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Political Islam vs Modernity

Tarek Heggy

Bear witness for us, O pen / That we shall not sleep / That we shall not dither between ‘yes’ and ‘no’

(Amal Dunqul)[1]

It is my view that whether political Islam is defined as a religious theocratic movement or a political movement in the modern sense of political movements, the currents of political Islam have a position concerning the type of value system which contemporary intellectuals in advanced societies recognise as constituting the foundations of a culture of progress and modernity.

So a conversation must needs be held between some of these value systems and the mentality and behaviour of exponents of currents of political Islam. This is what I shall attempt to do in an essay such as this, which aims to place political Islam side by side with a number of values associated with modernity and progress.

The conception of the modern state: modern Islamists are unable to understand or accept or even admire the modern state system, which is the product or the result of centuries of political, cultural, social and economic struggle over the course of human progress. When the Prophet took ill (during the last days of his life) he tasked his close companion Abu Bakr al-Siddīq with deputising for him in leading the prayer. When the Prophet passed away shortly afterwards, a large number of Muslims considered that this entrusting of the leadership of the prayer constituted an indication from the Prophet that Abu Bakr was to be his preferred successor. And this is what in fact took place in the aftermath of the problems associated with the Saqīfa compact (saqīfat banī sāʽda)[2]. From the very first day Abu Bakr became “the Prophet’s ‘deputy’” or successor.

Al-Māwardī’s Al-Ahkām al-Sultāniyya: simplistic views on governance

It is this historical model that dominates the Islamists’ thinking. This model (necessarily a simplistic one in step with the simplicity of a time of experimentation) prevails still over the mindset of most Islamists, in whom the interweaving of ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ is a thoroughgoing one. Some decades later attempts were made to philosophise and theorise this experiment in a number of books known today as works on al-Ahkām al-Sultāniyya (‘Rulings on Governance’), such as al-Māwardī’s al-Ahkām al-Sultāniyya. Even though the specifics of such rulings do no more than reflect the condition and level of evolution in man’s political thinking over a period of five centuries starting from the seventh century A.D., specifics which are simplistic and in many instances downright primitive and silly, the mindset of contemporary exponents of Islamism still retains an admiration for them as something presenting a comprehensive alternative to the system of the modern state!

Pluralism: there is little doubt that the culture of more progressive societies, and their general intellectual climate, are founded upon the premise that ‘pluralism’ constitutes one of the most important markers of human existence in its most advanced stage, and indeed that it is one of the prerequisites of human progress. There can be no progress for peoples who do not believe in pluralism or who fail to construct their culture and general climate upon the acceptance of what pluralism achieves. Just as Marxism presented a nemesis for pluralism when all of its social, cultural, economic and political systems were founded upon the dismissal of everyone and everything that opposed the basic foundations of Marxism, political Islam can do nought else but lead to this same dismissal – for all the Islamists’ declarations of belief in pluralism. This is because the Islamist is dominated by the thought that he is 100 per cent in the right – after all, how can this not be the case given that God himself enters with him into all epistemological, cultural, economic, political, legal and constitutional arenas? And scientific arenas too: where is the Islamist, for example, who accepts the theory of evolution?


Charles Darwin: father of a theory where Islamists fear to tread

Otherness (or the acceptance of the other): this is the product of the debate on pluralism. If life (for those who believe in pluralism) is founded upon a broad pluralism in various spheres of living, organisation, thinking and principles, the first thing it demands of modern man is to accept the other (in all that other’s various forms). But if the Islamist – who believes that God stands at his side and that he is the closest to truth in all manner of arenas – maintains any belief in accepting the other, his acceptance is a relatively moderate (or at times microscopic) one. He may tell us that he believes in the rights of woman, but he will then tell us that women are qualified to work in ‘most’ but not ‘all’ posts! And he will tell us, unequivocally, that a woman (and even a non-Muslim) cannot become a head of state! He will also tell us, in his own words, that he believes in religious freedom, but he will lay down for others what it is that they may believe in! For the Islamists in Egypt (writing now in the year 2012) are saying that a man has a right to be a Muslim or a Jew or a Christian but he does not have the right to be a Buddhist or a Baha’i. In the same way Islamists cannot agree that freedom of religion means that a Muslim can leave Islam.


