By Talmiz Ahmad
October 24, 2013
After a little-known Islamic Jihadi group attacked the twin symbols of US power, the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001, the US retaliated by unleashing a "war on terror" on the self-appointed anti-West jihadist Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian who shifted his headquarters to Afghanistan and then Pakistan where the Americans found and killed him. A war, whether on "terror" or by one nation against another, must be directed against a well-defined and -identified enemy. Unfortunately, the war against scattered and anarchic Islamist fundamentalist groups like the Al Qaeda, Taliban, Lashkar-e-Toiba, or the Indian Mujahideen somehow came to be identified with Islamic Arab and Afro-Arab countries. These countries, thus, became the "symbols of evil", the dreamlands of pristine Islam based on the Holy Quran and Sharia as practiced by the first five Caliphs, as envisaged by these fundamentalist groups.
This conflation was the basis of American scholar Samuel Huntington's famous "clash of civilisations" theory, which posited a war between the Christian West and Islamic societies. As a result, Islam versus Others became the central agenda of the 21st century. But the Arab Spring that began in December 2010 across the Arab and north African Islamic world has shaken that certainty. This is a war within, in which a secular, democratic, liberal Arab intelligentsia has sought liberation from offensive regimes and their patrons, western countries greedy for Arab oil and other natural resources. The wheel of history has turned, and movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and so on, are under scrutiny within the countries that spawned them. The moving force behind anti-authoritarian Arab regimes are the frustrated youth of these countries searching for secular solutions, on the basis of democratic elections, to economic development and opportunity. The goal of establishing a "puritanical" Islamic state system is being rigorously questioned throughout the region.
It is this "war within" that author Talmiz Ahmad has assessed. It is based on his study of the historical evolution of doctrinal Islam combined with his experience of living in these countries as a diplomat. In the first four of the 10 chapters of this book, Ahmad has provided a rich background of Islam's internal debates in which he encapsulates the actual, living reality of highly differentiated Islam. A clear message from these four background chapters is that the Arab Islamic world is convulsed by, to use V S Naipaul's term, "a million mutinies" among liberal theologians and gun-wielding groups claiming to be custodians of "pure Islam". As he writes, "Over the last two years of the Arab Spring, the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) region has been witnessing an interplay between national and regional political scenarios in an environment of robust competition and even conflict."
Is the principal competition between the different streams of Islam, as Western commentators suggest? Ahmad provides some answers in chapters 5 to 7 that cover: (a) the Arab Spring and its aftermath; (b) proliferation of radical Islam; and (c) Islamist politics: competition, conflict and prognosis. These chapters catalogue the real story of the movements, challenges, setbacks and reverses of the actors involved in various countries. A stark fact that emerges from Ahmad's assessment as well as that of many other objective scholars of the turmoil within Islamic societies is that the self-appointed custodians of so-called puritan Islam are engaged in imposing a poor, brutish, bloody and violent society in which everyone who opposes them is considered a "non-believer" or infidel. For instance, powerful Jihadi-Salafi groups in Libya not only challenged the Americans and Colonel Gaddafi, "these Libyan radicals have attacked Sufi monasteries and tombs of saints, without any intervention of local authorities".
It is a war within Islam but also with the outside world, and the author has appropriately devoted Chapter 8 to "Regional Islamist Confrontations" because the whole region has always been a focus of powerful Western states and multinational corporations, and the Arabs are involved in interrelated and interdependent external and domestic conflicts.
The author raises the big question in the last chapter on institutionalising Sharia and democracy. Can there be democracy and an elected legislative to enact laws for society in a puritanical Islamist state where God is sovereign, God is Law, and Sharia is the ultimate source of legal and moral foundations of the regime? These remain open-ended questions for every society faced with the challenge of religious-based politics - whether Islamic or Hindutva-driven - because modern democracy cannot co-exist with doctrinal, faith-based, "authentic" puritanical regimes.
The author is correct when he says the Arab Spring remains a "work-in-progress" because the process of change and challenge has only just begun. The turmoil in Islamic societies today is a result of common people's search for an "alternative" politics to the existing authoritarian military state system. At the same time, it is also true that the historical symbols of Islam do provide escapism from the realities of today. Those dichotomies are still to be reconciled.
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