Hornbill Unleashed

January 5, 2013

‘Political Islam’ and Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad (Part Two)

Clive Kessler

This discussion probes a fateful issue.

It considers whether, as the 13th national elections approach, Malaysians may reasonably place their trust in the “moderate” elements within PAS to restrain any “overreaching” Islamist enthusiasms within the opposition coalition, and thereafter in any prospective “popular front” Pakatan national government.

This discussion began by posing, and will conclude by returning to, the question whether the assurances provided on this matter by Dr Dzulkelfy Ahmad can provide that confidence.

It does so specifically by probing the clarity and historical adequacy of Dzulkefly’s understanding of the notion “political Islam”.

In short, if his grasp of this term is insufficient, then the assurances that he wishes to provide, and suggests that he may reliably offer to Malaysian voters, concerning the ability of the PAS “moderates” to counter any temptations towards excess among his party’s “hardline” political Islamists are unlikely to be adequate.

This is a crucial matter on which many Malaysians want, and need, to be convinced.

“Third-Phase Islam” — or “Political Islam”

Sir Hamilton Gibb, we saw, offended many Muslims and created a furore with the title of his book “Mohammedanism” (1949).

Insensitive it may have been.

But Gibb, nonetheless, “was onto something”.

He was writing about Islam in new and dramatically changing times. And, in an attempt to address the new challenges of new times, he adopted — among Western scholars of classical Islam — a new approach.

He sought to look not simply at the faith of Islam but at the world of Islam. He aimed to see Islam historically, not doctrinally. He wished to understand the world that Muslims inhabited not simply in Islam’s own terms but in its global historical context.

He sought to do so not simply (as he and others had done in academically more conventional works) by probing its internal developmental dynamics as they might appear to and be understood by an insider, a member of the ummah, but also, at the same time, to see the world of Islam as an outsider, from the outside. That is, to see not just the wider world through the prism of Islam but to see how Islam was situated in, and had been shaped by, the history of the wider world of which it was a part, an important part. A part that contributed to the whole but which was also in important ways shaped by it, by its placement in the wider, evolving human configuration.

This was a timely choice.

Gibb chose to look at “Islam in the world” at a crucial moment, when that question was acquiring a new urgency. He was writing at an early moment of “the new Islamic reassertion”; at the dawn, one might say, of a new Islamic political and historical consciousness with which he intuited, correctly, the world in this new era would have to come to terms.

By outlook, his critics were Muslims of the “second phase”, and they responded to Gibb accordingly. In the long, post-Crusades tradition, they rallied to the defence of their faith and its prophet; to uphold the dignity of Islam and Muhammad against what they saw as characteristic Western misrepresentation and even wilful misunderstanding.

They did so at the precise moment when, in the midst of the dramatic post-war “resetting” of the global historical and civilisational configuration, the world of Islam was making its decisive move from its second to its third stage.

At a time, that is, when the shift in Muslim historical consciousness was occurring from the defence of the faith and its prophet to the defence and positive, active promotion of “Islam itself”, as a whole, as an entire “way of life”: as a form of shared public, historical existence, or din, that was followed by the entire historic community of the faith’s believers and followers — or which at least, so its champions maintained, ought to be.

This was the arrival of “third-stage Islam”. In it Muslims were now standing up on the stage of world history to reclaim and reassert their dignity.

In it, they were now redirecting their forces, moral as much as military (and often with far greater success at the former than the latter!), to recapture the ability to write, and then to live out, their own history according to their own historical and civilisational “script”.

Their own script and agenda, not that which — ever since Napoleon had arrived in Egypt in 1798, and throughout the ensuing period of imperial and colonial domination — had humiliatingly been imposed upon them.

Instead, Muslims were now to become again the subjects and authors of their own history, not the subordinated objects of a different civilisational history — with its own, but alien, moral order as well as political framework — in which, as Muslims, they had lost, or been made to forfeit, their sovereignty, independence and collective autonomy.

With this reassertion of historical autonomy, the desire for it, the determination to retrieve it, and the uncompromising and unconditional assertion of the independent and absolute right of modern Muslims to pursue it, “political Islam” in all its varied forms was born.

We need not trouble ourselves here to recount all the notable moments in this historic journey of self-redefinition and rediscovery, nor to review once more the works of the key thinkers who catalysed this historical transformation of Muslim religious, political and historical consciousness. All that is well known and frequently retold.

What these historic developments gave rise to, and yielded, was not simply a movement but a broad, diverse and complex new historical reality composed and comprised of many different, and at times mutually antagonistic and contradictory, parts.

That is the situation, and that — following its long historical gestation and its ever-continuing stirring — is the Islamic world of today.

