FT.com / Weekend / Reportage – Is the west thwarting Arab plans for reform?

 

By David Gardner, Photomontage by Charlie Bibby

Published: April 10 2009 14:43 | Last updated: April 10 2009 14:43

The many faces of Islamic leadership (clockwise from top left) 1. Osama bin Laden; 2. Saddam Hussein; 3. Rashid Rida, influential Islamist scholar; 4. Mohammad Khatami, former Iranian president; 5. Muhammed Abduh, Egyptian religious scholar regarded as the founder of Islamic modernism; 6. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani; 7. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who emphasised Islam as a civilisation more than a religion; 8. King Hussein of Jordan; 9. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister of Turkey; 10. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

Uneasy Lies the Head was the perhaps inevitable title of the autobiography of the late King Hussein of Jordan, the West’s favourite benign Arab despot. He was the improbable survivor of innumerable plots, coups and uprisings, of three Arab-Israeli wars, two Gulf wars and a civil war with the Palestinians, as well as around a dozen assassination attempts in the 46 years he wore the heavy crown of his improbable desert kingdom.

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The Hashemite monarch, descended from the family of the Prophet Mohammed and the Sharifs of Mecca, exuded total confidence in his legitimacy. Yet, this most open of Arab autocrats, this elegant and charming authoritarian, relied on the military and the Mukhabarat, his ubiquitous secret police, to stay in power, no less than in any other Arab state. To underline this truth is not necessarily to disparage King Hussein’s often liberal instincts. What it reveals is that even a leader willing to experiment with change, a regal populist who could utter the word “democracy” with a more or less straight face, a monarch who was once prepared to share (a bit of his) power with Islamists, was in the end no different from his peers.

But a Hussein experiment of 20 years ago is jostling its way back onto the political agendas of the Arab world and wider Middle East: the attempt to marry Islam and democracy. This is the single biggest challenge facing a region mired in despotism and failure, where US and western collusion with local strongmen has created an Arab Exception – leaving the Arabs marooned in tyranny as waves of democracy broke over eastern Europe and Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia. There is no other part of the world – not even China – where the west operates with such little regard for the human and political rights of local citizens. The west’s morbid fear of political Islam has served to deny Arabs democracy in case they support Islamists, just as during the cold war many Latin Americans, Asians and Africans had to endure western-endorsed dictators lest they supported communists. Unless the Arab countries and the broader Middle East can find a way out of this pit of autocracy, their people – more than half of them under 25 – will be condemned to bleak lives of despair, humiliation and rage. Western support for autocracy and indulgence of corruption in this region, far from securing stability, breeds extremism and, in extremis, failed states. It will, of course, be primarily up to the citizens of these countries to claw their way out of that pit. But the least they can expect from the west is not to keep stamping on their fingers.

So what was it King Hussein did? In 1989, the king risked an experiment in “guided democracy”. The main beneficiaries were Islamists, grouped mostly in the Jordanian chapter of the pan-Islamic Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen). With 34 out of 80 assembly seats, the Islamists were the largest, and the only ideologically cohesive, bloc. In 1990-91, the king brought four Muslim Brothers into the cabinet. In private conversation four years later, he even foresaw the day when Jordan would have an Islamist prime minister, “and they and the people will see what government is about and who can do it”. But, first, he bound their leadership into a constitutional consensus. This set out the rules of managed democracy. Crucially, it also established Islam as but one fount of political legitimacy, alongside the parallel claims of Jordanian patriotism, Arab nationalism, and universal values. This Jordanian National Charter (al-Mithaq al-Watani al-Urduni) remains one of the most suggestive political documents to have emerged in the modern Arab world. It bucked the trend in the region.

The minute the Brothers began to develop an agenda independently from the Palace, however, King Hussein changed the rules, enacting new electoral laws to guarantee majorities in parliament of Bedouin loyalists and tribal grandees. As the peace Jordan signed with Israel in 1994 grew ever more unpopular, moreover, so the king rolled back his democratic reforms, limiting change to largely meaningless changes of government (he ran through 56 prime ministers in 46 years).

