By Manzar Zaidi
June 14, 2012
It is in vogue to use the label Islamism to refer to political Islam, but this is not just the extreme right mobilisation of religion to political ends. Widespread mis-usage of the term is similar to the term fundamentalism used to explain Muslim extremism, till the original usage of this nomenclature was attributed to Christian movements in the United States, and the label tended to be rejected in the mainstream.
However, the foundational context of fundamentalism, which is used to describe any religion-based political movement that prescribes rigid adherence to restrictive interpretations of religious foundational texts still remains relevant, just like the foundational context of Islamism will be found in Islam.
One needs to contextualise the different streams of Islamism; those that espouse an Islamic state, those that espouse an Islamic society on a particular Sharia variant, and those who have transnational beliefs in an ummah.
There needs to be a nuanced understanding of Islamism to differentiate from amongst varieties it. There are many socially pluralist movements such as the “progressive Islamism” movement in South Africa, which emerged out of apartheid and Islamic reformist struggles, and strives to interpret life and society from progressive readings of the Quran and their applications in everyday life.
Thus, Islamism carries a much wider connotation than just the right-wing movement that it is commonly associated with. This is no way detracts from the fact that understanding all the various Islamisms in their context aids in understanding the different variants.
Islamism as an ideology is pervasive in private and public spheres, both of which it tries to regulate according to Islamic values and norms. Any particular Islamism will follow a blueprint for the process, called as the Islamisation process.
Regardless of the variant, any Islamism is extremely averse to territorial domination of Muslim lands and societies by direct or indirect foreign rule through proxies, and hegemonic control from the outside tends to inflame Islamism like no other phenomenon.
This factor is common to not just Islamism but also pervades many other revivalist movements. For instance, Ottoman invasions of south-eastern and central Europe following the Moorish conquest of Iberia tended to stir up Franciscan, Dominican and other Christian religious movements.
Arguably, the Ottoman invasion was paradoxically one of the main factors lending a revivalist sentiment to these movements even when it was trying to dominate them. The fear that this Islamic aggression engendered in Europe was an essential background to the Reformation.
What is also relevant to note about the reformation as a precursor to secularisation and modernisation of the nation states of Europe was that its initial years were extremely barbarous. From the very beginning the principle of nationalism was almost indissolubly linked, both in theory and practice, with the idea of war.
War has been a principal determinant in the shaping of nation states. In fact, it’s hard to think of any European nation state, with the possible exception of Norway, which was not the product of warfare or other forms of violence.
Thus, the coexistence of ideologies like religions alongside modernity has always been a path fraught with potential for violence almost everywhere. There is a thriving school of sociologists which do not endorse division of religion into public and private spheres.
One of the theories put forward is that religion is a context for tradition, and tradition causes enablement of individuals through a shared memory with preceding generations. Thus, the argument goes that a modern society is not essentially modern because it is secular, but because it has distanced itself from tradition by losing its religious memory consciously or unconsciously.
However, even modern societies cannot escape religion. Modern societies may well corrode their traditional religious base; at the same time, however, the same societies open up spaces or sectors that only religion can fill.
This analogy lends itself lucidly to Muslim societies, which rely very heavily on preserving Islam’s public space by the chain of memories surrounding essential Islamic principles. Thus, the Islamic world still relates itself quite heavily with tradition, as it finds itself ill-equipped to cope with modernity, partly because of exclusivity inbuilt into modernity.
Modernity by its very essence is rather anti-modern in itself as it hardly envisages a public and private sphere for a person who is not perceived to be a modern person by modern concepts. Thus, the intolerance ingrained in modernity is a source of counter-intolerance, and perhaps the leading counter-movements are driven by religion and ethnicity.
Modernity, coupled with globalisation, is also promoting the “translocality” of Islamic socio-political norms and thus fostering the presence of Islam in the public sphere. Islamism today would appear to challenge the conventional dualism between the public and the private.
Either Islam exists only in the private sphere in which case it does not exist in the public sphere, or it exists in both. The argument of Islamists is that when it exists in both, it is “the blueprint of a social order” and thus can definitely regulate the affairs of state, including war. Thus, according to Islamists, it may not be correct to see religion just as a private affair of the Muslim with Allah, but also to see it as the public affair of the Muslim state (or its rulers) with Allah as well.
Thus, it would not be a productive exercise to comprehend the narrative of Islamism only in context of modernity, but as a stand-alone ideology.
Manzar Zaidi is a security analyst.