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God's own countries?

In the debate about Islamism it's often forgotten that most Middle Eastern regimes claim a special relationship with God

Brian Whitaker

The constitution of Iraq, approved in a national referendum after the country's "liberation" by the Americans, states that no law must contradict "the principles of democracy" or "the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in this constitution". It also specifies Islam as "a fundamental source of legislation" and says that "no law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established".

The Iraqi constitution is one case among many in the Middle East of trying to have it both ways. You cannot have freedom and a flourishing democracy if, at some point, the sovereign will of the people can be overridden by those who claim to speak in the name of God. This is the greatest political dilemma Muslims face at the start of the 21st century.

Last week I highlighted, in a mainly British context, the important distinction between Muslims who are politically active and the Islamists those who who view their religion as the basis for a political system.

Although the idea of an "Islamic state" is commonly associated with Islamist opposition movements, its opposite the idea that state and religion should be kept separate has very little currency in the Muslim world. The number of out-and-out secularists certainly those who publicly identify themselves as secularists is extremely small and some degree of linkage between religion and the state is accepted, for example, in virtually every Arab country, even those with relatively secular regimes such as Syria. In the Middle East, the argument between governments and Islamists is usually about how much linkage there should be and what form it should take not whether there should be any at all.

In the most extreme case Saudi Arabia "God's book and the Sunnah of His prophet (God's prayers and peace be upon him) are its constitution". Among the other Arab countries, Islam is "the religion of the state" in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia and Yemen.

In Yemen, sharia law is "the source of all legislation"; it is "the principal source of legislation" in Egypt and "the basis of legislation" in Oman. In Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria and Qatar sharia is "a main source of legislation". The draft Palestinian constitution says "the principles of Islamic sharia are a major source for legislation" and the constitution of Sudan specifies "the Islamic sharia" as the source of law, along with "national consent through voting, the constitution and custom", adding that "no law shall be enacted contrary to these sources".

The constitutions of Algeria, Mauritania, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen also stipulate that the president must be a Muslim (a practising Muslim in the case of Yemen) thus enshrining the principle of religious discrimination in law. Among the monarchies, the accession of a Muslim ruler might be assumed but Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, just to make sure, specify it in their constitutions too.

Why should any of this be deemed necessary? The answer, mainly, lies in the regimes' lack of popular legitimacy so they try to claim legitimacy by hitching themselves to God's coat-tails. The Saudi flag, for instance, combines the symbols of temporal and religious authority: a sword and the words of the Islamic shahada: "There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God". Thus, if you burn the Saudi flag, you're not only insulting the Saudi state but committing heresy too. Saddam Hussein applied the same idea, adding the takbir ("God is greatest") in his own handwriting to the Iraqi flag in 1991 at the start of the war to drive his forces out of Kuwait.

Besides providing undemocratic regimes with a claim to legitimacy, making Islam the official religion also has some practical effects: it establishes a legal pretext for the government to interfere in religious affairs for example, by controlling what may be said in sermons and employing clerics and scholars whose views are accommodating towards the regime.

Historically, this linkage between state and religion has served authoritarian regimes well. Today, though, it is becoming more of a liability than an asset. At the time when most Arab constitutions were drafted, governments did not have to contend with well-organised Islamist opposition movements. But the growth of Islamism since then has left them exposed: presenting themselves as defenders of Islam establishes a yardstick by which their performance can be judged unfavourably by Islamists.

The rampant corruption that plagues most Arab regimes is one example. So, too, is the extravagant lifestyle of many of their leaders which strikes many ordinary Muslims as distinctly un-Islamic.

This is a theme that Osama bin Laden has capitalised on. In a taped message a few years ago, he accused the Saudi regime of "violating God's rules". "The sins the regime committed are great it practised injustices against the people, violating their rights, humiliating their pride," he said, blaming the royal family for wasting public money while "millions of people are suffering from poverty and deprivation". For many in the kingdom and beyond the truth of his words was all too obvious.

Of course, the problem in the eyes of bin Laden and other Islamists is that these regimes are not "Muslim" enough. But the Islamists are chasing an impossible dream. As Abdullahi an-Na'im points out in his book, Islam and the Secular State, no Muslim regime since the death of the Prophet has managed to achieve a complete blending of state and religion and he explains in some detail why this is both a practical and theoretical impossibility. He also adds that Muslim rulers have "tended to assert religious legitimacy most strongly when their claims were least likely to be valid".

At a day-to-day level, establishing Islam as the official religion creates further problems. From declaring the state to be a "defender of Islam", it requires only a few small steps of logic to argue, firstly, that the state should do nothing that conflicts with "Islamic principles" and, secondly, that it has a duty to enforce "correct" Islamic behaviour among its citizens. This in turn provides a basis for the state to become embroiled in issues of personal "morality" that many would regard as private matters, such as sexual behaviour.

Thus regimes that may have set out with the hope of basking in the glow of religion and shaping religious doctrine to their own advantage find themselves instead falling under its control.

One of the more ludicrous effects of this can be seen in Saudi Arabia, where the government feels obliged to formally acknowledge the power of magic and witchcraft (with the accompanying obligation to execute anyone convicted of being a witch).

In Egypt, where Islam is "the religion of the state", courts and government officials often interpret this as a licence to act in the name of Islam (pdf) and refuse to do anything that would amount to government approval of "sin". Among other things, this includes refusing to amend identity cards when someone converts from Islam to Christianity. Since conversion away from Islam is generally regarded as apostasy, they argue that a Muslim state cannot officially acknowledge or endorse it.

Separating religion from the state is an essential requirement if these countries are to move forward and allow their citizens genuine liberty and, contrary to what many Muslims imagine, it would actually serve their own interests better. Unfortunately, amid all the attention paid to Islamism and terrorism, this issue tends to get lost in international debates. Meanwhile, in the Muslim countries themselves, it is still largely a taboo subject.

This issue is discussed in more detail in Brian Whitaker's forthcoming book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East.


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