By Manzar Zaidi

Dec 5, 2013

Political Islam

In order to understand the logic or lack of it behind terrorism, one needs to understand the interplay of governance structures and radicalization first. Islam with its clarion call for implementation of the Sharia has been widely used throughout the Islamic world to mobilize the masses. The spectrum of ruling elite which has utilized it for the political purpose ranges from secular nationalist to  pan-Arabist to Marxist , which utilized its populist appeal to support agenda of self preservation .Paradoxically, many of the same rulers created Islamist movements, which they then crushed with an iron hand. In Egypt Nasser attempted to make the prestigious Azhar University dependent on the government in order to lend religious legitimacy to governmental policies, including his ruthless suppress of the Islamic Brotherhood.  Saddam Hussein, the leader of the zealously secularist Ba’th party, put “God Is Great” on the Iraqi flag , and engaged in speeches about the duty of jihad in a failed effort to get Iraqis to fight to defend his regime. Zia created the Jihadist groups, and then attempted to disown ‘turncoats,’ independent minded warlords like Masud which wanted an Afghanistan freer from Pakistani control. This schizophrenic mindset gets even  more complicated when  applied to states which have a large spectrum of tribes.

Iran for instance, has a huge diversity of tribes and clans, standing at 96 tribes and 647 independent clans according to a recent census; however, some of these clans have become redundant as power structures over time, just retaining evolutionary historical interest. However, for the ruling Pehlavi elites, it was a dominant priority to suppress these tribal cultures in order to usher in the era of ‘modernity.’ This made Raza Shah extremely un popular amongst people in whom the ‘conservative spirit’  is deeply ingrained, and arguably contributed to the rise of Islamism. Thus, the ruling elites tried to supplement a modernist project on a populace wholly unprepared for the same; this tended to usher in the 1979 revolution. An observable phenomenon in modern day Iran is the alliance of politics with Islamism; arguably Islamism has proved more adept at integrating different tribes than modernism in Iran. The ‘Ummah in peril against the great Satan’ has been used repeatedly as a powerful symbolism of Islamism transcending tribal affiliations.

This had the usual result of integrating the tribals who have lost their power base either to modern ethnic nationalism, or on the other end of the spectrum, detribalization and absorption into ideology-based organizations; since Islamism dominated, recruitment to these organizations occurred to a greater rate, while ethno nationalism sentiments of the Balochis in Sistan and Kurds were suppressed. Similarly, the Bakhtiaris, whose Khans constituted the pr revolutionary elite, were ruthlessly put down; this has been a prominent feature accounting for the rise of Islamists, since they replaced the Khans as dominant ruling elite. Both the modernity project and the subsequent Islamism could not accommodate the ‘Khan’ power structures, which tended to lead the clans and the tribes into staunchly tribal trajectories; this was anathema for both the Islamism and the modernity project in Iran, so the Khanate system was suppressed and eventually tended to die out.

The Shiite state of Iran and the Taliban were governments taking over systems driven by a tribal mindset of how things needed to be run. It only needs engagement with the plethora of existing literature about these regimes, to comprehend how they foisted their versions of Islamism upon the masses. Mia Bloom, the famous political scientist postulates that martyrdom operations tend to boost the reputation of the organization causing them, as evidenced by the case for Palestine. For instance, Nichole Argo argues that martyrdom or shahadat has become a mainstream Palestinian social paradigm, with social status being accorded congruent with the level of sacrifice.

During the Oslo process, majority of Palestinians were opposed to violence.  In November 1998, as much as 75% showed opposition to suicide operations. However, with gradually incremental ineffective governance, Arafat’s popularity plummeted. Along with an increase in political credentials, there was a simultaneous rise in the popularity of Islamic Jihad and Hamas, with a share of almost 70% going to Hamas .Islamic Jihad and Hamas started using a judicious use of the suicide bombing tactic, coupled with the provision of social services, to gain popularity in masses. Against the back drop of economic decadence, rising unemployment and gloomy prospects, groups like Hamas which are seen to be “doing something” (using the suicide tactic) about the escalating Israeli aggression undermined a substantial market share of popular opinion of the Palestinian authority.

Even though there are clear differences between the Iranian clerical leadership and the Taliban as well as the Palestinian authority, the deterioration in socio economic opportunities for the middle class and income disparities between the elite and the lump-proletariat were identical drivers of Islamism; arguably these operate throughout the whole breadth of radicalized Islam today, including Pakistan.

Another type of model one could examine to draw analogies with Pakistan is the type of governments which modeled themselves on the Stalinist model. The ruling elite of these states used the rhetoric of the rising of the proletariat against the bourgeois, which petered out with the advent of the end of the cold war. As in Iraq and Syria, these ‘caring’ regimes evolved into little more than brutal dictatorships utilizing the devices of mukahbarat (secret police) as coercive instruments. An epitome of this variant is Nasser’s’ government in Egypt, and Numairi’s government in Sudan, which prompted violent reaction by Islamists. Nasser’s strong-arm tactics
would later spark the Islamist movement, particularly the Islamic brotherhood, into a roaring flame. However, what is not very well appreciated is that Sadat, with his purportedly patronizing attitude towards Islamist groups, was perhaps even more instrumental in igniting these movements. The Islamists felt betrayed by Sadat’s unfulfilled promises, which would lead more radical Islamists like Al jihad into a causal loop violence begetting more violence. Qutb’s simplistic analysis has been inspirational for a vast majority of Islamists disillusioned by regimes which could be clearly discerned to have one agenda; self sustenance. Thus Qutb used the classical Pre Arabian Islamic concept of ‘jahiliva’ or ignorance to denounce the Muslim leadership, which he saw as failing to overthrow the yoke of the West.

The placing of Islamic tradition at the altar of political objectives and nationalistic causes has gravely affected the perception of Islam, particularly in the West. This is paradoxical inasmuch many of the leaders in this category tended to woo the West, but caused a schizoid identity crisis in their conservative masses. Increasingly, since Islamic heritage was selectively sifted through to support shifting and temperamental political causes, the intellectual revivalism in the Muslim world suffered greatly. Also, Islam started to connote a politics of identity, amongst which exploitation of feelings of the masses by the leadership for their own ends became inextricably intertwined with political agendas; this also served to display to the outside world a distorted picture of Political Islam.


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