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Political Islam in neoliberal times

Neoliberalism devours other competing world-views through the commodification of cultural difference—turning a tidy profit. Wrest this monopoly on political readings of Islam away from capital and authoritarianism.

Over the past 35 years, political understandings of Islam have been dominated either by authoritarian/autocratic states or movements aligned to the right of the political spectrum. In many cases they have offered very little resistance to neo-liberal readings of the economy and have often been complicit in furthering its political agenda. Arguably, the Islamic response to the challenge of neoliberalism to date has been characterised by simply inserting Islam within a capitalist framework through a selective reading of Islamic jurisprudence.

This is particularly true in states such as Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan—to name but a few—where the interests of conservative Islam have been married to powerful business interests. In the energy-propelled autocratic Gulf states an increasingly consumer-driven culture casts a pernicious shadow over social relations wherein a hierarchy of humanity fixes migrant labour drawn from populous nations in south and east Asia firmly on the lowest rung.

Makkah today. Courtesy of Makkah Clock Royal Tower, a Fairmont Hotel.  Makkah today. Courtesy of Makkah Clock Royal Tower, a Fairmont Hotel.

It is easy to forget that political readings of Islam have not always sought to galvanise religious traditions from a perspective serving the interests of capital. Indeed, during the late nineteenth century and for the best part of the twentieth century a proliferation of Muslim intellectuals, political activists and movements were assiduously engaged with the burgeoning ideas of socialism. From the Tartar-led Waisi movement in Russia in the first decades of the twentieth century to the Pakistani People’s Party (PPP) formed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1967—political articulations of Islam acknowledged the significance of class struggle in the lives of ordinary Muslims. Syrian intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth century such as Abd al-Raḥman al-Kawākibī and Rafiq al-’Azm were advocates for what may even plausibly be described as an Islamic reading of socialism. Both drew attention to the harmful implications of unbridled competition and warned against the impulse of modernity with its unremitting drive towards acquisition and accumulation.

The poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz—a recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize—demonstrates clearly how far from uncommon it was by the late 1970s to find a religious vernacular employed to convey revolutionary socialist ideals. It is also a reminder that Muslim intellectuals from the left openly contested ways in which a religious idiom was being put to use by right-leaning autocratic regimes:

[Hum dekhenge] We shall see

When from the K’aba on God’s Earth

All the idols will be removed

We the truthful ones but out of favour

Will be raised to the stage

All the crowns will be thrown away

All the thrones will be turned over

Then only God’s name will remain

And yet, we continue to wait in anticipation of the day when “we shall see”. Such stridently vociferous iterations against the deprivations of unrestrained capitalism seem largely to come from organisations worshipping at the altar of violence, rather than from the Muslim intellectuals of today. That resistance to neoliberalism is articulated through the likes of al-Qaeda, the so-called ‘Islamic State’ and the Taliban is indicative of the usurping of political and economic articulations of Islam by capitalists and the lack of any other alternative. This is why the fury of militant groups is directed at the house of Saud as much as it is against American imperialism.

Getting lost in translation

Much of what has been labelled as ‘Islamic socialism’ from the twentieth century remained unquestioningly within the rubric of the nation-state system. Struggling to free themselves of the shackles of colonial rule, nascent socialist projects in majority Muslim countries were conjoined at birth with pro-independence and nationalist movements. The glaring contradiction of a universalising religion bound within a nation-state, which by definition exists through othering those who fall outside of the state-citizen-territory trinity, has clung stubbornly to the fibre of political and economic iterations of Islam since.

Ontological borrowings by Muslim intellectuals in relation to the nation-state are also evident in the laboured attempts to fit the square peg of ummah into the round hole of society. Here we find ummah—the community of believers—has been translated and re-envisioned as Islamic society. Alternatively, the more secular term mujtamma’a has also been used to describe both society and community. Confusion abounds and with it the implicit acceptance of the dichotomy between personal and affective social interactions (gemeinschaft) on the one hand, and impersonal,rational relations, void of any binding norms,on the other (gesellschaft).

Here, it is useful to look not to a European construction of knowledge of the social world to find an understanding of ummah but to the proximate cultures bordering the Arab heartlands. The migration of loan-words from Arabic to neighbouring languages fixes in time pre-modern readings of how foundational terms such as ummah were understood. Excavating language in this way allows us to move beyond the encounter the Muslim world had with modernity—particularly the colonial project--and retrieve a hitherto forgotten vocabulary and with it a possible future Muslim imaginary.