This episode nonetheless remains important, and transcends Jordan. King Hussein’s volte face meant an opportunity was lost to develop new forms of legitimacy – democratic legitimacy – by one of the few Arab leaders who had any reserves of this precious commodity left. Yet in the following two decades, there would be repeated attempts – from Khatami’s Iran to post-Saddam Iraq, from Erdogan’s Turkey to King Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia – either to synthesise Islam and democracy or tilt towards forms of modernity the region’s religious heritage could sustain.

The Islam and modernity debate, which accompanied the collapse of the Ottoman empire after the first World War, has emerged again nearly a century later. But there is an important difference. Few Muslims now invest much hope in the democratic western powers (essentially the US, Britain and France) that back the rulers who oppress them, even if, against the odds, they still admire “western” values, science and culture. There is no endemic or intrinsic conflict between Christians and Muslims. Rather, the root of the problem is that a majority of Muslims is convinced that the west – interested only in a stability based on regional strongmen, the security of Israel and cheap oil – is engaged in a war against Islam and is bent on denying them the freedoms it claims for itself.

That is why it is so self-defeating to collude in tyranny as ostensibly a lesser evil than political Islam. The challenge now is to ensure that these Muslims are not driven into the arms of the jihadis who are poised to enter the Muslim mainstream. As poll after depressing poll shows, the moral credit of the west could hardly be lower in the Muslim and Arab worlds. As western client-rulers and local despots suppress all political challenge, leaving their people only the mosque and the madrassa as space to rally and regroup, Islamists are the beneficiaries. They build on doctrine common to all Islam: the concern to build a just society and to preserve the unity of the Umma, the worldwide community of believers. That is already a seductive political combination even before any spark of religious belief is added. Add to it the familiar list of timeless and actual Muslim grievances, the sense of a religion under siege and the lament for lost glory, and what emerges is a potent liberation theology.

Democracy, in this unpromising context, could open a long period of illiberal politics that may be inimical to stability. Yet the west’s only realistic choice is to foster, or at least not actively obstruct, the right of Arabs to decide their own future, in whatever form they wish. That form will be heavily influenced by Islamism. Yet the west should be able to see the similarities between Islamism (or Islamic revivalism) and 19th-century nationalism in Europe. Both started as a sort of forced march into the future and then they detoured in sinister and destructive ways: fascism then and the jihadi cult of death now. Any sane policy would be devoted to preventing the evolution of a lethal form of radical Islam, in no small part by finding space for a thoughtful Islamism to emerge.

That is no longer easy. The freedom agenda proclaimed by George W. Bush has been discredited. Yet the insight brought to the west so violently by al-Qaeda on September 11 2001 and subsequently – that tyranny breeds terrorism and instability, infantilises politics and holds back development – is no less valid. Not the least of the challenges facing Barack Obama is to rescue that insight before it is too late.

It was never the spontaneous choice of the Arabs and the Muslims to retreat into Islam, even after colliding with a confident and expansionist Europe in the late 18th century. The Islamic revival only acquired legs when balance-of-power politics and subsequent western support for tyrants thwarted nationalist and democratic attempts at modernisation.

Obviously, once the European powers thrust into Arab and Muslim lands in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries – taking Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Lebanon, and shrinking the Ottoman hinterland before pointing a dagger at its heartland – the question of modernity, much less democracy, must in many Muslim minds have been displaced by the question of survival. There had been no shortage of “modernist” Islamic thinkers, trying to tease out the lessons of western success and clear the thickets of superstition from Muslim minds. But, while looking forward, they also looked backwards to the dawn of Islam.

