Saturday, July 19, 2014

Multivocality of Islam and Iranian population policies

Recent news reports point toward a major change in Iran’s population policy in near future. Worried about the falling birth rate and its consequences for country’s future, Iranian policy planners are reversing the population policy once again and hoping that the population will listen to them as it did twice before in the 1980s and 1990s.

While many Muslim ulema (traditionally trained scholars) would claim family planning is not allowed, Quran and Sunnah, the two main sources of Islamic law, are ambiguous on this issue. Family planning has been approved, partially approved and rejected using the same two sources. This multi-vocality of Islam has given the Muslim-majority states more leeway in designing population policies than the Catholic-majority states, though most of the Muslim-majority states have not used this leeway to the fullest extent. Iran is an exception in this regard. Though not giving full reproductive rights, Iran has managed to first convince its population to increase the birth rate and then decrease it to close to replacement levels, all in three decades. Let’s look at Iran’s population policies in a little more detail.

Rest of the blogpost can be read at Calgary Centre of Global Community who invited me to write on their blog here.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Modi, Prabowo and the threat to Indian and Indonesian civic nationalism

It is fascinating to compare India and Indonesia, two nations at critical junctures of their history. Narendra Modi, the current Indian Prime Minister and Prabowo Subianto, leading contender in the Indonesian presidential elections, are similar in promoting a strong nationalistic cum religious agenda. Despite lingering doubts about Modi and Prabowo's leadership qualities, they seemed to have captured the minds and hearts of many of their countrymen (and women). Can these strongly (religiously) nationalist leaders succeed in very diverse societies that are based on civic nationalism?

No doubt, India and Indonesia are different. Though both are very populous countries, India is much larger. In terms of nominal GDP, again Indian economy is more than double the size of Indonesian economy, although Indonesians are richer. Their political systems and history is also different. While India is a stable parliamentary democracy, Indonesia is a military-dominated state, still trying to find its feet as a fragile democracy. Moreover, majority religion of India is Hinduism whereas majority of Indonesians are Muslims.  

However, Indonesia and India also share many characteristics which makes their comparison compelling. Both Indonesia and India were successor states of colonial empires. As there was almost no history of a united India or a united Indonesia before colonial times, nationalist elites of both countries had to perform an exhausting balancing act. They had to fight against the colonial state but also try to preserve it. Preservation of the colonial state was difficult as not only the boundaries of the colonial state were new (similar to many other colonial states), but these states also had mind-boggling diversity. To deal with the ethnic/linguistic/religious/caste/tribal diversity, nationalist elites of both India and Indonesia adopted civil nationalism so that all communities can identify with the new state, ignoring the demands of many Hindus in India and many Muslims in Indonesia. This decision was one of the main reasons why both these states have not only managed to stay intact for the last sixty years but also showed impressive progress.          

Another similarity between Indonesia and India is the recent rise of new elites; elites quite different from the leaders that had governed both these countries since independence. For more than half a century, the civic nationalism imposed by the founding fathers of both states was not under threat. There was some criticism but it lacked broad popular support. Nineteen nineties brought a big change in both countries. Economic crisis in both countries (India in 1990-91 and Indonesia in 1997-98) jolted people out of their slumber and the spell that founding fathers' ideas had on the nation was broken. Suharto and aged Congress leadership, defenders of the old ideas, lost their grip on the country and were thrown out. New elites were 'outsiders'. Never before they had held power collectively. Their defining characteristics were overt religiosity and aggressive nationalism. This combination posed a threat to the civic and secular nationalism, both nations had adhered too since independence.  

While economic crisis was the immediate cause of changes in both countries, two long-term developments helped the cause of the new elite. First, inhabitants of these countries were socialized, using public education system and national print media, into myths of (inherent) national greatness and threats to this 'manifest destiny' from outsiders and insiders. This socialization process was not very different from what happens in other countries but, due to the huge size of these two countries, these myths became more real. Socialized on these myths of national greatness, public supported the strong nationalistic stance of the new elite. Second, the opening of large number of private TV channels in both these countries around the start of 21st century gave an enormous fillip to religious nationalism. To win the rating war, TV channels mass-produced programs on two themes which the majority of public can understand and appreciate i.e. religion and nationalism. These large doses of religion and nationalism fed to the public for the last fifteen years are now showing results. Modi's spectacular win is one such result and Prabowo's success in presidential election might be another.  

Though both are using religious nationalism to win support, Modi and Prabowo have very different backgrounds. Modi is a man with whom most poor Indians can relate to. He belongs to a low-caste and poor household and didn't had much education. Starting from the lowest rung of the political ladder, he rose to become the chief minister of Gujarat state of India in 2001 and then Prime Minister of India in 2014. 

Prabowo's background cannot be more different. One can argue, he was born into Indonesian royalty and married a princess. Prabowo's grandfather was one of the founding fathers of Indonesia and his father was a cabinet minister under President Suharto. Prabowo joined military and then married President Suharto's daughter. As a princeling, Prabowo got the most prized assignments and rose in military quickly. In 1998, he was serving as Lieutenant General, commanding the the key garrison near Jakarta. After his retirement for military, Prabowo became a successful businessman. More recently, he led the newly formed Greater Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) that came third in 2014 legislative elections and now, according to some polls, he is leading the Indonesia's presidential race.

However, what unites Modi and Prabowo is their use of religious nationalism and the threat they pose to civic nationalism. They have been criticized for abetting or allowing massacre of religious minorities. While one can argue Modi really believes in Hindutva and Prabowo's attachment to religious nationalism is more instrumental, but we really do not know. Prabowo has strong support of the religious right and they obviously would demand more religion-based laws, if Prabowo won the presidential election. Prabowo's supporters, however, point to his brother and the major financier of his campaign (who is a Christian) and argue that Prabowo belief in civic nationalism (Pancasila ideology) is paramount.

Another factor that will effect the rise of religious nationalism under Modi and Prabowo is economy. Both of them are very pragmatic and know that economy is the make-or-break criterion for their success as leaders. Therefore, it is hoped that they will try to unite the nation and move ahead, rather then dividing the nation on religious lines. However, if the economy falters, it is not difficult to see them using religion to win again. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Muslim yearning for caliphate and ISIS caliphate

ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham) or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has declared itself a Caliphate and named its leader as Caliph of all Muslims. The group spokesman said:
He is the imam and khalifah (Caliph) for the Muslims everywhere.......Accordingly, the "Iraq and Sham" (Levant) in the name of the Islamic State is henceforth removed from all official deliberations and communications, and the official name is the Islamic State from the date of this declaration.......It is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to (him) and support him...The legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the khalifah's authority and arrival of its troops to their areas.( See ISIS Declares Islamic 'Caliphate' And Calls On Groups To Pledge Allegiance)
Powerful words indeed. While president of Indonesia or Prime Minister of Pakistan, democratically elected leaders of around 200 million Muslims, would find it difficult to call themselves caliph of around 1.5 billion Muslims, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, commander of  less than fifteen thousand fighters, has claimed the coveted title. As Al-Qaida's rejection of ISIS shows, al-Baghdadi is not even an accepted leader of militant,trans-national, anti-West extremist Muslims in Iraq or Syria.  

Huff post quotes John Esposito, one of the most eminent scholars on Islam in the West, defining Caliphate in the following way (See What Is A Caliphate? ISIS Declaration Raises Questions) :
Historically, the caliph was the successor to the prophet, the political leader of the community, and therefore the head of the early transnational Islamic empire. That's important -- the idea of it being a transnational empire, that reflected the ummah, and transcended national boundaries.
Does it matter that al-Baghdadi has declared himself caliph? Some have argued that now more Muslim militants would be attracted to him. Fair point. But others have argued that this might be a disastrous outreach (See Jihadis in Iraq and Syria declare a caliphate? Why that's good).
Yesterday's declaration of a caliphate by the leading jihadi army in Iraq and Syria – and its demand that Muslims swear oaths of fealty to its leader – could prove the most disastrous piece of jihadi overreach since Al Qaeda in Iraq's routine use of torture and beheadings spurred a Sunni Arab backlash in 2006. 
The formerly Al Qaeda-linked jihadis are generally reported as going from strength to strength in Iraq, taking and holding cities like Mosul and Tikrit from the central government. But the success of the uprising in Iraq in the past month has rested heavily on the backs of Sunni Arab tribes and former Baathists with formal military training. And the grandiose announcement – a telegraphed intent to impose a harsh and regressive vision of Islam on as much territory as possible – is unlikely to make them happy.
I personally think this announcement does not matter much. Does al-Bahdadi become more legitimate or get more recruits? Some recruits but not much else. ISIS is a like a fringe of a fringe. Al-Baghdadi is a brutal callous killer and it is difficult to find many Muslims, except for the militants, giving his message any serious thought. As an NPR reporter described, even in his own country Iraq, he is considered a nut job. Most of the Muslim probably do not know who he is and those, who have heard of him, would most likely try to keep as much distance from him as possible. In conclusion, ISIS caliphate has not changed much on the ground or elsewhere. As Juan Cole explains in his brief history of Caliphate, hundreds of fringe groups have been claiming caliphate for probably more than a thousand years (See The Debacle of the Caliphates: Why al-Baghdadi’s Grandiosity doesn’t Matter).

What is a more interesting question is why Caliphate still mesmerizes many Muslims today. Why pine for a medieval government/empire? 

Caliphate has captured the imagination of many present day Muslims worldwide mainly because they are concerned about the abject condition of the Muslim ummah today. Despite a plethora of resources and around fifty independent Muslim-majority states in the world, Muslims are followers/lackeys, not leaders. Decisions about Muslims and Muslim-majority states are made by others in Washington, Moscow or Beijing and Muslim leaders (with a few exceptions) kowtow to these capitals, instead of charting their own independent course for the benefit of their own people.

Many Muslim relate these circumstances to the lack of unity among Muslims and hark back to the times when Muslims were successful and leading the world. It is commonly believed that under erstwhile caliphate, Muslims were united as one nation, within one political state and that was why they were so successful. There is also the notion that caliphate is blessed by Allah. Many Muslims, therefore, desire a new caliphate so that there would be an Islamic renaissance and Islamic civilization would reach another apogee by the blessings of Allah. The message of Hizb-ul-Tahrir, one of the most prominent organizations trying to establish caliphate (Khilafa) today, shows the allied themes of current humiliation; success in the past; and renaissance under a new caliphate (See Hizb-e-Tahrir: About us)

Hizb ut-Tahrir is determined to work within the Ummah in order to implement Islam and achieve its objective by endeavouring to gain the leadership of the Islamic Ummah so that she could accept it as her leader, to implement Islam upon her and proceed with it in her struggle against the Kuffar and in the work towards the return of the Islamic State as it was before, the leading superpower in the world.....
The rise of Hizb ut-Tahrir was in response to Allah (swt)’s saying: T.M.Q. “And let there arise from amongst you a band that calls to the good and commands what is right and forbids what is evil and those are the ones who will attain felicity.” in order to revive the Islamic Ummah after the severe decline to which she has sunk, to liberate her from the thoughts, systems and rules of Kufr, its systems and from the hegemony and influence of the Kufr states,  and  in order to work towards establishing the Islamic Khilafah State so that the rules by what Allah (swt) has revealed returns to the realm of life.
While not denying that erstwhile caliphate was a big Muslim state and a big Muslim state now would probably be more powerful than numerous small Muslim states, the notion that all Muslims were united under caliphate is historically not true. Muslims were only under one caliphate for quarter of a century during the time of first three Rasidun Caliphs and then again for some decades under Umayyads. The whole period of one united caliphate is less than one century compared to more than thirteen centuries of many Muslim states/caliphates constituting the Muslim ummah. So thinking that just because there is a caliphate, Muslims are united under it, is false.   

Linking the glory of Islam/Muslims with caliphate is also problematic. It can be true, partially true or false depending on how glory is defined. Is it military success or social development or cultural refinement or control over maximum territory. In terms of military successes, united caliphate of seventh century is unparalleled in Muslim history. However, the height of (comparative) social development and cultural refinement was achieved by the Muslims in the times of early Abbasids when the caliph ruled majority of Muslims but not all Muslims. There were many independent Muslim emirs/king/rulers, alongside Abbasid caliphate. Comparing Muslim history on the basis of territory under control, probably 16th and 17th centuries can be considered the height of Islamic grandeur, a time of more than dozen Muslim states/empires (not one united caliphate). 

As Dr. Muhammad Iqbal (poet par excellence,  Muslim philosopher and one of the founding fathers of Pakistan) wrote supporting the decision of Ataturk to abolish caliphate, for most of its history caliphate has worked more as an empire than as an Islamic state. Therefore, its religious sanction is doubtful to say the least:
In its essence Islam is not Imperialism. In the abolition of the Caliphate which since the days of Omayyads had practically become a kind of Empire it is only the spirit of Islam that has worked out through the Ataturk. In order to understand the Turkish Ijtihad in the matter of the Caliphate we cannot but seek the guidance of Ibn-i-Khaldun—the great philosophical historian of Islam, and the father of modern history. I can do no better than quote here a passage from my Reconstruction:
Ibn-i-Khaldun, in his famous Prolegomena, mentions three distinct views of the idea of Universal Caliphate in Islam: (1) That Universal Imamate is a Divine institution and is consequently indispensable. (2) That it is merely a matter of expediency. (3) That there is no need of such an institution. The last view was taken by the Khawarij, the early republicans of Islam. It seems that modern Turkey has shifted from the first to the second view, i.e., to the view of the Muttazilla who regarded Universal Imamate as a matter of expediency only. The Turks argue that in our political thinking we must be guided by our past political experience which points unmistakably to the fact that the idea of Universal Imamate has failed in practice. It was a workable idea when the Empire of Islam was intact. Since the break-up of this Empire independent political units have arisen. The idea has ceased to be operative and cannot work as a living factor in the organization of modern Islam.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Official Ulema: Can they provide legitimacy?

