RealClearWorld Newsletters: Mideast Memo
Why Political Islam Matters
Queens, N.Y. -- Nothing struck me as especially out of the ordinary about the Bait uz Zafar Mosque in the somewhat suburban neighborhood of Hollis. This Ahmadiyya Muslim center tucked alongside New York City’s Grand Central Parkway resembled any other house of worship, and indeed was, at one point in time, a synagogue.
There were, of course, the cameras, coupled with the hard-to-miss security presence at the front door. A reminder, perhaps, that the world has become an increasingly uncertain place for many Muslims, even those here in the West.
Founded in India during the 19th century by religious leader Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community is viewed as heretical by much of the Islamic world. “Sunnis and Shias will fight each other, but align to fight us,” quipped my host, Salaam Bhatti. An attorney in private practice by day, Bhatti is also a passionate spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.
Boasting large numbers in India, Pakistan, and throughout much of Africa, the Ahmadiyya Muslim caliphate -- that’s right, they have one of those -- has found a spiritual and administrative home in the secular West, in addition to countries with a diverse religious makeup where Islam is rarely the predominant faith.
The Ahmadi caliphate is starkly different from that other one that tends to consume all of the news headlines. The Ahmadiyya, led by an elected caliph and a consultative council, or shura, encourages the separation of mosque and state and urges all Muslims to be patriotic and loyal to their nation of residence.
“What they’ve tried hasn’t worked,” said Bhatti, referring to Muslim leaders the world over. “What we have has worked” in Muslim communities around the world.
This message, paired with its founding narrative, has made the Ahmadiyya community anathema among many of their coreligionists. Ahmadis have been persecuted throughout the Muslim world for more than a century, and in Pakistan they are typically treated as second-class citizens. The murder last March of Glasgow shopkeeper and Ahmadi Muslim Asad Shah at the hands of another Muslim was a chilling reminder of that history.
What the Ahmadiyya community has done -- and what has, in part, earned it the status of pariah with so many other Muslims -- is made peace with pluralism and the modern nation-state. Ostracized within Islam, the Ahmadiyya typically thrive in places that are not consumed culturally and politically by Islam.
There are, however, approximately 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, the vast majority of which are counted as members of the Sunni sect. And when we discuss and dissect the problems that plague the Islamic world, it should be noted that we are not so much referring to the part of the world where the most Muslims live -- that distinction in fact belongs to the Asia-Pacific, where nearly 70 percent of the world’s Muslims reside -- but rather the Middle East, where the Muslim world is most densely concentrated and rooted.
Moreover, when we discuss political Islam -- commonly, and often derisively, referred to as Islamism -- it is predominantly in the context of the Muslim Arab world concentrated across most of the Middle East and North Africa. It’s in this part of the world -- where powerful Islamic empires and caliphates once thrived -- that the real conflict between modernity and spirituality is being waged, and it is one that could have significant implications for the entire world.
Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution wrestles with this very subject in his latest book, “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World.” Far from being a throwback to some pre-modern era, Hamid contends that Islamism in all its shades -- from the older and more established Muslim Brotherhood to the radical jihadist organization know as the Islamic State -- is in fact a reaction to the blend of colonialism, secularism, and liberalism that has gradually imposed itself on the Middle East since the region’s last official caliphate was abolished in 1924.
Islam, Hamid argues, is unique in how it interacts with politics, and in particular with democracy. Whereas Muslim identity was once an unspoken given in a region dominated by Muslims, the creep of colonialism and Western occupation has made the clear articulation of a more conscious Islam all the more critical in the minds of the devout.
“With the advent of the modernists, Islam, for really the first time, became a distinct political project,” writes Hamid.
Although that project has seen its share of successes and setbacks throughout the years, few, explains Hamid, have had as devastating an effect on political Islam as the 2013 crackdown against Egypt’s elected Islamists.
The collapse of Arab states in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, coupled with the resurgence of autocracy and monarchy throughout the rest of the region, has likewise called into question the viability of long-view Islamist politicking within the confines of the nation-state.
“The coup in Egypt was a gift to Islamic State and its extremist ilk,” Hamid argues, “further fueling an already-potent message that fundamental change could only come through bullets and brute force.”
To prevent future generations of Muslims from reaching that same fateful conclusion may require the acceptance of some hard truths on all sides. It may require political Islamists to rethink the purpose and point of democracy, and to view elections as a means to political relevance, and not an end in itself.
Those of us in the West would do well to take the current plight of political Islam to heart, and reconcile with the fact that the Muslim world will likely pursue its own brand of democracy -- one with predominantly Islamic characteristics. And if political Islam does indeed fail, so too may the very states that the West has come to rely on to help secure its energy and interests.
“Islamic Exceptionalism” hits bookshelves and browsers on June 7.
Does the Mideast Need a Caliphate? -- RealClearWorld