Aziz Al-Azmeh in conversation: Part III Women, democracy and political Islamisms

Concluding part of dialogue: Political Islamism, women and democracy

Ardeshir Mehrdad: As you have probably observed, amongst the authors dealing with feminist-Islamism some place their emphasis on the historical context, or more specifically, on the political context. They view feminist-Islamism in countries with Islamic regimes (such as Iran and Afghanistan) as legal and legitimised social actors in resisting ultra-discrimination against women under the name of Allah. They usually take the possibility of different interpretations of the Qur’an and sharia’ as the key factor, and argue that feminist-Islamism challenges the most conservative interpretations applied by such governments to the regulation of gender relations in these countries.

Do you see any validity in this argument, i.e. do you think that the numerous interpretations of sharia’in relation to gender issues by the different factions of political Islam are meaningfully at variance, or is it only an intellectual attempt to integrate,to control or even to paralyse the resistance movement of women in these?

Aziz Al-Azmeh: The arguments you put forward in favour of the”meaningful variance” of shar’ist interpretation of the status of women are, as you say, quite commonly asserted.They are both true and false, politically as well as historically, and in any case far more complex than they seem, and this complexity is quite clear to many Islamists, particularly those with historical learning and casuistical virtuosity, and I think, we ought all of us be aware of them.

 First, the historical and theoretical aspect. The shari’a is first of all not a code of law – the idea of codification is a legal innovation of the 18th century,usually identified with Napoleon but which became universal (with anachronistic systems here and there, notably in Britain) with the spread of modern state forms. The shari’a is a body of precedents and hermeneutical techniques, decisively dependent on the activity of the judge. There is a great deal of latitudiarianism within it, taken as a whole

For instance, if we take the issue of personal status, the reforms in Iraq after 1958, under Communist impetus, modified the marriage law to incorporate elements of Shi’i tradition in matters relating to inheritance, which were quite correctly conceived as being more equitable than the Sunni – the right-wing nationalist regime which came to power in 1963,precipitating the Ba’th take-over, abolished this. Similarly, the Tunisian law of personal status expressly forbids repudiation (talaq) and other traditional elements from Muslim personal law,using , at the time, textual arguments deriving from the Qur’an and other sources of legislation, although the impetus was secular, a sort of timid Kemalism.

 But this latitudinarianism is relative, most particularly with regard to a number of areas which are regarded to have been the subject of broad consensus, and which are said to have explicit textual sanction. Apart from ritual and devotions, and some basic dogmas about God, Mohammed, other prophets, the jinn,the afterlife, and (among Shi’is) the imamate, there are two areas of explicit textual command and a consensual agreement broadly conceived : penal sanctions and the inferiority of women – not as inferior in the eyes of God, but as belonging to a category for which special provisions are made, much like slaves, minors, and non-Muslims. This is unsurprising, for differential legal status for various categories of the population is the hallmark of all pre-modern and primitive legal systems without exception.

 It is therefore not entirely by hazard that these two areas – punishment and women – stand out as the two foremost components in the political theatre of political Islamism. Without exception, Islamic political regimes that have come to power (Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia,Sudan, with dress rehearsals elsewhere, notably in Algeria) have made a very deliberate point of publicly proclaiming their Islamity, indeed of proving it,by the performance of the grisly circus of savage and primitive punishment the routine performance of the gender differentiation, with visible sanctions.

It seems almost as if a regime would become Islamic as soon as it set up machineries for these public performances (Khomeini’s hierocracy is a Persian speciality, and Islamic regimes need not be lead by the priestly class), and leaves all else (free marketeering, for instance, or political institutions) to negotiation or violent conflict, albeit using Islamic vocabularies and curtailing others.

Islamists elsewhere, in the Arab world for example,or in the United States and Europe, similarly use the matter of gender differentiation, as the PRIMARY TOKEN in their conflict with secularism. This performs many functions: that of radical differentiation, and the promise of an imagined, almost foetal, primary community of cousins and subject wives, the illusion of power for men in a world fast disintegrating and changing, in which power is lost, and indeed manhood in the old sense is lost to men crushed by rapid change and seeking restitution in virtual dominion at home and in the unsullied virtue of these inferior creatures.

 Both the affective and the political-symbolic salience of the gender question make it unwieldy, not to speak of the force of what is thought to be explicit textual command in political regimes and among groups that hold the shari’a, however little understood as an historical fact, as their very raison d’être. The gender question is therefore central and fundamental, on which there can belittle meaningful movement.

 This brings me to political setting of the question. It is undeniable that there slight movement here and there, such as employment, or the accession of women to high office. But one must realise, first, that this has more to do with the level of social development of societies within which Islamism has come to power (contrast Iran and Afghanistan, for instance), which are ex post facto justified by religious arguments.