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97), probably, despite his name, a Persian who studied philosophy in the Shia holy city of Najaf in Iraq, came to represent a flowing together of Islamic reform and nationalist assertion that would trickle into almost every political current in the region. As the historian Albert Hourani has pointed out, he brought a radical new emphasis on Islam as a civilisation rather than Islam as a religion, yet “only by a return to Islam can the strength and civilisation of Muslims be restored”. Islam needed to reclaim its scientific roots, and harvest the new fruits that had flowered in Europe from stems originally planted by the Muslims. With the unity of the Umma, Islam could once more have a universal mission in the world, because, as anyone who studied it could see, it was tolerant, rational and in harmony with the principles uncovered by science through the ages, not least by the great Muslim scientists who had not only adorned their own civilisation but recovered the civilisation of the west.

Under Afghani’s disciples, however, the emphasis on reform, and the nature of universalism, gradually changed. Mohammed Abduh (1849-1905), an Egyptian scholar who in 1899 became the Mufti of Egypt, was above all concerned to show that the road to modernity could be discovered in the roots of Islam. Ostensibly modern concepts could be evolved out of traditional Islamic notions provided they were properly understood and adapted. Thus, Muslims could identify the principle of maslaha – whereby a judge could select from rival legal traditions to find the best outcome for public welfare – as the slightly more modern idea of the public good or interest. They would be able to recognise ijma – something between the consensus of the scholars and the acceptance of the community – as public opinion. Above all they could authentically claim their own tradition of democracy in the practice of shura or consultation.

Abduh’s attempt to spring Islam into the vanguard of modernity was partly a job of reinterpreting and unifying Islamic law and adapting it to modern problems, partly a job of revealing the true meaning of old precepts and practices. It both cases it had to involve ijtihad – the exercise of independent but scholarly judgment – to confront the circumstances of modernity unforeseen at the dawn of Islam.

Under Rashid Rida (1865-1935), a Syrian disciple of both Afghani and Abduh, many of the themes are the same, but he insistently argues that the technical skills of modernity arise out of the right moral habits and intellectual principles. If the teaching of Islam is properly understood, it will lead to success in this world and the next. In Rida’s al-Manar (The Lighthouse) periodical, which had an important influence on both Islamic revivalism and pan-Arab nationalism, “true Islam involves two things, acceptance of the unity of God and consultation [shura] in matters of state, and despotic rulers have tried to make Muslims forget the second by encouraging them to abandon the first”.

But Rida increasingly looked back towards the Islam of the al-Salaf al-Salih – the pious forerunners of the first generations. That focus quickly led to the perception that decay had come about as a result of surrender to philosophy, speculation and mysticism – rather than surrender to God, the precise meaning of the word Islam. This meant all developments after the Salafi period and the subsequent establishment of the four orthodox schools of Sunni jurisprudence were deeply suspect. What started, therefore, as an injunction to learn the secrets of western culture as the prelude to relaunching Islam as a triumphantly universal civilisation subtly mutated into a highly defensive Islamic revivalism led initially by organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, determined to rid Islam of the seeds of western decadence. These ideas would mutate further, once detached from the sort of world that gave birth to them: an inclusive and entire world dislocated by the upheaval of modernity and the penetration of imperial power. Such Janus-like modernism easily cleared a path for the Islamic revivalism of this century, especially after nationalism was thwarted and the Arab world proceeded up one blind alley after another, following what Osama bin Laden has derided as “earthly flags”.

With the bin Ladenists, the notion of the Umma has been corrupted into fascistic and supremacist ideas analogous to the Volk or the Razza, with their primacy over individual human rights and the universal rights of humanity, a muscular Islamism that appeals to the young yet elicits a vicarious thrill among orderly conservatives. As the American scholar of fascism, Robert Paxton, puts it well, “war is indispensable for the maintenance of fascist muscle tone”. Substitute “jihad” for war and “Islamist” for fascist and you have an important element of the attraction of the modern holy warrior.

There are grounds for hope. Islamism comes in many guises. Turkey, for example, has shown that political Islam can evolve. The ruling Justice and Development party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan was rebuilt from the wreckage of two failed Islamist parties and broadened into a sort of Muslim equivalent of Christian Democracy. It is widely admired in the Arab and Muslim worlds, not as a model but because it works. Success sells.