That is the world of politically reawakened Islam, or in short “political Islam”. Its era is that of “third-phase Islam”.

This means and includes political Islam in all its forms and varieties: from the activist to the more reflective, philosophical or scholarly, along one key axis, in one significant dimension; and from the democratically inclined or liberal to the exclusionary, authoritarian and illiberal, along another important axis, in another major dimension.

Political Islam can take, has taken and as we encounter it today continues to take all these forms. All are part of the one overall phenomenon or tendency. But — since the movement or tendency is at its heart reassertive, reactive, restorative and even retributive, an attempt to “set things right again”, and, for some, to strike back and “get even at last” — the forms in which it generally occurs and appears have been overwhelmingly towards the activist and illiberal end of the continuum along those two decisive axes.

Here in Malaysia, as elsewhere, this fact presents complications, and a major challenge, to those who hope and seek to promote Islamic reaffirmation and “political Islam” in its potentially more democratic, liberal, “gentle” and inclusive forms.

But the general point remains indisputable. When rallying to the cause of “Islam itself, as an historical construct and way of life” became central; when it became the focus (for many Muslims) of their identity and sensibilities and actions; and when that attitude and stance became elaborated in new historical doctrines and then powerfully “ideologised”: at that historical moment and from that point we may speak of the emergence of “political Islam”.

To say this, to put the matter in this way, is not “Orientalism” or “essentialism”. It is not to indulge in adverse, worn-out, pejorative stereotyping.

Why not?

Because this is exactly what the Islamist activists and their own scholarly legions themselves say, if at times in their own way and distinctive intellectual dialects. This is how they themselves describe the origins and nature of their movement and organisations, of their “historic moment”.

Historic consciousness: A new “qiblah”

To understand what “third-phase Islam” is about, its inner character, we need to focus not upon the events that produced this new historical reality but upon the inner transformation, or shift, of Muslim consciousness that it entailed and promoted.

It is in that shift, and in that newly reoriented consciousness, that the distinctive nature of “political Islam” in its many forms, and the key to understanding the world of Islam today, lie.

“First-phase Islam”, or Islam of the historically originating and formative era, had its own distinctive form of religious consciousness, its own defining focus and “phenomenological orientation” we might say. It centred upon the primal awareness and overpowering conviction, based upon Muhammad’s own experiences of revelation, of the unity of God, and of God’s entire creation, including both the natural world and humankind, under his exclusive divine sovereignty.

In the wake of the Crusades and the long “polemic over Muhammad” that they generated, “second-phase Islam” was preoccupied with, and came to be defined in its external outlook by, the imperative need and obligation to uphold Islam by defending Muhammad, his honour and dignity and prophetic authenticity.

In Islam’s new “third phase”, a further shift now occurred. Identification with Islam and its cause has continued and has been renewed. But it is now — at the level of historical consciousness (not religious doctrine!) — an identification “with Islam itself”, as an historic entity, as a complex and historically evolved “way of life” or din: that of the entire ummah, past and present, who live by that way of life — or who at least, according to the theorists of the new Islamic reassertion, ought to do so.

It is Islam in this new sense that, in the “third phase”, has become the primary focus of widespread Muslim historical identification or point of moral attachment. It is Islam in this sense that has become the phenomenological “qiblah”, we might even say, to speak metaphorically, of the new Islamic consciousness.

The religiously-based historical consciousness of many Muslims has, over the centuries, undergone this gradual and subtle shift of orienting or phenomenological focus. A complex “line of succession” leads from a form of consciousness resting on the centrality of “Allah awareness”, to one revolving around the an obligatory solicitousness for the reputation of Muhammad as central to the defence of his true and completed faith, to one driven by the historical impulse to reaffirm and redeem Islam “as a way of life” as the way to re-empower the community of true believers, the ummah.

To understand this fact and its implications is to begin to understand what “political Islam” is, means and represents in our time and historical age. And if you do not understand it, you simply cannot. You may think you do, but you don’t and can’t.

“Political Islam and the PAS “Moderates”

This is the challenge that faces Dzulkefly and his “moderate” allies within PAS.

Do they understand fully, in their complexity, the sources, the driving impetus, and the broad historical scope of “political Islam”? And are they prepared to be — no, I will not say “honest”, since that might sound hostile and insinuating — “upfront” about what they face here?

About what they face in the history that they inherit? In the political field upon which they are operating? And within their own Islamist political party, PAS?

We need to remember (as Dr Farish Noor reminds us) that, when it came to power in Kelantan in the first post-independence elections of 1959 — with an overwhelming victory, claiming 28 of the 30 seats in the first fully elected Kelantan state assembly — PAS was the first Islamist political party worldwide to win an election, and to seize in some way the reins of power, by modern democratic electoral means.

