Vicken Cheterian

“Islam is the solution!” Or Is it?

A generation back, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, all across the Middle East, a slogan was raised against the powers to be: “Islam is the solution!” A new generation of activists was joining radical, Islamist parties challenging the established order, disappointed by the failures of nationalist states. They opposed the tyranny and police-state of Arab nationalism, Kemalist Turkey, and Iran’s “Shahenshah”, their corruption, lack of social justice, and dependence on foreign powers, those same powers who were once occupying forces. In the Middle East, this militant Islam promised to liberate Palestine, what the nationalists had promised to do, and had failed. 

This new militant generation was called “Islamic Fundamentalists”. They represented the lower middle classes who were influenced by Western civilization, graduated from public schools, learned science and the art of administration, were mobilized in mass armies, and consumed industrial products. Yet, did not enjoy the fruits of modernity: they suffered from mass unemployment, loss of traditional way of life, and especially lack of political participation. They opposed “democracy” in societies where democracy was forbidden, repressed by the police-state. 

Throughout centuries, Islam was a unifying force. Since the times of the Prophet, when Islam unified the Arab tribes and built one of the greatest empires in history, Islam has been repetitively served to unify tribes, ethnic groups, and continents within the same empire: the Samanides, Ottomans or Qajars, Islam served as a reference for empire building. “No East, no West, Islam is the best!” roared another slogan from Iran to Egypt, frightening simultaneously nationalist-states, traditional monarchies, and imperial powers.

A generation inspired by political Islam succeeded in capturing political power. In Iran, they took power through a popular revolution in 1979; in Afghanistan, it was the ideology of resistance against the Soviet occupation, and the local version of communism after which the Mujahedeen and later the Taliban occupied Kabul. In Lebanon, an Islamic fundamentalist group supported by Iran forced Israel to retreat from occupied south. In Turkey, a modernist Islamist party won elections in 2002, and has been in power for 15 years. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, various Islamist groups controlled parts of their countries. In Iran and Turkey they played a key role in redistributing resources among the lower middle classes, hence their stable popularity among those social groups.  

Wherever radical Islamist groups took power, they imposed two measures: forbidding alcohol and repressing women. While lifestyles have become westernized, women are increasingly educated and take part in the economic cycle, such measures are dogmatic and do not reflect social realities. It will eventually fail.  

Political Islam also failed in its promise to unite the umma – or the ill-defined “nation”. The most dramatic and painful failure is to provide a basic notion of justice, and governance. More than ever before, the Middle East is becoming uniform, by losing its autochthonous peoples: Armenians, Greeks, Assyro-Chaldeans, Jews, Zoroastrians, Yazidis, and others, those who contributed to the politics, economics and culture of the region, have been eliminated and pushed out.   

This uniformization – that started under the nationalists – did not bring stability. Today, fundamentalist Islam is in war against fundamentalist Islam. Take Syria as an example: the rebellion against the rule of Asad dynasty is fighting under various brands of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism, of salafi-jihadi variant. On the other hand, various Islamic fundamentalist groups of Shiite variant are fighting to defend the Baathist rule of Asad dynasty. Even more so: salafi-jihadi groups have been fighting each other for years, the best example being the war between al-Qaeda and Daesh in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Just as I write, for the fourth intense fighting is going on in East Ghouta, a rural region to the east of the Syrian capital, where the “Army of Islam” is attacking the local al-Qaeda and “Faylaq al-Rahman” another fundamentalist militia, while the region is under siege from the Syrian Army and its allies.

But the greatest failure of political Islam is in Turkey. The 2002 election of modernist-Islamists AKP had generated much hope, promising a new synthesis between political Islam and democratic governance. Turkey, economically the most advanced Muslim country, could propose a new “third way”; that Islam and democracy could be compatible, that political Islam could overcome nationalist conflicts, that it could propose a basic rule of law to all its citizens. But Turkey AKP under Erdogan failed to overcome the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, on the contrary, it continued to use it out of political expediency. Turkey supports Islam’s civil-war abroad in neighboring Syria and Iraq, but also at home: it is pathetic to see that the greatest enemy of the Turkish authorities is non-other than its former Islamist ally of Fethullah Gulen. The last referendum put an end to any illusion of governance with its principle of separation of powers, with concentrating all political prerogatives in the hands of one person.

There is a debate whether political Islam is the problem, or whether one should look at the fundamental socio-political problems plaguing the Middle East. It is true that many of the current problems existed before, under monarchic, nationalist, or socialist regimes. Yet, decades of Islamist agitation did not bring solutions, it has deepened the existing divide, increased political violence. Today, political Islam is evidently part of the problem, and the solution can only come through a radical revision of its tenets.