In Urdu the word m’āshra is used in everyday parlance to mean 'society'. M’āshret kardan in Farsi means to socialize, unite or mix well (with people) and in Turkish muaşeret is used to convey civility and reciprocal social relations. The word itself has an arabic root ‘āshr which means to associate closely. M’āshr is a rarely used noun in contemporary Arabic to mean comrade, companion or friend. More common in both colloquial and modern standard Arabic is a related word in reference to kin networks or clan—‘ashīra. This root meaning conceptualises society as a space in which people—includıng strangers—come together and associate not in competition with one another but in a convivial manner. It is a space not only for rational economic exchange but a site for people to connect with one another as human beings. The binary of community and society dissolves.

This has radical implications for understandings of economy—moving away from one centred on competition and towards mutual aid as the objective. It challenges a core precept of neoliberal thinking; namely that the mechanism of the market alone is sufficient in guiding human action and structuring relations. It directs us away from both the centralized gaze of the state and the supposed rationality of the market. Instead, it posits that neighbourhoods and communities, which are bound not only by a cold rational economic calculus but are anchored in affective socio-cultural ties, are sufficiently equipped to manage and arrange the distribution of common resources at their disposal.

It is worth remembering here that the marshalling of capitalist modes of production for the purposes of industrialisation and modernisation was instigated by the state rather than something that grew organically from within communities. To be clear, I am not arguing that capitalist relations did not exist in traditionally Muslim countries before the encounter with modernity and colonialism. Maxime Rodinson effectivley explains in Islam and Capitalism that trade in crafted goods, agricultural commodities and the use of elaborate ruses to overcome the interdiction on usury were widespread in the pre-modern era. The point is, production did not for the large part amount to anything much larger than a cottage industry enterprise. Where largescale enterprises were undertaken they were commonly framed as perpetual endowments—awqāf. While such endowments were certainly used to protect the wealth of elites they also often served an important social function. Moreover, the fact that creative legal loopholes were required to circumvent the spirit of Islamic injunctions is a reminder that socially such practices were held in disdain.

The encounter with European colonialism left many Muslim intellectuals bewildered, disoriented and it is fair to say dazzled. Thus we find that Muslim reformers at the turn of the twentieth century were not wholly opposed to capitalism per-se but rather their discontent could be located in the control of capital by foreign actors. It was believed that an Islamic underpinning would harness capital to serve the interests of emerging Muslim states. What we begin to see here are the first indications that what passes as an ‘Islamic economics’ is in fact embedded in global capitalist relations, paradoxically inviting the wolf of colonial capitalism to the door rather than keeping it at bay.

Icons of the revolution: Ali Shariati (middle). January 13, 1979. Photo by Bahman Jalali. All rights reserved. Icons of the revolution: Ali Shariati (middle). January 13, 1979. Photo by Bahman Jalali. All rights reserved.

Notable exceptions among reform projects were those of ‘Ali Shari’ati and Sayyid Qutb—both of whom grappled with capitalist hegemony. Their respective attempts to formulate a grammar of interaction anchored in an Islamic vernacular ultimately failed to escape from European ontological categories that had by the latter half of the twentieth century become deeply ingrained in how Muslims were both structuring the world around them and being guided by those very same structures.

The bitter fruits of a neoliberal Islam

As noted above, socialist readings of Islam in many majority Muslim countries have been unable to withstand the onslaught of neo-liberalism and the globalised context in which it operates. Cronus-like, neo-liberalism devours other competing world-views it comes up against through the commodification of cultural difference—and in so doing, turns a tidy profit. Indeed, neo-liberalism has appropriated Islamic ideals of beneficial trade and individual accountability and woven it within its overarching narrative of entrepreneurialism. In the case of Pakistan, the Islamic socialism of the PPP very quickly degenerated into a vehicle for well-to-do businessmen and landholders. Government readiness to take their recommended dose of neoliberal reforms has paved the way for western powers to re-assert their hegemony—this time in the guise of a liberal imperial regime.