In Iran, by contrast, reformist attempts under Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) to create a freer society with a government accountable to the people under the rule of law mesmerised the region but eventually hit the buffers of theocracy. The silky and smiling Iranian president was rebuffed in his search for détente by Bill Clinton and rejected when he offered a “grand bargain” to George W. Bush in 2003. The price of failure was the shrewdly extremist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Top Shia clerics in Iraq, however, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, take their inspiration not from Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979 but from its constitutional revolution of 1906, aimed at establishing elected, representative government and the rule of law. While jealous of their prerogatives, the Iraqi clergy sought a new contract between ruler and ruled, not to become the new rulers like Iran’s theocrats. The 2005 Iraqi constitution, like the 1989 Jordanian National Charter, establishes Islam as a “basic” source of legislation, but states that no law can infringe the “principles of democracy” or the “rights and basic freedoms” enumerated in the rest of the constitution. This was no blueprint for secular liberalism. But nor, in a country that elected Islamists to two thirds of parliamentary seats, was it a warrant for theocracy.

In Saudi Arabia, the region’s original theocracy, the ruling House of Saud’s hesitant steps to lead the kingdom towards a modernity its Islamic heritage can absorb means curbing the corrosive power of the Wahhabi religious establishment. King Abdullah’s most feasible way forward is to enlist Islamist progressives, the richest source of ideas for renewal. That is a risk the al-Saud may not be willing or able to take. As one senior prince, a moderniser who fears opening the door to Islamist reformers, puts it with a certain melancholy: “We liberals sit around a bottle of Scotch and complain to each other, and then, the next morning, do nothing. Yet if we don’t get real progress, economically, socially and politically, we are going to be in a terrible mess in five to 10 years.”

While both the clerical establishment and al-Qaeda revile such “whisky liberals”, they see as their real adversary the Islamist reformers who advocate far-reaching change, many of whom have rediscovered the thinking of Islamic revivalists of a century ago. The ideas of, for example, Mohammed Abduh on maslaha (public interest), shura (consultation) and above all of ijtihad, or independent reasoning to marry Islamic belief with modern challenges, have resurfaced almost as a newly minted currency. The idea of civil society was reborn, with Muslim credentials the Wahhabi establishment justly fears. The turning point was the 2003 petition, called “A vision for the present and future of the homeland”, signed by leading Islamist reformers and liberals – although the former were and are the real force. As this pluralism implies, the document is founded on the principles of confessional and political diversity in Saudi Arabia. But for the first time, reformers both liberal and Islamist broke the taboo about speaking out against Wahhabism, implying that its totalitarian ideology was the deathly hand holding back the emergence of Saudi Arabia as a successful modern state its citizens would easily support.

In this respect, the 2003 Saudi “Vision” document is as suggestive of a path forward as the 1989 Jordanian National Charter or the still unrealised Iraqi constitution of 2005. They all draw on and revisit the sources of renewal that are and will remain Islamic, and in important ways, Islamist. The Islamist reformers nonetheless want free elections, freedom of expression and association, an independent judiciary and a fairer distribution of wealth – in short, a constitutional monarchy, if not a bicycling monarchy.

The idiom, however strange to western or liberal ears, is a large part of the story, because it gives those who use it to articulate reform a recognisable immediacy, an authenticity and a legitimacy that shields them from the usual charges of foreign influence and intrusion. Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Qassim, a former (defenestrated) Saudi judge and reformer, is a particularly authoritative version of the genre. “Al-Qaeda and the clergy are essentially doing the same thing in different ways – putting pressure on the House of Saud for being less devout than it should be. This paralyses reform,” he maintains. “The only way out of this is to dilute the link with Wahhabi fanaticism. The only way forward is to win the legitimacy of society itself – through political reform that does not depend on the approval of the clergy. If you make society part of reform you can overcome the clergy – it is the only way.”

David Gardner is the FT’s chief leader writer. His book ‘Last Chance: The Middle East in the Balance’ is published by I.B. Tauris next week

FT.com / Weekend / Reportage – Is the west thwarting Arab plans for reform?

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