Islam and the contingency of politics

An Iranian woman walks past an anti-US mural depicting the Statue of Liberty on the wall of the former American embassy in Tehran.
An Iranian woman walks past an anti-US mural depicting the Statue of Liberty on the wall of the former American embassy in Tehran, 2015. Credit: Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty Images.

The Islamic relationship between religion and state has a deep history – but the modern politics of nationalism has re-cast Islam in a new political mould.

Politics is often an idealistic pursuit, but the political project rarely comes through unscathed by compromises forced on actors by time, resources and space, as well as by other people. The outcome may be presented as the successful bending of an intransigent reality to the political imperative, but the question of what transforms and what is transformed in political history is by no means straightforward.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the interaction of the religious and the political in much of the Islamic world, both historically and today. The more closely we study the many traditions of Islamic political thought, as well as the complex interactions that have constituted not simply the politics of Muslims, but self-consciously Islamic politics, the more obvious it becomes that ‘Islam’ does not suggest a single, uncompromising political programme. Throughout history, the Islamic world has witnessed varied forms of power, different ways of thinking about politics, as well as sharp, sometimes violent conflicts about the proper governance of the Muslim community – which only constituted a single political community in the very earliest days of Islam. Thereafter, attempts were made to justify political arrangements with reference to ‘Islam’, invoked as a token of legitimacy. But this could not disguise both the extraordinarily varied phenomena to fall under that label, nor the fact that its invocation generally followed the achievement of political success by other means – means recognisable throughout human history, which owe little, if anything, to Islamic imperatives.

In the contemporary debate about ‘Muslim politics’ or the ‘politics of Islam’, it is worth looking critically at the slogan ‘Islam is religion and state’ (al-islam huwa din wa-dawlah). Certain Islamists use it often to suggest both the distinctive nature of their political project, but also to claim that the politics of any state should conform to their particular understanding of Islamic imperatives. The slogan is meant to distinguish the politics of the Islamic world from that of a world dominated by secular power, specifically power derived from the equally iconic – and equally contingent – assertion of a Christian tradition that there is a separation between church and state. The Islamic slogan is also meant to reproach all those governments of Muslim countries that have neglected God’s commands in their pursuit of worldly power. At the same time, and of increasing significance in the debate about legitimate forms of power both in Muslim majority countries and in those countries of Western Europe with substantial Muslim minorities, the slogan ‘Islam is religion and state’ has been taken at face value by those in the West and elsewhere who see this as distinctive of Muslim politics. Accorded the status of an undisputed tradition, immutable in some idealist sense and with the capacity to drive the politics of Muslims whatever their situation, this slogan has rarely been seen for what it is: a contingent statement made at a particular moment of history by specific political groupings to express their identity and their political project.

We must critically examine the assumptions underlying this slogan and the politics supposedly associated with it. Like all political artefacts, the slogan refracts reality (historical and other) through the prism of its purposes. Examining the circumstances of its assertion, and the alternatives it may be suppressing, opens up a less homogeneous, more complex map of Muslim politics, which will look far more familiar than those interested in maintaining a sharp divide between the Muslim and the non-Muslim may care to admit.

First, it is worth considering some of the historical experiences of the accommodation between distinctive Islamic agendas and secular forms of power in political orders that have come to epitomise, both for supporters and detractors, the ‘Islamic state’. Second, it is important to bring out the range of traditions in Islamic political thought that offer a varied repertoire for politics, particularly for distinctively Islamic politics. This variety of traditions has often been ignored in the attempt to appropriate one specific set of ideas and symbols from this repertoire and to declare it the only legitimate Islamic way. This, in turn, emphasises that contemporary Islamic political thought is indelibly marked by the effects of Muslims’ encounters with modernity, particularly with the imaginative and material power of nationalism and the nation state. These encounters have influenced the selection of a particular range from this repertoire, making the outcome Islamic, certainly, but in ways familiar to those concerned with more secular forms of identity politics.

Political power and religious authority in Islamic history

In order to illustrate the effective separation of religion and state under very different circumstances in Islamic history, it is worth looking at two institutions claimed by both Muslims and non-Muslims to be proof of the inseparability of religion and state in Islam. Each example, one Sunni and one Shia, shows the determination of those in power to sanctify their rule by linking it to an authoritative Islamic tradition. However, they also demonstrate that the identity of religion and state may have been deceptive and suggest that even the most apparently ‘Islamic’ orders are susceptible to a logic that had nothing specifically to do with Islamic belief or the commands of the sharia.

