The Islamic State in Context

Over the past 1,352 years, since the death of Imam Ali (Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and the fourth “Rightly Guided Caliph”), not a single state that emerged in the Arab World has been Islamic.

Irrespective of the popular and military moves against political Islam in Egypt this week, the prospect of establishing an Islamic state in the Arab world has always been extremely unlikely.

Over the past 1,352 years, since the death of Imam Ali (Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and the fourth “Rightly Guided Caliph”), not a single state that emerged in the Arab World has been Islamic. None had a legislative structure based exclusively on Koranic jurisprudence; none was ruled by a leader who was selected based on a theological basis; and all were conspicuously based on national, tribal, or familial foundations, with Islam only an overarching frame of reference.

There is no space here to analyze every single Arab (not to mention Persian or Turkish) state over the past thirteen centuries. But it is useful to dissect the ruling structure of the largest and most important of these states.

The Umayyads, the first dynasty to rule the Islamic world after the death of Ali, anchored their rule on a familial hereditary system that was established after fighting (and inflicting a massacre over) Prophet Mohammed’s own offspring. They subjugated North Africa, Andalucía, and Iran, and in a time when Islam entered the Islamic republics in southern Russia. The Umayyads’ legitimacy—which was never fully established— rested on the buy-in of the religious establishment, initially in Al-Hejaz (Islam’s birthplace) and later in various Islamic learning centers in the Levant. The Umayyads never claimed that their family-heads (the Islamic caliphs) were the religious leaders of the Islamic nation; that position was almost impossible for them to secure and was left to the venerable scholars of Mecca and Medina (and later some in Damascus). The Umayyad rulers were emperors of the expanding state that bore their name. It was not a coincidence that their courts were modelled on these of the eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople. And on the many occasions when the Umayyads’ rule was challenged by those who had a solid claim to be the real guardians of the principles and teachings of Prophet Mohammed, the Umayyads’ response came in the form of military campaigns. In one instance their armies burnt down the Kabba, Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca.

Over the past thirteen centuries, numerous dynasties in the greater Middle East copied the Umayyads’ ruling scheme. First, grab power militarily. Then, uphold the notion that the state is “Islamic”. Next, ensure the recognition and obedience—though not necessarily the approval—of the most venerable (and famous) of the Islamic scholars of the age. Afterwards, rule as you please without any serious regard to Islamic jurisprudence, principles, or identity.

An Islamic pretext was sometimes used to establish legitimacy, or gain momentum before militarily challenging the ruling dynasty of the day. The Abbasids, descendants of an uncle of the Prophet Mohammed, used the notion of a “just Imam from the house of Mohammed” as their slogan in a vast clandestine operation that had lasted for over two decades, and through which they built an army of followers (the majority of them were Persians). They developed a sophisticated funding and money-distribution system spanning what is today Iran, Iraq, and the eastern Mediterranean, before openly challenging—and obliterating—the Umayyads. Circa 250 years later, in the tenth century, the Fatimids used their claim of descent from Prophet Mohammed’s daughter, Fatima (Imam Ali’s wife), to entrench their rule in, what is today Tunisia, and later to march an army to challenge the Abbasid rule in Egypt, conquer the country, and establish their new capital, Cairo (the city victorious). Similarly, the Ottomans in the sixteenth century only cemented their claim as the political leaders of the Muslim world after expanding their rule to the Levant, Egypt (the home of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most venerable seat of learning), and after taking control of Al-Hejaz, assumed guardianship of Islam’s holy shrines. But, in all of these examples, among others, the ruling format remained the same. And never did these different rulers, even those with direct descent from the Prophet, claim that they were the theological authorities of the Muslim world. That remained the job of the scholars in the centers of Islamic learning, towns that were increasingly detached and geographically distant from the political capitals.

The format has continued in modern times. The state that Mohammed Ali Pasha established in Egypt in the first half of the nineteenth century became the model for almost all the states that emerged in the Arab world in the second half of the nineteenth and the early decades of the twentieth century. Ruling Egypt until the 1952 coup d’état that ended the country’s monarchy, the successors of Mohammed Ali maintained the “Islamic nature” of their state; they ensured cordial relations with—and control over—Egypt’s powerful religious establishment: Al-Azhar. But all the legislative, judicial, economic, social, educational, and political systems that they built were unremittingly imported from Europe. Even in the Arab states whose ruling families anchored their legitimacy on a religious pedigree the same pattern has endured, for instance the Hashemites in Jordan and the Alawites in Morocco (both descendants of Imam Ali).

The social and political modernizations that accompanied the Arab liberal age from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century posed a significant threat to the Arabic religious institutions. Secular education, Western social norms (for example the mixing of the genders in public spaces), and the new cultural orientation of Arab societies in the early twentieth century (toward Paris, London, and Vienna) not only diluted the religious establishments’ traditional sway over their societies; more importantly they were perceived—not just by the religious establishments but also by different social segments—as posing a challenge to the overarching Islamic identity of these societies. Some luminaries sought a meeting of minds between “modernity and the heritage and teachings of the religion of rationality,” in the words of Egypt’s grand scholar at the dawn of the twentieth century, Mohammed Abdou. Others saw an impending confrontation: a need to defend Islam from the “West and its subjects,” the subjects being the Arab and Muslim liberals who spearheaded the advancements that were taking place at the time in Arabic education, translation, literature, theatre, music, and later cinema.

Gradually two narratives emerged. The first, fuelled by the cultural developments of the Arabic liberal age, invoked the Arabic or Mediterranean identity of the societies in this part of the world. Some of the thinkers of this movement completely ignored the influence that Islam has traditionally commanded in these societies. The result was highly secular Arab philosophical currents that had their days in the sun (mainly in the 1930s and 1940s) but that quickly vanished from the limelight. The views that lasted were those of leading thinkers who tried to merge the traditions of the Islamic heritage with modern thinking. They emphasized that Islam (loosely defined as a “civilization”) is the overarching frame of reference for Arab societies. But in their endeavours in politics, economics and even cultural productions, they worked on building the new Arabic states that were emerging at the time on modern institutions. The results were the 1923 Egyptian Constitution (the model for many constitutions in different Arab countries), the acceptance of the notion of a constitutional monarchy (initially in Egypt and later to a lesser extent in Syria, Iraq, and briefly in Libya), and the beginnings of credible checks and balances between different authorities (the monarchy, the parliament, the judiciary, in addition to formidable political-economy power centers). Getting the support of the religious establishment, a key pillar of the old ruling formula, was increasingly waning.

Arab nationalism further strengthened this trend. The tsunami that Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser had unleashed in the Arab world from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, which continued for roughly a decade after his death in 1970, was strictly secular, though the notion of independent state institutions was sacrificed for hero-worship. Arab nationalism, at least in its first two decades, imbued Arab politics with something new: the consent of the middle and lower middle classes to a conspicuously secular governing ideology—one not imposed by Europeanized elites, but supported by the masses.

The potency, momentum, and immense success that Arab nationalism achieved in the 1950s and 1960s further antagonized religious establishments across the Arab world and movements born in the early twentieth century in the attempt to “defend the religion,” most notably the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

But in the past 130 years, from the emergence of the Arab state in the 1880’s to the “Arab Spring,” the forces of the Islamic movement never managed to stall the advance of secularization.

Over the past two years, the rise of political Islam across the whole of North Africa and its commanding presence in the Eastern Mediterranean (Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the various Islamist groups in the Syrian opposition forces), suggest that several Arab countries face the prospect of a gradual Islamization. This takes many forms, but two are paramount. The first is the attempt of various Islamist groups to Islamize state institutions: stressing the Islamic nature of their societies in the new constitutions of their countries, linking the penal code of their countries to the laws of the Islamic jurisprudence, putting religion-related restrictions on freedom of expression, and significantly enhancing the influence of Islamist political economy power centers. The second form, championed by some assertive Salafist groups aims to Islamize “societies,” which such groups see as having strayed off the “correct Islamic path.”

These forms of Islamization—and of course the rapid rise of Islamist groups to power—have been overwhelming for many Arab liberals, most of whom are fragmented, leaderless, and with tenuous links to the masses of the lower middle classes and the poor of their societies. The result has been nervousness, antagonism, detachment, increasingly violent social confrontations, and sometimes quitting; North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean are witnessing alarming levels of emigration among the well educated who are able to find jobs internationally; many of the best and the brightest are opting out.

But this Islamization will not succeed. First, despite the piousness of the vast majority of Muslim Arabs, themselves the commanding majorities of the region, the Islamization efforts inherently challenge the national identities of each country. Despite clever rhetoric, Islamization means the domination of one component of Egyptianism, Tunisianity, Syrianism, etc, over other components that had shaped these entrenched identities. This is especially true in the old countries of the Arab world, the ones whose borders, social compositions, and crucially identities had been carved over long, rich centuries. And the more the Islamist movements continue to thrust their worldviews and social values, the more they will disturb these national identities, and the more agitated—and antagonized—the middle classes of these societies will become.

Second, these efforts at Islamization take place when almost all of these societies are undergoing difficult—and for many social classes, painful—economic transitions. And there is no way out. The ruling Islamist executives are compelled to confront the severe structural challenges inherent in the economies they inherited. Some are able to buy time and postpone crucial reforms through foreign grants (which come at a political price). But sooner or later, they will have to make the tough socio-economic decisions that these structural reforms require. Islamists in office will be blamed for the pains that will ensue. Rapidly, some of the constituencies that had voted them into power will seek other alternatives.

Third, demographics will work against these efforts at Islamization. Close to 200 million of the Arab world’s 340 million people are under 30-years old. As a result of the many failures it has inherited, this generation faces a myriad of socio-economic challenges on a daily basis. A culture of protest and rejection has already been established amongst its ranks, and young people will not accept indoctrination—even if it was presented in the name of religion. Almost by default, the swelling numbers of young Arabs, especially in the culturally vibrant centers of the Arab world (Cairo, Tunis, Beirut, Damascus, Casablanca, Kuwait, Manama), will create plurality—in social views, political positions, economic approaches, and in social identities and frames of reference.

Finally, this Islamization project, in its various parts, will suffer at the hand of its strategists and managers. The leaderships of the largest Islamist groups in the Arab world have immense experiences in developing and managing services and charity infrastructures, operating underground political networks, fund-raising, and electoral campaigning, especially in rural and interior regions. But they suffer an acute lack of experience in tackling serious political-economy challenges or administering grand socio-political narratives. Lack of experience will result in incompetence.

But these factors will take time to unfold. The second decade of the twenty-first century will be transformative not only for Arab politics, but more importantly for Arab societies. Amid the gradual fall of the old order and the highly likely failure of the Islamization efforts, young Arabs will be searching for their own narratives. In some Arab countries the process will be smooth, in others it will be bloody, and in most it will be protracted with spikes of tension. The result will be plurality—a plethora of different, competing social narratives. In many cases, we will see interesting mixes of various ideologies (Arabism, Mediterraneanism, Islamism, and others). But in as much as Arab states have never been exclusively Islamic for over thirteen centuries, Arab states will not be Islamic in the foreseeable future.

Tarek Osman is the author of the international bestseller Egypt on the Brink. He has published articles on Egypt and the Middle East in leading international newspapers.