And we must also, second, perceive the limits of this movement: in its overall effect, it seems at a piece with what some might term multiculturalism, or a limited regime of equal opportunities, which might or might not be expressed in terms of gender (or ethnic, religious, or other)reservations. That is to say, the result of this will be limited movement and improvement at the top and the simultaneous confirmation and justification of inferiority and disability at the bottom of the social scale, which is defined in terms , not of civility and citizenship, but of segmentation into communities of biological destiny, be these defined in terms of gender or of origin.

 Such small improvements may be better than nothing,and need not be discouraged in the right place, in the interior of Islamist regimes and movements BY members or other adherents of these; but they should not be allowed to take over the central area, the public discussion concerning gender relations. I, for one, and I am not alone in this, would not be willing to express the matter of gender in terms of religion, because I am not willing to make religious arguments the vocabulary I use in discussing society, polity,and history. I am not willing to make textual sanction a criterion, let alonethe decisive criterion, in political arguments.

In other words, I am not willing to become objectively complicit with the moral and intellectual world which Islamism seeks to construct, as I adhere to another vision of history and of polity and the organisation of society altogether, as do most readers of your Journal.After all, interpretation is not a purely theoretical activity: binding interpretation, indeed, TRUE and AUTHENTIC interpretation, can only be made such by the sanction of political and social forces. Truth has to be policed.

 It is I think an idle folly, a woeful conflation of seemingly clever tactics with historical vision and socio-political strategy,to believe that well-meaning interpretations will win on merit. We all know that such a contest will be won by the Islamist, not only because, in Iran for instance, they hold power, but also because they use Islam far more consistently, and will always be able to raise higher stakes in this particular auction of political symbols.

Mehrdad: Perhaps the time is right to discuss at a more general level the relationship between political Islam and democracy. In your view does the Islamist movement have any significant effect on the political restructuring in general, and the process of democratisation in particular, in Middle Eastern countries?

Al-Azmeh: I do not quite understand the fuss that people like us, living in the West, make about democracy and Islamic movements. Given the bleak conditions in many countries of the Middle east, it seems to me that many people, including some people fully cognisant of the fundamental antipathy between Islamic politics and democracy, appear to wish to see a glimmer of hope for all in the democratist posturing of Islamist parties.

I am fully aware that such parties have some credibility with certain NGOs such as Amnesty International. In my view, this attributable to two factors, the one salutary and the other objectionable. The first is that these parties advertise the adversity they – and others – face in various countries such as Egypt. But we must be aware of two things in this regard.

Islamic political parties, rhetoric apart, are inimical to democracy, which they regard as an inauthentic political form.Algerian Islamists during the period of “fuite en avant” in the period 1989-1991 quite explicitly said that they expected elections to result in a parliament which will abolish the devilish Western invention of democracy, and the Iranian regime sustains a democracy in which large swathes of potentially organised political forces are excluded. 

In many cases, some of their members are incarcerated by relatively despotic governments against which they have undertaken paramilitary operations which have not only aimed at these governments specifically, but against society at large, most particularly terrorist actions against secularists – in Egypt, in Algeria (particularly against intellectual sand “errant” women), and elsewhere. We must never forget that Islamism , as I said in an earlier interview with you, is animated by a rigorously totalitarian political and social ideology.

Strumming the democratist tune in the West, as by subcontracting US-conceived notions of “civil society” which were so useful in bringing down the Socialist Block, finds ready ears in the US and other western countries where a culturalist , crypto-Huntingtonian conception of international relations sublimates North-South relations in an age of triumphalist capitalism where, after the fall of the Socialist Block and the historical alternative it presented, is no longer a factor of humanisation. Thus in the West the Keynesian consensus collapsed , and with it the idea that countries of the South might actually develop, not only economically but also culturally and socially, collapsed too, and was replaced by thinking of us in terms of congenital incapacity for development under the title of cultural specificity and correlatively of structural adjustment to a natural theology of the market.

The unpleasant facet of the popularity that Islamist enjoy among NGOs relates not only to the naiveté of NGO personnel, but to a patronising, ultimately an inverted racism, which sees in Islamism apolitical form suitable for us, on the assumption that Muslims are necessarily,almost by a force of nature, Islamist by political passion and will, which is far from the truth. If we look at situations where relatively free election shave taken place at certain points in time (Jordan, Algeria, Pakistan at a certain point in time), we find that, contrary to the Islamist presumption to be representative of the Will of All, they have scored something in the regionof 25% of registered voters, somewhat more than the National front in France,their ideological equivalent in Europe.

