” symbols distasteful, and thus try to
” Charismatic leaders “in times of spiritual, economic, ethical, religious or political emergency were neither appointed officials nor trained and salaried ‘professionals’. . . but those who possessed specific physical and spiritual gifts which were regarded as supernatural, in the sense of not being available to everyone. ” But this kind of legitimacy is obviously not sustainable for long periods of time; it is a purely personal phenomenon and cannot be passed from one leader to another. Weber suggests two additional and more durable forms of legitimacy: “rational-legal” and “traditional.
” Writer Milton Esman, in a recent restatement of these Weberian categories, argues that these include: a democratic mandate, usually a victory at the polls in a free and fair election; the ability to meet public expectations for individual safety and the security of property, and the ability to provide the public with goods like food, shelter, health care, education, and ample opportunities to earn a decent livelihood; and identification with the society’s norms and values. The most legitimate governments score well on all of these measures; the least legitimate score poorly, and thus need to rely on coercion and force to maintain power.
Though we live in what author Fareed Zakaria has called the “democratic age,” the first foundation of legitimacy–namely, democracy–seems to have eluded the Arab world. Of the twenty-one states of the Arab League, not one could be called democratic or liberal. In fact, in its annual survey of political rights and civil liberties entitled Freedom in the World, Freedom House ranks six Arab states (Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Syria) as the world’s worst in terms of political freedom.
And unlike in China or Russia under communism, there is no great grassroots movement for democracy in the Arab world, largely because democracy does not resonate with the average Arab. It has no basis in the Arab past and is tainted by its association with the West. Though many Arab governments hold sham elections in which the leader is swept into office with 99. 99 percent of the vote and 99. 99 percent voter participation, such displays are done mostly for the outside world. When Iraq’s “parliament” last winter passed a resolution refusing to respect the U.
S. imposed no-fly zones over the northern and southern parts of the country, the move was recognized as a poor attempt by Saddam Hussein to paint his transgressions as a function of popular will, and thus as somehow more legitimate. One perceptive observer of the Middle East has noted that leaders like Hussein have no idea how real democracies work and do not realize that those accustomed to holding elections would find such shams offensive. Meanwhile, to the people of the region, they are an irrelevance.
Other Arab governments, such as the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, naturally find any traffic with democratic symbols distasteful, and thus try to build legitimacy by providing significant material benefits to their people. The Gulf states have been particularly successful in this regard, using their oil wealth to create massive cradle-to-grave welfare states. For example, Saudi Arabia spends billions of dollars to give its citizens free education and health care, as well as subsidized housing and utilities.
But this kind of mass bribery can only go so far, and poorer states like Egypt understandably find it unfeasible. Thus Middle Eastern states turn to the third traditional measure of legitimacy–emphasizing shared values. And in the great proselytizing culture of the Arab world, the most overriding public value, that which can immediately claim sympathy from all segments of the population, is Islam. Islam has served as the basis for political legitimacy in the Arab world ever since the death of the prophet Muhammed in the seventh century A. D.
Until the early part of this century, the Islamic world was united under a series of successive caliphates, the leader of which, the caliph (or khalifah, in Arabic), was considered the prophet’s temporal and spiritual successor. The first four caliphs, men who had known the prophet during his lifetime and who were each selected by learned men of the community, are referred to today as the Rightly Guided Caliphs. In the annals of Islamic history, they are considered the most legitimate of rulers, truest to the prophet’s legacy, and their period is considered a kind of Islamic utopia to which the Muslim world still aspires.
After these four men passed from the scene (three of them were murdered, perhaps indicative of what sort of utopia this was), the caliphate became a much more traditional monarchy, changing hands over the centuries between competing dynasties. The first of these monarchic caliphates, that of the Umayyads, was established some thirty years after Muhammed’s death and was the first regime of the Arab world to face serious problems of legitimacy. According to the Islamic historian Shireen Hunter, the Umayyads “based their rule on the absolute divine will,” declaring it “part of a predetermined godly plan.
” This justification of Umayyad legitimacy contributed to one of the most vigorous theological debates of the day in Islam, that of predeterminism versus free will. As Hunter points out, since the Umayyads argued that their reign was God’s will, they came out in favor of the predeterminist school. In this way, Islamic theological speculation eventually devoted itself to explaining–or challenging–the legitimacy of the prevailing political order. The caliphate system was not a theocratic rule of the priests.
The caliph acquired his religious credentials as “guardian of the faith” and “shadow of God on Earth”–qualities essential to his legitimacy as ruler–by virtue of assuming power, not the other way around. The full force of Islamic thought was put to the service of explaining the caliph’s right to preside over the community of believers, which is why some of the most vigorous periods of Islamic judicial thought occurred when the caliphate shifted from one dynasty to another, as each one needed to explain itself anew.
