Saturday, August 2, 2008

Islamic Fundamentalism and the Arab Political Culture Part I

By David Bukay

1st part of 3

The 20th century was one of the most turbulent in human history, marked by total wars and severe ideological struggles. Two ideologies competed against the Western liberal-democratic system and were defeated unconditionally. The first, Nazism, was vanquished in a total war that exacted one of the greatest human and economic costs in history. The second, Communism, was overcome after a political and ideological struggle that lasted three-quarters of a century. When it seemed that a “New World Order” had emerged and the period of total wars, and especially fanatic ideologies, had ended, the world became aware of the danger of fundamentalist Islam, whose borders, as Samuel Huntington has observed, are borders of blood.

Indeed, in several regards, this is a more extreme danger, certainly a graver and more massive threat. There are many Islamic states in the world, there is a total Islamic population of over a billion human beings, and the reality is one of an extroverted and aggressive, totalistic religion with an ideology of perpetual expansion. It should also be stated clearly, even in the age of the “politically correct”, that the problem is also one of Arabs, the “savage kinship” as scholars have called it, which is still immersed in many values of anarchic tribalism. We are not speaking of Islam as a religion, nor of the Arabs, per se. However, the combination of radical Arabs and fundamentalist Islam is deadly, and constitutes the greatest threat to the existence of modern society and culture. Their ideology is uncompromisingly murderous and nihilistic, and they are supported by millions of frustrated and destitute people who seek to convert the humiliating present back into the glorious past.

Islam constitutes a universal world-view, an all-inclusive civilization that lays down positive and negative commandments for the believer. It is a comprehensive system of religion (din) and state (dawlah) which does not distinguish between the kingdom of Allah and the kingdom of the ruler, and signifies total and exclusive submissiveness and devotion to the will of Allah. The Islamic ideal was the establishment of a political community (ummah), and the goal was defined as achieving an Islamic order and political stability while maintaining the unity of the community. Any rule is preferable to lack of rule, and any ruler can be accepted, because he is preferable to anarchy. Arab history, from the days of the prophet Muhammad to the present, is one of patrimonial leadership in military or monarchic authoritarian regimes. Yet, from the historical standpoint, political activity in the Arab world tended to encourage rebelliousness and political violence.1

How can we explain this paradoxical phenomenon? The answer is fascinating: there is no need for legitimacy stemming from the people and its sovereign political will, since sovereignty comes from Allah, and the moment one rule is replaced by another, it becomes accepted and consented to. Everything is done according to the will of Allah, and the test is always the result. Whether an act has succeeded or failed, that is the will of Allah. This is the ideological-religious basis for violence in Islam. Today, this model endures even in the secular conception of rule, with sovereignty consisting of the leader’s personality and the forcefulness of his rule. The Islamic state is theocratic: Allah is the only source of faith, and the religious cult is the symbol of collective identity. Any criticism, any opposition, constitutes heresy. This orientation is linked to the legitimacy of the government. Islam completely rejects the Western view that the state is the product of a “social contract”. The state reflects and embodies the will of Allah. Sovereignty (hakmi-yah) stems from Allah alone and does not pertain to the will of the ruled. The Western doctrine of a right to oppose a bad government, and a duty to replace it, does not exist in Islam. (Saddam Hussein’s maintenance of power in Iraq, and Arafat’s continuing to lead the Palestinians, are real-life examples.) The question of the citizenship and of civil sovereignty is irrelevant. In this regard, it is clear what the army’s role will be, and that the leadership will remain in power. From the standpoint of Islam, any attempt to alter the structure of legitimacy and sovereignty constitutes heresy and rebellion. The Arabic word for “state” is dawlah, which means dynasty, but connotes becoming or replacing (Sura 3, 134-140). Most of the population is estranged from the government, and is not regarded as a factor to consider in conducting politics. The political culture is native (submissive) in the center and parochial in the periphery. There is no tradition of a civil society that constitutes the sovereign, and citizenship, as a critical phenomenon, is practically nonexistent. Political participation is on the level of supportiveness only, and mobility is low. Intellectual thought in Islam, like legitimacy and sovereignty, is also different from the Western concept, and this has important implications for basic principles and political behavior. The concept is atomistic rather than integrative, meaning that the principle of causality does not exist, since everything stems from the will of Allah. The result is the crystallization of a synthetic culture that manifests mental collectivism, with an overarching goal of preserving stability, and a fear of questioning the political order lest disintegration, anarchy, and disorientation result. The values of Islam were profoundly influenced by the basic values of the Arabs in the jahali era. Allah is from the jahali period. He was regarded as a supreme god, and he had three daughter-gods: al-Lat, al-Manat, and al-`uzza. The cult of the stones was central in jahali Arab society, particularly the “black stone” in Ka`bah in Mecca. Another key example is the custom of the hajj, which was entirely incorporated into Islam. Apart from the customs that were replicated from the jahali era, it seems that only two of the five pillars of Islam (arkan al-Islam) – prayer (salat) and testimony (shahadah) – are originally Muslim.

