As the Taliban takes the reins in Afghanistan and announces the imminent establishment of the “Islamic emirate,” discussions on the relation between Islam and politics are resurfacing: is it a well-defined relation, or is it a set of interpretations with a wide range of manifestations?
This dilemma is not new. Arab ideology and practice have long encountered this problem, and the budding signs of what is strangely known as “modern Arab renaissance” rejuvenated it. Since that time, i.e., since the second half of the 19th century, the idea of “bridging the gap” between Islam and Islamic politics has preoccupied many an intellectual. After many books discussed it at length, the issue was brought back into the limelight after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, though its precursors had emerged earlier. Those who discussed Arab reality and Muslim peoples found that belief in Islam as a religion is not only widespread, but also an integral part of these peoples and their history, coupled with an eagerness for modernity, progress, and keeping pace with other peoples’ renaissances; hence the emergence of attempts to mend the disconnection between sharia sciences and modern social sciences -- including political sciences.
The many Arab and non-Arab Muslim thinkers who wrote about this topic either tried to “bridge the gap” or stayed in the realm of tradition. Judging by the experiences of peoples so far, we find that the approach of “bridging the gap and aligning” took a “local” nature and adapted to the culture. The danger here lies in two facts: the first is that each experience claims to be the real one and the rest are “heresies,” hence its duty to propagate its practice on the rest of Muslims; and the second is that the influence that the “national” or “local” thought left on these experiences isolated them to a certain degree.
If we were to consider how Islamist movements behaved in their local environments, Ennahda’s experience in Tunisia would be a good place to start. The movement aligned historical facts and Tunisia’s journey. It recognized gender equality in rights and duties and even nominated non-hijabi women on their election lists, in admittance that the hijab is a social, non-religious concept. Other Political Islam movements see in such steps a departure from the concepts they believe in as sharia rules. In the Sudanese case, the authority issued from Political Islam went as far as interfering in women’s clothing. In an infamous case, it criminalized a Sudanese woman for wearing pants and imitating men! In both the Tunisian and Sudanese cases, the movements failed miserably in another aspect: governing and managing society in everyone’s interest.
We live in a world that does not care for slogans of human rights, freedoms, and other liberal, humanitarian principles and whether regimes apply them on their peoples, for many of these ideas are just slogans. What matters more is to ensure that their interests as people are not directly threatened. However, the idea of Political Islam (in its universal experience) lures them into hot or cold clashes. Supposedly, had al-Qaeda not dramatically attacked US cities, nobody would have cared much for the Taliban or others coming to power in Afghanistan! What Political Islam movements are facing, especially those that came to power, is the failure to run the state, and the enormous effort of “exporting the model” to others, like Iran is doing today.
The Iranian example is key to understanding what is happening today. Iran has a long-established system of governance that spans four decades, achieved development in nuclear and missile research, and follows a practical hierarchy represented by the Supreme Leader. This hierarchy is a development of the Muslim Brotherhood’s idea and a goal to which the Taliban aspires. However, there is a clear shortfall in Iran’s management of the state’s economy and tackling of other risks, such as poverty and the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. The concept of “public interest” that grew under previous Islamic political practices has either been negated or will soon be for most of these movements.
At the Arab level, the experiences of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and others crashed into reality. Often, these experiences were born from ideals that were as far as could be from reality. The challenge facing the Political Islam experience is no easy feat. In a way, it is contradictory, as the two parallels of enacting laws that match the people’s current requirements and applying sharia rule could never meet! Many Muslims who do not belong to Political Islam forces do not feel this contradiction. However, the Political Islam movement excessively demonizes all tools and organizations of modernity. Bridging this gap seems impossible in Afghanistan, despite all the apparent novelty that the statements of 2021 Taliban exude. For the Taliban, sharia concepts are still linked to interpretations left by forerunners in old books. The movement still walks in the footsteps of these forerunners, in form and in practice, armed with some of the national local spirit. As such, it cannot present an alignment model that would succeed, as some observers -- especially Arab ones -- imagine.
Perhaps the more pressing question is: once the Taliban’s new rule is well established in Afghanistan, will it be able to prevent Afghani soil from becoming a hotbed of extremism that transcends borders once again? This will not be easy. One of the possible scenarios is that the movement will yield to the pressures of internal and foreign constraints and host supporters that share its ideology and outdo its ambitions to establish an Islamic emirate all over the land of Islam, which shall pull the world once again into a spiral of violence.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Lebanese news outlet Annahar al-Arabi.