Michael Kennedy: Islam and State Projects in East-Asian and West-Asian Countries

The Muslim-majority countries in east Asia and west Asia have embarked on very different political projects with contrasting results. However, it is important to recognize that these differences have derived from separate historical political circumstances and very different approaches to Islam’s role within the State.

East-Asian Success in Secularization

Scholar Bahtiar Effendy argues that in states such as Indonesia, an Islamic intellectualism that grew since the 1970s drove three agendas that helped to diminish conflict between the state and Islam: theological renewal; political-bureaucratic reform; and social transformation.[i] This conflict is well-explored in Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. While modern state’s depend on law for the legitimacy of the state, protection of property, and the obedience of its citizens, in understandings of Shari’a, “the legal is the instrument of the moral, not the other way around.”[ii]

In Indonesia, Islamic law was reconceived as separate from secular law. The dominant theological renewal mentioned by Effendy was the emergence of the New Montazalites: a group of theologians and scholars who theorized that ethics were universal, and that revelation confirms practices of ethics, rather than establishing them.[iii] Through such a framework, secular laws could replace Shari’a as stemming from the same source of the moral. Meanwhile, in countries like Malaysia, Shari’a courts can continue to exist, with their jurisdiction solely applying to Muslims, to resolve interpersonal matters.

Scholar Carool Kersten distinguishes that secularization strategies do not eliminate political Islam in countries such as Indonesia; rather, Islamic values continue to underlie major political stances in a secularized government structure. He explains:

“In today’s Indonesian political Islam [these injunctions] are no longer articulated in the context of ideological and symbolic subjectivism (that is Islamic state or Islamic ideology). Instead, they are translated and decoded into several agendas pertinent to the interests of the Indonesian society in general, including a number of broader issues such as democratization, religious and political tolerance, socio-economic egalitarianism, and political participation.”[iv]

Conceptualization of Muslim Identities

The resistance of West Asian Muslims to secularization and modern state formation is largely due to their very different experiences of international involvement and their Muslim identities. First, not all Muslims in Pakistan or Afghanistan support the militant and fundamentalist regimes of groups such as the Taliban. The instability of western and central Asian Muslim countries and the presence of fundamentalist militancy is largely due to the proxy war between the U.S.S.R. and the United States followed by instability and infighting. Adeeb Khalid, in his book Islam After Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia, describes how Islam became synonymous with national identity for Muslims under Soviet occupation and thus held different political implications in central and western Asia. The transformation of Islamic national identity to a message of fundamentalist reform and militant self-rule was actually due in part to the United States.

Khalid discusses the history of Soviet occupation of Muslim territories and the long-term impact of the state’s suppression of religious and political activities. The political history of occupied territories, particularly in central Asia, has created a significant change in Muslim’s relationship to Islam. Khalid argues, “For most people, Islam continues to mean a ‘return’ to national tradition, the rediscovery of a cultural heritage that was much maligned during the Soviet era.”[v]

As East Asian Muslim countries have re-conceptualized Islam, Islam also means something different to people formerly under Soviet occupation. Khalid cites research of anthropologist Bruce Privatsky amongst Muslims from Kazakhstan, finding “that most people describe their religious life as musilmanshiliq, literally “Muslimness,” or taza jol, “the clean path,” rather than “Islam.” He notes that “this reflects discomfort with the abstraction of Islam as an ideology and a preference for Muslim life as an experience of the community.” Khalid concludes, “The community’s experience of Islam need not be grounded in textual authority… This religious minimalism [as termed by Privatsky] does not mean, however, that Central Asians do not see themselves as Muslims; rather it means that they see Islam as an integral part of their way of life.”[vi]

The tight connection of Islam to the realm of the cultural and the national once repressed by Soviet occupation has meant that state-building in central and western Asian Muslim countries has focused on the creation of an Islamic State. As scholars such as Hallaq have argued, the incorporation of Islam into structures of governance has led to conflict, specifically over interpretation of Shari’a. Especially in West Asian countries, Islamic groups had been militarized through the Cold War, thus this conflict in interpretation would manifest into armed conflict and civil war in countries like Afghanistan.

Political Instability of West and Central-Asian Countries

The U.S. is largely responsible for the power of armed Islamic militant groups, opposed to the stability of the immediate-post Soviet states, because of their Cold War policy. Kersten summarizes the U.S. foreign policy in detail:

“In 1984, during the American-sponsored jihad in Afghanistan, the CIA and its Pakistani counterparts came up with a plan. Instead of merely fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, they would carry the battle to their own turf. There were many Muslims in Soviet Central Asia who, according to CIA’s director, William Casey, “could do a lot of damage to the Soviet Union…” Throughout the Cold War, it had been axiomatic in the West that Islam was an antidote to Communism and that the Soviet Union’s own Muslims represented a “soft underbelly,” an internal threat that could be exploited… The Soviet Union collapsed without its Muslims making a lot of trouble… But no sooner had Central Asia become independent than its population ceased being “good Muslims” and became the object of fear and suspicion.”[vii]