The first example derives from the strange twists in the story of the Ottoman Caliphate and its ending. Often projected as the unifying institution of the Islamic state, the caliphate (from khalifah – successor or deputy of the Prophet Mohammed) had originally been conceived of as the office which would indeed combine both religious and political leadership of the Muslim community after the Prophet’s death. However, with the growing size and complexity of the Muslim domains in the first centuries of Islam, it became increasingly difficult for any one man to combine in his person and his office the authority and power suggested by the original prophetic example. The demands of the division of labour, if nothing else, as well as the growing geographical extent and inevitable weakening of central control, and the impressive array of doctrinal and sectarian differences that soon emerged, meant that by 950 CE the Abbasid caliphate had lost political power to those who were more ruthless and effective in marshalling armed force and economic resources.

In 1517, the last of the Abbasid caliphs, al-Mutawakkil III, surrendered to the Ottoman sultan, Selim the Grim, who took him to Istanbul, where he was used, as the Mamlukes had used him previously, to give lustre to the secular rule of the sultan. After his death in 1538, the iconic status of the title ‘caliph’ was reduced to meaning little more than a ruler who maintained the sharia. In the Ottoman domains there was effectively a functional separation (if strategic co-operation) between ‘religion’, represented by the chief Islamic scholars and jurists, and ‘state’, represented by the padishah (emperor), his military commanders and bureaucratic apparatus. The Shaikh al-Islam, as the most senior member of the religious establishment, presided over a descending hierarchy of qadis and muftis who upheld the sharia, largely independent of the bureaucrats and military officers who formed the other face of power. However, all were servants of the padishah, as they were reminded by Suleiman the Magnificent’s renowned Shaikh al-Islam, Abu Sa`ud Chelebi. He argued that, since all qadis ultimately derived their authority from the padishah, they should apply the sharia according to his rulings. Imperial ordinances (qanun) were recognized within this framework, allowing the growth of a vast body of effectively secular law. In all of these political and legal developments, there was little mention of the caliphate as an institution that conjoined religion and state. The more usual justification was the collaborative, contingent rationale that the padishah upheld the sharia and the interpreters of the sharia upheld the rule of the padishah.

In the late eighteenth century the title of ‘caliph’ re-emerges as one of the epithets of the padishah. The way it re-emerged is peculiar and instructive. Far from making an appearance as a result of some renaissance of Islamic political tradition, it came about as part of a diplomatic ruse to gain something from military defeat at the hands of the Russians. Moreover, the title was construed mainly to address European preconceptions. Obliged under the terms of the 1774 Treaty of Kücük Kaynarca to cede territories to the Russian Empire, the Ottomans tried to keep a foothold – and possibly also to disguise the magnitude of their defeat – by claiming that the Ottoman sultan, as caliph of the Muslims, retained a measure of authority over those Muslims who were now subjects of the Russian Empire. Playing to the European belief that the caliphate was similar to the papacy, with spiritual authority over large numbers of believers ruled by sovereign princes, the Ottomans argued for, and won, Russian recognition of the caliph’s authority – despite the fact that their own usage and understanding of the caliphate had long moved on from this position.

In practice, this recognition did not gain much for the weakened Ottoman state in its unequal competition with European empires. However, some hundred years later, the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II, in his bid to strengthen his state against European encroachments, not only revived the usage, but developed it to reassert both the absolutism of the Ottoman dynasty and its Islamic authority. Lacking the military and economic weight of the British and French empires, Abdulhamid nevertheless sought to compete by claiming spiritual authority over their hundreds of millions of Muslim subjects. This was taken seriously by the Western powers, concerned about the loyalties of their Muslim subjects should they find themselves at war with the Ottoman Empire. However, when war did come, in 1914, Abdulhamid’s successor, Mohamed V Rashad (by this stage stripped of temporal power by the wholly secular triumvirate of the Committee of Union and Progress, which ruled the Empire) did not manage to mobilise sufficient sympathy to make any strategic difference. The Ottoman Empire was defeated and dismembered. Provincial revolts, foreign occupation and internal convulsions ended the Ottoman sultanate in 1922, and in 1924 the last Ottoman caliph, Abdul-majid II, was deposed.