By his nature he must extend the ‘absolute’ beyond the realm of the private and personal onto the realm of public affairs


Relativism: out of the womb of faith in pluralism issues faith in otherness (the acceptance of the other). And out of the womb of either comes ‘relativism’. By this I mean that in the culture and climate of a more progressive society the concept of the relative nature of opinions, rulings, theories and interpretations is widely shared. The Islamist may say, in his own words, that he believes in relativism, yet a discussion with him on the subject of women, non-Muslims, the theory of evolution or opposing viewpoints will always go to prove that the Islamist cannot welcome relativism. For by his nature he must extend the ‘absolute’ beyond the realm of the private and personal onto the realm of public affairs. Consequently he alone – as opposed to anyone else on the face of the planet today – is the one who, in his ideology, possesses ‘permanent solutions’ that may not be changed to face up to problems which by their very nature are changeable. If you were to say to him that these solutions are the product of specific times and places he will become angry and simply reject this logic! For a number of weeks now (writing in August 2012) the former General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mahdi Akef declared that anyone who disagrees with the conceptions of the Muslim Brotherhood is ‘stupid and ignorant’. Words such as these encapsulate the Islamists’ view and opinion concerning any alternative perception.

The Rights of Man: the Rights of Man, including the right to think and the right to express his views, alongside other rights, are the product of mankind’s struggle conducted over long periods. The problem the Islamist has with the Rights of Man is that he can only accept their presentation as something which he believes to be the will of God! If we were to say to him that it is a human right to be a Buddhist or a Baha’i, he will reject this and say that the Rights of Man in this respect are limited to the three Abrahamic faiths. If we were to say to him that it is a woman's right to dress as she pleases he would refuse this on the basis of his morals which he also sees as expressing the will of God! And if we were to say to him that it is a Muslim’s right to become a Jew or a Christian he will once again employ his (absolutist!) morals to refuse this human right. Thus for the Islamist there is an upper ceiling or a number of upper ceilings to the Rights of Man, ceilings which in his conception are also the will of God!

Marie Curie: winner of two Nobel prizes but less than the worth of an uneducated man

Womankind: women as such, the fear of them and the desire which they inspire, and at the same time the wish to place her in a cage and keep her under constant supervision, these are some of the most conspicuous Islamist standpoints vis-à-vis womankind. There is no doubt that the Islamist sees the woman as a lesser being (albeit only marginally!) than the man. He even makes use of what nature has imposed on women in order to establish that she is religiously inferior (that the onset of a woman’s monthly period places her in the eyes of the Islamist on a lower religious footing than that of a man). Most Islamists are preoccupied – to the point of hysterical delirium – with women. The result of their delirium (much as with the case of the Haredi Jews) is that she becomes in their conception the source and the cause of most sins! The Islamist – generally – sees that this dangerous source of sinfulness must be hedged about with restrictions. Despite an Islamic society like Saudi Arabia surrounding the woman with unprecedented levels of restrictions, this society has been and is still witnessing the greatest degree of chaos in sexual relations.


There is no doubt that the Islamist sees the woman as a lesser being


Instead of concerning himself with punishing the man (the wolf), the entire focus of the Islamist is fixed on imprisoning ‘the victim’ under observation in a cage. As I always say: instead of keeping the flies off, we choose to lock up the honey in cupboards! In the light of such a mentality the Rights of Woman have the lowest ceilings imposed upon them. Anyone can put this to the test by asking any Islamist to take another look at such things as the following: the testimony of a woman in court or elsewhere as being worth half the testimony of a man (in a Saudi court of law the testimony of a woman such as Madame Curie who has won two Nobel Prizes in science would be worth half the testimony of a man who has barely finished primary school!) Alternatively you will not find an Islamist who is prepared to take another look at the inheritance of a woman being half that of the man ... or whether a woman is qualified to occupy the office of head of state ... or whether he would agree to a woman being in a position to licence marriage or divorce, or have custody of her sons and daughters, and so on.

