Putting Islam Out of Use

Arab Spring didn't usher in a new era of Arab democracy, but it did mark the end of traditional conservatism in which instrumentalized Islam was so vital.

Putting Islam Out of Use

AMR KHALED IS one of the most popular religious preachers in the Arab world. In 2007, Time magazine even counted the televangelist among the hundred most influential people in the world. Earlier this summer, Khaled issued a public apology due to outrage at his endorsement of a brand of poultry on an Egyptian cooking show. In an episode now known as “chicken-gate,” Khaled contended that consuming “al-Wataniyyah” chicken had spiritual benefits, especially during the holy month of Ramadan. Khaled had been criticized before for his embrace of corporate Islam. This time, however, the Egyptian public had simply had enough of religion put to such crude use. Could it be that Islam is no longer so usable?

Such anger at the peddling of religious piety in the Arab world is linked to a much broader decline in both mainstream and radical currents of political Islamism. Since the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and the end of the Muslim Brotherhood’s first and last government in Egypt, mainstream Islamists command a mere fraction of the mobilizing strength they enjoyed during their high noon in the 1990s. In fact, all varieties of Islamism in Arab politics are now on the defensive. Even jihadi militants have begun a metamorphosis into something altogether different since the rise and fall of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). While the traditional critique of religious political parties has come from the left, the attack on Islamism now largely proceeds from the right. This invites the question: what does conservatism look like in the Arab world if it is anti-Islamist?

Confrontations between Islamists and their conservative — and, to a lesser extent, liberal — adversaries in Arab parliaments, press, and social media are regular and bitter. Yet their pattern is still that of a reluctant probing of battle lines; anti-Islamists are held back by the fear of sounding blasphemous while Islamists chafe at the association with terrorism, and so fall back on the makeshift idea of moderation. The result feels like a cautious prelude to a new conflict on religion in Arab political life that is clearly underway. Perhaps because such new forms of conservatism have yet to find their ideological bearings, it takes moments of shameless utilitarianism such as “chicken-gate” for public outrage to surge into a torrent of disapproval. Anti-religious political argument still needs bullet-proof pretexts to be expressed confidently, and the most consistent of these pretexts is the accusation of having exploited religion to profane ends such as profit.

The regular denunciation of misused or misplaced religion is interesting in this context not because of its common-sense nature — which, incidentally, provides it with great currency and popular purchase — but because it implies that religion has an appropriate place in the social and political order, however ambiguously. The power and influence of Islam, so the argument goes, is not to be cynically harnessed to unfitting ends. If such a consensus is to be taken seriously, it stands in direct contrast to one of the pillars of political Islamism at its peak 20 years ago: that Islam cannot be bound; that Islam is an entire “a way of life,” a wholesale alternative to secular social and political orders. In essence, religion’s boundaries in Arab political life are contracting, even when those boundaries remain vague. If so, how did religion break so many boundaries so as to require new ones? One answer is the recent history of sectarian violence.

Triggered by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and accelerated by the post–Arab Spring debacle after 2011, violent sectarianism between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Arab world became so widespread that it became the “go-to” paradigm for simplifying what seemed to be a persistent pattern of corruption, terrorism, civil war, and geo-political gridlock. Yet the wars that have raged in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, along with countless other instances of violence, have something strangely paradoxical about them. They are often considered examples of Sunni-Shia conflict, and yet they are explained in secular terms. This isn’t because of any waning of religious fervor, but because of the acknowledgment among both academics and much broader public opinion in the Arab world that sectarianism is no longer about religion but is the perverse outcome of its cynical manipulation: Islam has been misplaced and misused.

Sunni-Shia animosity is now largely “explained” through the idea of Saudi-Iranian rivalry: two countries in competition for regional dominance, irrespective of their religious identities (which they have put aside in the past). Even when observers quietly admit the existence of mass bigotry, they temper that acknowledgment with the more audible assertion that even bigots are largely the instrumentalized victims of geopolitics. In places like Iraq and Syria, sectarian violence has made visible the process by which Islamists went from promising liberation to being the instrumental means of exacting allegiance to states outside Syria and Iraq.

In fact, there is hardly a single regional expert or study of sectarianism that does not cite the centrality of states to the mass mobilization of religious sentiment. The admirable aim of this growing body of work has been to denounce the notion that religious bigotry is inherent in being Muslim. Apart from those who actually believe in the deep-seated hatred of Muslims for one another, this is in fact the only charge that most contemporary observers of sectarian conflict all make and largely agree on. The primary (and perhaps sole) intervention of this schism literature (fitna literature, or FitLit), is to warn against mistaking such conflict from being simple ancient bigotry and thereby reintroduce contingency to the formula of what fuels the phenomenon of sectarianism. Yet while this literature assumes the deeply irreligious motivations of those with power, it also relies on the herd-like sincerity of those without; it ignores the earnestness of religious belief among the foot soldiers who actually carry out the violence, without which the Machiavellian efforts of states or non-state actors that “use Islam” would be irrelevant.