The U.S. militarily and economically supported the Mujahidin as a military force to drive Soviets out of Afghanistan. However, the U.S. and other international powers did not invest in a vision for the future of the region post-occupation. It is important to recognize that the Mujahidin did have a vision for an Islamic state, albeit a broad vision. Khalid elaborates, “The mujaddids… had political goals in mind… Rahmatulla Alloma, one of the most prominent figures among the first mujaddids… described an ideal country where Islam flourishes, people have equal rights, and Muslims ‘bow only to God, and not to any party, nor to living or dead leaders.’”[viii] With the eventual withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989, the Mujahidin would be in contestation with the Soviet-supported communist government in Kabul. Aiming to advance their own political interests to support their wars, the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia funded and sold weapons to various factions of the Mujahidin.[ix] However, from this factionalism, the group fell out and the state faced anarchy and statelessness. Khalid summarizes:

“Afghanistan became a vast stateless expanse, its territory divided up among warlords who recognized no law except their own, its economy taken over by drugs, and its infrastructure destroyed beyond recognition. The country had become a haven for terrorism- all as a by-product of an American proxy war… This situation was to radicalize and militarize Islamic movements across a vast swath of territory… the chaos in Afghanistan, combined with Saudi and Pakistani machinations, was to produce the Taliban later in the decade…”[x]

While the Taliban emerged with a fundamentalist vision of Islamic governance, with strict enforcement of Shari’a, it is important to recognize a separation between their terrorism and their Islamism. The Afghanistan/Pakistan region was fraught with instability after Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980s. International militarization of various political entities vying for power almost pre-determined that the political future would be decided by guns, not through polls. The instability of the region, while a source of concern for some, has been exploited by international powers. Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, despite the State’s stance against terrorism, has funneled economic and military support for Taliban fighters; seeking to seat a power supportive of Pakistan.[xi] The region’s turn to lawlessness, drug-smuggling, and militant violence was largely result of the political instability and militarization of nationalist groups rather than a direct-result of jihadism.

It is important to recognize the instability, violence, and repressive religious powers that have formed in western Asia, but it is unfair to equate the failures of their political projects and the “success” of East Asian Muslim countries with their corresponding relationships to Islam. A 2002 piece by Lila Abu-Lughod aims to deconstruct and disrupt a prominent “superiority” narrative of secularized countries, assuming Islamic practices are repressive and uncivil. Understanding the saliency of Islam to a people once deprived of religious expression, she explains how Muslim women activists in west Asian countries are seeking to change their countries:

“According to one report I read, most women activists, especially those based in Afghanistan who are aware of the realities on the ground, agreed that Islam had to be the starting point for reform. Fatima Gailani, a U.S.-based advisor to one of the delegations is quoted as saying, ‘If I go to Afghanistan today and ask women for votes on the promise to bring them secularism, they are going to tell me to go to hell.’ Instead, according to one report, most of these women looked for inspiration on how to fight for equality to a place that might seem surprising. They looked to Iran as a country in which they saw women making significant gains within an Islamic framework-in part through an Islamically oriented feminist movement that is challenging injustices and reinterpreting the religious tradition.”[xii]

While the political instability of west Asia has created long-term problems for Muslim states, there is possibility for a more secure political future. With international responsibility, the ending of terrorism, and with the hard work of creating a shared re-conceptualization of how the state can function with Islam, there can be the reformation that looks different from the secularized Indonesia and Malaysia, while still being successful in serving the needs of its populations.

[i] Class Lecture, Nov.6.

[ii] Wael B. Hallaq. The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Pg. 15-16.

[iii] Class Lecture, Nov. 6

[iv] Carool Kersten. Islam in Indonesia: the Contest for Society, Ideas and Values. London: Hurst and Company: London, 2014. Pg. 140.

[v] Adeeb Khalid. Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Pg. 120.

[vi] Khalid. Pgs. 121-122.

[vii] Kersten. Pgs. 116-117.

[viii] Khalid. Pg.146.

[ix] Khalid. Pg. 143

[x] Khalid. Pg. 144

[xi] “The Taliban” Mapping Militant Organizations. Stanford University. Updated 15, July 2016. Web. http://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/367.

[xii] Lila Abu-Lughod. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others” American Anthropologist, Vol. 104. No. 3 (Sept.,2002). Pg. 788.

 

Bibliography

Adeeb Khalid. Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Pg. 120.

Carool Kersten. Islam in Indonesia: the Contest for Society, Ideas and Values. London: Hurst and Company: London, 2014.

Lila Abu-Lughod. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others” American Anthropologist, Vol. 104. No. 3 (Sept.,2002), pp. 783-790.

“The Taliban” Mapping Militant Organizations. Stanford University. Updated 15, July 2016. Web. http://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/367.

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

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