Qutb: his work unquestioned by Islamist leaders

The rule of law in its modern conception: the Islamist is of the firm conviction that submission to positivist constitutional and legal rules (that is those that have been set down by Man) is a grievous sin. It is a sin on the religious level, and a sin on the social level too in that the Islamist believes deep down that mortals are not qualified to shape a constitutional and legal system governed by mortals. Ever since Egypt in 1883 transferred to a modern positivist legal system, Islamists remained critical of the existence of a legal system set down by mortals. When the writings of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) became the most important literature in political Islam (many of them taken from the Indo-Pakistani Islamist Abū al-Aʽlā al-Mawdūdī whose writings are some of the most important causes of wars between Pakistan and India) the philosophy of the Islamists vis-à-vis positivist laws has been the following: God alone is cognizant of Man’s failings and consequently their non-qualification to fashion laws governing relations between men in all its various forms. This is the core of the theory of al-hākimiyya[3] that all Islamists hold to, even if they differ on the period of time required to apply this theory. One of the most important by-products of this theory of al-hākimiyya, and which is the essence of the Islamist mindset, is that man should not lay down rules governing relations between men but instead observe the rules established by God and not mankind. Even now no leader of any current of political Islam undertakes to review the concept of al-hākimiyya presented by Sayyid Qutb in his famous work Milestones on the Way (which is considered to be a regurgitation of earlier ideas propounded by Abū al-Aʽlā al-Mawdūdī).

Usama bin Ladin: object of Islamist admiration and appreciation

Thus the Islamist is faced with a continuing difficulty vis-à-vis all positivist, legal, constitutional foundations. Even if a great legal scholar such as Dr al-Sanhouri – the author of the 1984 Egyptian Civil Code – says that he sees nothing in all of the regulations and materials of this code derived from French civil law that contradicts the principles of Islamic Sharīʻa, nevertheless this counts for nothing among the currents of political Islam. The Islamist continues to believe that his primary political mission is to apply a comprehensive legal system derived from Islamic Sharīʻa, that is – in his view – the laws that express the will of God.

Violence: it is clear that the leadership of most currents of political Islam refuse to describe suicide operations undertaken by many Islamists against non-combatant individuals as terrorist operations. There is no doubt that most of these leaders do not consider someone such as Usama bin Ladin to be a terrorist. Indeed most of them have, and still do, look upon Usama bin Ladin brimming with appreciation and admiration for him.

When an Islamist candidate (ʽAbd al-Munʽim Abū al-Futūh) for the post of president of the Republic of Egypt was asked a few months ago whether he considered Usama bin Ladin a terrorist or not, he replied “America is terrorist”. The truth is that the Islamist cannot condemn ‘violence’ against civilians in all its shapes and forms. Nothing demonstrates this more than the failure of contemporary man to agree on a universally accepted definition of terrorism. Islamists are of one in maintaining that it is their right – and indeed their duty – to distance themselves from any agreement on how to define terrorism before such time that they have fully attained to power. The present writer claims that no less than half the sons and daughters in societies such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen would reject someone like Usama bin Ladin being described as a terrorist.


Not a single fanatic upon the surface of the Earth is the product of a balanced intellectual formation


A balanced intellectual formation: I have always believed, and still do, that not a single fanatic upon the surface of the Earth is the product of a balanced intellectual formation. None of the various fruits of human inventiveness in all or most of the spheres of intellectual and cultural creativity have ever found their way in a balanced, measured form into the mentality of the Haredi Jew or the fundamentalist Muslim. Or to put it another way, if any of the fruits of human inventiveness initiated by the ancient Greek and Roman civilisation, or the fruits of the Renaissance and the period following the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution, or the most important products of human creativity over the last three centuries (which are the richest centuries in human history) should make their entry into a man’s mental composition, then that man simply cannot be a fundamentalist or a fanatic. I was fortunate enough to be granted the opportunity to see up close what it is that a Haredi Jew or a Salafist Muslim, or the militant Muslim followers of the Hanbali school or those who admire the fatwas of Hanbali faqihs and proselytizers like Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim and Muhammad ʽAbd al-Wahhāb (among whom feature all the clerics of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and all the lands of Sunni Islam) do for reading material. I got to know up close that the bulk of these folk have never read, and still do not read, anything beyond the literature of their specific religious denomination.