This impotence has in turn created considerable socio-economic disparities in traditionally Muslim countries—a state of affairs that fails to chime with the call for social justice to be found in the sacred texts of Islam, with its insistence on mutual aid at the heart of economic relations. The in-roads neoliberalism has made into countries with large Muslim populations have led to the erosion of what I call popular understandings of ‘the right to neighbourhood’. A significant corollary has been the response by often violent groups which draw on a religious lexicon to contest the monopoly of violence enjoyed by the post-colonial nation state—calling it to account for its failed promise to deliver social justice and preserve what Charles Tripp calls the moral economy of Islam.

Meanwhile, the post-colonial state—already floundering for legitimacy—has sought to prop up its claim to authority through mobilising religious traditions, networks and institutions in an attempt to maintain the status quo and in so doing has created an acquiescent and pliant clerical class. Where institutions of state have become emptied, hollowed out vehicles for furthering the economic interests of governing elites functioning as nodal points for international capital, religious and clan affiliation have become increasingly significant identity markers. This, as argued by Mary Kaldor in her thesis on new wars, sets the basis for a competition of access to state resources along lines of identity and is characterised by violence.

The challenge ahead

It is in this context that it becomes imperative to interrogate both the ‘taken-for-granted’ fact of the nation-state and the narrative that a neoliberal economic agenda is somehow in harmony with an Islamic ethos. Thirty five years under this insidious and often violent re-structuring of social and economic relations has been far too long.

There do seem to be glimmers of resistance in isolated pockets where the devastation wrought by neoliberal encroachment has been at its most intense—notably during the Gezi protests in the summer of 2013 with İhsan Eliaçık’s Anti-imperialist Muslim Youth movement. Elsewhere, others have failed to muster much support from the masses for their re-interpretation of Islam along liberal and socialist lines —Hassan Hanafi’s ‘Islamic left’ project serves as a case in point. Both Eliaçık and Hanafi have been accused of promoting heretical interpretations of Islam by their detractors. While it is to be expected that those who currently enjoy a near monopoly on the production of religious knowledge will seek to besmirch the reputation of those who challenge the status-quo, the question remains why such alternative readings of Islam have failed to gain traction in the popular Muslim imagination.

We invite contributions from thinkers and activists to begin a conversation on how to mount a challenge to a neoliberal agenda through the use of an Islamic vernacular. First, we need to understand how the discourse and practices of states with a predominantly Muslim population have constructed the common sense of the free market while simultaneously presenting themselves as ‘defenders of the faith’. We also have to reconstitute understandings of nation-state, society and economy so that they are read through an Islamic lens rather than that of modernitybe it Marxist or neoliberal. This demands imagination.

While this may ultimately bring us to a politics of the commons characterised by cooperative modes of production and consumption, open borders, sustainability and localismthe ontological reasoning behind it must surely derive from the tenets of Islam if the neoliberal readings of Islam and the violent progeny it has brought into this world are to be challenged. We have taken it upon oursleves to wrest away the monopoly on political readings of Islam from those aligned with the interests of capital and authoritarianism. I am not making the case that Islam is inherently anti-capitalist or pro-socialist. Rather, I am questioning why at this particular juncture Muslim intellectuals have failed to rise to the challenge of neoliberalism. It is this capitulation to neoliberalism that has sown the seeds of much discontent, disenchantment and disillusionment throughout the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.

It is also timely given the dearth of any viable alternative—one not sympathetic to market processes—from Muslim intellectuals on how to deal with the very real danger, to Muslim and non-Muslim communities alike, presented by movements such as the so-called ‘Islamic state’ which speak through the language of violence. To counter the influence such movements have on political discourse among Muslims, a recognition of the ideals of solidarity, mutual aid and hospitality which have long been a feature of everyday practices of Islam is required.

We have to move beyond proximate translations of concepts such as ummah, watan, and iqtisād and re-imagine them so that they speak to the very real socio-economic, cultural and political distress Muslims find themselves in today. In short, what we need more than ever before is a re-awakening of the ideals that underpin social relations in Islam—chief among them is taḍāmon or solidarity. For lack of a better word in English we may call it an Islamic socialism.

About the author

Tahir Zaman is a visiting research fellow at the centre for research on migration, refugees & belonging (CMRB) at the University of East London and a Senior Teaching Fellow at SOAS. His research is primarily focused on the social and cultural lives of displaced people in the Middle East.

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