Understanding the IS phenomenon: Is clash the only way?

Javid Ahmad Dar

We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live.

(Socrates, in Plato’s Republic)

‘And he said, now, this schoolroom is a Nation. And in this nation, there are fifty millions of money. Isn’t this a prosperous nation? Girl number twenty, isn’t this a prosperous nation, and aren’t you in a thriving state?’

‘What did you say?’ asked Louisa.

‘Miss Louisa, I said I didn’t know. I thought I couldn’t know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether I was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine. But that had nothing to do with it. It was not in the figures at all,’ said Sissy, wiping her eyes.

‘That was a great mistake of yours,’ observed Louisa.

(Charles Dickens, Hard Times)

It is one the greatest frauds on the people to suggest that religious affinity can unite areas which are geographically, economically, linguistically and culturally different. It is true that Islam sought to establish a society which transcends racial, linguistic, economic and political frontiers. History has however proved that after the first decades, or at the most after the first century, Islam was not able to unite all the Muslim countries into one state on the basis of Islam alone.

(Abul Kalam Azad, India Wins Freedom) 

Easy-attractive ideas claiming to achieve Ideals may have far-reaching dangerous implications. Not only can it breed violence, it may flatten the very pervasive diversity of human societies. Across the faith spectrum (not ideological in political sense of the term), the extremes of ‘left’ and ‘right’ (not in moral but spatial sense) will expand for the calls of reform and organisation become prominent and antagonisms thus propel communalisation. A given consequence of such vertical re-organisation is: the role and scope of human agency diminishes.The two characters — the illustrious Socrates and perceptive Sissy Jupe — bring forth two inter-related central issues of a qualitative human life. While Plato raises a fundamental ethical question for an agreeable vision of collective life that asks for a wide reflection, Charles Dickens clearly identifies deep problems and limitations with mono-type vision of peoples’ life. With a subtle understanding of history, Abul Kalam Azad loudly asks to scrutinise the history of religions to ascertain practicality of political claims and simultaneously impresses upon us to engage in pragmatically possible notions of public life. All the three have a common fundamental point: debate ideas and keep Ideals in mind only.

The emergence of ISIS or IS or Daesh as it is variedly known and its approach to ‘Islamic’ revolution raises concerns and questions that ask for serious considerations. A proper way to engage with this puzzling fundamentalist revivalism asks loudly, at least, to avoid the knee-jerk response. Rather a penetrating insight of essence of religious doctrines, cultural context of form of practices and historical functioning (and adaptability) amidst dynamic social transformations are fundamental to understanding of any call of ‘revivalism’. Such an examination requires, at least, three-dimensional inter-related assessment of: a) validity b) desirability and c) feasibility. In contrast to knee-jerk response, I attempt to present an outline of an approach based on above three components which scrutinises the claims of ‘Ideal’ on both grounds— theoretical and practical.

Before the contours of the proposed engagement are explored, there is a case-in-point that fairly underlines the unreflective approach prevalent at a certain popular level that directly influences (and shapes opinion/motivation of) the common people:  “Abu Bakar Al-Baghdadi is our Caliph. Finally, we (wahabi-Muslims) are set to establish an Islamic State and (through it) we will teach a lesson to the world,” pronounced a firebrand Wahabi preacher in his Friday sermon in South Kashmir over a year ago. ‘World’ in this case included non-wahabi Muslims too. To the ill-luck of the Molvi, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa ‘disowning’ the Islamic State and clearly disassociating it from Islam. It happened the same day and, interestingly, the Arabian Mufti belongs to the same school. Two days later, the local newspapers carried the news. Caught in trouble for the other sects will have a day in populism, he did what is expected in this kind of nomocratic approach. The following Friday, he ridiculed the IS and took no time in terming it as ‘un-Islamic’. This ‘popular’ molvi quickly swung from one extreme to another without even bothering to think that the memory of his audience isn’t so short. The affirmation and proclamation was promptly substituted by out-right rejection (both in a week’s time!). The reason for propagation was the dream of an extremist “Islamic State” and prompt rejection found reason in Conspiracy Theory (“Enemies hand”). Like this molvi, few academic circles surprisingly resonate this rigid— either “right” or “wrong”— moral positioning, Such an approach is bound to miss the complex interplay of human diversity, social dynamics, cultural affiliations, corresponding worldviews and systems of faith. This essay tries to present a broader framework to understand complex political-religious phenomenon like the rise of IS.


Human Diversity: enduring or eliminating ‘difference’

There is enough of theoretical evidence to suggest that the concept and of moral goods, values and freedoms do vary from culture to culture. The difference exists not only across communities, it can be prevalent in one particular community as was remarkably argued by Issaih Berlin. What ‘good’ constitutes can vary horizontally even within a community owing to its fluid foundation and interpretation of history, time and space. More than this, John Rawls (1971), Amartya Sen and others provided us an understanding of the inherent diversity within a single individual. An earlier clear illustration of this line of argument is reflected in Marx’s The German Ideology. Following this dense line of thinking it can be argued that humans are diverse and this diversity is pervasive. Human diversity isn’t a secondary aspect to any prospective political arrangement. Any attempt to eliminate the existing diversity — cultural, religious, and sectarian and others — goes against the primacy of individuals along with all their internal and external dimensions of life.


Does history end?

History teaches a fundamental lesson: those who claim to solve the puzzle of the rationale of collective life have been defeated by history. With the collapse of USSR, Francis Fukuyama wrote a triumphalist account of ‘Western’ liberal democracy and argued that there is a “remarkable consensus” world over about the victory of liberal democracy over the “rival ideologies like hereditary monarchy, fascism, and most recently communism.” He thought that the world did reach “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and, thus, it constituted the “end of history.” Quite expectedly, the thesis had a very short life. The debates of cultural, ethnic and other identities asserted national political space and such movements crumbled the claims of objective “end of history”. It may not be out of place to mention the two genius German philosophers George Wilhelm Hegel and Karl Marx who believed that human societies are progressively directed to evolve into a form of a society where the fundamental wants are fairly met and the antagonisms disappear. The history, thus, will end in a sense that a perfect-universal social order would ultimately be explored through a triadic (dialectical) evolutionary or (direct) revolutionary process. The two, however, differ in their visions of the nature of the ‘final’ stage. All the three, Hegel, Marx and Fukuyama, believe in, what is often called, ‘directional history’. Leaving the first two aside, what did ‘history’ teach to ‘triumphalist’ Fukuyama? With the beginning of the concluding decade of the twentieth century, the debates about the ‘difference’ in identities became prominent and the assertions for safeguarding by gaining political control ‘militant’. Ethnic genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina, issue of Chechnya and emergence of serious conflict over the political scope of religion in Algeria in 1990’s ended Fukuyama’s thesis of “End of History”. The differences of worldviews must co-exist and any attempt (discursive or militant) to eliminate them faces its own death. There are enough examples from history that suggest that rulers or governments ranging from ancient Greeks to medieval Christians and modern Hitlers who tried to develop exclusionist regimes ultimately failed. History went on to teach a fundamental lesson: it doesn’t end at your door. If it is true about race, culture, caste and creed, it is equally true of religions. Such political regimes may have temporary success, but they become history in the end. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, in the intro quote, acknowledges limitation of faith in universalisation and homogenisation of culture, society and polity. Being blind to history, all such ostrich-approach burdened exclusionists tend to behave in similar ways. ISIS seems no different!


Caliphate or Islamic State: the dilemma

The IS propagates ‘caliphate’ yet calls herself ‘state’. The state, conventionally understood, is a well-defined territorial unit capable of running her affairs autonomously. Contrarily, religions are not bordered ‘entities’ rather claim extra-territoriality. In comparison to religions, the state is purely a human innovation that emerged as a popular category (nation-state) of a particular type of human association in the post-1650’s Europe (Treaty of Westphalia 1648). Common to all states of the world is coercive apparatus to implement the state laws that does not warrant peoples’ consent, generally. While as following laws of the land is involuntary (violation is crime), religion and observance of religious law is voluntary. The shari’a is agreeably consent-based religious law and can’t be forcibly implemented. The coercive application of shari’ah through state will dilute its very foundational character, that is, consent. Islam and politics can’t be separated for it provides the ethical foundation for the political processes, legislation and public policy, but State and Islam must not be one. Without such a necessary distinction, the IS mixes the two. That is why it carries a double standard: ‘caliphate’ and ‘state’. Apart from this conceptual issue, there are some other pertinent practical problems asking for a serious consideration.

Who ought to be caliph? Should he belong to a particular family or be of a particular lineage? Or the qualification, as tradition says, is simple: appoint the ‘best’? If there are many a ‘best’, how to choose the best; there are ambiguities. A saying of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) reported in Bukhari (vol. 9, Bk 89, Hadith 254) restricts Caliphate only to the Arab Quraish dynasty (the family he himself belonged to). It is for this hadith, the Shia’s have argued from the very beginning that only the progenies of Prophet Muhammad (SAW)should rule. Thus emerges a point of controversy: who should rule versus what should rule? For some, it is caliph (a true guide and ‘infallible Imam’, as Shias look upon Ali ibn Abi-Talib) or shariah (as traditionalist Sunni argue for) (Bennett, 2005: 47-48). How far is the first possible is evident from even recent past when Khomeini established vilayat-i-faqih believing that the ‘hidden’ Imam would show the true path through ulema immediately after Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979). In case of the latter, the two set of problems arise: some argue that the sharia precisely guides the personal and social ethical system and has limited role in public political life and secondly, the shariah backed by the ‘modern’ state (as we have today) implemented as a State Law will lose the its defining character of voluntary acceptance as a religious law.

