The Islamic State: A Reality or an Illusion?

By Dr. Radwan Ziadah 23/12/2004
With the rise of political movements, which are called “revivalist” amongst their followers and “fundamentalist” amongst their rivals, a new idea took root-the “Islamic state.” After the eradication of the Islamic Caliphate by Attaturk in 1924, this idea gave hope to many thinkers. The prescribed model of that state became more of a negativist model (of what not to do) than a positivist one. For example, the argued model is not like the socialist model, as it does not subscribe to the state’s control in expanding the public sector or to the means of production. It also, unlike the capitalist model, does not subscribe to an absolute free market. It is neither. Still, up to this very day, we miss its very foundation and philosophy.

With the beginning of a phase of opposition between political Islam and the existing Arab regimes, and the entrance of the political Islamists onto the pluralist political stage in Morocco, Jordan, and elsewhere, such a movement needs more than ever to stop and rethink the ideas upon which its discourse is constructed. The heart of the matter is the concept of the Islamic state, upon which everything else is founded with either a contemporary analogy or a historical reference point.

That is why Burhan Ghalioun tries-in this debate with Selim El-`Awa on the “Islamic Political System”-to distinguish between both the political system and the concept of the Islamic state. The political system, we are told, means a set of values, principles, and objectives that govern public authority in a given society. Or, in other words, it is the way both the abstract and material resources are allocated and used in any political realm.

As for the idea of the Islamic state, it is an invention that comes about as the direct influence of the modern nation-state project. This idea, statehood, is what gives the state an exceptional position that was never given to it before; a god-like position where the citizens are like its servants. It is this very attempt to push society’s identity to become a replica of the values, principles, and objectives prescribed by the state that make this model “Islamically” invalid. A “state,” per se, in Islam, was given neither an inherently positive value, nor an historical role as we give it nowadays. In fact, this model, in essence, tries to go in the opposite direction; by neutralizing or even marginalizing religion in general for it own sake.

Thus, the dispute between the political Islamists and their opponents is not over finding the essence of Islam and its political theory. Rather, it is a pure (theoretical) conflict of power. This conflict is related to two dimensions: First, the sharing of power, and second, the relation between both the political authority and society.

Islamic movements find in religion a referential legitimacy for power sharing and acting against political monopoly. At the same time, the very use of “religion” as the ultimate reference for social, economic, and political life is fought against by the political rivals and people with other convictions on the political plane
As Ghalioun argues, despite the principles of jurisprudence and Shari`ah, upon which the political Islamists build their arguments, there is still leeway for a “democratic” state to come about in the “deep” sense of the word. Such a trend would reflect the concerns of the majority, which is inclined and committed to Islamic principles, along with other political and social movements that aim to found a democratic base to reach out for all in social justice, equality, and freedom.

Where many thinkers argue that democracy should stay away from any religious affiliation and only stick to the demands of the constituents, Ghalioun believes that on the contrary, attempts to “democratize” Islamic political thought could help the possibility of democratization in the Middle East. This, it is argued, could further bring about more legitimacy to the need to democratize and better chances to make the Arab world a democracy.

Thus, Ghalioun is against the Islamic state for two reasons. First, it is not a legitimate imperative in Islam. Second, it is yet another form of a theocracy, which human history has exceeded in its journey to realizing a better state; that is, a democratic state, which guards law, and justice, and equality on the basis of citizenship.
What is hindering the establishments of democracy in the Middle East is not the intellectual and religious legacy of Islam. Rather, it is the geo-historical dynamics of politics and economics. It is the attempt to work out and deal with the industrial revolution model and its capitalist economy that is being blindly followed.
As for Muhammad Selim El-`Awa, he pleads that there is neither textual evidence in the Qur’an to support the case for the Islamic state which is beyond interpretation and disputation, nor is there explicit proof from the Sunnah. In both cases, the evidence given follows human reasoning in interpreting certain Qur’anic or Prophetic traditions.

Yet, El-`Awa’s adherence to the concept of the “Islamic state,” and in his subsequently constructed discourse, he shows us that the concept of the “Islamic state” is not a sealed-off, solid idea with clear and comprehensive definitions and variables. The Islamic state could, for him, borrow the parliament as an institution in the sharing of power. He keeps the term “the Islamic state,” but keeps it open for deliberation and debate. That is why for him such a state is not a theocratic state, but rather it is a state that works for the implementation of Islamic values and philosophies, chief among these, as he believes, is “work.” That is why Muslims should use any tool that will allow them to reach out for that. Such a state should not be a religious one, a theocracy, it should be a civil one that serves Islamic principles and values.

The same critique applies to El-`Awa’s conception of the multiple-party system. He sees that “there is nothing wrong with an Islamic state if it allows for a multi-party system to flourish. It is allowed to, nay should, oblige the political parties to implement their values and principles; and then leave the parties free to work out the realization of their political and social agendas.”

In that, we see a complete denial of pluralism (or as El-`Awa puts it, “pluralism among ourselves!”). This is the mirror image of the totalitarian regimes that allow a multi-party system only for the parties that adhere to their ideologies and goals. By that, such a model is, in effect, more of a fraud, than a true pluralist one. This brings to the forefront the relevance of the question of plurality in Islamic political consciousness and theory and its ability to accept the Other, and being fairly equal with its rivals.

Dr. Radwan Ziadah is a Syrian researcher and writer.


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