22 Oktober 2007

Muslim secularism and its allies

by Ali Eteraz
Guardian Unlimited 10-17-2007

I was not aware how thoroughly awash in Islamist propaganda members of the western public are until yesterday when I called for a Muslim left. I made a straightforward introduction to an authentic version of Muslim secularism, identified primarily by its affirmation of separating mosque from state. Its goal would be to ally with secular humanists and liberal nationalists in the Muslim world. Together, they would challenge the growing influence of the Muslim right, ie political Islam, which has replaced nationalism and one-party Marxism as the newest form of illiberalism in the Muslim world. Yet across blogs and listserves, most of the feedback has been negative, with some chiding the ideas as far-fetched and impossible. The New York Times's Opinionator blog was one of the few to show some sense.

It is as if people cannot conceive of Islams that are other than ideological. Let me be even more blunt: westerners, with neither an appreciation of Muslim history nor of current trends in the Muslim world, inspired only by fatuous slogans ("Reform Islam!"; "Where is my Islamic Enlightenment!"), are in a de facto alliance with the Muslim right, because they refuse to entertain the possibility of any other kind of Islam beyond Islamism.

Show people the way towards an Islam that doesn't have political aspirations and their first impulse is to start defending Qutb and Mawdudi as if their life depended on it. The cynic in me blames our new pundit class which requires the perpetuation of Muslim devilry to continue turning a buck. Then again, perhaps we're just dealing with "realists" who simply are hungry for facts.

Let's start by looking at the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's newly-released platform. I think it is obvious that the most problematic issue with it - besides the alienation of minorities and women - is that it seeks to establish "a board of Muslim clerics to oversee the government". This is illiberal.

We can further see that the Muslim right wants to use the vote, instead of the revolution, to empower such a board of clerics.

The aspiration for this board of clerics represents the heart of the Muslim right. The most glaring way, then, to identify an Islamist is if he or she agitates for such an institution. Once such an institution is set up, all other Islamist social programmes - anti-woman, anti-minority, anti-modernity legal schemes - will be approved, while all anti-Islamist programmes and 21st century human rights schemes will be struck down.

Among friends I off-handedly refer to the desire for such a clerical oligarchy as "the Iran problem". This is not because it has anything to do with Shi'a Islam, but because Iran is the world's pre-eminent Muslim state using such a clerical watch-dog institution.

However, if one wants to be be historically accurate, this theo-oligarchic system should really be called "the Pakistan problem" because before Khomeini imposed such a council in 1979 Iran, Pakistan had set up a Council of Islamic Ideology in 1962. (My suspicion is that Khomeini, born into an Indian-Persian family, probably got his idea by looking at Pakistan).

Furthermore, if open polls are done across Gulf and African Muslim nations, there will be significant support for a political system that provides for the Iran model. It will be a democracy sure; but one that is then overseen by a "board of Muslim clerics". In other words, an illiberal democracy. Just last year, in an Angus Reid poll of the Palestinian population, the Palestinians favoured precisely this "Iran model" of government (37%; the US model received 25%; Caliphate got 14%).

There are a few reasons this model finds support in the Muslim world. One is that the Muslim right has been the most active grassroots Muslim movement over the last 70 years. Second, because the Muslim right willingly became a tool of the west to get paid. The last is that Muslims who do not support "the Iran model" have become completely sidelined and meek (a case of not having political, financial, or intellectual backers).

It is to challenge the heart of Islamism - that clerical institution - that yesterday in my call for a Muslim left, point number one of the platform called directly for a "separation of mosque and state". Meanwhile, point number eight went further and stated that the Muslim left would be committed to "opposing any and all calls for a 'council of religious experts' that can oversee legislation".

I then concluded the post by promising to identify people on the Muslim left, though I didn't set forth a criterion to use, which prompted some to speculate that the list might be arbitrary.

In light of the centrality of "the Iran model" to Islamism, I propose that if one is going to identify people who qualify to be on the Muslim left, a good substantive yardstick to use is if they oppose the "Iran model" of governance. This is better than using "democracy" as the parameter because The Brotherhood's document and Iran's example both show that that "democracy" can mean just about anything today; even, Kafkaesquely, theocratic-oligarchy.