This final act in the drama of the Ottoman Caliphate was equally significant because the body which terminated it, the Turkish Grand National Assembly, was a purely secular body which, in theory, had no jurisdiction over the office of the caliph. Yet, the vote was taken, the centuries-old institution was brought to an abrupt end and, although there was consternation throughout the Islamic world, no attempt was made to ignore this ruling by continuing to recognise Abdulmajid as the rightful caliph of the Muslims. On the contrary, within a very short time, various Muslim princes and kings tried either to claim the title for themselves, or to block their rivals from doing so. In British India, the Khilafat movement did try to reinstate the Muslim caliphate, but more as a form of anti-colonial politics. Thus, it can be argued that the Islamic caliphate, as a political reality, had long become simply an adjunct of secular power, invoked or played down depending upon the vicissitudes of dynastic, imperial and national politics – responding to a secular logic of worldly power, not driven by some ineluctable ‘Islamic tradition’ demanding the inseparability of religion and state.

In a more recent example, taken from Iran in the twentieth century, the late Ayatollah Khomeini made a determined effort to end the split nature of political power and to reassert the unity of religion and state, embodied in his controversial doctrine of Vilayet-i Faqih (the rule of the jurist). In essence, this doctrine, worked out in his years of exile from Iran as a direct challenge to the secular nationalism and absolutism of the Shah, asserted that supreme power must be in the hands of the jurist most qualified to interpret the sharia. Theoretically, he would be in the best position to ensure that the state remained truly Islamic in all its aspects, as well as in the enforcement of its rulings in society at large. This was a controversial and disputed doctrine among Shia Muslim scholars. Many believed that it was blasphemous to talk of the establishment of an Islamic state in the absence of the return of the twelfth imam. Others were concerned that it would elevate one scholar among many as the supreme interpreter of the sharia, thereby violating the doctrine of the validity of multiple interpretations.

However, with power conferred upon him by the tumultuous events of the Iranian revolution of 1978–79, Ayatollah Khomeini could brush aside all opposition and doctrinal misgivings, ensuring that the new Iranian constitution of 1979 endorsed his doctrine and institutionalised it as one of the distinguishing features of the Islamic republic. Nevertheless, even in this most self-conscious conjoining of religion and state, there were forces at work to suggest, as in the Ottoman case, that religious sanction followed power, not vice versa. Contemporary Iranian history is full of such cases, but one in particular is striking for what it tells us about the contingency of the political even in such a setting. This is the case of the promotion of a mediocre religious scholar, Hojjat al-Islam Ali Khamenei, to the position of supreme jurist in the Islamic Republic of Iran in succession to Ayatollah Khomeini.

Until 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini had designated as his successor a respected jurist, Ayatollah Mohamed Montazeri, long regarded as an authoritative, if not outstanding, interpreter of the sharia. However, the vicissitudes of politics being as they are, Montazeri had had a series of disagreements with Ayatollah Khomeini over various aspects of the politics of the Islamic republic. By 1988, so convinced had Khomeini and his entourage become that Montazeri might challenge his legacy, that he was disinherited, and the lesser figure of Ali Khamenei, at the time president of the republic, was designated in his stead. Khamenei was considerably more in tune with Khomeini’s political agenda and, as president, was deemed highly suitable and politically well-qualified. However, in terms of religious knowledge and authority he was a much diminished figure, and could in no way be described as a pre-eminent source of emulation (marja) among the jurists, which the doctrine of the Vilayet-i Faqih – and the Iranian constitution – required.

In order to remedy this deficiency, during the last year or so of Khomeini’s life, there were concerted moves to amend the Iranian constitution, specifically to split the role of vali (jurist as ruler) and marja (jurist as supreme source of religious emulation). Before he died, Khomeini gave his blessing to this amendment, which allowed any cleric qualified to issue a fatwa to assume the role of vali. There was need neither for popular, nor for general, clerical recognition of his exceptional religious qualifications. On the contrary, according to some of Iran’s ruling clerics, the main qualification for the post was now a knowledge of the ‘political, social and cultural issues facing Muslims… management ability and adminis- trative skills’. Since Ali Khamenei could not be considered a marja and was only promoted to the rank of ayatollah by Khomeini’s command, he was now extolled for his political acumen and administrative abilities. Making a clear distinction between the religious and the political office, his successor as president of Iran, Hashemi Rafsanjani, stated that ‘the mujtahid in the seminary… cannot as easily issue an edict about the shortcomings in banking… as one who is responsible for administration’. It seemed that the secular logic of the state now required a different kind of rule – one where religious guidance and the secular functions of government were separated once more. Immediately after Khomeini’s death, the Council of Guardians approved the succession of Khamenei to the office of Supreme Leader, but the title of marja was conferred on the elderly and ailing Grand Ayatollah Araki, who played no part in government.

Multiple legacies in Islamic political thought and practice

The examples above, spanning different centuries and different parts of the Islamic world, as well as taking in two of the principal ‘traditions’ into which Muslims are divided, should help to dispel the notion that something labelled ‘Islam’ requires affinity between religion and the state. Of course, some Muslims at various times in history have asserted such an identity, but as the examples have shown, this has sometimes been part of a strategy devised to counter the encroachment of non-Muslim powers. Even where it was part of an internal struggle to assert a particular interpretation of Islamic law, self-consciously affirming the unity of Islam and state, it was no less susceptible than other political claims to the counterclaims of strategic political calculations in which this affirmation took unacknowledged second place.

Indeed, one could plausibly argue that the rich histories of Islamic thought, jurisprudence and political practice provide a broad, complex repertoire from which Muslims have drawn over the centuries. In this respect, it is worth examining the discontinuities of Islamic political thought, rather than attempting to pin down one single trend and label it as the one distinctive, defining mode of Islamic thought. Furthermore, the focus would be sharper if directed to understanding what it is about the circumstances of political actors and thinkers at different times which may have led them to stress one particular set of imperatives, calling these the rightful ‘politics of Islam’. No less than with other great ethical traditions, it is worth thinking critically about this process as a complex one, in which sometimes contradictory forces have contributed to the final selection, even if that choice has been presented as a ‘rediscovery’ of the eternal truths of the religion.

For instance, it can plausibly be argued that at least two very different traditions of Islamic political thought have fed into current Islamist politics. One could be called the impulse to create ‘the republic of virtue’; the other is associated with those who assert the primacy of the sharia. The former has sometimes been identified with antecedents such as the philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi (870–950 CE) and other Neo-Platonists. In this the co-operation of the whole community to achieve the perfect happiness of the whole under the direction of the philosopher-king, can be seen to prescribe and limit individual moral choices, which collectively constitute the community’s character and virtue. Some took this to suggest unlimited power for the philosopher-king as he brought people into the path of virtue; others have seen this as equally congenial to the notion of ‘commanding right and forbidding wrong’, which should be the duty of all good Muslims. However, it is noticeable that in the twentieth century substantial numbers of Islamists have made this the defining duty of the state and of those appointed by the state. In this interpretation, the state becomes the engine of virtue, led either by an enlightened leader, as in Khomeini’s doctrine of Vilayet-i Faqih, or brought into being by the exemplary behaviour of an enlightened elite, or the ‘Qur’anic generation’, in the words of Sayyid Qutb.

A second Islamic tradition can be found over the centuries in the repeated assertion by jurists of different schools that the sharia, not the state or the political leader, is most important for the politics of the Muslim community. This was associated with the admonition to do everything possible to create the conditions of a good Muslim life for all believers, even if this meant tolerating tyranny – or, indeed, participating in the politics of a secular state. In the twentieth century, very different groups of Muslims with contrasting political agendas have taken up this idea. For the Islamic reformists it was this, combined with wide-ranging new interpretations of the sharia, which suggested substantial accommodation between an Islamic programme and its politics and a changing world. In this reading, the exhortation to assert the primacy of the sharia was precisely not to treat it as a kind of fixed code, but to remain faithful to its spirit and to its guidance through life, while contextualising previous interpretations and setting them against the new claims of a changing world and a changing epistemology. In this light, there was (and is) clearly no contradiction between respect for the sharia and for the institutions of, for instance, a democratic state.

However, this formulation was also taken by those of a more neo-Salafi cast of mind to suggest that the primacy of the sharia must mean the use of a rigid, very specific interpretation of its rules. For some of them, the fact that their views of the specifics and of the method of approaching the sharia were not shared by the vast majority of Muslims was almost a proof of their virtue; this underlined the urgency of maintaining their narrow view of rules for fear of diluting the authenticity of their cause. This was to be the yardstick by which governments and ordinary Muslims were found wanting; political energies were geared to seizing the state in order to transform it into the instrument of sharia enforcement. In some respects, this stood the historical tradition on its head and, as the views and behaviour of the Sudanese Islamic Charter Front or the Taliban of Afghanistan demonstrated, brought them much closer to those Islamists who had come at politics through the tradition of the ‘republic of virtue’.

