Alana Barrington Dye: Ideological Trends in the Modern Muslim World

With the new age of Euro-American centric modernity, Muslim states of the Middle East and North Africa have struggled to find an ideological place in the new modern system. In his book Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics, L. Carl Brown analyzes three prominent trends in the Islamic response to modernity: accomodationism, fundamentalism, and anti-colonialism. These three trends are the most apparent political ideologies and have great influence throughout the Muslim world.

Accomodationism is the belief that the problem with the current relationship between Islamic states and modernity is domestic and the solution to this problem is foreign.[1] In other words, the current system is weak, and it can be fixed by following the example of stronger, often ex-colonial, powers. Just as in the past, Europeans looked to the Muslim world for technology, philosophy, and science, accomodationists argue that modern Muslims can look to the West for elements of modernity such as “empirical research and openness to new ideas, methods, and institutions.” [2] The accomodationists do not believe that it is necessary for Muslim states to look back to the Golden Ages for a solution: the problem exists in modernity, and so it must be solved in modernity.[3]

Throughout modern history, Tunisia has implemented the use of accomodationism as a basis for how the state should be governed. In the nineteenth century, the Ottoman chief minister of Tunisia Khayer al-Din Tunisi looked to the Europeans for guidance in governing after they had colonized the Ottoman Empire. He argued that progress is unrelated to religion, so it is possible to be an observant Muslim in a modern, possibly westernized, country. Tunisi believed that Tunisia was in need of a new form of governance that was based on European models that included institutions such as a constitution and voting rights.[4] Tunisi’s beliefs were echoed in the Arab Spring of 2011. The uprising in Tunisia was the only uprising of the Arab Spring to result in a successful democracy. Its success came most importantly from “the country’s largest Islamist party, Ennahda, and its willingness to embrace compromise with secular political forces.”[5] Democratically elected into office, the Ennahda party began drafting a national constitution. Although there have been ups and downs as Ennahda has struggled with its dual Islamic and democratic identities, in what Karina Piser describes as “admirable democratic behavior,” Ennahda is “rejecting repression, forging democratic legitimacy, and maintaining the mantle of Islam against those would either pervert or deny it—all while willingly building coalitions with other political parties.”[6] Acts by the Ennahda party such as the ultimate removal of shari’a as the foundation of the Tunisian constitution[7] reveal the accomodationist tendencies of the country. Since the introduction of Western modernity to the Muslim world, the state of Tunisia has been influenced by the accomodationist view that looks to the systems of Euro-American powers for instruction on how to benefit the country.

The second ideological trend that Brown analyzes is fundamentalism. Fundamentalists believe that the problem with a given system and the solution to this problem are both domestic.[8] Brown explains that Islamic fundamentalists believe “Muslims attained worldly superiority when they followed God’s divine plan…and Muslims could regain ground lost by getting back to their divine-inspired roots, not by seeking answers beyond the orbit that God has drawn.”[9] Emphasizing a strong religiosity, fundamentalists promote a return to the First Golden Age as a model for the modern world. Most significantly, fundamentalists are not satisfied with fixing only the society in which they live: they believe in fixing the modern world, forcing modernity to conform to their beliefs.[10]

An important example of fundamentalism is Wahhabism, a marginal identity outside of the Sunni mainstream.[11] Created by eighteenth century Arabian theologian Muhammad Ibn Abdu’l Wahhab, Wahhabism promotes a return to an earlier, more pious, way of life to fix what has gone wrong in society.[12] In 1746, Wahhab, in alliance with Muhammad Ibn Saud, declared formal jihad against non-Wahhabis, using Saud for political gain and treating jihad as its own pillar of Islam.[13] Today, Saudi Arabia maintains a strong connection with Wahhabism. Following Wahhab’s anti-Shi’a sentiment, the significant Shi’a minority in Saudi Arabia is greatly oppressed. Saudi Arabia maintains a literal reading of the Qur’an, and in the country there is a large dependence on Islamic identity.[14] During recent uprisings in both Bahrain and Yemen, Saudi Arabia has deployed troops to repress the populaces of these countries in order to make sure that they, and their Wahhabi interpretation of Sunnism, maintain their current domination of the surrounding areas.[15] It is the elements of fundamentalism in the current Saudi government that informs actions to increase Wahhabi presence and Saudi dominance in the region.

The third and final significant ideological trend in the modern Muslim world is anti-colonialism. Anti-colonialists believe that while the problem is foreign, the solution can come from a mix of domestic and foreign ideas. In his book The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament, Wael B. Hallaq states that the Western concept of the state comes from “the structures of power they had inherited from the colonial experience.”[16] These structures, which create the “central domain,” are forced onto states that had been functioning within their own political structures. In pre-modern Islamic structures, there was no separation between the categories of moral and legal.[17] It is only when Western modernity is imposed upon non-Western states that this distinction occurs in the politics of the Muslim world. However, it is not possible for Hallaq to fit comfortably within the anti-colonialist model because he does not believe that it is possible for the solution to be mixed. He uses Iran as an example of this, claiming that in Iran, “the state apparatus has subordinated and disfigured Shari’a’s norms of governance, leading to the failure of both Islamic governance and the modern state as political projects.”[18] Ruhollah Khomeini, as an anti-colonialist, created a mixed constitution and gave power to a parliament (as long as they did not oppose shari’a).[19] Whether or not a mixed solution can be successful is up to debate, but it remains a central part of the anti-colonialist ideology.

Together, Brown and Hallaq reveal the three most significant ways of understanding the ideal relationship between modernity and the Muslim world. Accomodationists, fundamentalists, and anti-colonialists all agree that there is something in the current relationship between modernity and the Muslim world that is failing. The varying interpretations of this problem have led to a series of differing solutions across the Muslim world. These differences are exemplified in the politics of countries such as Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

 

 

Works Cited

Brown, L. Carl. Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Hallaq, Wael B. The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “In between the Accommodationist and the Fundamentalist Perspectives.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. September 26, 2016.

——-. “Wahhabism, Oil and Regional Agendas.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. October 10, 2016.

——-. “Interventionism in Yemen and Bahrain.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. October 14, 2016.

Piser, Karina. “How Tunisia’s Islamists Embraced Democracy.” Foreign Policy. Last modified March 31, 2016. Accessed October 4, 2016. http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/31/how-tunisias-islamists-embraced-democracy-ennahda/.

 

 

[1] Mahallati, “In between the Accommodationist and the Fundamentalist Perspectives,” 9/26/2016.

[2] Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics, 141.

[3] Mahallati, “In between the Accommodationist and the Fundamentalist Perspectives,” 9/26/2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Piser, “How Tunisia’s Islamists Embraced Democracy.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mahallati, “In between the Accommodationist and the Fundamentalist Perspectives,” 9/26/2016.

[9] Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics, 141.

[10] Mahallati, “In between the Accommodationist and the Fundamentalist Perspectives,” 9/26/2016.

[11] Mahallati, “Wahhabism, Oil and Regional Agendas,” 10/10/2016.

[12] Mahallati, “In between the Accommodationist and the Fundamentalist Perspectives,” 9/26/2016.

[13] Mahallati, “Wahhabism, Oil and Regional Agendas,” 10/10/2016.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Mahallati, “Interventionism in Yemen and Bahrain,” 10/14/2016.

[16] Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament, 2.

[17] Ibid, 82.

[18] Ibid, 2.

[19] Mahallati, “In between the Accommodationist and the Fundamentalist Perspectives,” 9/26/2016.