Shakespeare, Voltaire and Descartes: fruits of human creativity proscribed by Saudi clerics

Indeed, I might add that I have heard the warnings issued by dozens of prominent clerics in Saudi Arabia against reading what I would call the fruits of human creativity – from Homer to Dante, from Shakespeare and Racine to Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau and Diderot, from Descartes to Kant, from Victor Hugo to Albert Camus – and I know intimately their rejectionist position on symphonic music, the figurative arts and the theatre. Perhaps the following anecdotes demonstrate the tragedy we are writing about here: in August 2012 the Chinese astronauts returned to their launch base and a picture was published of a female Chinese astronaut exiting the spaceship aided by one of her colleagues. A Salafist internet website ran the photograph with a commentary that did not address the various aspects of brilliant achievement represented by the picture. Instead the commentary focused on the ‘degeneracy’ represented by the image of a female astronaut with her colleague supporting her arm to help her exit the spaceship! A few years ago a fire broke out in a girls’ school in Saudi Arabia; many of the girl students attempted to leave the burning building but were turned back by the school’s firemen with the result that they burned to death – since they were not wearing their veils at the time they were attempting to escape incineration.


No doubt Machiavelli would have considered them even more Machiavellian than himself


Humanity: the literature, culture and thinking of the Islamists are based upon the division of the world (and of its peoples) into two – the first called the Abode of Islam, the second named the Abode of War. This division prevails still over the Islamists’ mindset, which in light of the authority of this literature has difficulty in understanding, digesting, embracing and accepting the modern concept of humanity and the influence it has had on breaking down the barriers and frontiers between cultures and societies. I have no doubt that Islamists look upon the other (who necessarily belongs to the Abode of War) as an enemy in one form or another – an enemy constantly held to be responsible for all of their problems, starting from colonialism and including everything that has happened up to the present day. Two years ago ‘Abd al-Munʽim Abū al-Futūh, a famous leading light in the Muslim Brotherhood who entered the electoral race for the Egyptian presidency in May 2012, issued a book in which he stated that all the problems of contemporary Islamic societies were caused by colonialism. Mr Abū al-Futūh did not explain to us why it is that the Europeans embarked on colonising us instead of us colonising the Europeans! Similarly Mr Abū al-Futūh did not tell us why most regions of the Arabian Peninsula have remained deeply backward for a century despite the fact that they were never colonised!

Mahdi Akef: anyone who disagrees with the Muslim Brotherhood is ‘stupid and ignorant'

Taqiyya (concealment): Taqiyya is a Shiʽite concept that seeps into the political practices of contemporary Islamist groups be they Shiʽite or Sunni. The concept of taqiyya means that at such time as the Islamists on the ground constitute the weaker power, they have the right to proclaim in public precisely the opposite of what they hold in secret. This manifested itself clearly in the behaviour of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the fall of the former president Husni Mubarak. The positions they adopted were often contradictory to that which they had previously declared even just a few months earlier.


I can see no possibility of any agreement between political Islam and the values of progress and modernity


The danger of taqiyya comes to the fore whenever Islamists make declarations, in their meetings with representatives of cultures that despise mendacity, on such matters as their repudiation of violence and their respect for the rights of women or their respect for non-Muslims. To make such declarations as these – which fly in the face of what their minds actually think and intend – is religiously permitted for them for as long as they have yet to attain to the phase of total empowerment. I have no doubt that had Niccolò Machiavelli himself heard from some Muslims of the concept of taqiyya he would have agreed with them and considered them even more Machiavellian than himself.

In short, after 40 years of studying political Islam and studying its literature and writings – including university theses on the Islamic system of hadd punishments – I can see no possibility of there being any agreement between political Islam and the values of progress and modernity. At the same time I believe that the pragmatic practice of politics (in the light of contemporary constitutions and laws) may permit developments that may render Islamist political parties similar to Christian parties in Europe. But I am speaking here of a possible, and by no means certain, trajectory, and I am talking of a long journey – which up to now I see no tangible evidence of having been started!

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