My answer to your question is therefore negative.Islamic political movements make only a conjunctural appeal to democracy, andwill not, in my view, be conducive to its instauration. The democratist rhetoric of Islamic political movements is geared towards the attempt to destroy the state systems that have been the primary factor in the development of Middle Eastern countries over the past century, to replace them by states conceived as idyllic communities, which force societies into a presumed homogeneity by the multiple use of the very repressive state instruments whichIslamists decry when they do not control. Ultimately, Islamism speaks in termsof primordial community, which they define in terms of religious affiliation,and not in terms of civility, which is the very substance of democracy.

Mehrdad: You have made an important point regarding the current debates about Islam and democracy: a joint effort by Islamists and orientalists to install a notion of “democracy” as “authentic” and “suitable” for Muslim societies. Infact, as you noted, they apply a US-conception of “civil society” to construct an authoritarian political model based on reinforcement of informal networks and “primordial organisations” of religious community; a model that has nothing to do with individual rights and social autonomy so central to Western democracies.

Another, perhaps important, point is the emphasis that is also placed by this Islamic-communal conception of democracy and civil society on private property, market deregulation (especially that of finance and labour),replacement of state welfare with communal welfare provision, and community participation. Taking into consideration these dimensions, if, and to what extent, can we assume that this collective effort has a role in the current intellectual attempts to encourage the restructuring of the nation-state in Middle Eastern countries in favour of remodeling capital accumulation and the strategy of structural adjustment?

Al-Azmeh: I think the answer to this is simple. I think that we can forget about minimising the state with regard to Islamist regimes.Iran is a good case in point. The susceptibility of a particular state for a diminution in the scope of her social, legal, and cultural action has nothing to do with questions of creed. If we compare Syria and China, neither of which is Islamist, with Malaysia which is formally Islamist, we can discern definite parallels in terms of state insistence not only on the purveyance of social and cultural policy, but also on the insistence of relatively controlling the present stage of economic trans-nationalization: effective liberalisation,varying according to conditions of local capital, consonant with present conditions, allied to a repudiation of the political and national-economic corollaries as exist, for example, in Egypt or Tunisia.

Not all countries in the Middle East are pursuing policies of structural adjustment, at least not according to criteria and to atempo acceptable to the IMF and the World Bank. With regard to welfare provision, let us not forget that most of the states in the Middle East,oil-producing countries apart, do not have them in any recognisable sense.

 Mehrdad: Another major argument in this field, again shared by Islamists and Orientalists, is that the “nation-state” is an alien and imported concept suitable for the West and capitalist development. According to this argument, it is the “Islamic state” which is more authentic and harmonious form for these societies. They suggest that the Islamic state not only consolidates the unity and brotherhood between all Muslims on the basis of the“umma”, but equally provided them with social justice and equality.

Could I ask you to give your views, if possible in some detail, firstlyon the applicability of concepts such as the “state” to the world of Islam; and secondly on the historical validity of arguments which present the Islamic-state in counter-position to the nation-state.

A-Azmeh: To me, the expression “world of Islam”is neither an historical nor a social reality under conditions that transformed the world under capitalist impetus, but rather the code-word for two political projects. The first is of course an internationalist Islamist radicalism representing the para-military component of primitivist Islamism, whose moment was the Afghan experience of militarising the most retrograde version of Islamism, with extensions in Algeria, Bosnia, New York, Egypt, and elsewhere.

The other is the politically “moderate”(an expression I dislike, but use for convenience) and has been with extraordinary financial resources implanting social, cultural, and other extensions of Saudi cultural and social policies as delivered by Saudi organisations and by the ethos of various extensions of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

You will remember that this type of internationalism was set up as the cultural and diplomatic instrument of the cold war in the Middle East, and specifically to counter the external and social policies of Nasserism and Baathism, the cultural plank of the Baghdad Pact, and the cultural, social, security, and military component of the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Relations with the politically radical fringes have been extremely difficult since the second Gulf war; the recent anti-terrorist treaty signed a couple of weeks ago by Arab interior ministers is directed specifically against this fringe, but not against elements that a reactive specifically against Israel, Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah.

All, the signatories to this treaty, including Saudi Arabia, have all the lineaments of nation-states. That this form is”imported” is really beside the point. First of all, nation states asa political type emerged from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic institutes of a state which seeks hegemony and an instance of predominance not only by administrative centralism, but also by legal and cultural centralism.

This political form of national organisation and statist action became a global form in the course of the nineteenth century, most importantly by endogenous action: the Ottoman reformed state is the best casein point, whose endogenous cultural, legal, and administrative policies tendentially paralleled certain colonially-engendered transformations, not so much in a spirit of importation, but of reform and transformation according to global imperatives. There is a great degree of sound and fury over”importation”, as if societies and other collectivities are marked essentially by an original chastity which must be preserved against history.