So, why not begin the search for Muslim leftists by looking inside Iran? Then, perhaps, we can trail that trend outward into other Muslim countries.

The first person that comes to mind is friend of the late Richard Rorty, Akbar Ganji, the journalist, activist and lawyer, of "Freedom is not free" fame. In the western media, his presence is consigned to smaller, more "intellectual" magazines. Yet Middle Eastern journalists recognise his name quite well. Ganji is the most important of the Muslim secularists in Iran today. Others like him include Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Prize winner, and Rahim Jahanbegloo, called "the Iranian Gandhi" for his non-violent approach to protest. These individuals match the criteria of a Muslim leftist I laid out in yesterday's post almost to the dot. In fact, they inspired it.

But they are not the entirety of those who qualify to be on the Muslim left. Traditionalist Muslims who oppose theocracy can also be a part of the alliance. Take for example, Ayatollah Kazemeini Boroujerdi. He is not a modernist like Ganji and Ebadi. He is from the old school Shia orthodoxy. Yet he considers Khomeini's interpretation of Shi'a Islam a heresy. Boroujerdi considers the theocratic regime to have usurped the authority of the Hidden Imam, and argues that all religious laws made by the state are null and void because the clerics do not have a right to legislate. After being tortured and beaten by the regime he now leads prayers in stadiums and has made appeals to the Pope and Kofi Annan for help. Affirmation of international law is a hallmark of the Muslim left.

A man like Boroujerdi - like many Muslim traditionalists - is a libertarian. He wants his mosque and his flock without the state interfering with either. This makes him a theist who favours separation of mosque and state - ie, a Muslim secularist. He should be viewed as a Muslim equivalent of someone like Reverend Jim Wallis in the states.

Secular humanists in Europe often cry that a person cannot be religious and committed to separation of religion and state; yet the US contains many such people, and increasingly, so does the Muslim world. In fact, it will be theist Muslim secularists who will help atheist and agnostic secular humanists exist safely among Muslims.

So, the goal of the Muslim left (and people in the west who are sympathetic to its goal), is to scan the Muslim world and find all the committed Muslims who favoor liberal democracy over the illiberal version that Islamists peddle.

In conducting such a search, they will run into a diverse multitude of people. Individuals as conservative as the Grand Mufti of Egypt (a religious, but not a political position) who believes that liberal democracy is compatible with Islam, and as liberal as Abdullahi an-Naim, the Sudanese scholar of law who was once exiled from his country but is now welcome back.

It will include the immensely popular Shaykh Waheeduddin Khan in India who, being Indian and being part of a pluralist society, has naturally been an adept expositor of an Islam that is consistent with liberal democracy.

It will include Muhammad Sa'id al-Ashmawi a judge, whose attack on political Islam provoked intense reactions from the conservatives, and Muhammad Khalaf-Allah who argued that the Quran did not simply allow democracy, but required it; both in Egypt.

It will include the Indonesian Nurcholish Madjid - of "Islam yes, Islamic parties no" - who, as long ago as 1970, called for deep-seated changes to politics among Muslims, even using the term "secularism" (which he regretted later but only because it was a tactical blunder). Madjid later became a student of the Pakistani exile Fazlur Rahman, a 1963 victim of Mawdudi's persecution. Rahman, before his death, had an immense amount of influence and success in challenging political Islam, and people influenced by him to this day carry on his anti-Islamist, pro-spirituality Islamic project.

I myself have disagreements with each one of the aforementioned people on many points. However, the commitment of these Muslim secularists to liberal democracy is unerring. That is why I conceive of the Muslim left as a "big tent" rather than an ideological system.

My request, thus, to the self-appointed western defenders of Mawdudi and Qutb is to start learning about Fazlur Rahman and an-Naim instead; otherwise they are simply helping the Islamist cause maintain its media monopoly. My other request - especially towards Muslim readers - is to read the entire series. Links are conveniently placed at the bottom.

In my next - and last - post in the Islamic reform series, I will articulate some thoughts on how liberal democrats among Muslims can come to power.

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