Sunday, June 16, 2013
Opinion: What is “Islamic” statehood?
by Sherif Ayoub
The resurgence of Islamic thought in the 20th century has served as a call to action by some Muslim leaders, demanding the adherents of the religion, such as myself, work together to supplant the Western-dominated models of statehood in Muslim countries. In fact, it could be argued that the root of the most organized opposition movements in the last century in these countries has been the aspiration for social transformation corresponding to Islamic jurisprudence, rather than the liberal ideals promoted in the West.
However, beyond the euphoria of latest successes of political Islam in bringing Islamic movements to power in the wake of the Arab Spring, this transformation poses challenges for Muslims seeking the truth about the claims that Islamic statehood promises bliss and salvation to the populace. The conundrum, of course, becomes apparent in the contrast between the stature of Islamic Empire in the seventh and eighth centuries, and the less-than-stellar performance of attempts to establish Islamic states in the modern era.
Essentially, two questions present themselves here: first, given that God is omnipotent and will undoubtedly not keep his benevolence from his true followers, how is it that the countries that seek to impose a model of Islamic statehood in the modern era are consistently ranked lower in development indicators than their Western counterparts?
And, second, when one thinks of the achievements of the Islamic Empire, did that success rest more on being Islamic, or on having an effective and functional state that was the most advanced in its time?
As it turns out, these two questions depend on the perception of the relationship between the Islamic belief system (including its moral underpinnings) and the effective functioning of a state. More specifically, they demand a clearer assessment of the role of the state in enforcing moral conduct as one of its core functions, especially with regard to ensuring well-being for its citizens.
To be sure, there should be a complementary relationship between the state and religious authorities in promoting (and enforcing) certain behavior among the populace. It is, however, the consistent demand by the leaders of political Islam for a state-centric model of enforcing religious beliefs that is being disputed here. Besides the fact that Muslim countries are, by and large, endowed with limited budgetary resources with which to face up to the large and increasingly complex challenges that confront them, this state-centric model of religious enforcement has paradoxically shifted the discourse in the religious centers from focusing on explaining religious values to explaining instead the importance in winning political battles against the liberal “infidels” to impose Islamic law by force.
As for the vilification of the Western model of statehood, it is not entirely clear where the basis of such fervent animosity resides. On the face of it, this model proposes democratically elected executive and legislative branches and an independent judiciary co-existing in an effective balance of power, governed by a constitution that also outlines the rights and freedoms of its citizens. In fact, it may be argued that this “Western” model of statehood conforms more closely to Islamic jurisprudence than the one on offer by some of the states in the Muslim world (for example, responsive leaders, effective judicial system, greater welfare, and so on).
Bearing this in mind, aspirations for the revival of the Islamic empire through the imposition of moral conduct using the powers of the state are misplaced. Instead, a more pragmatic approach is better, whereby religious authorities concentrate on their God-given opportunity to lead the Muslim populace on the path established by divine guidance. The state, for its part, should concentrate on the well-being of its citizens (all of them equally, no matter their gender or religion) in the most effective and efficient manner possible. With that, the Western models of statehood may not be so un-Islamic after all.
Sherif Ayoub is a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University's Department of Government. Prior to that, he was a researcher at Columbia University and the University of Edinburgh, and has worked with the World Bank and United Nations Development Program
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Posted by Sally Zahav at 3:15 AM