Islam is neither an instrument of identity politics, nor an ideology offering political solutions.
Recently, people have taken to the streets again in several Middle Eastern countries. From Algeria and Sudan, to Iraq, Lebanon and Iran, among others, they have protested authoritarian and sectarian governments, who have failed to solve their problems.
In and beyond the Middle East, not only Islamists but also conservative Muslims have argued that Islam would solve their countries’ problems. During the last four decades, several countries have experienced the increasing role of Islam in the public life. In some cases, such as Iran and Sudan, Islamists captured the power. In such cases as Pakistan and Egypt, Sharia was constitutionally declared as the source of law and Islamic courts became influential. In other cases such as Turkey and Malaysia, Islamic discourses dominated the public sphere and Islamic teachings became influential in public education.
Yet, almost none of these various levels of political, legal, and ideological Islamization helped these countries reach better conditions regarding justice, freedom, and development.
Democratic politics, in which the people elect leaders and hold them accountable while directly participating in policy-making processes, is crucial to accomplish these conditions. Democratic politics requires two fundamental bases of the political system—citizenship and law-making—to be secular.
Recent Islamization, however, has weakened the secular basis of citizenship and legislation in several Muslim-majority countries, and thus deepened their already-existing problems of authoritarianism.
Citizenship, not religion, should define the “nation”
In medieval Islamic theory and practice, Christian, Jewish, and some other non-Muslim subjects of Muslim states had a secondary status as “protected people.” This status was much better than the conditions of non-Christians in Christian states at that time. Today—regardless of its historical value—the “protected people” status means discrimination.
In the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire, the leading independent Muslim-majority country of the time, tried to replace the “protected people” status with equal citizenship for all subjects regardless of their religions—a pioneering policy though it did not work well.
Throughout the twentieth century, several Muslim-majority states became de-colonized and independent.
Most of these states embraced secular constitutions, but they generally failed to maintain equal citizenship because of their nationalist and authoritarian ideologies that discriminated against ethnic or religious minorities. In such cases as Syria and Iraq, secularists even established sectarian regimes. This shows that even if a secular political system is necessary for equal citizenship, it is definitely not sufficient.
Why is it necessary? Because once a political system is based on a religion, it is almost impossible to define the citizens who do not follow that religion as “first class.” In Iran and Iraq, rising legal and political influence of Shiism has led the discrimination against Sunni citizens, and in Pakistan and Egypt the opposite has happened, to a certain extent. Moreover, several Christian and non-Muslim minorities have faced discrimination by various means, including apostasy and blasphemy laws, in Sudan and Malaysia, among other cases.
Truly maintaining equal citizenship to all regardless of their religious identities is crucial for Muslim-majority countries to achieve democratization, consolidate the rule of law, and end sectarian and religious tensions.
Moreover, equal citizenship in Muslim-majority countries will empower those who defend rights of Muslim minorities facing persecution and even ethnic cleansing in such cases as China, India, and Myanmar, and experiencing Islamophobia in western countries. By maintaining the rights of their own minorities, Muslim-majority countries may gain stronger moral and legal grounds to defend rights of Muslim minorities at the global level.
Legislation should not be based on Sharia
Another fundamental requirement of democratic politics is participatory legislation. In Islamic jurisprudence, however, laws are deduced from religious texts by a group of experts—the ulema (Islamic scholars). Hence, Islamic jurisprudence inherently contradicts democratic politics, which adapts and transforms the law with popular participation and according to changing conditions.
Historically, the only exception the ulema recognized with the authority to make laws, in such cases as the Ottoman and Mughal empires, were the sultans. In other words, the ulema were forced to acknowledge the sultans’ legislative authority given the latter’s coercive capability.
In the twentieth century, secularist rulers adopted secular legal systems in Turkey, Iraq, Tunisia, and several other Muslim-majority cases. These assertive secularist regimes were mostly authoritarian. Therefore, they did not allow the law-making processes to be truly participatory. Secularism appears to be necessary but not sufficient for participatory legislation, too.
The secularist regimes’ authoritarian laws and policies expectedly became unpopular. This contributed to the popularity of the call for legal and political Islamization.
Those who call for the integration of Islamic law to modern legal systems have argued that Islam, in general, and Islamic law, in particular, provide solutions to contemporary political problems. This view is summarized in the cliché, “Islam is the solution.”
In reality, however, Islam does not claim to solve political problems. The main messages of the Qur’an are the oneness of God, the existence of the hereafter, the importance of justice, and the necessity of worshipping. It mentions neither the institution of the state nor the leadership of the Muslim community after the death of Prophet Mohammed.
As my new book Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison explains, there existed a certain level of separation between religious and political authorities in the first four centuries of Islamic history.
That is why the first systematic book about “Islamic” politics was written as late as the mid-eleventh century. It was Mawardi’s The Ordinances of Government. The book argues that an Islamic government is based on a caliph (an Arab man from the Quraish tribe) to rule all Muslims. The caliph holds the entire political and legal authority and stays in power for life. The caliph delegates his legitimate authority to sultans, governors, and judges.
The second book, which systematically defines an Islamic political system, was written in the early fourteenth century. It is Ibn Taymiyya’s Sharia-based Governance in Reforming Both the Ruler and His Flock. Instead of the one-man rule of a caliph, this book emphasizes the alliance between the ulema and the state authorities. Ibn Taymiyya interprets the only phrase in the Quran about authority, “uli’l-amr” (4:59), as referring to the ulema and the rulers (though other scholars have interpreted it differently).
To implement Mawardi’s idea of caliphate today would imply to establish an extreme autocracy. Ibn Taymiyya’s ideas are not helpful to solve modern political problems either. In fact, the ulema-state alliance is the source of various problems in many Muslim-majority countries.
In short, adding Islamic law to the legal system has complicated the problem of authoritarianism in several Muslim-majority countries. It has mostly served authoritarian rulers to justify and even sacralize their regimes. To maintain a certain level of separation between Islam and legal systems may limit the exploitation of Islam for political purposes.
Globally, democratic institutions and values now face challenges. In Muslim-majority countries, two effective ways of addressing these challenges are to consolidate equal citizenship, regardless of citizens’ religious identities, and to maintain secular law-making by a true participation of the citizens. Nonetheless, recent Islamization (at the political, legal and ideological levels) has weakened secular fundamentals of citizenship and law-making in many Muslim-majority countries.
It is important to acknowledge what Islam is and is not. Those who use Islam as an instrument in their identity politics have discriminated citizens holding religious identities different from the official one. Those who regard Islam as a political ideology have established top-down legal systems that have restricted the people’s participation in law-making. Islam is a religion that prioritizes faith and ethics. Islam is neither an instrument of identity politics, nor an ideology offering political solutions.
Ahmet T. Kuru is professor of political science at San Diego State University. He is the author of Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison (Cambridge UP 2019) and Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey (Cambridge UP 2009). With the late Alfred Stepan, he edited Democracy, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey (Columbia UP 2012).
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).
The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.