The fact that two such different traditions, or aspects of Islamic political thought, could come together so often, both in theory and in practice, in the late twentieth century, inevitably focuses attention on the possible common denominator. The facile answer to this has been ‘Islam’. But, as the brief explorations above have shown, this makes little sense, given the range of the Islamic political repertoire. There is, however, another factor shared by both traditions which is more telling in explaining this trend in Islamist political thought. That factor is the imaginative and political reality of the nation state.

The state as model, the nation as imaginative framework

One striking thing throughout much of Islamic history is the unease shown by Islamic scholars, whether from the Sunni or the Shia branches of Islam, when confronted by the phenomenon of the state. In the Shia tradition, this was expressed in a theological position which specifically ruled out any notion of an Islamic state until divine intervention, in the shape of the return of the twelfth imam, made it the harbinger of a new, utterly different dispensation on earth. Of course, scholars of all varieties recognized that political power and the dynasties that wielded it could help to create conditions that were more or less beneficial to the community. But even here, there was a recognition that dynastic preoccupations, the temptations and corruptions of power and the material calculations of political advantage were very likely to lead to a neglect of Muslim obligations. Implicitly, therefore, scholars recognized that different kinds of logic were at work in the world, and those centred on power, status and economic advantage must be treated with proper wariness by all Muslims.

In the modern era, Muslim intellectuals, especially those with an explicit political agenda, have developed an enthusiasm for the state. This is visible not only in the persistent use of the slogan ‘Islam is religion and state’, but also in how the state is depicted as the agent of Islam in history, retrospectively and in the present. Asserting the identity of Islam and politics becomes a way to achieve autonomy and recognition for the Islamist project in the modern world. However, the more closely one examines the state that is being imaginatively constructed, the more it becomes clear that this is not just any state, nor even something that is distinctively Islamic – despite claims to the contrary. Instead, the Islamic project looks remarkably like the modern nation state, in its properties, functions and relations with society and the wider world.

It is worth reflecting, therefore, upon the ways in which nationalism and the nationalist imagination – such powerful influences in the making of the modern world – have also shaped the modern Islamist imagination. There is a close, striking resemblance between the virtues of an Islamic order as portrayed by a range of contemporary Islamist thinkers, and the claimed virtues of a certain kind of nationalism. The ways in which a distinctively Islamist programme has been derived from a selective interpretation of aspects of Muslim history and of the founding texts of Islam, the implications of this for constructing a distinct Muslim identity and polity – these are all redolent of the ways in which nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sought to fashion, out of diffuse and ambiguous cultural markers, political identities and programmes to justify the establishment of a state.

In the Islamist case, it is clear that there has been a ‘thinning’ of Islamic discourse and scholarship. Nuance has been lost, as have been plural or ambivalent interpretations. Instead, fourteen centuries of Islamic scholarship have been mined for appropriate authorities, or for scholars who appear to endorse contemporary preoccupations. Where they seem to succeed in establishing a pedigree with a discernible ‘tradition’, as in the case of the Hanbali scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah (d 1328 CE), the bulk of his writings – far more complex and subtle, and indeed ambivalent than modern anthologies suggest – are ignored; only those that serve the instrumental purpose of the politics of contemporary groups are produced in order to authorize the correct ‘Islamic’ attitude to power.

In this light, the Islamic political project has been narrowed and hardened to fit an interpretation of ‘communal obligation’ which looks very like the ‘national duty’ derived in various settings by nationalists from the often confused, contradictory and complex cultural repertoire that becomes retrospectively ‘nationalized’ to serve contemporary purposes. Just as the putative ancestors of nationalist mythology are recruited into the modern political cause of national destiny, self-determination and duty, so al-salaf al-salih (the pious forebears) are retrospectively marshalled into a modern ‘salafi’ political project which they themselves would probably find wholly unrecognizable.