When the last of the great caliphates of the Islamic world, that of the Ottoman sultans, crumbled in 1918, the successor regimes of the modern Middle East inherited this notion of religion as ratifier of rulers. It was natural that they too would seek Islamic sanction for their power. Even the leaders of the so-called secular Arab nationalist movements that arose in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq in the wake of the Ottoman collapse sought a place for Islam in their ideology, realizing that without it, the project would be unable to capture the Arab imagination.
One of the founders of the Baath school of Arab nationalism, a Syrian intellectual named Michel Aflaq, though a Greek Orthodox Christian, declared Islam to be the most sublime expression of Arabism, born of the genius of Arab civilization and history. Absent Islam, being an Arab meant nothing. As the late scholar Hasan Enayat put it, “The Arabs cannot promote their identity without at the same time exalting Islam, which is the most abiding source of their pride. “. . .
Nowhere are the costs of manipulating Islam to legitimize the state more evident than in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s story involves a Faustian bargain struck by the monarchs of that country with a brand of fundamentalist Islam called Wahhabism. The bedrock of the royal family’s legitimacy is a pact made over two hundred and fifty years ago by the founding father of the Saud family, Mohammed Ibn Saud, with the religious revivalist from which the sect takes its name, Mohammed bin Abdul Wahab.
Abdul Wahab was troubled by the un-Islamic practices–the veneration of saints and ancestors, and even of the prophet Muhammed–that had crept into the popular exercise of Islam over the centuries, and was determined that they be purged. In Mohammed Ibn Saud, a minor sheik in a small desert town, he saw just the man to take up his cause. A deal was struck: Saud undertook to fight all comers for the sake of God, and Abdul Wahab promised him God’s help and bounty (and assured him that God would allow him to collect taxes in any lands he captured.
) Regarding themselves as the only true believers and all others as apostates and infidels, Saud’s hordes conquered much of the eastern half of the Arabian peninsula, then nominally under Ottoman control. His son and grandson continued the run and by 1814 reached the Iraqi and Syrian borders before being crushed by the Ottoman governor of Egypt. In the years following, Saudi power in the peninsula ebbed and flowed, until by the beginning of this century the family had lost its lands and was living in exile in Kuwait.
In 1902 a scion of the family, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, began a campaign to recapture his family’s glory. He took the city of Riyadh, the seat of the old Saudi kingdoms, and set his sights on the entire peninsula. To do this he manipulated things to marvelous effect. He assembled Bedouin tribesmen in camps he called hijra (migration, as in migration from ignorance to enlightenment) and schooled them in Wahhabism’s radically unitarian doctrine. By 1927, the ikhwan (brothers, as they were now called) had helped Abdul Aziz capture most of Arabia and were poised to take their holy war to the rest of the Muslim world.
But Abdul Aziz was a realist, and he knew his limits–if the British and French had looked the other way when he took the inconsequential oases of the Arabian peninsula, they would not be so lax in defending their interests in Syria and Iraq. He wisely concluded a treaty with the British recognizing his sovereignty over the lands he controlled but binding him to go no further. The ikhwan were outraged at this betrayal of their cause. There were more infidels to crush, more lands to bring under Islam’s sway. Some eight thousand of them continued to lead raids on territories outside the Saudi domain.
The contract with the faith could not hold up against the contract with British power, and by 1929 Abdul Aziz was forced to crush his former disciples. The British political resident in Arabia at the time, Sir Percy Cox, later opined that Abdul Aziz had not made a single mistake in the process of setting up his kingdom. He was wrong. Abdul Aziz did not take away the central lesson of his clash with the ikhwan, that religion can only be manipulated for so long. Instead of abandoning Wahhabism, he went on to build a state that honored Wahabi sensibilities (in rhetoric, if not always in reality.
) For example, when Wahabi leaders objected to his plan to introduce radio to the kingdom, on the grounds that it could carry the influences of Satan, Abdul Aziz arranged for them to hear a radio-transmitted recitation of the Koran, arguing that nothing that could propagate the word of God could be from Satan. Abdul Aziz based the king- dom’s laws on interpretations of shariah (Islamic law); thus women are denied the right to drive automobiles, the theater is banned, Islamic education in schools is compulsory, and businesses are forced to close five times daily for prayer.
