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The Traditional Islamic Institution and the Political Wager - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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My colleague Radwan Al Sayyid has an interesting theory regarding the relationship between the state and religious institution in Arab countries. His theory revolves around the idea that this relationship varies between following it blindly and exploiting the institution and its exclusion and marginalization. In both cases, the result of this relationship is the collapse of the traditional religious institution (religious teaching, the issuing of religious rulings, and endowments) and the explosion of fundamentalist or “renaissance” trends in Radwan’s terms. There is no doubt that the Arab experience regardless of its different contexts and arenas was based upon two pivotal points in its perception and management of the religious political issue. The first of these two axes is the distancing from the secular European model by breaking the link between private religious belief and the public domain. The second of the two axes is preventing the religious ceiling from becoming a restriction upon developing modern constitutional and legislative systems which in their deepest logic are a result of the course of European secularization.

Perhaps this problematic dilemma is what had designed the methods in which the Arab states dealt with religious institutions, fostered it and reformed its behaviour and restricted its grip on society.

All Arab countries (with the exception of Lebanon, the status of which is well known) declare in their constitutions that the state religion is Islam, and sponsor the traditional religious institution and in most cases succeed in subjugating it under its authority either through the modernizing reformative steps which have altered or rather undermined its institutional structure (such as the developing of education at Al Azhar in Egypt and Zatoun in Tunisia), or through converting the religious institution into a symbolic ritualistic institution that is void of any content.

This ambiguous situation led to attacks upon the Arab states from both the Islamic as well as the secular trends. The Islamic trend accuses Arab states of adopting secularism and violating religious frameworks, based on its trust of modern administrative and organizational governance systems. On the other hand, secularists accuse Arab states of being stuck in the past as it adopts a religious reference for governance, which secularists consider inconsistent to the values and standards of political modernity.

We often forget to pinpoint Arab confidentiality especially regarding the general Islamic field, which has witnessed various experiences one of which is the Turkish experience which had adopted a secular orientation with a challenging attitude against the religious institution. Also there is the Pakistani experience, which was ideologically based on the religious identity, as well as other models that varied in terms of approaches and practical orientations.

One prominent figure of philosophy in the Muslim region of West Africa once told me that people were always surprised that he is a Muslim thinker but focuses on the Islamic-Secular clash that dominates the Arab mind. However the case is different with African Muslims who face similar challenges yet practice their religious rituals and live their lives with no sense of contradiction or inconsistency.

Presently, what is common in many non-Arab Muslim countries is the emergence of conditions similar to that of the American experience, where its foundations are focused upon the transformation of the religious institution into one of the pillars of civil society that would be characterized by vital activity in the public fields but without controlling the course of its administration or management.

It is quite known that the Shiite institution has been successful in countries where it is active at accomplishing a central role in civil society without getting involved in the ventures of power owing to a set of complicated doctrinal and political reasons and before the recent Iranian experience (the Walayat al Faqih system). At the same time, the Zaidiyya Imamate in Yemen endorsed a model similar to that of the Sunni and Abadiyya Imamates. Nowadays, small mosques and Sufi trends represent an essential component of civil society in Muslim African countries, yet with no considerable ambition to play a direct political role.

Could such a model, the religious institution as a key component of civil society that is, be a substitute for the current ambiguous bilateralism between the religious and political institutions in Arab countries, considering the ideological problems we have highlighted (Islamic-Secular clash) that this bilateralism offers?

In reply to this question, we must recall the real state of affairs of the traditional religious institution in the Sunni Muslim world, which has been described as fragile and vulnerable, vis-à-vis the rise of Islamic political trends that cannot be regarded as an extension of this institution or in support of it. In fact these Islamic political trends are one of the components of the contemporary political field that disputes with governments and civil religious institutions to single-handedly deal with the administration of religious affairs.

On one hand it is a protest movement against what is considered a road to comprehensively secularize political and social lives, yet on the other hand it does contribute to the deepening of this actual secularization by transforming religious commitment into a tool for political mobilization and an element of the political wager.

The ruling regimes sometimes tend to seek refugee in the civil religious institutions from its conflicts with protesting religious Islamic movements. However, the employment of this religious institution by the state further weakens this institution as it changes it from a unanimous reference into a part of the conflict of religious and political legitimacy.

So would the solution be to do away with this weak institution and its fuelling of the severe clash between ruling regimes and fundamentalist trends? Or does the solution lie in the renewal of this religious institution, which requires the reform and revamping of its curricula, its tools and above all, ensuring its autonomy? The answer to this dilemma would undoubtedly be one part of a comprehensive approach for religious reform that is still in the process of development and is yet to complete course in the Islamic scene although it is a pressing necessity.