At the beginning of the 1960’s, a young African sociologist wrote a book about the new postcolonial African state which was born out of the colonial era. The book criticizes the postcolonial African state and describes it as weak and marginal. As soon as the author left the European country in which he was studying and returned to his country, the government arrested and imprisoned him for spreading propaganda against the sovereignty and dignity of the state.
After he was released from prison, the young sociologist returned to Europe and wrote another book. In the new book, he complained about the brutality and dominant control of the state, its manipulation of society, and the restriction freedom of the public. The second book contradicted the first, which depicted the state as weak and impotent.
This story depicts the contradictory nature of the postcolonial state, which combines fragile structures, bureaucratic bodies, and futile politics on one hand, with the practice of totalitarianism on the other. This paradoxical combination characterizes that state as a weak existence in brutal control. Concerning the Arab states in particular, this irony is reflected strongly in the dominant Arab discourse especially in the wavering between defending the powerful nation state and demanding its restriction or demise in favor of civil society.
Despite the support dedicated to the latter trend over the past years, the demand for a strong state is still a structural goal in the Arab political discourse with all its variations. This fact is clear merely from the observance of thorny Arab issues these days. In Iraq, to take the clearest example where the pains of difficult transitions are strongly felt, the political citizen is in effect deeply divided between those who call for a strong central state, (even if it becomes a despotic entity), and those who call for a federal state that protects ethnic and factional differences (even if in actuality, this results in political disintegration).
In Algeria also, under the pretense of a need for a strong state, democracy was suspended at the beginning of the 1990’s to avoid unrest that could threaten that state. Under the same facade, the South Yemeni separatists were brutally suppressed in 1994. Finally, the same excuse was used to postpone democratic reform in many Arab states to protect social cohesion without foreign infiltration.
The strong state is a basic axiomatic principle for Arab intellectuals and politicians. For the conventional Arab nationalist, there must be a central state and that will be the nucleus of Arab unity. For the Arab liberalist, the state is important to initiate the modernization of society. For the Arab Islamist, the only guarantor of the application of Shariaa law is a strong state.
This concept has intellectual background where heritage mixes with a political culture that is imported from the modern western world. Historically in Islam, the central idea of politics was the guardian Imamate, which protects religion and the interest of society. Regardless of the historical intellectual controversy concerning the obligation to set up an Imamate (as religious or intellectual obligation), the majority of jurists agreed that the Imam was responsible for the protection of religion. Even though the Muslims have managed to come up with alternative models to that of the central Imamate throughout history, especially during turbulent periods in which separatist states multiplied, the obsession with unrest and its dangers on religion and nation always attracted the majority to a strong central rule. Despite the contextual difference between the historical Islamic Imamate model and the modern central state model, which is largely applicable to Arab states, important components from the traditional Islamic model is used to legitimize the contemporary Arab central state.
Among the jokes of Mauritania during former president Ould Taya rule, was the race of jurists to counteract the growing Islamist current with extreme interpretations of the Malaki school of thought, which seemed somewhat anachronistic for a modern state with modern elections.
The Islamist Revivalists (which is the preferred name for our colleague Radwan Al Sayyid to describe moderate political Islamists) also fell into the trap when they called for an Islamic state whilst ignoring or were oblivious of the two major pillars of the modern state. These two pillars are sovereignty (of the people as legislators) and the comprehensive governance (since the state is the symbolic and historical embodiment of the collective identity). The “state” in this perspective became an absolute central entity that goes beyond any specific frame of reference for political governance.
Therefore, it is safe to say that the state in Western societies and as illustrated by the works of modern philosophers from Hobbes to Hegel, has in fact replaced religion itself as a totalitarian value. Thus, when Islamists advocate an Islamic state based on a modernist model, being unaware of this fact (the totalitarian nature of the Western modern nation state) they risk the transformation of Islam itself into a “power ideology.” This has been the case in Iran and Sudan.
The criticism of this position should not mean to embrace completely the secular measures of the state. The matter is rather related to the awareness of a state model developed in the west that is the nation state with “totalitarian sovereignty,” which is a historical model that was founded in the ages of modernity. The western state has been subjected to revision and criticism since Rousseau in the 18th century. The criticism became more and more profound over the past few years in some of the philosophical works of important Western thinkers such as Tony Negri who draws attention to the full implications of the closed totalitarian model of the modern nation-state, and that it was not the only alternative for politically organizing societies.
In conclusion, the silenced or silent part in our contemporary Arab political discourse is to think about the formation and form of the state. Instead, we unconsciously become attracted to the notion of the state without the slightest of critical and historical knowledge. We place all bets on the state’s ability to achieve our needs, thus we attach a sacred value to it and expect it to carry out what is beyond its capacity. If civil strife is an evil that should be avoided, and if the presence of a political system is an indispensable social need, the state (in its modern concept) is nothing but a single form for the political system and we in the modern Arab world have not been able to plant it.