in the Muslim world after the end of the central caliphate in roughly the 3rd/9th century became secular in practice although Islamic scholars continued to pay lip-service to the early ideals of Islam. This thesis has been picked up recently by Noah Feldman, Abdullahi An-Na’im, and others in a more romanticized form. Feldman argues that we can speak of a “classical Islamic constitution” that was secular in the sense that the classical Islamic scholars stayed away from power and thus left the Muslim government (the sultan) to be secular. An-Na’im’s interpretation, maybe more historically inaccurate, is that medieval Islam was essentially secular and had to be because sincere religion and authority can never coexist.

There is little doubt that a dominant strand in the classical Islamic tradition adopted the attitude of neglect (that looks quite strange to modern historians given the benefit of hindsight) toward theorizing and disciplining political power and focused rather on legal and spiritual dimensions. While this attitude was in sharp contrast with the political leadership of the Prophet himself, and his companions, who were eminent leaders and administrators, it does not amount to secularism. An important minority of classical Islamic scholars continued to oppose the trend of neglecting political thought in favor of legal and personal religiosity (luminaries such as al- Mawardi, Turtushi, Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Khaldun are the most prominent among them). Rather, as always in attempts to live Islam, there were many strands of Muslim thought and practice – many scholars who were engaged in politics for all kinds of ends, who were at times less than praiseworthy, and a minority who even theorized politics more or less successfully. The predominant ideal did, however, forsake politics, not in favor of secularization (to legitimate political power and social order on a non-religious basis), but as a perceived necessity to safeguard faith and piety. This attitude was sealed under the pressure of certain intellectual developments that made many of the classical Islamic scholars suspicious of any common sense public reason not explicitly grounded in scripture. What the scholars gained in return was authority over interpretation of Islam in an arena of scholarly debate generally free of government inquisitions and manipulation. There neither developed nor could develop an equivalent of the Catholic Church in the majority Sunni Islam. However, government’s perpetual theoretical illegitimacy mattered little because rulers played a minuscule role in the life of the society: law, education, knowledge and social norms all were “owned” by the society under the guidance of the scholars and custom. Boundaries between Muslim lands had no meaning for the society, which spread from Morocco to India without borders through social, scholarly and spiritual networks. This “flight” from politics and its moral burdens explains the declaration of the great scholar of the 11th century, Imam al-Ghazali, that legitimizing political authority of his day (that was in the hands of usurping Saljuq commanders rather than proper caliphs) is like eating carrion – permitted only in necessity. Other scholars – primarily Ibn Taymiyya, a 13th/14th century jurist, who wrote in the wake of the Mongol onslaught – boldly tried to resurrect a vision of Islam inspired by the vitality of early Islam. However, Ibn Taymiyya’s legacy failed to make a full political impact until its still partial rediscovery by modern Muslims. Nevertheless, regardless of their attitude toward politics, scholars (Sunni as well as Shi`i) maintained consensus on the obligation of Islamic form as well as substance of government.

In sum, the attitude of the classical tradition may be characterized as over-legalization and the shunning of politics. In a society where governments and formal institutions could not be trusted, Islamic law – considered timeless and divine – was naturally preferred over Islamic politics – negotiations made by rulers. It is this that shaped Middle Eastern Muslim societies. This continues today as some of these societies have interfaced with Western imperialism, yet the concept of shunning politics has survived in these societies. The revolutions of today are an indication of the society rejecting this frame of reference.

I must emphasize that the problem I am pointing to here is that of a strategic choice rather than a moral or intellectual deficiency or an essential flaw of Islamic law or tradition. I reject simplistic and ahistorical explanations such as that of Timur Kuran’s The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East, that Islamic law is the reason for the “backwardness” of Muslim societies, as measured against modern Western capitalism. If the consequences of liberal capitalism were made available to classical Muslims, I have no doubt they would have recoiled in horror, despite all the material progress it seems to have brought in its wake. My critique of Islamic tradition’s inability to develop political institutions, however, is recognizable from within the tradition itself, and pertains not to the essence of Islamic law but to the choice of classical Islamic scholars. I argue that had these scholars known of the consequences of their anti-political choices, namely, the weakness of their lands in the face of foreign invasions such as the Crusades, the Mongol onslaught and later Western imperialism, they perhaps would have agreed with those Islamic scholars who placed greater emphasis on political vitality and legitimacy.

With modernity stem two essential political changes: the development of the nation-state and of market capitalism. The nation-state was a new organization in early modern Europe that owned the law as well as the religion of all the people who lived in its territory, while capitalism soon became not only an economic activity but replaced religion as the new organizing principle of all life that was to be protected by the new state. Such a setup made large-scale collective projects ranging from large companies to military and imperialist undertakings much easier, but at the expense of family and spiritual life. It also required tearing religion from the fabric of public life and confining it to the private sphere, a project known as secularization.