The determinative affiliation is inward, involving the blood relations within the family or clan. This is manifested in the proverb, “I and my brothers against my cousin. I and my cousin against the neighbor, I and the neighbor against the foreigner.” The duty to uphold the affiliative and clan-family framework against others exists without any connection to the question of right or wrong.

The hostility and suspicion toward other tribes is deep and intense, and is well reflected in the relations between Arab states. There have never been relations of peace and fraternity between these countries, but rather a cold and alien d├ętente. The summit conferences are a powerful filter for synchronizing the severe disagreements that exist. These summits are held when sharp disputes arise on the political agenda. To avert conflicts as well as the shame of failing to arrive at agreement, the Arab leaders decide to formulate a joint document in a festive conference that aims at covering up the shame and creating an atmosphere of solidarity. Even this goal is achieved only with great difficulty. To prevent failure, and the intensification of the collective Arab shame, the Arab foreign ministers meet before holding the summit to formulate a summary document. That document is then transmitted to the heads of state for approval. The leaders’ level of participation manifests their agreement or opposition to the positions that have been reached. No less important, the defense and security agreements that are signed between Arab states are not worth the paper they are written on, and they are not regarded as applicable even by the signatories themselves.

From the state of affairs just presented, we may draw conclusions about the likelihood of reaching political arrangements with Arab states, let alone in the case of Arab land considered to be inhabited by infidels, such as the Crusaders and Israel. The attitude toward the foreigner shows fascinating paradoxes: on the one hand, courtesy, sympathy, and hospitality, yet on the other, an aloof suspicion. This indicates the social basis of the Arab-Islamic hatred, which is mingled both with fanaticism and feelings of inferiority toward the West. Peace is hardly a familiar phenomenon between the Arabs, and it is illusory to think they can reach peace with foreigners.

Muhammad succeeded in laying the political and intellectual foundation for the Islamic social system, but he failed to eradicate the tribal-clan structure. The tribes became part of Islam on the basis of the existing commonality of customs, and swore personal loyalty (mubaya`ah) to it because it was perceived as triumphant. This is a salient phenomenon among the Arabs, rooted in the spread of Islam, and it has major implications for the issue of Islamic fundamentalism: the victor is righteous, and the righteous always triumphs.

The test for righteousness is the same as the test for success. These are facts dispensed by Allah; hence, Islam triumphs and succeeds because it is righteous. In the tribal society, secular ideas held a central place and were expressed in the concept of “manhood” (muruwwah). This refers to the traits of the perfect Bedouin man. The most important framework was that of maintaining the rules of tribal solidarity (`asabiyah).

The tribe was the primary social unit, the basis of personal and collective existence; hence the centrality of the collectivist rather than individualist approach. The crucial phenomenon in the society is that of honor. This is the supreme value, more important than life itself. Sharaf is a man’s honor of the man. It is dynamic and can rise or fall in line with the man’s activity and how he is perceived. `ird is the honor of the woman (and also refers to her pelvis, which is related to her modesty). `ird, unlike sharaf, is permanent and static. The woman was born and grew up with her honor, and her duty is to guard it closely. The moment `ird is lost, it cannot be restored, and the honor of the man is severely compromised.2 Muslim tradition ascribes supreme importance to the man’s honor and the woman’s modesty. This is the basis for the status of woman in Islamic society, and one of the primary concepts in Islam that fosters male-female inequality.3

David Bukay


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