October 1, 2014 Special Dispatch No. 5853

Pakistani Journalist Anwar Iqbal Dissects Political Islam: 'The Most Recognizable Face Of Political Islam Today Is Neither A Mullah Nor A Religious Scholar; It Is A Militant'

October 1, 2014
Pakistan | Special Dispatch No. 5853

Iqbal notes that Iran has not successfully run a modern nation-state (image:

Senior Pakistani journalist Anwar Iqbal recently wrote a two-part article examining the role of political Islam and how it interacts with the modern nation-states. Iqbal underlined the difficulty of uniting Muslim countries by any single factor such as Islam, noting that most Muslim countries haven't demonstrated experience of running a modern nation-state.

Anwar Iqbal's two-part article was published by Dawn, a liberal daily where he works, on June 29 and July 5. A key argument in the article is that Muslim societies lack the intellectual infrastructure required for a modern nation-state to evolve among them. Arguing that madrassas cannot produce youth skilled for the modern workforce, Iqbal added: "And more than anything else, the Muslim societies, not just in Pakistan, need to develop an intellectual base to counter extremism, and that does not seem to be happening soon."

"Unifying The Islamic World Was Always A Difficult Task… And Since The 1960s, The Movement Known As Political Islam Has Not Produced Any Major Intellectual"

The following are excerpts from the first part of the article:

"Political Islam is an attractive concept for many Muslims, and some expect it to resolve some of the economic, political, and cultural problems they face. But most don't know how this will happen. From the early 19th to the mid-20th century, the Islamic world produced a string of scholars - Jamaluddin Afghani and Syed Abul A'ala Maududi in British India, Hassan al-Banna and Syed Qutb in Egypt, and Ali Shariati in Iran - who provided an intellectual basis for what is now known as 'Political Islam.'

"What they wrote made sense in an era when most of today's Islamic nations were either under direct colonial control, or had just regained independence and were still struggling under a colonial legacy. But the fundamentalists, unlike the nationalists, never believed that the end of colonial rule would also bring economic, social, and cultural freedom from Western influence. 'When the British left the [Indian] subcontinent, they also left behind a system, and enough people to run that system, which prevents the formerly colonized nations to attain full independence,' says Khurshid Ahmad, a leading intellectual of Pakistan's Jamaat-e-Islami party.

"Notions of an 'Islamic system'

"Economy: Ahmad argues that the developing world currently owes a total of $3.242 trillion to the richest countries of the world. He points out that the richest 1 percent of the world earns as much as the bottom 57 percent. Ahmad and other similar Islamic economists blame the world's interest-based economy for this disparity and want to establish an interest-free economic system. But the problem is, they haven't been able to implement the Islamic system.

"Culture: Another major complaint fundamentalists often voice is the West's cultural domination. They want it to be replaced by an Islamic culture. But 'Islamic culture' itself is a contentious term. Muslims in Iran or South Asia are culturally as different from Arab Muslims as all of them are from Western culture. In fact, all of them have borrowed more from Western culture than they have from one another.

"Politics: Politically, the Islamic world is even more divided. Perhaps the only common factor in more than 50 Muslim nations is that most of them are run by autocratic rulers. Several major Muslim states have serious differences with one another and have also often gone to war against their co-religionists.

"The role some neighboring Arab, and non-Arab, countries have played in fanning sectarian differences in Iraq and Syria indicates that the Middle East may soon be divided into blocs. Iran, Iraq, parts of Lebanon and Syria may form the Shia bloc, and the rival bloc may include Sunni Arab states. This may eventually lead to the breakup of some Arab states, like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, on sectarian lines. But unifying the Islamic world was always a difficult task. And it is understandable why. To provide an intellectual basis for the unification of more than 50 nations with such major economic, cultural, and political differences is not easy. Theories produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have become irrelevant. And since the 1960s, the movement known as political Islam has not produced any major intellectual."

"Islamic Political Parties Also Have Had Very Little Experience In Running A Modern State"; "There Is Little In The Iranian Experience That Fascinates Sunni Muslims"; "[Islam] Failed To Become The Unifying Factor That Pakistan's Founding Fathers Had Hoped It Would Be"

"No experience in running a modern state

"Islamic political parties also have had very little experience in running a modern state. The only country that has remained under religious rule for a considerable period is Iran, where fundamentalists toppled the shah in 1979. But there is little in the Iranian experience that fascinates Sunni Muslims. Most Muslims outside - and many inside - Iran blame the religious elite that is running the country for creating more problems than they resolve.

"Another example is Afghanistan, where extremists like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda had an opportunity to create a model Islamic state but failed miserably. For almost five years, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda movements had an entire country at their mercy, with full freedom to do what they wanted. Osama bin Laden and his clique had enough resources and plenty of connections in oil-rich Arab states to get the finances they needed to build roads, schools, hospitals, and factories destroyed in 20 years of war and civil strife. They did not. Instead, they turned Afghanistan into a launching pad for terrorist attacks against the Western world…

"Pakistan also has suffered tremendously with the mixing of religion with politics. The religion [Islam] failed to become the unifying factor that Pakistan's founding fathers had hoped it would be. But it did create dozens of highly radicalized religious groups who know how to kill in the name of religion but do not know how to run a modern state. Now the country's army, which played a key role in forming many of these radical groups, has been forced to launch a major offensive to eliminate them. They may succeed in doing so but this process may also create new divisions within the Pakistani state. But if the operation fails, it may undo the Pakistani state."

"Political Islam Has So Far Been Unable To Resolve The Differences That Exist Between Their Version Of An Islamic State And The Modern Nation-States That Exist In Today's Islamic World"; "Muslims … Will Put Up A Fight If Forced To Give Up Their Pakistani, Afghan, Syrian, Or Algerian Identities"

"What would a modern Islamic nation-state be like?

"Political Islam has so far been unable to resolve the differences that exist between their version of an Islamic state and the modern nation-states that exist in today's Islamic world. Their ultimate goal is to create an international fraternity of Muslim nations that can slowly be guided toward a united caliphate. But how they intend to make modern Muslim nation states accept such a caliphate, they're at a loss to say. Will nation-states such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco be forced to join such a caliphate?

"Will they willingly give up their sovereignty for the sake of a greater unity, or be forced to do so? How would the rest of the world react to the emergence of a new religious bloc in the world? Will it lead to a greater jihad against the rest of the world? Within the caliphate, how much power shall the caliph enjoy and how much freedom will its citizens be allowed? Will there be a free media? Can women appear on television and cinema screens? Can there be music in an Islamic state? Will women be forced to wear the veil? Will it be compulsory for every man to have a beard? It is not that political Islamists do not have answers to these questions. They do. The problem is that their answers are not acceptable to an overwhelming majority of Muslims.

"Rich Muslim states neither have the desire nor the intellectual depth needed to create an alternative economic system. They are even less willing to share their riches with poorer Muslim countries. Workers from poor Muslim countries in these rich states are often treated like slaves and return home with a taste of bitterness that remains with them for the rest of their lives. Middle-class and educated Muslim women are not willing to wear the veil, at least not the type presented by the mullahs, though many cover their heads with scarves. Both Muslim men and women are addicted to Western-style television shows, films, music, and other cultural influences, and are unwilling to give them up. They are unwilling to go along with the religious groups…

"Muslims have become so used to the modern nation-states, many of them will put up a fight if forced to give up their Pakistani, Afghan, Syrian, or Algerian identities in return for a new identity introduced by the likes of bin Laden or Mullah Omar. Rich Muslim states are not likely to abolish visas and open their doors to poorer Muslims just because religious groups want them to do so."

"Muslim And Western Scholars Of Islam Warn That It Would Be A Mistake To Equate The Religion [Islam] With Violence, But Many Across The World Find It Difficult To Appreciate The Distinction Between Islam And Its Militant Version"

The following are excerpts from the second part of the article:

"The most recognizable face of political Islam today is neither a mullah nor a religious scholar. It is a militant. Until 2001, spell-checks did not recognise the word 'Taliban,' and suggested changing it to 'tally bone.' Now it is recognized by all spell-checks. Names like 'Al-Qaeda' and 'Boko Haram' are also equally recognizable. Even the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is a recent addition to the list of Muslim militant organizations, is known across the globe.

