Power points - Religion and secularism
By Mark Juergensmeyer.
3 May 2008
(c) The Economist Newspaper Limited, London 2008. All rights reserved
The slogans of political Islam remain highly resonant, whether as a programme for peaceful governance or an inspiration to wage war. Two new books explain why
WHEN the British and French empires were at their height, imperial service often provided an outlet for the talents of precociously clever ethnographers, social anthropologists and scholars of religion. On the face of things, Noah Feldman is a similar figure, rendering important services to the American imperium, both as a rising star in the intellectual establishment and in more practical ways—he helped to draft Iraq's new constitution.
A young professor at Harvard Law School with a doctorate in Islamic political thought, Mr Feldman is brimming with the sort of expertise that America's new proconsuls in the Middle East and Afghanistan badly need. Above all, he is qualified to opine on how America should react to the dilemma posed by the huge popular support, in Muslim lands, forexplicitly Islamic forms of administration.
In a short, incisive and elegant book, he lays out for the non-specialist reader some of the forms that Islamic rule has taken over the centuries, while also stressing the differences between today's politicalIslam and previous forms of Islamicadministration. In particular, he shows why “justice” is such a resonant slogan for Islamist movements. At least subliminally, it evokes memories of a dimly remembered era when Islamic law, as interpreted by scholars, acted as a real constraint on the power of rulers. To many Muslims, the legal tradition of their faith is not viewed as an alternative to Western democracy, based on secular law, but rather as the only real alternative to totalitarianism.
That perceived dilemma—either Muslim law and scholarship, or unfettereddictatorship—is not just a hangover from history; it also reflects the fact that many secular regimes which replaced traditional Muslim empires were dictatorships, with no separation of powers.
So far, that is a familiar argument. Mr Feldman becomes more interesting when he shows how the Ottoman empire, in its efforts to modernise while retaining some Islamic legitimacy, almost unavoidably grew more dictatorial and less Islamic.
The very fact that Islamic law was codified implied a downgrading in the authority of Muslim scholars; their task had been to apply a set of abstract, unwritten principles to an infinite variety of situations, and the written law code risked putting them out of a job. When the Ottoman sultan-caliph tried some cautious constitutional experiments in 1876, it appeared to hispious subjects that he was undermining God's sovereignty. This was not so much because the experiments seemed bad, but because constitutional change implied that an earthly ruler could tinker withsystems that had been divinely ordained.
The modernising challenges facing the late Ottoman era dimly foreshadow, as Mr Feldman demonstrates, some of the problems of modern political Islam. But there are differences: the Islamists of today are not trying to reinstate the power of the scholars, which was a hallmark of all previous Islamic regimes. Instead, what modern Islamism proposes is an odd mix of popular sovereignty and the sovereignty of God; as though the people, having been offered sovereign power, freely decide to render that power straight back to God.
Another of Mr Feldman's paradoxes: any modern constitution or legal code that consciously proclaims its intention to be Islamic and deferential to God, will fall short of the early Islamic ideal, where the sovereignty of God was so deeplyassumed that it did not need spelling out.
Mr Feldman's book is more descriptive than prescriptive. But many readers may conclude that in Islam's heartland only forms of governance that incorporate Muslim values can hope to be legitimate. If secularism has been imposed in many places by dictatorial methods, thatis not because the secular rulers weregratuitously cruel; it was because secular principles had little hope of gainingspontaneous popular assent.
One huge question, unanswered by this book, is how minorities—practitioners of other religions or none—can expect to fare in countries where a form of political Islam is practised by the will of the majority. Even if the Islamic majority offers its non-Muslim compatriots generous forms of cultural autonomy, the infidel minorities can hardly be anything more thansecond-class subjects of an Islamic realm.
Whereas Mr Feldman's argument is about Islamic principles as a basis for creating stable, legitimate regimes, Mark Juergensmeyer, a professor of sociology and religious thought at the University of California, Santa Barbara, highlights the odd fact that the slogans of Islam, and other religions, are more effective than any secular battle-cry as a way of rallying people to wage war, or at least to live in armed readiness. Mixing analysis with reportage, he describes encounters with the leaders of Hamas, and with Jewish zealots who cheer the killing of Palestinians. He traces the advent of Hindu bigotry as a force in Indian politics and the role of Buddhism in Sri Lanka's conflict.
Any book that takes in such a sweep is bound to have errors of detail. But it is more than a minor error to describe the first decade of the Soviet communistregime as “relatively tolerant” towards religion. Still, Mr Juergensmeyer is right in his broader point—that in the early 21stcentury, religion retains a mobilising power that secular nationalism and universalist ideologies like Marxism have lost. If you are trying to make people risk their own lives and take the lives of others, then calling the enemy “infidels” (or, literally,demonising them) is more effective than calling them foreigners or class enemies.
In each of these books, there is at least one lacuna. Having made the fair point that scholarship and modern political Islam don't easily mix, Mr Feldman should have said something about Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the hugely influential and telegenic sheikh based in Qatar who seems to straddle both those worlds quite happily.
Mr Juergensmeyer distinguishes between the effects of secular nationalism and transnational religion, but he says little about religious nationalism, the opportunistic but effective combination of these two supposed opposites. As any thieving Balkan warlord knows, decent people often kill in the name of a half-forgotten national cause and for a religion in which they hardly believe. Using both tricks at once is especially effective.
The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State. Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to Al Qaeda.