Sunday, 5 February 2012

Islamism - A couple of further comments

1.  Shi'a Islamism

In my earlier post on Islamism, I focused on Sunni Islamism.  I want to add a few comments on the phenomenon of Shi'a Islamism, as associated with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

One reason why Islamism runs counter to the historical Islamic tradition is that the political ethos of Sunni Islam is profoundly conservative.  Sunnism has no tradition of radical political activism or attempting to overthrow the local rulers.  Shi'ism, by contrast, was a heretical minority sect which never developed the same uniformly deferential attitude to political institutions.  Ervand Abrahamian has written:
Although the Shii clergy agreed that only the Hidden Imam had full legitimacy, they differed sharply among themselves regarding the existing states - even Shii ones.  Some argued that since all rulers were in essence usurpers, true believers should shun the authorities like the plague....

Others, however, argued that one should grudgingly accept the state.  They claimed that bad government was better than no government; that many imams had categorically opposed armed insurrections; and that Imam Ali... had warned of the dangers of social chaos....

Others wholeheartedly accepted the state - esepcially after 1501, when the Safavids established a Shii dynasty in Iran.  (Khomeinism, p18-19)
Modern Shi'a Islamism, while being influenced by Sunni Islamist ideologues like Sayyid Qutb and Abul A'la Maududi, is inextricably linked with the imposing figure of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, who ruled Iran from the 1979 Islamic Revolution until his death 10 years later.

The Khomeinist version of Shi'a Islamism envisages that the state will be ruled by Muslim clerics - a system known as velayat-e faqih ("guardianship of the jurist").  In fact, this doctrine has very shallow roots in Shi'a tradition.  For most Shi'a scholars across most of Islamic history, velayat-e faqih meant simply legal guardianship in the non-political sense.  This was also the view of most of the other senior ayatollahs in Khomeini's time, notably the highly respected Iraq-based Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qassim al-Khoei.  Khomeini himself only gradually came round to his own theory.  It is not taught in his early work Kashf al-Asrar, published in 1942, and it first seems to have appeared in a series of lectures in early 1970 which were published under the title Velayat-e Faqih.

Khomeini didn't think much of western liberal democracy:
Those who do not govern according to the laws of Allah are infidels, oppressive and corrupt.  Islam is a State; Islam is a government....  What the nation wants is an Islamic Republic, not just a Republic, not a democratic republic nor a democratic Islamic republic.  (Cited in Hussin Mutalib, Islam in Malaysia, p10)
The actual system of government that has developed in Iran is partially democratic.  There is an elected president and parliament, although the country's "supreme leader" (rahbare moazzam) is always an ayatollah, currently Ali Khamenei.  These partially democratic elements were essentially pragmatic concessions necessitated by the political situation in Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution.

Khomeini's view of the state was highly absolutist.  Rather astonishingly, he thought that the Islamic state could override even the God-given precepts of the Shari'ah itself.  He wrote in a 1988 letter to Ali Khamenei, then the country's president:
From your comments during the Friday prayers it would appear that you do not believe it is correct... that the state is the most important of God's ordinances and has precedence over all other derived ordinances of God.  Interpreting what I have said to mean that the state [only] has its powers within the framework of the ordinances of God contradicts my statements.  If the powers of the state were [only] operational within the framework of the ordinances of God, the extent of God's sovereignty and the absolute trusteeship given to the Prophet would be a meaningless phenomenon devoid of content.  (Cited in Schirazi and O'Kane, The Constitution of Iran, p230)

2.  Islamofascism?

I broached the question of how closely contemporary Islamism resembles historical European fascism.

Malise Ruthven has written in his book A Fury For God that it is "much too reductive" to speak of Islamofascism.  Nevertheless, the resemblances are "compelling":
In his explicit hostility to reason... it is not Marx, grandchild of the Enlightenment, but Nietzsche... whom [Osama bin Laden's mentor Abdullah] 'Azzam echoes. The attachment to the lost lands of Palestine, Bukhara and Spain (unlike a rational and humane concern for Palestinian rights) is, like Mussolini's evocations of Ancient Rome, nostalgic in its irredentism, its "obliteration of history from politics". The invocation of religion is consistent with the way fascism and Nazism used mythical modes of thought to mobilize unconscious or psychic forces in the pursuit of power....
In similar vein, Christopher Hitchens has written:
The most obvious points of comparison would be these: Both movements are based on a cult of murderous violence that exalts death and destruction and despises the life of the mind.... Both are hostile to modernity (except when it comes to the pursuit of weapons), and both are bitterly nostalgic for past empires and lost glories. Both are obsessed with real and imagined "humiliations" and thirsty for revenge. Both are chronically infected with the toxin of anti-Jewish paranoia (interestingly, also, with its milder cousin, anti-Freemason paranoia). Both are inclined to leader worship and to the exclusive stress on the power of one great book. Both have a strong commitment to sexual repression... and to its counterparts the subordination of the female and contempt for the feminine. Both despise art and literature as symptoms of degeneracy and decadence; both burn books and destroy museums and treasures.

Fascism (and Nazism) also attempted to counterfeit the then-success of the socialist movement by issuing pseudo-socialist and populist appeals. It has been very interesting to observe lately the way in which al-Qaida has been striving to counterfeit and recycle the propaganda of the anti-globalist and green movements....

Technically, no form of Islam preaches racial superiority or proposes a master race. But in practice, Islamic fanatics operate a fascistic concept of the "pure" and the "exclusive" over the unclean and the kufar or profane.... In the attitude to Jews, it is clear that an inferior or unclean race is being talked about (which is why many Muslim extremists like the grand mufti of Jerusalem gravitated to Hitler's side).
My own position is that Islamism is not so much a variety of fascism as a variation on the older Counter-Enlightenment tradition of theocratic monarchism.  Influences from this tradition on Islamic thought have been identified by the orientalist Bernard Lewis:
Among the components in the mood of anti-Westernism, and more especially of anti-Americanism, were certain intellectual influences coming from Europe. One of these was from Germany, where a negative view of America formed part of a school of thought by no means limited to the Nazis but including writers as diverse as Rainer Maria Rilke, Ernst Junger, and Martin Heidegger. In this perception, America was the ultimate example of civilization without culture: rich and comfortable, materially advanced but soulless and artificial; assembled or at best constructed, not grown; mechanical, not organic; technologically complex but lacking the spirituality and vitality of the rooted, human, national cultures of the Germans and other "authentic" peoples. German philosophy, and particularly the philosophy of education, enjoyed a considerable vogue among Arab and some other Muslim intellectuals in the thirties and early forties, and this philosophic anti-Americanism was part of the message.