All of this is enforced by the muttawas–old, bearded men employed by the government’s Committee for Enjoining Virtue and Preventing Vice–who patrol the streets in search of violators of God’s law: women whose ankles are exposed, men who avoid prayer, couples who show too much affection. . . . The tragic story repeats itself throughout the Arab world. The bleak situation in Sudan offers a glimpse of what might come. Sudan’s president from 1969 to 1985, Jaafar Nemeiri . . . began his fling with Islamist movements in order to counter the threat from the radical left.
But in 1983 he went one step further, instituting shariah law with its harsh penal code mandating executions for adultery and amputation for theft. To further please the Islamists, Nemeiri relegated the country’s Christians to second-class status and suspended the Christian south’s limited autonomy. The civil war between the northern Arabs and the southern Christians, which Nemeiri had succeeded in ending in 1972, began anew. Moderates and Christians resigned from the government, and Nemeiri replaced them with Islamists. In 1985, with his country wracked by war, Nemeiri was overthrown by the military.
But the Islamists had had their taste of power, and in 1989 they staged a coup of their own. Today Sudan is a so-called Islamic state, one that shows little remaining trace of the public euphoria that attended its founding. Islamic economics, which promised to repair the damage wrought by decades of statist economics, turned out to be nothing more than harsh “free market” reforms designed to concentrate wealth at the top. The Sudanese pound was sharply devalued, and price controls and subsidies were lifted almost overnight.
This shock therapy, coupled with the civil war in the south, has caused a famine the severity of which is measured in terms of hundreds of thousands of lives. The country’s human rights record is abysmal. In addition to the so-called Islamic punishments, political opposition is not tolerated, jails are filled with political detainees, and newspapers critical of the regime–even ones with Islamic coloration–are closed by the government. The answers that radical Islam offered to the woes of the Sudanese have only made them worse.
The Islamic utopia was not to be, for it existed only in the rhetoric of leaders anxious to exploit the popular longing for a more ordered, prosperous society. Unfortunately, there seem to be no forces opposing this trend toward radical Islamic ruin. There are, of course, educated, secular elements in the Arab world, but they are being squeezed from below, by Islamists with popular support and sympathy, and from above, by regimes eager to curry favor with the Islamists and equally suspicious of calls for more open government.
In short, there is nowhere for these moderates to go. There would be hope for the Arabs if the lessons of Sudan would register; but the unifying motif of the Arab world’s encounters with Islam seems to be lessons not learned. . . . What, then, is to be done? Some have suggested that the regimes of the Middle East should institute democratic reforms, that once given the right to vote, people will elect those who can deliver a better life. More likely, they will just elect fundamentalists who can woo them with their rhetoric.
But even if Islamists come to power this way, it is argued, they will be forced by the necessities of democratic consensus building to moderate their stances in the hope of winning the next election. It is more likely that they will ensure that there will never be another one. The “Islamic State,” as it is conceived by leading Islamists, is incompatible with democracy. After all, the Islamic utopia strives to recreate the reign of the prophet and the caliphs–and they were never elected, never had to contend with a free press, and were unfamiliar with the need for religious freedom.
And so perhaps the only solution to the Arab world’s political dysfunctions, the only way to free the Arab mind of the shackles of radical Islam and cause it finally to look elsewhere for the answers to its dilemmas, is to allow the Islamists their day. Consider Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979. That was the Thirty Years’ War turned on its head: the faith won, and the princes were sent into ignominious exile. But the reign of God on Earth is coming undone, having proven itself unable to provide for the needs of its people.
Unemployment and inflation are uncontrollable, and Iran’s isolation from the West has cost it countless billions of dollars. The country’s youthful electorate sounded a note of protest in May of 1997, when it swept the perceived moderate, Mohammed Khatami, into power. Debates have raged about whether Khatami is indeed a moderate (this writer has argued that the reputation is largely undeserved), but there is no question that Iran’s people are fed up with theocratic politics.
Lay intellectuals, like the scholar Hosein Dabbagh (known by his pen name, Abdol Karim Soroush), argue that theocracy contradicts Islam’s basic tenets by investing power in a clerical elite, and truly moderate clerics call for the religious establishment to rescue itself from political life before the people rise up against it and force it from society altogether. This, coupled with Iranians’ unmistakable desire for more traffic with the West, indicate a drift toward a post-Islamic era in that country. The idea of the Islamic state, the dream of the pious polity, will be proven bankrupt only after it has had its day in the sun.
This is not altogether surprising. Arab nationalism, too, had to reign before it was discredited. It is already happening in Sudan, and as the Islamist challenge grows stronger in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, perhaps it can be expected to happen there too. Arab countries learn not to touch the fire only by getting burned–and, as we have seen, sometimes even that is not enough to drive the message home. It is not enough that Islam is not working in Iran or Sudan; Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab countries must also have their flings with it. It is too late to pull back from the brink.
