Legitimising the radical
Radical Islam is a dilemma for the world. The West understands that since the advent of the 19th and through the course of the 20th century, virtually every corner of the Islamic world was eclipsed by Christian rule. This has led to a growing agitation in the Muslim mind, a sense of frustration, helplessness and anger for being subjugated and reduced to the peripheries of relevance in every field of human action.
The response has been emotional and its immediate and sustained success is seen in the realm of social relations, where mob sentiment is easily the prey of religious demagoguery. Across the Muslim world the more contemporary examples of this phenomenon – which has led to militancy in the Islamic world – are seen in the case of Egypt, the formation of Isis in the larger Middle East, the continuing war in Afghanistan and the resurgence of Iran.
The failure of the Arab Spring produced two very divergent examples of democracy in the Islamic world – Egypt and Tunisia – which since then have formed the laboratory for political speculation about Islam by the West. First, Egypt, where an overwhelming majority ousted Hosni Mubarak in support of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. In the wake of failing economic performance and rising internal dissent, Morsi resorted to the familiar arithmetic of forcing through Islamist reforms, aimed at stifling the opposition and elevating himself to an invulnerable position. That led to a coup by General Abdul Fatah El Sisi, ushering back, sadly, yet another authoritarian setup, one that is even more socially, culturally and politically suffocating than that of Mobarak.
In Tunisia, the tyrannical regime of Zine el-Abidin Ben Ali was toppled through popular revolt and ushered in the rule of Ennahda, an outlawed Islamic party. Despite allying itself with two moderate left-wing parties to form a ruling coalition, Ennahda could not foresee or contain the chaos that ensued. Society was polarised, with the upper and middle classes hugely sceptical of Ennahda’s moderate credentials, and wary also of Egypt’s parallel slide into decline. Protests between moderates and Islamists broke out. Assassinations of prominent opposition leaders were blamed on Islamists. With political crises mushrooming on every front and general public demonstrations sweeping the country, the Ennahda decided to step down. It was timed when all eyes in the world were trained on Egypt, where Sisi’s coup was in the making.
It did not end there. Led by the wisdom and superior intellect of Rached Ghannouchi, a gifted statesman who appears to have understood the subtle nuances of public opinion in his country and elsewhere in the Islamic world, Ennahda continued to make compromises. It ceded its position on many core Islamic principles – the freedom of women, the importance of Islamic law in jurisprudence, blasphemy punishments – and agreed to the redrafting of a constitution on moderate secular lines. It further depoliticised its religious movement, the harkat, by separating it from the party, hizb. Today Ennahda recognises that governance and state organisation along secular democratic lines is not contrary to Islamic principles. Its success: Pew polls reveal that the overwhelming majority of Tunisians wish for Tunisian society to be organised along plural, modern and democratic lines while retaining conservative Islamic modes, practices and principles drawing legal and social inspiration from the Quran.
These two examples, in the words of Malise Ruthven, author of ‘Islam in the World’, have led the West to regard the Muslim world as divided into two halves. An ‘essentialist’ view reveals the Muslim world as obsessed with the concept of syedat al-Islam, the superiority of Islam over any other manmade system. The holders of this rigid belief are suspicious of any attempts at secularising Islam through the agency of democratic movements and draw inspiration from demagogues who approve of violence as the legitimate means of establishing an Islamic hegemon over the world. Beginning from its Muslim dominated parts, held under the rule and sway of governments obsequiously in cahoots with the Western infidel, these fringe radical movements are able to dangerously invoke religious fervour and passion in the short term and are willing to compromise all ethics and compassion in favour of the just armed struggle.
Conversely, the contexualist view discovers many mainstream Islamic religious movements, cognizant of a modern secular world, where freedom of choice and life reign supreme for the most part and which aims to equalise human relations even when it cannot always succeed in doing so comprehensively and immediately. Such movements are willing to concede to modern democratic norms and will don the garb of moderation even if for the sole purpose of obtaining electoral space and a right to share in government. Hope in achieving civilised engagement and negotiating peace are seen as possible only in the latter case; the former presents itself as the increasingly popular and therefore disturbingly pervasive sentiment in the modern Muslim world, and one which can perhaps only be dealt with through violent response.
In Pakistan, the recent Barelvi kerfuffle poses important lessons and challenges for the state to consider. It is now clear that the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasul Allah has ambitions to participate in the next general elections. It has proven it has a popular base with its successes in the NA-120 and NA-4 by-elections. Despite splitting into factions, one of these, along with the Sunni Tehreek, aims to ally itself with a grand alliance of seven Barelvi parties – the Nizam-e-Mustafa Muttahida Mahaz – which is likely to fetch more political capital for the Barelvi movement through the ballot box. Evidence in the public domain also clearly suggests that the TLYR has communication channels open with powerful players and other mainstream political parties. Tahirul Qadri is also back on the scene and is most likely set to enter the political fray with his party. The Barelvi vote bank in all cases appears to be emotionally charged with religious fervour and is intent on disrupting government and order should the need arise, and if so commanded by its leadership.
If the examples of Mohammed Morsi and Rached Ghannouchi offer any counsel, it is that the leadership of a movement, radical or political, determine its objectives and play an influential role in charting its course towards the achievement of those objectives. From what we have seen, the leadership of the Barelvi movements is erratic, violent, confrontational and irresponsible. It will go to any lengths to clutch at power and may not be easily contained or remain a puppet in the hands of an apparently stronger patron.
It is a movement that may have been peaceful in the past, but is tired of playing second fiddle to the hitherto more prominent Sunni-Deobandi movements in the country. It recognises that the time is ripe to exploit public sentiment through the tool of religion, a time when the government and its allies and most parties in the opposition are dogged in corruption scandals and plagued with poor leadership. Every inch conceded to such movements, every compromise such as the monumentally shameful Faizabad agreement will spell disaster, as it legitimises the chaos and civil disobedience that appear to be their modus operandi. It is a time to pause and consider.
The writer is a freelance columnist.