The complex relationship between Islamism and democracy

Moderate Islamism should be seen as a means of institutionalising religious conservatism.

Last week’s murder of over twenty Shia Muslims and a brazen Taliban attack on a military base are just the latest cases in Pakistan’s litany of religious violence. Unsurprisingly, the country is often cited as a worst-case example of the role political Islam can play in fostering extremism. But it is notable that no Islamist party in Pakistan has even come close to winning the country’s national elections. In fact, the intensification of violent activity by the country’s Islamist groups does not represent the triumph of political Islam, but its failure.

Pakistan’s flawed democratic processes and fractured religious groupings have prevented the electoral success of dominant, moderate religious parties who are capable of channeling religion in legitimate and non-violent ways. Instead, the country has been wracked by a competitive, often violent, street sectarianism. Unable to succeed at the ballot box, fragmented groups have sought, in vain, to impose their own narrow vision of Islam on the state by attacking minorities, taking up arms or threatening rivals in street demonstrations - challenging the writ of the state rather than working within its political framework.

Islamism’s first major advocate was Abdul A’la Maududi, a journalist and religious propagandist born in 1903 in Aurangabad, in then undivided India. In the crucible of the independence movement, Maududi rejected the idea of Pakistan, because it was led by secular, Westernised politicians like Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Instead, he insisted that Muslims should live in a society governed by religious law, from which all non-Islamic elements were purged. Despite his early disapproval of the formation of the new nation, he moved to Pakistan in 1947, and spent the rest of his life fighting for a constitution based on a rigid interpretation of the shari’a and freedom from materialistic Western influences, including freedom from liberal democracy. He argued instead for “theo-democracy”, a rule of the religious. 

Largely due to its focus on the distinction between Islam and Western “godless” systems, Maududi’s brand of Islamism became a popular model for revolutionaries in post-colonial states, where predominantly Muslim populations were governed by autocratic, notionally secular rulers backed by the West. In countries as diverse as Iran, Turkey and Egypt, Muslims were told that their religion was not compatible with politics, whether autocratic or democratic. 

Yet, since the late 1970s, in many of these Muslim-majority states, elite groups arguing for secularism have been swept aside by people’s movements advocating the centrality of Islam as a political ideology. In none of these developments—revolutionary and democratic—did Islamism emerge as a top-down system.

In Turkey, the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) emerged from a process of ‘Reformation’ in rural Anatolia, linked to the grass-roots influence of an authoritative Sufi order, the Naqshbandiyya-Khalidiyya. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood learned early that to succeed it had to evolve from an anti-democratic, revolutionary group to become an institutionalised political actor. Although its earlier ideologues rejected multi-party pluralism, the Muslim Brotherhood now seems committed to it, both in theory and practice. The slogan that has caused much disquiet in the Western media—“al-Islam huwa al-Hall” (“Islam is the solution”)—was originally coined as an electoral slogan. Even in Iran, the revolutionary leadership managed to harness genuine popular support in the 1970s (and arguably continues to do so) based on its religious authority, spreading the message of Ayatollah Khomeini. In these countries, deep social changes found expression in Islamist political movements that overwhelmed non-democratic forces. 

In Pakistan however, Islamism did not take root. Muslims are more profoundly divided in Pakistan by sectarian, linguistic and ethnic affiliations. As a result, although Islamist parties have contested every national election in Pakistan’s history, they have never won a significant proportion of the votes. The entrenched power structures and material attractions of secular parties have consistently trumped calls to impose the shari’a. When, in 2002, a coalition of Islamist parties formed the provincial government of the North West Frontier Province, it collapsed within three years as Deobandi, Barelwi, and Shia factions argued about how to implement Islamic government. 

It is notable that Pakistani Islamists parties have only enjoyed widespread support when they have joined pro-democracy movements. In the 1980s, for example, Maududi’s party, the Jamaat-I Islami, joined Benazir Bhutto in her fight against dictatorship and, more recently, members of the Jamaat have joined Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice (PTI), which seeks to purge Pakistan of its habitually corrupt politicians. This blend of populism and Islamism shows that violence is not inbuilt in the DNA of Islamists – rather, successful Islamism relies on the ability to address popular grass-roots concerns, not to coerce populations.

Instead of fearing moderate Islamism, it should be seen as a means of institutionalising religious conservatism. It may not be the outcome that liberals want, but in democracies as disparate as Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia politics have come to be dominated by parties who blend religion with an economic right-of-centre platform. The popularity and electoral success of parties such as Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Indonesia’s Golkar-led coalition and Malaysia’s United Malays National Organisation are all evidence of this trend. The increasing popularity of Imran Khan’s religiously conservative PTI suggests that Pakistan is following a similar trajectory.

Daniel Jacobius Morgan is a Researcher at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. He is currently working on an M.Phil in South Asian Studies at Oxford University

 

Pakistani Shiite Muslims raise their hands during a religious procession in Lahore. Photograph: Getty Images
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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear