Oct 17th 2011

Arab Spring and Revival of the Islamic State

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

Few Muslims would dispute the notion that Islam should guide their private as well as public lives, since the Quran and the Sunna - the tradition of Prophet Muhammad - which the two primary sources of Islam's religious law, or Shari'a, provide instructions on virtually every aspect of life. Muslims differ, however, on the varying readings of what Shari'a means, and hence the diverse Islamic schools of jurisprudence, or Fiqh. The wide spectrum of Fiqh schools in Sunni or Shiite Islam varies across two key dimensions: interpretation (verbatim vs. socially-conditioned interpretation) and authority (identity of those qualified to make interpretation and the nature of their political power).

The Arab Spring exposed both the hypocrisy of the established religious authorities, who issued fatwas against the pro-democracy protests in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and the bankruptcy of the radical militants' ideology. Arabs who protested in the streets across religious, age, and gender divisions were motivated by aspiration for the universal values of freedom and human rights- a consensus even the staunchest of Islamists cannot ignore.

In the matrix, Sunni schools endorse whoever the Muslim community chooses to lead it as legitimate ruler, while Shiite Islam assigns religious and political leadership to the decedents of the Prophet (as infallible Imams), on behalf of which the Shiite scholars act as agents. Moderate Sunni schools (Hanafi and Maliki), as well as some Shiite schools adopt socially-conditioned interpretations based on logic deduction by scholars; while the conservative Sunni schools (Hanbali) adopt a strict version of verbatim interpretation. In reality, however, the Islamic world has been divided into three classes: secular government that consigns religion to personal life (Egypt); ostensibly-religious, but essentially secular government that sanctions intrusive authority of clerics (Saudi Arabia); and outright religious government (Iran).

Ironically, rivaling Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran invoke Shari'a to maintain their dictatorial regimes and oppress political freedoms using the same maxim - rebelling against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted as sovereignty belongs to God and not to the people. Combined with the discriminatory practices against women and non-Muslim minorities, as well as the electoral victories of anti-Western Islamists based on the example of "one man, one vote, one time," in Sudan, Gaza, and Algeria, the notion that Islam and liberal democracy are incompatible gained popularity.

Shari'a has also been invoked for purposes other than domestic oppression. Iran's deception of the international community with regards to its nuclear program is believed to stem from the Shiite concept of taqqiya - permission for believers to hide the truth from nonbelievers to protect the religion - which is arguably justified in the Quran (3:28; 16: 106). It is no wonder, then, that there are those who believe that Islam permits devout Muslims to deliberately lie to and cheat non-Muslims to promote the religion of Islam anytime and anywhere.

Even worse, Shari'a has been invoked by radical, militant Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda, to justify committing terror attacks against non-Muslim civilians in the West, as well as their fellow Muslims under the guise of Jihad. Here, Jihad is understood as the duty of every Muslim to wage war against all non-Muslims with the ultimate aim of the ruling the world.

These patterns of abusing Shari'a by authoritarian Muslim rulers and militant groups bring us back to the two key dimensions of Fiqh schools: interpretation and authority. Works of radical Islamic theorists as well as regime-co-opted religions are essentially the product of a selective interpretation process that at one time adopts explanations provided by medieval clerics, and at another makes an independent interpretation, according to the current political agenda and self-interests, and not reason.

Less known, however, is a great legacy of sensible Islamic scholars who warned against this abusive process long time ago. Muhammad Abdu, the enlightened Islamic scholar of the nineteenth century, viewed reason as the ultimate virtue of Islam; therefore any dogma contradicting morals or the core values of Islam - justice, consultative governance, and mercy - should be ruled out. On authority, Ali Abdel-Raziq of the early twentieth century, argued persuasively in his 1925 seminal treatise, Islam and the Foundations of Governance, that Islam does not suggest any particular type of government, religious or otherwise, because the Prophet's divine mission has been to establish a community of believers, not a body politic.

The relevance of the above discussion to the ongoing, groundbreaking developments in the Arab-Islamic world and the West cannot be exaggerated. On the one hand, the Islamists have an unprecedented window of opportunity that, if taken properly, would allow them not only to revive the religion of Islam in a constructive and beneficial way, but also to present the world with an example to be emulated. Islamist forces in the Arab world should introduce a face of Islam that shows the deeper and truer meaning of Jihad - one's internal struggle to maintain faith, and the struggle to improve the Muslim community. This is especially true at a time when the people are becoming wary about allowing the boundaries of politics and religion to blur, raising legitimate questions about what Islamist rule has brought to Iran (oppressed people whose nation's resources are squandered by the political elite and wasted on exporting terrorism, building nuclear armament and revolution-export business) or the Sudan (poor, oppressed people having their nation split into two after a long, bloody and losing war).

Initial signs in the right direction have already appeared in revolutionary Egypt where ideologues of Jamat al-Islamiyya, who took up arms against the Mubarak regime in the 1980s and the 1990s, now search for a form of Islamic liberalism that is inclusive of other political forces in society. In Tunisia and Libya, where Islamists are expected to dominate the next elections, leaders and citizens tend to reject the Saudi and Taliban models - seen as sheer dictatorships - and opt instead for the Malaysian and Indonesian ones that combine Islam and modernity. If this approach is sincere and given enough effort to mature into coherent policy, it would lead to the emergence of a democratic Islamic state model that would respond to the reforms Muslim societies require, and turn Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations prophecy into a mere academic discourse.

On the other hand, the economic turbulence that many Western democracies are experiencing and the growing gap between the rich and poor in most advanced economically nations raises questions about the sustainability of the world's economic system. Islamic banking is becoming increasingly more attractive alternative since its interest-free finance - based on Shari'a prohibition of payment for loans of money - responds to the very dilemmas that caused the current global economic crisis: lending capital and mortgage transactions. This could lead the already growing Islamic banking to thrive world-wide, and offer some example of modifying business practices with the rules of Shari'a.

Although the decades-long abuse of Shari'a to justify oppression, deception, and terror, and despite the fact that democracy is a Western-born concept, Islam and liberal democracy are essentially congruent. In his 2004 book Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA brilliantly departs from the traditional approach to this case - i.e., asserting that ideas of representation between leaders and led are commended in the Quran (42:38) - and adheres to the core values of Islam, including diversity and justice, which resonate with those of liberal democracy and human rights. It is these works of Abdu, Abdel-Raziq, and Abu El Fadl, and their application to contemporary concrete needs of the people that would lead to the revival of an Islamic world that lives in peace and could potentially make a significant contribution to civilization.

The rising Arab youth want to be free and live with dignity without abandoning their Islamic roots. Thus, it is not the mere adoption of Western values of freedom and human rights that will determine the successes of the newly emerging Arab regimes as a result of the Arab Spring, but how well these values are incorporated into the Islamic way of life without violence and unending strife.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Conspiracy theories about sinister Jewish power have a long history. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery published in 1903, popularized the notion that Jewish bankers and financiers were secretly pulling the strings to dominate the world. Henry Ford was one of the more prominent people who believed this nonsense."
Dec 13th 2019
EXTRACT: "In previous British elections, to say that trust was the main issue would have meant simply that trust is the trump card – whichever leader or party could secure most trust would win. Now, the emerging question about trust is whether it even matters anymore."
Dec 5th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe must fend for itself for the first time since the end of World War II. Yet after so many years of strategic dependence the US, Europe is unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany."
Nov 23rd 2019
Extdact: "The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is."
Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."