Islamic Nationalism: What Islamists think - and why it doesn’t work

Devil in the details

A few days ago, I got into conversation with an Islamist brother, and somewhat predictably, the conversation swiftly fell down some well-trodden paths. It was my duty as a Muslim, I was told, to work towards the full implementation of shariah, and to at least hope for the arrival one day of an Islamic State – if not actively working towards bringing it about.

The perceptive reader will have already discerned from this very short history that I was speaking to a representative of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, or whatever it’s calling itself nowadays since it’s been proscribed. Has it been banned? Not certain, but either way it’s not flavour of the month down at the Metropolitan Police.

Nor was it ever flavour of the month among true scholars of Islam. I remember when I was at university, I had a long conversation with the shaykh of the Dar ul-Uloom in Oxford, the most inspirational Shaykh Riyad al-Nadwi. I vividly remember he and I walking around the gardens of Wadham College after an event had heckled and hindered by HT crazies, and him railing at “the arrogance, the cheek of a people who believe they can take Islam as a tool, and to reduce the means to attaining salvation into some facile phrases of a political programme.” Shaykh Riyad has since created his own thinktank, the Oxford Cross-Cultural Research Institute, and although I’m not certain I fully agree with his own political programme, certainly gives useful pauses for thought.

HT are the far-end of the spectrum of Islamist sympathisers in this country, but the spectrum itself is not a small one. To a greater or lesser extent, I believe most Muslims in this country – particularly among the unthinking majority – would agree with some of their pronouncements. I think most young Muslims, if questioned persistently, would indeed say that they think that nationalist politics in the Muslim and non-Muslim world has failed, and that Islam itself should be “given a chance” to heal divisions. The references one would expect to be given here are to the Muslim Brotherhood’s charitable and social work, and as long a blind eye conveniently turned away from their factional, military and sectional adventures, also Hamas and Hizbullah. A little further down the spectrum, many others would agree with the principle that the “Qur’an should be the highest law”, and that Muslims should be ruled by the shariah. Yet further are others who would agree that life would be fairer if there was an Islamic court system – a qadi – to resolve disputes between Muslims, and the braver ones if pushed a little further might suggest that the hudud punishments might be no bad thing as a deterrent to the “rampant crime” of the Western world. The bravest of all might suggest that Muslim countries should join together as one ummah in order to create a single country ruled by the word of God.

No matter how far they are down this spectrum, it always seems to me that there is a crucial set of shared assumptions among Islamists, about the relationship of the State and society, and the proper way of implementing Islam.

Shared assumptions among Islamists

The first crucial shared assumption that many people have is that Islam requires imposition. This seems to me a particularly unfortunate philosophical idea that the Islamists – notably Qutb, Mawdudi and Ayman al-Zawahiri – took not from Islamic history and practice but from the contemporaneous world of Communism and Marxist thought. In particular, there are close parallels between Qutb’s model of Islamism and Lenin’s writings. Both show lack of faith in the people’s capacity to seize power themselves, requiring the actions of a revolutionary elite to seize power for it. As any GCSE student knows, the Russian Marxist party split in 1903 into two camps, the bigger one (Bolsheviks) followed Lenin’s proposal that the party membership be restricted to a small core of professional revolutionaries. Sympathisers and fellow travellers might be welcome, but the revolution should not require them. This is not to say that Qutb’s Islamist vanguard should be equated too far with Bolshevism – indeed Qutb detested Communism as yet another Western-invented ideology designed to distract people from the Islamic solution. But both start from the view that a hardcore of political professionals should lead the ignorant masses to what they hoped would be a better future.

The second shared assumption is that “Islam is enough”, and that the Qur’an and sunna contain all the wisdom that is needed to run an ideal society. Qutb’s classic Ma’alim fi-l-Tariq set out most clearly the claim that the shariah is a “way of life� based on submission to God alone”, which covers the entire scope of human existence from belief, to administration and justice, right the way to principles of art and science. This is a claim I’ve heard amplified many a time by preachers and sermonisers on a Friday, such as the one who told us last week that “Islam is all-encompassing, right the way from how a person should go to the toilet and which shoe to take off first when he arrives home – so how can you say it doesn’t have the answers for how to run the best of societies?”

The third shared assumption is that if the previous two were combined, to the view that Islam should be the sole criterion for guiding a person’s political and public views. Moreover, Islam’s place in the public realm should mean that the State itself should be guided by Islamic principles, and should implement the rulings that the Prophet brought with him. In the words of Qutb, “The establishment of God’s law on earth�[is] the only guarantee against any kind of discord in life,” and will “automatically” bring “peace and cooperation among individuals.”

Problems with Islamist assumptions

While not wishing to denigrate Qutb’s optimism, I find it hard to share any of these three assumptions. I believe that the shariah rulings that the Qur’an and Prophet laid down were done for excellent reasons, but it seems to me self-evident that the Qur’an and sunnah do not even address many valid and good questions about how best should a civil society be run. Indeed, the aim of the vast majority of Islamic rulings are about individuals, and their personal and individual responsibility for their own conduct. Part of this individual responsibility includes the responsibility to show fraternal concern for the people around you, but there is no intention in the Qur’an to create anything resembling a State, as we know it. This is to say, the Qur’an is perfectly clear that a person can perfectly well go to heaven without ever joining a human community, let alone an Islamic State.