Radical Islam has already been set loose and legitimated by governments that manipulated it to give them legitimacy of their own. If the Egyptian government ceases arresting heavy-metal fans and branding them Satan worshippers, the Islamists will not be diminished; they will merely have a new platform on which to attack the regime. And so it seems Islam will not be denied the halls of power. But, just as certainly, it will not be allowed to dwell there forever. Islam Does Not Cause Conflict in the Middle East Dr. Keith Suter’s article ‘Is Islam a Threat to International Peace and Security?
‘ in Contemporary Review, December 1996, is based on an interpretation of Samuel Huntington’s well-known article, ‘The Clash of Civilisations’ (Foreign Affairs, summer 1993), in which Huntington argues that Islam must inevitably clash with a western liberal civilisation bent on exporting its values and that Islam may overwhelm the West. However, Dr. Suter is not clear about the Islamic revivalism and renaissance in the post;ndash;Cold War era. He irrationally blames all Islamic groups as threats to world peace and he also confuses Muslim societies and Islamic values.
In this regard, Islam as a religion is no more and no less a source of conflict or threat to the world than any other religion whether Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism. Many of its values are applicable to all human beings, not only Muslims. So Keith Suter should actually discuss the current Islamic activities in some Muslim countries by placing them in their proper socio-political context, not in the broader concept of Islam. My comments seek only to offer some thoughts provoked by Dr. Suter and to clarify certain aspects of the arguments which are the major sources of conflict.
It needs to be recognised that the current Islamic movements are fuelled not by absolute economic disparities but by socio-political ‘relative deprivation’. Islamic revivalism is in many ways the successor to failed nationalist programmes and offers an Islamic alternative or solution, a third way distinct from capitalism and communism. Islamists argue that Islam is not just a collection of beliefs and ritual actions but a comprehensive ideology embracing public as well as personal life. It is important to understand that Islamic activism is a cause of concern but not for alarm and challenge to any civilisation.
Like radicals throughout history, Islamic radicals become moderate, once accommodated and incorporated in the socio-political mainstream. If they do not, they perish or become sociologically irrelevant cults. Therefore, extremism can best be reduced through gradual democratisation, a process and a system of governance which the West is deliberately not encouraging in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East. In the early 1980s, Islamic resurgence became synonymous in the Western world with political extremism, terrorism, hostage crises and suicide bombings.
As the decade came to a close, Islamic resurgence began a new phase; Islamic movements began to participate in the political system instead of opposing it. However, the two momentous events of 1991–the Gulf war and the break-up of the Soviet Union–are casting their shadow over relations between the West and the arc of predominantly Muslim countries ranging from Central Asia in the east to North Africa in the West. Until recently the Muslim countries were divided between the US and Soviet Union but the collapse of the Soviet Union has made the West, led by the United States, into the principal external enemy of pan-Islamism.
It is interesting to note that at the time of the Cold War, most of the Muslim states were loyal allies of the West against the ‘Evil Empire’ of the Soviet Union. This was a time when the West was using religion as a weapon and even financed many of the fundamentalist groups to contain and to stop the flood of communism. So far, however, the reality is that Islamic revivalism is neither a product of the Iranian revolution nor a result of Libyan extremist policies.
The depth of frustration and anger is a reaction against European colonial rule, support for unpopular regimes and the internal weaknesses of the Muslim governments. Although some scholars argue that the present awakening in the Muslim world is a response to the decline of power and the loss of divine favour, in fact, the current revolt is a product of the weak economies of the Muslim countries, illiteracy and high unemployment, especially among the younger generation. The lack of political institutions and absence of democracies in the Muslim world is also an immediate cause of extremism.
In this context, the Muslim demands for change are no different from the demands in Eastern Europe. In many Muslim countries the secular nationalists and Islamists are united in the common cause of popular democracy. They are demanding the right to gain legitimate power with ballots rather than bullets. These forces are also cooperating with each other to topple monarchies, military dictators and authoritarian governments. They blamed their governments for their countries’ backwardness and failure to achieve economic self- sufficiency and development.
In addition to these internal reasons, there are also some external factors which push the Islamists to struggle for the rights and protection of Muslims which are under the siege of oppressive rule. Muslims are worried about the people of Palestine and they cannot ignore the inhuman massacres of Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir. Such experiences tend to make Muslims think that the West is against them. The causes of the resurgence differ from country to country, but common catalysts and concerns are identifiable. The Arab world is under the grip