"Yet, a recent survey by Pew Research Center, Washington, shows that overwhelming majorities – 70 percent and more – in Muslim countries reject extremism. Why, then, has the militant become the symbol of Islam across the globe? The answer is simple: The methods they use - suicide bombings, mass killings, executions and hijacking - draw immediate attention. And since they do so in the name of Islam, they are seen as representing their faith, even if 80 to 95 percent Muslims reject suicide bombing as haram [forbidden].

"Intellectual deficit and political chaos

"Muslim and Western scholars of Islam warn that it would be a mistake to equate the religion [Islam] with violence, but many across the world find it difficult to appreciate the distinction between Islam and its militant version."

"[What] ordinary people across the world see - from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States to the July 7, 2005, London bombings and the recent violence in Iraq and Afghanistan - influences their opinion about Islam. While … [the liberal] argument that political disputes and not religion beget violence may be correct, the inability of political Islam to provide an intellectual base for Muslims allows these violent groups to occupy the central stage in the Islamic world. The lack of an intellectual base has created a vacuum in the Islamic world that extremists like those in the Taliban and Al-Qaeda try to fill. But these groups choose violence, and not intellectual arguments, for spreading their message."

"The Madrassas Claim To Be The Centers Of Religious Learning… But They Provide Only A Rudimentary Knowledge Of Islam To Mainly Rural Youths Who Have Nowhere Else To Go; Most Madrassa Students… Cannot Compete In The Job Market"

"Afghan War and madrassas served each other"

"As the [1980s] war in Afghanistan grew in intensity and the Soviet occupation forces made it obvious they had come to stay, Washington and its allies began to search for an ideology to counter the communism that the Soviets had brought with them to Afghanistan. They did not have to look far. Political Islam was the ideology they needed, and madrassas provided them with thousands of volunteers willing to die for their faith.

"The madrassas claim to be the centers of religious learning. But they provide only a rudimentary knowledge of Islam to mainly rural youths who have nowhere else to go. Most madrassa students, when they graduate, cannot compete in the job market with students from other schools. So they work as teachers of Islamic scriptures, making meager incomes. When U.S.-backed recruiters arrived at their doors to take them to Afghanistan [in the 1980s], they found these youths keen to join a jihad that not only gave them the opportunity to fight 'Godless Russians' but also provided a steady income. The war in Afghanistan also changed the mullahs' status in countries like Pakistan, where they were never part of the ruling elite…."

"Consequences of 'strategic depth'

"After the war, the Americans pulled out of the region so rapidly it created a vacuum. The Pakistani government, instead of recognizing the threat the militants posed to the state, decided to use them for a proxy war against India and to create the so-called 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan by backing the Taliban. It is true that Pakistan did not have the resources needed to disarm thousands of battle-hardened extremists brought from all over the Islamic world to join the jihad. But when others offered to help, particularly after 9/11, the Pakistanis rejected them. The clerics, who gained prominence during the Afghan war, obviously were unwilling to revert to their previous social status, living once again in relative poverty. This created a new conflict by pitching the clerics against the traditional, English-speaking elite unwilling to treat the mullah as an equal."

"The need for new narratives

"The Pakistani establishment carried out a major military operation in Swat [district in 2009] when the militants captured the valley. But they remained reluctant to accept the argument that the militants were their enemy. They continued to focus on India instead. But a major Taliban attack on the Karachi airport last month [June 8-9, 2014] has forced the Pakistanis to reconsider their strategy. They have now launched a major military offensive in North Waziristan and are also attacking militant targets in other tribal agencies. According to the Pakistani military, almost 500 militants have already been killed during this offensive, which still continues.

"All the same, there is some truth in the argument that this problem cannot be resolved by military means alone. There's an immediate need for providing a counter-narrative to the Pakistani youths, particularly those in the madrassas, who have been raised on a regular diet of militancy. What the misguided militant youths need is a balanced and secular education system coupled with an economy that creates job opportunities for them. Creating jobs for the rural unemployed is crucial as often it is them who go to the madrassas because they have nowhere else to go. And more than anything else, the Muslim societies, not just in Pakistan, need to develop an intellectual base to counter extremism, and that does not seem to be happening soon."

Sources: (Pakistan), June 29 and July 5, 2014. The original English of the articles has been mildly edited for clarity and standardization.

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