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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

Islamic Resurgence: A Politico-economic Phenomenon

Thursday 3 January 2013, by Syed Shahabuddin


One hears a lot of Islamic fundamentalism these days and the tone and context make it clear that fundamentalism is being equated with orthodoxy and obscurantism. The established image is that of a Mullah with a gun. Indeed fundamentalism has become a derogatory term, just as two generations ago pan-Islamism had become a dirty word, an emotive term. In course of time, political terminologies change in sartorial fashion. However, the task to explain the happenings in the Muslim world has to be undertaken in order to understand the forces at work and to anticipate the future course of development. It requires both expertise and a level of empathy and the use of terms like fundamentalism or pan-Islamism does not enlighten but obscure the phenomenon of resurgence based on revival of self-awareness by Muslim societies in various parts of the Muslim world.

Revivalism is not a new phenomenon in Islam. Indeed the concept of Tajdid and the role of the Mujaddid among Sunnis, closely following the concept of Imam in the Shias, is based on the assumption that with the passage of time, religious doctrines and practices deviate from the right path and the solutions found by the earlier generations to pressing problems of the society may not be valid when circumstances and situations change. Through Ijtihad, whose doors are always open, reason must be applied to resolve contemporary problems and dilemmas in the light of the Quran and the Hadith. This is what was undertaken by Mohammad Abdoh in Egypt and Syed Ahmad Khan, Iqbal and Azad as well as Maudoodi in the subcontinent and more recently by Shariati in Iran.

The Muslim world opted out of history since the fall of Baghdad in the 13th century. The discovery of the sea route between Europe and the Orient in the 15th century was a major factor in its economic decline. In historical perspective this was a pincer movement to bypass the Muslim world which reduced the Arab heartland into the backwater of history, and it easily fell prey to the forces of colonialism.
With decolonialisation and improvement in the terms of trade of petroleum in favour of the producer, the giant seems to be awakening. It has stood up and taken a few faltering steps but whether it will rush headlong to fill the void of the centuries and consequently fall and break its bones unable to adjust with the reality, remains to be seen. The world has changed beyond recognition during the five centuries that have intervened. Then the giant may doze off and go back to sleep.

The loss of freedom of the Muslim world, its slow but steady economic impoverishment and its growing scientific and technological back-wardness inevitably led to the perception that all this has resulted from deviation from the right path, a sort of punishment inflicted by destiny on these Muslim communities and societies. No wonder that every independence movement, every struggle for restoration of sovereignty, identity and autonomy had a revivalist streak. Even in the case of Algeria, in a masterly slogan coined by Ben Badis, the nationalist leader of the Ulema of Algeria in the thirties of the last century, Algeria was described as the watan, Arabic as the language and Islam as the faith. One should also remember that Nasser’s three concentric circles were related to nationalism, pan-Africanism and pan-Arabism which were equated with pan-Islamism.

Today, the process of decolonisation is nearly complete, the subject nations have come into their own. There are now more than 50 Muslim majority states active on the international stage. They have nearly 60-65 per cent of the world’s Muslim population. Most of these states have formed an Organisation of Islamic Conference with a permanent Secretariat in Jeddah, which has organised so far several Conferences of Foreign Ministers and Islamic Summits attended by Muslim heads of state/government. The Muslim world has, superficially speaking, a growing sense of solidarity, it is conscious of its political strength by virtue of equal votes in the United Nations and also awareness of its economic strength after the oil crisis in 1972.

The world, the international community and individual non-Muslim states could not ignore this new factor and have been devising means of dealing with various manifestations and aspects of this resurgence, both at the nation/state level as well as at a sub-national and pan-national level.

The cementing force of Islamic solidarity is not a strong force; it is a weak force largely operating at the emotional level. The solidarity does not and cannot express itself in the form of political unity or economic cooperation. There is an inherent dichotomy in the situation. If the Muslims of the world form one ‘nation’ then why should there be more than one Muslim state and if they are divided into a number of nation-states, how can the cooperation be maintained, as the conflicts of interest will become inevitable? However, Muslim theoreticians tend to paint an idealistic picture and the non-Muslim world seems to accept it without question or harbouring second thoughts. Iqbal foresaw this dissension and felt that at this stage, the revival of a centreless authority was a must and that for the present the saner or the more practicable course would be for each nation-state to immerse itself in the task of its own reconstruction. Iqbal had the vision of a rotational Caliphate and did not think it possible to revive the classical Islamic Caliphate.
The political solidarity, except at a delibera-tional level and on matters of no immediate national interest, is dominated by the economic factor. Apart from the continuing disparities within the boundaries of each nation-state, the disparities among the nation-states themselves are clear. There is a conflict of interest between the rim and the heartland, between the haves and the have-nots. This is further complicated by the fact that many of these nation-states are artificial entities, creations of the colonial order with no logic for separate existence, and with no basic homogeneity in many states which are divided by sectarian, ethnic, tribal and linguistic factors.

Indeed the world Muslim community itself is not a monolithic community. No doubt, they believe in one God, one Prophet, one Book, one Holy Land, one Quibla, which gives rise to an appearance of unity but the Muslims speak many languages, belong to many races, form parts of many cultures and have adopted various forms of politics. They are in various stages of economic development and have passed through different historical experience. Their geographic settings are different and give rise to local pulls and pressures. Apart from this they are divided on sectarian lines. In fact, although Islam claims universality and is not based on any dogma, it would not be possible to identify Islam with a specific theology or a specific language (except to some extent Arabic), a specific political system or economic organisation. Islam’s survival as a factor in national life, therefore, lies in its flexibility, in its capacity to adjust itself to the local factors.

Despite this, the phenomenon of Islamic resurgence haunts military strategists in the country on the periphery of the Muslim world. Its fear is largely due to historic experience when the Muslim forces invaded Europe and the subcontinent. In Europe, they were repulsed from the very gates of Paris and Vienna, in the subcontinent they ruled sporadically for 800 years. In Europe, the Church, the only organised supra-national force, led the counter-offensive in the form of the Crusades but it did more than that. It deliberately inculcated in the minds of the Europeans an attitude of contempt and hatred for Islam and depicted the Muslims as barbarian hordes from the desert. They forgot the Arab contribution in the field of science and technology and in retrieving from oblivion and in passing onto Europe the heritage of Greece and Rome with added treasures from the civilisations of China and India. But, the misunderstanding is slowly lifting. An effort is being made by Europe to understand the essence of Islam and to reinterpret Islamic history and to evaluate the role of the Muslim peoples in the progress and development of the human society, but a section has adopted islamophobia as an intellectual fashion in the name of freedom of expression.

The spirit of Islam was a message of equality before law, of basic democracy, of social justice, of non-discrimination on the basis of race or language and of resistance to tyranny. With the added elements of romanticism and nostalgia they have come to affect thinking within Muslim societies. Thus came the spirit of resistance against colonialism and of struggle against imperialism and from this will arise the strength for struggle against exploitation of man by man and for democracy. But will the spirit of Islam be able to meet the modern challenges in modulating the conduct of Muslim individuals, who are citizens of Muslim nation-states, in reorganising the life of the community and in regulating inter-group and inter-state relations according to Islamic principles? Various experiments in various parts of the Muslim world, Iran, Libya, Algeria, even in Saudi Arabia are but expressions of the same anguish, of the same pattern. It is difficult to foresee the final form that Islamic resurgence will take on the final shape of the Muslim society. But one thing remains certain: some states may break up or disappear but states which are products of historical evolution will remain. They shall all recognise Islam as a unifying principle but each one of them will develop its own identity and find its own shape and form.