Together with this imaginative reconstruction of the past and thus the assertion of Muslims’ destiny in the present, comes the equally familiar nationalist preoccupation with boundaries and classifications. Establishing a politics based on identity, after all, requires close attention to the criteria of inclusion and exclusion, to the forms of behaviour, the beliefs and the norms that make an individual a member of the designated community, be it national or Muslim. Inevitably, the rigidity of classification brings an intolerance of multiple identities, a rejection of diversity and increasingly a tendency to prescribe accepted types of conformity. European history during the past two hundred years has demonstrated only too well the inhumanity and intolerance that can be associated with a certain kind of nationalism, generating not only authoritarian government, but also savage expressions of ethnic and racial discrimination. Of course, this is not a necessary adjunct of national self-determination, but nationalism as a discourse can sustain such a trajectory under a variety of conditions. Similarly, Islamism as a political project is not necessarily tied to one specific form, but, following the logic of nationalism as a way of categorizing the world and organizing its politics, it, too, can lend itself to imposing an intolerant, exclusionary and repressive political order, in which individuals are forced to conform to a very specific interpretation of appropriate Muslim behaviour. Failure to comply is either punished by the state authorities, where these are in the hands of such Islamo-nationalists, or it becomes the object of indictment and direct violence by those who have appointed themselves the guardians of ‘true’ Islam.

As a way of looking at the world; of thinking about identity, power and community; and of imagining historical time, nationalism has been vastly influential, providing the framework for a number of strands of Islamist thought. Ironically, many of these same Islamists have seen nationalist movements and the idea of ethnic nationalism, based on the constructs of language, race or secular culture, as the antithesis of their own ideas and movements. These Islamists see themselves locked in fierce competition with such secular claims on the identity of Muslims. Yet they themselves have adopted many of the imaginative and epistemological forms that have helped nationalists to make sense of the world, and which have proved so powerful in shaping the world during the past two hundred years. In this respect, of course, nationalism has not been a determining factor since not all Islamists operate within this framework, but its influence is very evident, forming a prominent current within contemporary Islamist political movements. As Partha Chatterjee has pointed out in exploring the relationship between colonial thought and nationalism in Asia and Africa, the framing of the terms of the struggle itself, the criteria of its success – even the very notion of a modern political identity – have been to some degree the product of a mimetic process.

Equally, among Islamist movements so clearly influenced by nationalism as a way of apprehending the world and re-inscribing an imagined community into history, it is not always the authoritarian, discriminatory and repressive aspects of nationalism that dominate. On the contrary, as the range of Islamist political movements demonstrates, some have taken seriously the new imagining of the people as a political actor, focusing on the egalitarian, populist legacy of nationalism and its democratic potential. These have developed ideas of the need to allow a Muslim people to decide, promising more effective dedication to the people’s welfare and to individual rights. In some cases, pursuit of these aspects of the modern nationalist agenda has thrown up problems. These have been dealt with in a variety of ways, more or less consistent with the aspirations of modern Islamism and the democratic ideal, depending upon the country, or more accurately the political field in which they occur. Thus in Iran, there is a still unresolved tension, written into the constitution and embodied in the overlapping authorities of many of its political institutions, between the sovereignty of the people and the sovereignty of God. While the supremacy of the latter can be conceded as a general foundation of human existence, the more pertinent questions revolve around who can justifiably claim to represent which form of sovereignty in Iran’s earthly politics, and which carries greater weight in governing the country. Equally, the implications of this for the organization of the polity and for the direction of a party dedicated to upholding the sharia have been hotly debated in Islamist circles in Turkey, especially within the ruling Justice and Development Party, giving rise to various proposed solutions, such as ‘multiple law communities’, but also causing splits and dissent among those fearful of where this logic may lead.

It could be argued that the transnational Islamist movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, such as Al-Qaeda purports to be, are in some measure responses not simply to the nationalist logic and even ethnic colouration which has shaped contemporary Islamism, but also to the secular logic of the state, which has prevailed even where, as in Sudan, Iran or Afghanistan, professedly Islamist movements have captured state power. Ironically, the transnational movements are themselves marked by structural and sociological echoes of nationalist patterns of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether found in pan-Slavism or pan-Arabism. Like these movements, transnational Islamism is also an inaccurate, often highly divisive descriptor of a complex social reality, in which other factors, difficult for the nationalist and Islamist imaginations to allow – such as clan, class or provincial particularity – play decisive roles. Like them, transnational Islamism offers a thinned-down view of history seen through the preoccupations of the present, which unsurprisingly yields examples for today’s disciples to follow. Like them, it seeks to draw boundaries in time and in space, using universal claims to justify very specific forms of discrimination. Like them, it sees itself locked in a struggle with the status quo powers, their collaborators and partners in an unjust world order. And like them, transnational Islamism lends itself to being taken over by more grounded regimes and organizations which can bring their power to assist the project. In doing so, however, they run the risk themselves of succumbing to the secular preoccupations of political action geared to one specific time and place. This raises the question of whether the imaginative escape of their adherents from the toils of nationalism is matched by the actual escape of the transnational movements themselves.