To be the first, the historical pioneer or “pacemaker”, imposes a certain historic obligation: that of showing the way, of seeking to do so intelligently and in a fastidiously principled fashion.

It did then, it posed that challenge to PAS in Kelantan, in 1959.

And it may yet do so again in Putrajaya in 2013. However unlikely that prospect may still be, it is one for which people like Dzulkefly and his moderate allies must be prepared. They must see and anticipate issues clearly, well in advance of any coming to power.

The adequacy of Dzulkefly’s assurances

Does he, and do they, see things clearly? With sufficient historical insight?

For some indication we can only return to Dzulkefly’s recent column.

As noted, Dzulkefly seems a decent man and a principled politician who means well, whose intentions are honourable.

But is that enough? Does he understand what he needs to understand about “political Islam” with sufficient precision, insight and clarity?

Sufficient to enable him to stand his ground and to “hold the line” for the “moderates” against the more ambitious or “hardline” political Islamists in PAS?

It is a key question. Because if he does not, then his assurances cannot provide concerned Malaysian voters with any great confidence.

One is not reassured when one reads that

“‘Political Islam’ is an invention of both Orientalist thinking and Socio-Political scientists of both Western and Middle-Eastern origin. Western discourse, defines Political Islam as ‘the contemporary movement that conceives Islam as a political ideology and describe the people who subscribe to this view as ‘Islamists’.

“An Islamist, going by this definition, ranges from a ‘Jihadi’ to ‘Democrat’”, in an ideological milieu that is far from monolithic or homogeneous. That said, one immediately perceives that this ‘narrow’ definition of ‘Islamic activism’ presupposes that Islam per se is ‘apolitical’, hence the need to affix the term ‘Political Islam’.

“That premise is both misconceived and fundamentally flawed. The holistic paradigm of Islam includes its inherent and intrinsic interests in matters of ‘government and governance’, thus making it political from the very outset.”

One can, of course, see what Dzulkefly is getting at here.

And it is not entirely wrong or ridiculous.

It is simply garbled, confused, unclear. A blur.

And that is the big worry.

Why a worry?

Because if a man cannot express himself clearly, then he probably cannot “think straight”.

After all, what is thinking if not the ability to have a clear and honest conversation with oneself?

And if he cannot speak and think clearly when, at his leisure and ease, he writes a considered column, how will he ever be able to “think straight” when he is placed, or forced (as often happens in political life), into a tight and crooked corner?

How can people, as they ponder how they may cast their vote later this year, be confident that he will? That he will be able to do so? That he will know how?

Can one be confident, “when the chips are down” and the tough and ambitious Islamists in PAS demand that some hard measure be taken, that Dzulkefly and the moderates will know what to do? That they will recognise the challenge that they face?

That they will really see what is at stake in, and will know how to handle and hold the line against, some seemingly innocuous proposal proffered with subtle and engaging craftiness by the “hardliners”?

People need to be reassured, to be confident, if they are to accept the arguments that Dzulkefly makes in his recent column and elsewhere.

And when that moment of challenge, of “testing the limits” and the moderates’ political resolve, by the hardliners comes, it will simply not to do skirt around all the difficult issues — as in his recent column — with a convenient retreat into fashionable but less than fully digested post-modernist rhetoric and “discourse manoeuvres”.

There are awkward, tough and difficult facts to be faced.

Many among the “moderates”, one fears, have neither the ability nor the inclination — as the prospects of victory and national power become almost palpable — to face, even to acknowledge, them.

So the task is often left, as it now is here, to “outside commentators”, who are often seen at best as impolite meddlers and more frequently as hopelessly obtuse or driven by malice, when they raise those difficult matters.

But the bottom line is simple. There is no way that people can cope with their situation, or that the PAS “moderates” will ever be able to handle theirs, if they do not see it clearly. If they do not possess the intellectual and analytical means to do so, to understand what they face.

I wish Dzulkefly and his moderate allies well.

They certainly “have their work cut out for them”.

Now, not during the campaign or after the elections, is the time to get to work.

To engage with those tough key issues, not evade them.

A clear-headed strategic analysis of those key issues needs to be based upon two cardinal commitments:

First, that a “Malay culture of modernity” (which is indispensable to genuine Malay progress) cannot be created in the face of, and certainly not built upon the foundation of any capitulation to, “Islamic illiberalism”.

And second, without “Malay modernity” there can be no effective, enduring and decent sharing of this land, and nation, between Malays and everybody else.

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