Abdullah Saeed in his chapter titled 'The official ulema and religious legitimacy of the modern state' in Islam and Political Legitimacy (Edited by Shahram Akbarzadeh and Abdullah Saeed) argues that official ulema can provide little legitimacy to the modern state. 

Defining alim (plural ulema) as anyone formerly trained in Islamic religious disciplines, Saeed divides ulema into two categories based on their relationship with the state. Official ulema are economically dependent on state and are usually part of a bureaucratic structure. Unofficial ulema are largely independent from state and depend on income from sources other than state coffers.

Development of institution of ulema
Before delving into the issue of legitimacy of modern state, Saeed has traced the history of ulema-state relationship in Muslim history. He argues that at the time Prophet Muhammad there was no real distinction between his political and religious authority but this should not mean, religious authority always dominated the political authority. The gradual application of different laws and specific timing of their promulgation clearly showed political and social considerations. After the death of Prophet, the Rashidun (rightly-guided) Caliphate ruled Muslims (632-661 AD). During this period, the unity of religious and political authority continued but due to the absence of revelation (and the direct divine attribution and sanction that comes with it), caliphs orders could be debated and challenged. However, there was still no particular clerical class.   

Umayyad dynasty (661-750 AD) established the first Muslim monarchy. As its rule was devoid of any Islamic sanction, its legitimacy was circumspect from the start. Religious and temporal affairs were now separate but there were still no ulema. According to Saeed, it was only in the early Abbasid period (750-1258) that a clear distinct class of ulema can be detected. The factors that led to this development were development of Islamic disciplines and need of specialists; Abbasid's use of notion of divine rule; ulema's legitimacy of political authority to avoid chaos/fitna; some attempts by caliphs to impose a particular theology using political power; need of legal framework for expanding empire and qadis; and caliph loss of political authority to sultans.

Ulema in modern period: role, status and legitimacy
Saeed contends that in pre-modern period ulema enjoyed a privileged status:
As scholars, judges and muftis they developed law. As judges (qadis) they administered justice and as administrators of awkaf (endowments) they often had substantial economic independence. The ulema also controlled the training of students, basing this on a model in which religious disciplines were given priority. The influence of religion in all aspects of life in the society thus confirmed the social role of ulema.
But the modern period, with its trend toward secularization, transformed the state and ulema's position in society. First, colonial authorities and then modern nation-states took over most of the functions previously performed by the ulema. Some of the measures taken by the modern state that minimized the role of ulema were marginalization of Islamic law; regulation of the training of ulema; bureaucratization of ulema; state control of mosques; establishment of a public education system and regulation of religious education in schools; and state management of awkaf.

State legitimacy
Saeed argues that ulema have historically been used by the state to gain legitimacy. Often (official) ulema would issue fatwa of heresy against political opponents of those in power so that these opponents could be imprisoned/killed. But the current attempts of modern state to gain legitimacy through official ulema have not resulted in much success due to the lack of piety/knowledge and economic dependence of ulema and sharp criticism they suffered from Islamists (prominent among them are Mawdudi, Hasan al-Banna and Syed Qutb) who regarded them corrupt and lacking the knowledge of 'real' 'true' Islam. With their own legitimacy eroded, Saeed contends, it is a myth that they could provide legitimacy to the state.

Critical review  
Saeed's arguments are focused and clearly lay down the reasons why official ulema cannot provide legitimacy to the modern state. However, two developments, hinted by Saeed but not fully explored, still point toward the substantial utility of the official ulema in increasing the legitimacy of modern Muslim state. First, with the control of public education, state with the help of official ulema can socialize the populace into its own version of Islam. This process takes time but it is possible. This happened, for example, in Turkey. Second, state need to defend its policies in an Islamic discourse and official ulema can provide that.  The alternative would be to defend state policies on the basis of some other ideology which is possible but has not been much successful in many Muslim states.

Another issue that needs to be discussed is how Muslims define legitimacy. Has the criteria changed over the last fourteen centuries or remained the same? Modern states, whether Muslim-majority or not, need to perform many new task to be considered legitimate. These tasks were previously not considered part of Islamic legitimacy of the state but now they are. Islamists have successfully increased the requirements of Islamic legitimacy of the state in line with the modern times and most Muslim states have failed to live up to this new modern-Islamic criteria. As modern Muslim states accept this criteria and then fail to keep up with it, official ulema have a very difficult task.