When this inflated and powerful state-and-economy complex (recall that it was East India Trading Company that colonized most of the East before the British government took over) colonized the Muslim world, the political vacuum and excessive legalism in classical Islamic tradition began to show its most pathological consequences. The problem became clearer as Muslim scholars and intellectuals tried to resurrect Islam during the 20th century with an aim to live by Islam. In the modern context of fierce competition for power and resources between nation-states, the classical model of life of waiting for better days centered on family and social networks lost some of its relevance. The early Islamic model of an active and vibrant collective life (that is, political life by another name) became attractive once again.

Today, in an age when government (for better or worse) plays a crucial role in organizing life and when large and distant business corporations have taken over the spaces that were previously filled by families and communities, democracy has become an increasingly relevant institutional model. There is nothing inherently necessary, universal or timeless about democracy. What exactly are the conditions of true democracy is a question that has confounded Western scholars for long, but one thing is certain: such conditions do not always obtain even in the most advanced democracies, nor are they as simple as holding elections. Yet, despite this complex history and mixed results, democracy is idolized everywhere, including among Muslim citizens desperately trying to flee the tyranny of their states. Those who lack democratic freedoms like to believe that all solutions lie in it, but such naiveté has often been a costly mistake.

Many Third World countries that have experimented with democratic institutions, including most Muslim countries today, remain on fire. According to a widely accepted view of Samuel Huntington, there have been three waves of democracy: The first wave began in the early 19th century in the United States and Western Europe, leading to the establishment of 29 democracies in the world. In the period intervening the two world wars, that wave ebbed reducing the number of democracies to 12. The second wave rose during the two decades after the Second World War, increasing the number of democracies to 36 before declining. In the 1970s and 1980s, a third wave of democracies began, which nearly doubled the number of democracies in the world to 60. Huntington predicted that a few other countries will democratize in a fourth wave but, in keeping with his famous “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, he said the countries influenced by Islam are not likely to be democratized. The current wave of uprisings in the Arab Muslim world has called into question this prediction as well as aspects of Huntington’s larger “Clash of Civilizations” thesis.

This picture, simplistic as it is, is helpful in recognizing certain large-scale trends. Huntington identifies the following conditions that seem to favor the process of democratization: (i) The experience of a previous effort at democratization, even if it failed; (ii) economic development; (iii) a favorable international political environment, with outside assistance; (iv) early timing of the transition to democracy, relative to a worldwide “wave,” indicating that the drive to democracy is derived primarily from indigenous rather than outside influences; and (v) experience of a relatively peaceful rather than violent transition.

This model is useful but too simplistic as it falsely assumes that all democracies belong in the same category and are somehow equal. Some democracies are producers of knowledge, culture and material commodities while others are consumers. Two factors are of crucial significance in determining the nature and direction of a democracy – ideology (religion or culture) and economy – and these two are inextricably related. The democracies that Huntington speaks of are those that will be liberal capitalists –adopting certain democratic institutions and establishing a market economy. In practice, becoming democratic in the modern world has often meant opening up to the capitalist market and its materializing forces that have undermined local and non-Western cultures and traditions, reshaped those cultures in the image of the most materialist, individualistic and consumerist strands of Western culture, and created an affluent elite while accelerating the destruction of the environment generally and the quality of life for the majority even further. Thus, in real life, democracy has not always been a good thing. If worshipped, it is disappointing; if understood as a useful practical model that requires careful crafting, critique and vigilance, and most importantly, guidance by commitment to truth, justice and charity, it is the best among available political systems in modern times.

Weaker Third World countries, rife with deep-seated divisions and corruption created or exacerbated by imperialist powers, have often preferred strong governments that would redistribute the wealth more evenly than capitalist democracy that, even in the richest countries, often creates gross inequalities while giving token equality to all in the form of the right to vote. It is for this reason that in the majority of the Arab countries in the middle of the 20th century, in the absence of an Islamic alternative equal to the task, socialism and nationalism (as in Nasserism) and the justice and strength they promised had been far more attractive to the people than the freedoms promised by liberal capitalism. As these ideologies had no legitimate or deep roots within the societies they ruled, they naturally could not survive tougher times.

The demand for democracy has been increasing during the 20th century in the Muslim world as elsewhere, but the biggest challenge in the minds of sober Islamic scholars, intellectuals and activists has been not the token freedoms promised by capitalist democracies but how to address grave injustices within their countries and in the international order, and live in a way true to Islam.

Those who want an “Islamic democracy” – as do the vast majority (80 percent) of Muslims worldwide, according to recent polls – will have to seriously question liberal capitalist democracy as well as surgically critique and develop the vast body of tradition of Islamic law and politics. Neither democracy nor Islamic tradition is a readymade package that can be bought once and enjoyed forever. And as we sift through the many complex institutions and possibilities of democracy and strands of Islam, we must be ever-vigilant against the temptation to worship the wrong god. §

Ovamir Anjum is Imam Khattab Endowed Chair of Islamic Studies at the University of Toledo, Ohio. His forthcoming monograph Politics, Law and Reason: The Taymiyyan Moment (Cambridge University Press) concerns visions of politics in Islamic history. He other areas of interest include the history of Sufism, anthropology of Islam, and contemporary Islamic movements.


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