Secondly, it has always seemed to me that the ideal of an Islamic community is of an organic decentralised polity – almost the opposite of a modern State. Islam puts an accent on the individual and local collectivity taking responsibility for themselves and helping themselves the lowest possible level. Truly fraternal Islamic communities would arrange their own local support-networks such as communal risk-sharing, communal healthcare provision and communal decision-making. This seems at odds with the bureaucracy, centralisation and nation-wide services that are the fundamental basis of the modern State. Let’s not forget that there are very good reasons for why and how modern State structure has usurped organic and decentralised communes – namely that it provides generally better-quality and more efficient outputs. As an example, national health services and national curricula have provided better health and education than any self-governing village could produce. National infrastructure projects such as roads could only be paid for from a national budget, and better transport infrastructure has produced a global market and multinational corporations that can provide every person with cheaper produce than any village commune could do. Nobody ever said this material development makes individuals into better Muslims – but I’ve never met an Islamist who’s seriously in favour of a model of State that’s anything other than a modern industrial one. Instead, they’re thinking of big countries with national priorities and little room for local self-government. They think of national capitals, which are built out of steel and concrete regardless of whether the architecture has an Islamic origin.

All of this would probably be okay, if a modern Islamic state had sufficient amounts of credibility and popularity to sustain its modern image. But I don’t think the shariah gives enough information, enough width, to conduct an even cursory conversation about how to run a State. The obligations of a ruler according to the Qur’an, are to give justice to his people, as in surah Dawud, which says “O David, We have made you a ruler in the land; so judge between men with justice and do not follow desire, lest it should lead you astray from the path of Allah” (38:26). Aside from this obligation and the emphasis on the institutions of law and order, there is remarkably little for an “Islamic State” to base itself on. This is clearly insufficient for a 21st century society. What kind of a country would Britain be if the only organ of institutional authority was the Home Office and the Courts Service? Islamic texts do not speak about scores of knotty questions of modern life. What level of healthcare provision should be paid for by the taxpayer, and what should be the responsibility of the individual? Should the taxpayer build and run hospitals or schools, or is there a role for the Private Finance Initiative? What rules should businesses have to abide by in order to ensure that pollution is kept at a minimum? How should the competing claims of the individual property-owner and the society be reconciled when there is a proposal for public infrastructure (eg a new road)? What restrictions should there be on a landlord who wants to rent out his roof to a mobile phone operator in order to erect a new mobile phone mast? What is the appropriate size for the country’s armed forces, and should they procure their weapons from domestic manufacturers or from the cheapest supplier (who might be from the USA)?

Furthermore, the Islamist version of a state doesn’t even answer some fundamental points about self-reliance of the individual and local autonomy. Quite on the contrary, most Islamists at root don’t trust ordinary people to arrive at an equitable solution without the active assistance of the Islamists in making a ruling they declare “equitable” and then installing it. As an example, popular Islamic concerns about globalisation are that it is fundamentally unjust, balancing poor people’s interests rather poorly when weighed up against the need for economic growth and opportunity. In areas of Islamist political domination, the response to encroaching outside interests is to ban or to censor – viz popular music in the Pakistani tribal areas, the internet in Iran or popular magazines in Saudi. Who does this help? Nobody. Ordinary people see that rules imposed by the mullahs are arbitrary, they immediately try to flout them, and the result is enhanced popularity of popular music in Pakistan, mass blogging in Iran and illicit book-smuggling in Saudi. The law is brought into disrepute, and with it the State that the Islamists believe is essential to Muslim identity.

The difficulty of getting dialogue on these core assumptions

Getting this message across to Islamist-minded individuals in the UK is difficult. In my discussion with the brother from Hizb-ut-Tahrir, I was met by blank incomprehension. Of course he wasn’t suggesting that we should be looking for a khilafah like the corrupt old Ottoman caliphate we should be looking back to the model of the Prophet’s society in Madinah. We should be hoping for a place where the shariah is put into force, where the sovereignty is with Allah and where the people enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong. When asked what was right and what was wrong, he was quite strong on theft, less strong on national insurance, less strong again on nuclear energy, less strong again on whether hospitals should be publically or privately-managed.

Instead, he said “Allahu alim” (“God knows best”) and gave me a version of the Islamist myth that states that a massive mosque-building programme, segregated shopping malls and “justice” would inevitably inculcate supreme happiness and Islamic peace across all people. Really? Why then do only 1.4% of Iranians go to mosque for Friday prayers – according to figures produced by the Iranian government itself?

But what kind of answer is “Allahu alim” to difficult questions on public policy? Does he expect God to send down wisdom and answers when the debate looks like heating up? Can you imagine a politician going campaigning on the slogan that “God knows best�” on whether he would put up taxes?

Asking Muslims to work for an Islamic state is therefore the Muslim equivalent of asking people to vote to motherhood and apple pie. In most circumstances it’s a meaningless phrase, which people like to parrot out in order to demonstrate to their neighbours that they’re as pious as anybody else in the street. It’s in the same boat as phrases like “I plan to make hijrah” and “I want a child who will be a hafiz of the Qur’an”.

Instead of hoping therefore for a brand new system of Islamic governance, how about asking for more realistic and achievable goals. How about simply some Muslims in public life, who genuinely try to implement Islamic principles of ‘Adl (justice), Haqq (truth), Rahm (mercy) and Ihsan (excellence) in making good decisions. These decisions should cause them grief, as they wrestle with the issues, before arriving at what they hope with God’s grace is the correct answer. That’s really about all we can hope for as human beings.

This may actually be what the HT brother meant by “Allahu alim” – in which case why not let’s talk about the need for more Muslims who not only understand the meanings of justice, truth, mercy and excellence, but demonstrably try to use them in their every-day dealings? Surely that’s what is more likely to get all of us to heaven than meaningless arguments about a new caliphate?

Dal Nun Strong was born in London to a Church of England family and embraced Islam in 1998. He has studied at Oxford University, specialising in the history of imperialism and decolonialisation and has written articles on Islamic topics for journals such as Q-News, Cafe Babel, Islam Online, and for his own website, A Muslim Thinktank.


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