It is in the nature of such political forms to homogenise and centralise, and to transform, in so far as this is possible,subjects into citizens, no matter how unfree such citizens may be. The process is discernible in the nineteenth-century histories of France, Italy, Germany,Russia, no less than the history of the Ottoman empire, of Mexico, and of the Latin American polities following the formation of Columbia and Argentina.

Nationalism becomes not merely an ideal – nations certainly do not pre-date nationalism in some kind of infra-historical,abiding, immobile pre-existence – but an actual cultural, social, and political register of a political form in the process of formation. And this process of formation is highly active and transformative, at very many levels, unevenly,with various lags, but the process, though uneven, is combined, and does have an implicit direction.

Like economies, states have no religion; all talk to the contrary is a gloss deriving from political projects which seek state-power in the ethereal name of religion. That such mystifications have some social purpose is undeniable, most particularly in conditions of mass immiseration which render eschatological ideas of final deliverance attractive, and which make the spiritualization of public morality effective in conditions of anomie and gross injustice, not to speak of social blockages affecting large masses ofthe educated and the semi-literate.

 But mystifications are not statements on history,which thereby becomes not only sentimentalised, but rendered beyond history.And I think we should be wary of the nihilistic epistemology of post-modernist and Islamist social science, which questions the very possibility of historical understanding, in a pure state and in connection with politics, by insisting that concepts of the social and historical sciences, such as state, class,economy, and so forth, are historically intransitive.

It is true that these are of European origin, but they were born at a time when European forms ceased to be merely European, and became global, being produced and re-produced everywhere. The seeminglypristine triumphalism of this discovery of primal innocence is overloaded withthe politics of global relations post-1989: the have-nots are naturally predisposed to backwardness and archaism (including Islamism), really atransposition of classical racism to the realm of culture. And finally, let us not forget that the Islamic state is not in a relation of counter-position to the nation-state. Iran is an excellent case in point. The internationalist rhetoric emanating from Qom was never more than an extension of Iranian foreign policy.

The ummatic and internationalist motif of Islamist political rhetoric (and rhetoric is here intended not as a term of abuse as is the case on Anglo-Saxon countries, but rather in the rigorous discursive sense of the ideological play of allusion,implication, condensation, diversion, and so forth) should always be read inits specific conjunctural context.

Iranian ummatism was initially a counterposition to Pahlavi Achamaeneanist nationalism. Other ummatist positions similarly contest the nation state they wish to appropriate, as a national but Islamic state. In fact the contested state is always the image after which Islamist conceptions of the state are modelled, as mirror-images under another signature: the basic structures, especially the centralising and repressive apparatuses, are central to the Islamist enterprise; Sudan even has a ministry of social engineering,and social engineering has been a fundamental implicit task of the nation state since the early nineteenth century.

Finally, the attacks on the nation state emanate much more from the North than they do from our part of the world. International economic and financial organisations attack the role of the state in the economy, in the name of a natural theology of the market, and as a means of exposingour economies increasingly to trans-nationalisation as it is today, shorn of any notions of development, and naturalising excessive exploitation – the recent agreement under GATT auspices, as you will know, gives primacy to international economic actors over sovereign states, which can be sued if their social or other policies lead to the diminution of profit.

 Then we have the attack on the national state byNGOs. Out of naiveté, manipulation, or deliberate political direction, these try to minimise state action in culture and social development in the name of arcadian localism, post-modernism and multiculturalism. Thus they contribute to the weakening of the fabric of citizenship in the name of community of birth and locality, in implicit reversal of the modernising historical trend of the past two centuries. Thus postmodernism, the celebration of the premodernity of others, is in objective complicity with the international economic nexus of the present conjuncture, and with Islamism. The conjunction is structural and not fortuitous.

Originally published iran bulletin in May 1998

Read conversations with Aziz Al-Azmeh part one (Political Islams, modernities and conservative-populist ideologies) and part two (Political Islamisms the labour movement and women)

Professor Aziz Al-Azmeh was born in Syria. He is currently professor at Central European University and Director of Specialization Religious Studies. He has been Chairman of the Arab Human Rights Organization (UK branch) and a member of the Standing Committee of the Arab Communities Conference in the UK.

His publications include Historical Writing and Historical Knowledge, Arabs and Barbarians, “Heritage” as Power and History, Secularism, Religion and Society in Contemporary Arab Life. (in Arabic); Arabic Thought and Islamic Societies 1986 Croom Helm; Ibn Khaldun: An Essay in reinterpretation, 1990 Routledge; Islams and Modernities 1993 Verso; Muslim Kingship: Power and the Sacred in Muslim, Christian, and Pagan Polities 2000 I. B. Tauris.


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