How do the Muslims in the non-Muslim states react to this development? These Muslim communities, which form 40 per cent of world Muslim population, also share a sense of belonging to the larger community of Islam but their more immediate identity, dominated by political and economic and social factors, is with their watan, the state of their birth. No doubt they will maintain their own identity and a degree of cultural autonomy and resist submergence or assimilation but there shall be no rebellion, they will not act as the fifth column for any foreign state. This presupposes that the nation-state of which they are citizens shall treat them with dignity, equality and justice. Otherwise the fanatical fringe shall find it easier to make inroads into their loyalty and their thinking.

The third challenge that Islam faces is in the conduct of state-to-state relations in a world which is united both by ideals and organisa-tional ties, no less by the ideologies cutting across state boundaries, by the forces of science and technology which admit of no frontier. The concepts of Dar-ul-Islam and Dar-ul-Herb shall have to undergo a basic change, as international interdependence increases. It does not preclude political or economic conflicts in which Islam may be exploited. But as was clearly illustrated by the conflict between Iraq and Iran, nationalism with loyalty to the historic nation-states is a much stronger bond than ethnic or religious bonds, particularly when attacked by neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism.

Finally, how far will these societies go in adapting Islam to their national requirements? Will the vested interests permit them to run their life according to the principles of Islam? My view is that while more and more states, governments as well as political groups will try to adjust the rhetoric of politics and define the larger objectives of their being in terms of Islamic principles, the force of science and technology and communication shall largely determine their economic life. Today, the Islamic world is almost totally dependent on the outside world for its inputs of science and technology. Much effort is being made to transplant science and technology with the help of large investments in man and machine but transplantation never works. These societies will have to tap the source-springs of their own genius if they wish to survive as modern societies. Foreign supported islands of science and technology will be submerged sooner or later. What will endure is the genius of the people. There shall, however, be increasing pressure on the ruling elite, the vested interests to divest themselves of their financial or economic control and share the management of development and the distribution of its fruits on a more equitable basis. For this, those who are opposed to the establishment or the system will also raise Islamic slogans.

The battle, however, will not be between one interpretation and another of Islam but in line with the worldwide struggle for social and economic equality, human rights and real freedom.

From India’s point of view we sould not look at the phenomenon of Islamic resurgence, therefore, with surprise or fear. We should not commit the mistake of lining up with the West in suppressing or checkmating the legitimate demand and aspiration for a new system of exchange between the Muslim world and the West. Indeed the West itself has to come to terms with the new demands, at least in the short term, by ensuring that trade surplus accumulated by the Muslim world is invested in the West itself and in arranging a barter between primary communities and raw materials, on the one hand, and weapons as well as sophisticated technology, on the other. In our dealings with the Muslim states we should respect their political sovereignty, help them achieve economic self-reliance and accept their desire to evolve a new national culture in which Islam serves to supply the basic value system. Their urge for going back to the roots should not be misunderstood.

We should also help to break artificial barriers between our Muslim community and the Muslim world. Indeed if the Muslim Indian community is to be modernised, contacts with the Muslim world will expedite the process because a minority is always inherently conservative, but the Muslim countries which take their identity for granted are likely to adopt a more liberal approach and feel less inhibited in accepting change. India should also appreciate their desire to find political forms and structures suitable to their genius and heritage. In the process all of them will make mistakes and experiment with various discarded and out-of-date ideologies and patterns. We should never judge them in the light of the model we have developed for ourselves.

India is surrounded by Muslim states to the north, west and east. It has no option but to promote its relations with the Muslim world. It needs to take positive action on various fronts. We must promote communal harmony, equality and social peace within our own boundary, we should also work for world peace and international cooperation. In the sub-continent we should aim at reconciliation between India and its two Muslim neighbours which form part of the subcontinent and finally, as we grow economically, we should emerge as a major source of modern technology for them and the Muslim world and a major partner in trade and investment on equitable terms.

The author is an ex-MP, and the former editor of Muslim India.

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