There is also no  definite procedure of election/selection or appointment of a caliph. The first four caliphs, who are said to be the ideal caliphs of Islam (all others with an exception of Umar bin abdul Aziz are actual caliphs), did not follow a uniform procedure. Abu Bakar (ruled 632–634), the first caliph, was appointed through a community consensus (Ijma); (though there was some dissent against his selection). It is not clear whether all the members did participate and some sort of franchise adopted. Abu Bakr designated Umar bin al-Khattab (r. 634–644) as caliph of Islam during his caliphate and Usman ibn ‘Affan (r. 644–656) was appointed by a committee. And Ali ibn Abi Talib (r. 656–661) was appointed by an assembly of people. The embryonic stage and the relatively small population made this somewhat ‘direct’ system in some cases and some sort of collegium in other possible. And add the popularity of these privileged four (Rashidun) as life-long companions of Prophet Muhammad among the newly converted Muslims of the age. One must not be blind to the context in which it was ‘successfully’ practised (even these years were not short of mutual tussle and conflicts that consumed lives of hundreds of Muslims including three among first four caliphs and grandsons of Prophet). The subsequent history is a bitter lesson.


Is ‘Clash of Civilizations’ only way?

In the past, many a Muslim scholar rejected some noble political values (social pluralism, political recognition to individual, etc.) precisely for the reason that they are “western” ideas. A close scrutiny suggests that most of these scholars/political leaders belonged to the Middle East and North Africa. One of the basis for such exclusivist either we or west was certainly the European colonialism. Such a thinking line persists that ‘Islamic’ civilisation is to become ‘universal’ by confronting and winning over the ‘west’. The clash seems inevitable. The other extreme professes centrality of West. In our times, this exposition finds its full defence in Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). Propagating westernisation in a similar tune what Max Weber thought of modernity, Huntington argued that individual freedom, social democracy, liberalism, socialism, etc., are unique ‘products of Western civilisation’ and, thus, West has all ingredients to be recognised as ‘Universal civilisation’ (Huntington, 1996: 68-72). The present day Middle East and some African Muslim countries that propagate, what is commonly called, Political Islam with some force prove Huntington’s thesis. The IS is clearly a culmination point of this exclusive extreme rightist ‘universal’ Political Islam. Though dominant, but the Middle East doesn’t represent the Muslim World. The South and South-East Asian Muslims present a plural and accommodative worldview grounded in the very faith their counterparts in Middle East and North Africa practise. One may quickly add that a fundamental distinction between South and South-East Asian Muslims and the Middle East in understanding the worldview of Islam is influenced by the kind of reformation/ revival movements the regions underwent in the 19th and 20th centuries. Unlike Middle East (as mentioned above), the colonialists (the British) didn’t eliminate the traditional Ulema elite structures in South Asia. [This led to great movements of renewal (tajdid) in South Asia. One of the most prominent schools of Islamic revival (that is truly global now) is Darul-Aloom Deoband (Metcalf, 1982, & 2004)]. Can South and South-East Asian plural and democratic Muslim society be an alternative to Political Islam of Arab and Middle East? There are strong scholarly affirmations for these pluralistic and tolerant visions as ‘universal’ for Muslim world. One such noteworthy assertion comes from Bassam Tibi, a German political scientist.

Though Islam was born in Arab and the Qur’an revealed in Arabic language to Prophet Muhammad (SAW), Tibi argues that these contextual ‘grounds’ ‘ought not be stretched to the extent of identifying Islam with Arabness’. A distinction between Arabness and Islam must be made. He rightfully rejects the misplaced Arabo-centric pride and cautions against the empty secular prophethood of Arab nationalists. The problem, however, is this: ‘it is the Islam of the heartland that determines the mainstream of Islamic civilization’ (Tibi, 1998: 48).

Tibi goes on to argue that it is quite reasonable to admire and ‘universalise (without homogenising the societies) the tolerance, pluralism, and open-mindedness of Southeast Asian Muslims’. Tibi’s insights adequately help us in understanding the social base, popularity and acceptance of IS in the Middle East and the North Africa. The IS proves Huntington’s conclusions, and there are far better reasons that suggest ‘clash’ is not the only way.

The author teaches at Kashmir University’s Political Science Department 

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