The result has been to endlessly reproduce the debate on “explaining” sectarian violence to a choice between religion or politics when, apart from debunking essentializing views on Muslims, the distinction no longer works. In fact, the literature on sectarianism keeps the specter of mass religious bigotry alive by citing its very instrumentalization through the paradigm of a vicious cycle. In that cycle, cynical elites (primarily states and the vast number of paramilitary or civilian institutions and middlemen at their disposal) whip up religious sentiment to their own political and tactical ends, invariably stoking those sentiments anew. By separating the tacticians of politics from their religious pawns, FitLit leaves us where we began, even when its sympathies are with the victims of the violence. Readers end up thinking of a tragedy defined by its very intractability, the tired trope of a Middle East in which religion simply cannot be pried away from politics. Yet this leaves out much of what is new from the immediate post–Arab Spring political landscape (if we can call it that yet), regardless of whether the violence was “really” religious or political.

While the caution against the use and abuse of Islam in politics is at least as old as modern political Islamism itself (and the colonialism it was initially born to fight), there is something remarkably non-moralizing and practical about that warning today. The primary slogan of massive street protests that began on the July 8 and have continued across southern Iraq read: “In the name of religion, we have been robbed by thieves.” To the protestors, Iraq’s thieves are its political classes, divided by sect, each with its administrative and ministerial “territory” within a fragmented state apparatus. By its own implicit standards, the postwar sectarian “system” has failed to deliver on its own presumed responsibilities: to guarantee jobs and services to one’s co-religionists. This is why Iraq’s communal leaders — and in this case many but not all of its Shiite politicians — are considered to be responsible for a collapsing economy and a severe electricity and water shortage in the only Arab country with both massive energy reserves and two extensive river systems. The protests signal the erosion of religion’s mobilizing potential from below as leaders of religious parties fail to deliver on basic goods and services. Yet there are also instances in which anti-Islamism is being directed from the top of the state system, such as in Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states of the Gulf, still reeling from their own sectarian troubles.

Militant varieties of jihadi Salafism engaged in the indiscriminate slaughter of Shia civilians (as in the case of ISIL) have incited an altogether different kind of transformation in Iraq’s southern neighbors: the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. ISIL’s bombing campaign within the Gulf is only one example of how sectarian violence has begun to transform the status of religion in public life there. When a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device in Kuwait’s Imam al-Sadiq mosque, killing over two dozen civilian worshipers in 2015, it was the third major attack by ISIL to target the Shia of the Arabian Peninsula. Two others had occurred in Saudi Arabia during 2015. Throughout these events, even the most vehement critics of the dynastic state in the Gulf did not question the state’s prerogative to respond violently when a self-appointed religious authority attempted to redefine the region’s polities on its own moral terms. In fact, it was expected to do so.

Thus, when condemning the attacks, Kuwaiti and, to an extent, Saudi officials took something of a pluralistic position on the freedom of belief. Both countries have significant Shia minorities that are more often associated with dissent than as beneficiaries of state protection. Without even needing to explicitly defend Shi’ism as a legitimate and recognized Muslim sect, the state proclaimed the lives of Shia citizens inviolable as it rounded up those suspected of collaboration with ISIL for the killing of Shias. These actions were harbingers to a more prevalent and explicitly liberal language on religion and religious freedom. The events of the Arab Spring, ISIL’s bombings, and their aftermath marked an important and perhaps permanent change of political rhetoric about religion in public life within the Gulf. When the state, its ruling executives, and security apparatus move to protect the lives of subjects regardless of their religious affiliation, it implicitly creates a hierarchy between its own authority and that of religious leaders, one that had always been particularly ambiguous. It was only a matter of time before a state like Saudi Arabia would selectively employ the liberal language of religious freedom to provide ideological scaffolding for an emerging political reality that pits princes against puritans.

What made the killings particularly disruptive was that condemning the murder of Shia civilians among the ultra-orthodox Salafi Islamists could only be achieved by calling for moderation. It is safe to say that there is no such thing as “moderate” puritanism, or attenuated literalism: one negates the other. This negation is slowly redefining the meaning of religious moderation in one critical respect. Rather than diluted moral conviction, or a less stringent attitude toward religious law that most have in mind when they hear the term, moderation is now increasingly associated with respect for the state’s monopoly on the use of force, especially in the monarchies of the Gulf. To moderate one’s beliefs thus increasingly means to dispense with those elements of piety that translate into political ambition. This is nothing less than a declaration of the primacy of royal over religious authority; it is part of a discourse that is replacing the much-cherished project of creating the moderate Muslim subject with a sovereign state of laws in which religion has a particular and increasingly defined place.

The ideological repercussion of these developments cannot be overstated. Although the ISIL bombings of 2015 in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were relatively contained local instances of sectarian violence, they pried open the question of allegiance and obedience in monarchical political orders between the choice to obey God (as defined by puritan literalists) or a sovereign. ISIL has done nothing less than to engender a concerted if confused attempt at a theoretical distancing of monarchy from Islamic statehood in the Gulf. In fact, some royals have already called for the abandonment of the War on Terror and the adoption of a War on Theocracy as the outlandish politicization of religious belief. And while a War on Theocracy may be an explicit commitment to fighting ISIL, it rhetorically equates Iran with ISIL, Hezbollah and the Muslim brotherhood, Assadist Alawites and violent jihadi Salafists.

Such new strains of conservative yet secular political rhetoric might be called monarchist in the Arabian Peninsula. While monarchism remains a largely aesthetic discourse (expressed mainly in poetry and iconography), it is part of an emergent rhetorical and aesthetic vocabulary meant to make distinctions between realpolitik in “rational” political states and bigoted utopian projects. The new rhetorical devices of this emergent anti-theocratic discourse in the Gulf include terms that have the capacity to compress processes of Islamization into recognizable tragedy. Interestingly, terms like afghana (“Afghanization”) and akhwana (“Brotherization,” in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood) can now be used as active verbs to refer to the destruction of Afghanistan in the grip of the Taliban and the “cancerous” growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, respectively. It is no coincidence that we now have words that are capable of instantly evoking a process by which “religion in politics” is nothing less than History gone wrong.

This turn against Islamism by conservatives manifests as separation of religion from politics in practice, without any commitment to secularism in principle. In 2016, Bahrain announced new regulations that banned religious leaders and preachers from running for public office. Saudi Arabia last year relieved its much-feared religious police of its capacity to conduct arrests. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice is now a disgruntled advisory board that must defer to regular police forces. The most explicit and interesting manifestation of this phenomenon is perhaps in Kuwait, where a lively public debate rages on the theoretical character of the state’s constitution, i.e., whether it is secular or religious. Most Islamist political organizations and parties are officially now banned in the UAE, even in their institutional manifestations as charities.

The impasse between puritans and princes means that the elites in question can no longer rely on religious conservatism to do the work of maintaining the status quo, and must broadly rely on new secular categories, usually expressed through nationalism, to do that work now. But one peculiarity of monarchical nationalism is that while its proponents currently oppose the dogma of religious puritans, they have not replaced it with an alternative creed. This might be because a bald defense of monarchy is difficult in this day and age, or perhaps because ambiguity about how the political order in the Gulf justifies itself is still politically expedient. Monarchism in Arabia today therefore opposes only the reach of religious dogma, not its content, and thus confines the dogma of militant literalists only until their next breach, so to speak.

“Heretical” innovation isn’t limited to domestic politics either. The unapologetic embrace of raison d’état in the Gulf actually finds its ultimate expression in the various monarchies’ new relationship to Israel. As a piece of realpolitik, the rapprochement with Israel marks a new era in which conservatives ignore traditional religious alignments, even as a facade. While the revolutionary waves of 2011 may not have ushered in an era of successful Arab democracy, they did mark the end of traditional conservatism in which instrumentalized Islam featured so prominently, and empowered so much reaction. As a progenitor of the new political concoctions discussed above, sectarianism can be seen not as a Muslim problem, but as a historical and logical one, a phenomenon that may make Islam in politics far less exploitable than it has been in the past. Denied an alliance with divinity, conservatives may soon face their progressive adversaries on more equal conceptual grounds, newly leveled by sectarianism. And so, even if the conceptual content of secular conservatism isn’t momentous, its historical advent — or return, depending on how one sees such a force in Arab history — could be.


Ahmed Dailami is a historian and writer based in London.

LARB Contributor

Ahmed Dailami is a historian and writer based in London. He writes on the relationship between religion, politics, and art in the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East. He is currently working on a book on the contemporary Gulf tentatively titled: What is the Gulf: Conceptualising History, Order, and Disorder in Arabia. He holds a doctorate in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford and studied history and economics at Harvard and Boston Universities.


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