If, as I have argued, it makes more sense to see contemporary forms of Islamism as mutable creatures of modern politics, rather than the expression of some unchanging, resuscitated ideal of the seventh century, one also needs to ask about the advantages of taking such a perspective. There are three main advantages, both epistemological and practical.

First of all, a perspective which sees Islamism as shaped by nationalism and the national imagination reinforces the notion of contingency in the formation of Islamic political thought, and thus in understanding its features and dynamics. It reduces the ‘otherness’ of Islamic thought, making it more recognizably a part of a world and of a political imagination familiar to those formed by European intellectual traditions and political movements. This is salutary on a practical, political level, since it encourages a more reasoned approach to Islamist political movements, even when what they propose is disagreeable or even repugnant. If it can be assumed that their political position is the outcome of recognizable circumstances – history, social situation, economic opportunity, state encounters – then this thwarts the deeply counterproductive attempt to see all Muslim politics as informed by an intractably alien set of values. Furthermore, it should make all of us question the assumptions, indeed the self-deceptions, made in Europe about the peculiarities of Muslim politics and the purportedly unbridgeable divide between ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Secondly, seeing the close family resemblance between forms of Islamism and forms of nationalism alerts one to the ways in which Islamist political projects may echo the divisions or differences of emphasis within nationalism, for good and ill. Some stress the importance of boundaries, of difference, of communal definition, bringing to bear all the concerns of identity politics to the definition of something that looks like ethno-Islamism. Under certain circumstances, this can be associated with a politics of coerced conformity, enforced by morality police and prone to symbolic violence against those it regards as embodying the antithesis of its own sense of self. This is familiar enough terrain from the bloody history of ethno-nationalism in the West. But it is also a politics that can be called into being by the same forces of displacement, insecurity and collective existential anxiety.

On the other hand, other Islamists see their political programme more in conformity with an idea of civic action, drawing upon notions of equality, consultation and the need to reach unforced consensus that also exist within the Islamic repertoire. Debates within such movements revolve around issues of gender equality, of the coercive role of the state, and of the degree to which only consent can confer upon the government the right to rule. In this respect, it could be said that the strand of civic nationalism has created a field in which a ‘civic Islamism’ can be imagined and implemented, not necessarily producing identical results everywhere. ‘We the people’ can accommodate multiple narratives, both Islamic and secular, and the various political fields that Muslims inhabit differ greatly in terms of location, economic development and countervailing forces.

Finally, scrutiny of the construction of Islamist narratives draws attention to the contests that may underpin them, giving one a better grasp of their proponents’ existence as political players and thus of the trajectory of which they form a part. In many respects, Islamists have long competed with nationalist movements for the same terrain. They have rarely disputed the bounded nature of that terrain, but instead have tried to advance their claim to be the dominant force within it, with a prior claim on the people’s loyalty. In advocating their political project in this way, and adapting their strategies to its achievement, it becomes abundantly clear that Islamism can be as much an expression of modernity as is nationalism: It seeks to mobilize collective, communal power through the state, as both a material, administrative structure and as an imaginative, identifying device. In some countries, nationalists may lose the political struggle to Islamists, but (ironically) nationalism may influence the shape of Islamism, and the secular logic of the state may sustain the divide between it and the religious impulse.

Thus, the slogan ‘Islam is religion and state’ should not be seen as an unchanging truth about how Muslims see politics. Rather, it is a strategic device used by some Muslims in very specific circumstances as part of an ongoing political struggle for a degree of recognition, autonomy and control over their own affairs. In many respects it is no different from the claim that national self-determination requires each nation to realize itself through independent statehood – a claim that has become a foundation of global politics, so much taken for granted that many no longer realize its peculiar and distinctive nature.

This essay was originally published under the title ‘Islam and the Contingency of Politics’ in ‘The Secular State and Islam in Europe: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2006.


Charles Tripp