New Age Islam
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Islam and Politics ( 15 Jun 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Rise Of Political Islam: Secular Governments Must Accept Responsibility

By M. Zaidi

IN order to understand the logic — or the lack of it — behind terrorism, one needs to first understand the interplay of governance structures and radicalisation.

Islam has widely been used throughout the Islamic world to mobilise the masses. The ruling elite has utilised it for political purposes ranging from secular nationalist to pan-Arabist to Marxist, taking advantage of its populist appeal to support the agenda of self-preservation. Paradoxically, many of the same rulers created Islamist movements which they then crushed.

In Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser attempted to make the prestigious Al Azhar University dependent on the government in order to lend religious legitimacy to governmental policies, including his ruthless suppression of the Islamic Brotherhood. Saddam Hussein, leader of the zealously secularist Ba’ath party, put ‘God Is Great’ on the Iraqi flag and spoke about jihad in a failed effort to get Iraqis to fight to defend his regime. Ziaul Haq created jihadist groups and then attempted to disown ‘turncoats’.

This schizophrenic mindset becomes even more complicated when applied to states that have a large spectrum of tribes.

Iran, for instance, has some 96 tribes and 647 independent clans according to a recent census. However, some of these clans have over time become redundant as power structures. But for the Pahlavi elites previously, it was a priority to suppress these tribal cultures to usher in the era of ‘modernity’. This made Reza Shah extremely unpopular amongst people in whom the ‘conservative spirit’ was deeply ingrained, and which arguably contributed to the rise of Islamism. The ruling elites tried to supplant a modernist project on a populace wholly unprepared for it; this made conditions ripe for the 1979 revolution.

An observable phenomenon in modern Iran is the alliance of politics with Islamism; arguably, Islamism has proved more adept at integrating different tribes in Iran than modernism.

This had the usual result of integrating tribal people who had lost their power base either to modern ethnic nationalism or, on the other end of the spectrum, detribalisation and absorption into ideology-based organisations. Since Islamism dominated, recruitment to these organisations occurred at a greater rate, while the ethno-nationalist sentiments of the Baloch in Sistan and the Kurds were suppressed.

Similarly the Bakhtiaris, whose khans constituted the pre-revolutionary elite, were ruthlessly put down. This was a prominent feature accounting for the rise of Islamists, since they replaced the khans as the dominant ruling elite. Neither the modernity project nor subsequent Islamism could accommodate the ‘khan’ power structures. This was anathema for Islamism and modernity projects in Iran, so the khanate system was suppressed and eventually died out.

The Shia state of Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan were governments taking over systems driven by a tribal mindset. The existing literature about these regimes shows how they foisted their versions of Islamism upon the masses. Political scientist Mia Bloom postulates that ‘martyrdom’ operations tend to boost the reputation of the organisation carrying them out, as evidenced in the case of Palestine. For instance, Nichole Argo argues that martyrdom or shahadat has become a mainstream Palestinian social paradigm, with social status being congruent with the level of sacrifice.

During the Oslo process, the majority of Palestinians were opposed to violence. In November 1998, some 75 per cent opposed suicide operations. However, with incrementally ineffective governance, Yasser Arafat’s popularity plummeted.

Along with an increase in their political credentials, there was a simultaneous rise in the popularity of the Islamic Jihad Movement and Hamas, with a share of almost 70 per cent going to Hamas.

They started using the suicide-bombing tactic, coupled with the provision of social services, to gain popularity among the masses. Against the backdrop of economic decay, rising unemployment and gloomy prospects, groups such as Hamas seen to be ‘doing something’ (suicide tactics) about the escalating Israeli aggression undermined a substantial chunk of the Palestinian Authority’s support base.

Although there are clear differences between the Iranian clerical leadership, 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 proletariat were identical drivers of Islamism. Arguably, these operate throughout the breadth of the radicalised Islamic world today, including Pakistan.

Another type of model one could use to draw analogies with Pakistan is the type of governments which modelled themselves on Stalinist lines. The ruling elite of these states used the rhetoric of the rising of the proletariat against the bourgeois, which petered out with the end of the Cold War. As in Iraq and Syria, these ‘caring’ regimes evolved into little more than brutal dictatorships utilising the secret police as coercive instruments. An epitome of this variant was Nasser’s’ government in Egypt, and Jaffer Numeiri’s government in Sudan, which prompted a violent reaction by the Islamists. Nasser’s strong-arm tactics would later fan the Islamist movement into a roaring flame.

However, the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was perhaps even more instrumental in igniting these movements. The Islamists felt betrayed by Sadat’s unfulfilled promises, which would lead more radical Islamists such as Al Jihad into the circle of never-ending violence. Sayyid Qutb’s simplistic analysis has been inspirational for a vast majority of Islamists disillusioned by regimes that could be clearly discerned as having one agenda: self-sustenance. Thus Qutb used the classical pre-Arabian Islamic concept of jahiliya or ignorance to denounce the Muslim leadership, which he saw as failing to overthrow the yoke of the West.

Placing 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 since many of the leaders in this category tended to woo the West, but it has caused an identity crisis for their conservative masses. Since Islamic heritage was selectively sifted to support temperamental political causes, intellectual revivalism in the Muslim world has suffered greatly.

Also, Islam has started to signify the politics of identity, in which the leadership’s exploitation of the sentiments of the masses became inextricably intertwined with political agendas. This also served to display to the outside world a distorted picture of political Islam.

The writer is a security analyst.

Source: The Dawn, Pakistan