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Challenges to the Islamic identity

In view of the revolutions sweeping across Arab nations, it is important to distinguish between Islamic identity and Islamic law

  • By Mansour Bin Tahnoun Al Nahyan, Special to Weekend Review
  • Published: 00:00 February 24, 2012
  • Weekend Review

The Arab revolution resulted in the domination of politically confident Sunni Islamic parties. However, these Islamic parties were not left unchallenged; rather they were portrayed by some as a threat to the international community and an obstacle to the spread of the revolutions and democracy in other Arab states.

The challenge, however, is not new. The Islamic identity was and is still being challenged by four threats. The most dominant force was Kemalism, as in Turkey, and secularism. The secular school of thought has already been used as a strategy for development and coping with modernisation. The second-most effective force is the Western power effect on Islamic Sunni society, which viewed Islam as a threat since its spread in Europe. The Western powers used every possible opportunity to weaken the Islamic state and its identity to avoid facing a politically and economically unified regional Islamic identity. The third force is the Shiite force, which politically uses the Sunni counterpart to unify its own society against the threat of the Sunni state. Finally, there is the Arab identity, which was used by minorities in the Sunni states to assure their presence and growth.

Secularism

Once the essential mechanisms of government were established, Turkey's Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led the country through an intensive period of reform designed to root out the Islamic Sunni Ottoman past and replace it with a Western orientation in all areas of national life. As innovative as some of the reforms appeared to be, they were largely a continuation of the transformation begun in the 19th century. Ataturk himself was a product of the Ottoman reform era, and much of the legislation adopted during his presidency had its origins in the preceding decades. Though the intensity of change was heightened under Ataturk, the process of change itself was not new and should be viewed in the context of a historical pattern that extended from Sultan Mahmoud II through the Tanzimat and Young Turk eras. The reforms can be examined through the six principles that Ataturk designated as the foundations of the doctrine known as Kemalism: reformism, republicanism, secularism, nationalism, populism and etatism. Reformism pervaded the entire Ataturk era; it stood for openness to innovation and the acceptance of non-violent change.

Secularism was a central element in Ataturk's platform, and the impatient Westerniser pursued it with a thoroughness unparalleled in modern Islamic history. The policy was inaugurated when the grand national assembly voted in March 1924 to depose Caliph Abdul Mejid, to abolish the caliphate, and to banish from Turkey all members of the Ottoman royal family — in effect sweeping aside 13 centuries of accumulated Sunni Islamic tradition. Other secularising legislation quickly followed. The office of Shaikh Al Islam was abolished, the religious schools were closed, and the Ministry of Religious Endowments was eliminated. In 1926 the assembly went further and voted to abolish the Mejelle and the Sharia. In their place, the Swiss civil code was adopted, along with penal and commercial codes modelled on Italian and German examples. This was a direct break with the past. Even with the introduction of new legal codes during the Tanzimat and Young Turk eras, the civil code — which included family law — continued to be based on the Sharia. But with the legislation of 1926, the laws of God were replaced in all spheres of human relationships by secular European laws. The new civil code forbade polygamy and broadened the grounds by which wives could seek divorce. As a result of these reform measures, the ulama lost the final vestiges of their role in affairs of state, and their numbers declined.

Secularism affected not only official institutions but also the religious practices of the Turkish people. The Sufi orders were dissolved, and worship at tombs and shrines was prohibited by law. Ataturk launched a personal attack on the fez, the brimless headgear that enabled a worshipper to touch his forehead to the ground during prayer. Other measures of Europeanisation included the replacement of the Muslim lunar calendar by the Gregorian (1926) and the adoption of Sunday in place of Friday as the weekly day of rest. One of the most controversial acts of secularisation involved the translation of the Quran: Ataturk commissioned a translation of the Quran into Turkish and had it read publicly in 1932.

The fragmentation of the Sunni Islam state by the Western powers

The Ottoman Sunni empire had also provided its subjects with a secure sense of belonging to a larger universal order. That order was represented on the one hand by the Ottoman dynasty and its ruling sultan and on the other by the Islamic institutions and practices the sultans made such a point of upholding. The empire achieved legitimacy in the eyes of its subjects not just because of its ability to provide a stable government but also because of its rulers' determination to ensure that the political and social order was based on the enforcement of Sharia justice, respect for the role of the ulama, patronage of religious education, and protection of the holy cities. In summary, the Ottoman empire not only embodied the achievements of the Islamic past, it also offered hope through its continued existence and independence, that a distinctly Islamic state could survive in a world of expansionist European powers. A Muslim Arab subject of the sultan could be comfortable in such a state. But by 1920, neither that state nor its Islamic institutions held sway in the Middle East, and its former Arab and Turkish subjects were left adrift.

The purpose here is to review the process that led to the division and occupation of most of the former Islamic Sunni territories. In January 1919, representatives of 27 nations gathered in Paris to construct a peace settlement that they hoped would eliminate the possibility of future wars. For most of the delegates, European issues had the highest priority, and during the year four separate treaties (with Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria) were drawn up and signed. However, the formulation of a postwar settlement for the Middle East required a longer period of negotiations and involved the allies in frequent disputes among themselves. Terms of an Ottoman settlement were finally agreed upon at the San Remo Conference (April 1920) and incorporated into the Treaty of Sevres, which the Ottoman government reluctantly signed on August 10, 1920.

The portions of the treaty that dealt with Anatolia were extremely harsh and amounted to a virtual partition of the original core of the Ottoman Sunni empire. Although the victors intended an Ottoman state and the government to remain in existence, the territory over which the state was to exercise sovereignty was severely circumscribed. The issue of the strait (between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea), Armenia and abduction of provinces to Greece were settlements not in favour of the Istanbul authority.

The decisions reached at the San Remo Conference detached the Arab provinces from Ottoman authority and apportioned them between Britain and France. The former provinces were divided into entities called mandates. It can be noted here that the mandate system was little more than 19th-century imperialism repackaged to give the appearance of self-determination. Britain received the mandates for Iraq and Palestine, France the mandate for Syria. Iraq was a completely new state created out of three Ottoman provinces — Basra, Baghdad and Mosul — that had little in common. By acquiring control over this new entity, Britain enhanced its position in the Arabian Gulf, secured the approaches to India, and gained access to petroleum resources. The third Arab state over which Britain exercised direct influence, Transjordan, did not exist at the time the Treaty of Sevres was drawn up.

Shiism

It should be stressed that the idea common among some Muslims and Western Orientalists that Shiism is peculiarly Iranian has no basis before 1501. Before then, although there were many Iranian Shiites, the great majority of Shiites were non-Iranian and the majority of Iranians were Sunni. The Zaidi, Isma'ili and Carmathian Shiites are still found mostly outside Iran; the great majority of Shiite dynasties were outside Iran, with only the Buyids as a major or partial pre-1501 exception; and the great majority of Iranian dynasties have been Sunni. This is not to deny the profound modern identification of Iranians with Shiism, but only to note that this, like many other "traditional" phenomena, is more recent than is usually imagined. The legendary marriage of Imam Hussain with a Sassanian princess, which has no historical basis, was useful in cementing the identification of Iran with Shiism, but such legends are usually available when needed.

The Safavids, soon after gaining power in Tabriz, searched for orthodox Shiite books and leaders. An early account relates that the first Safavid ruler of Iran, Ismail, after entering Tabriz in 1501, ordered a search for an orthodox Shiite religious book, but that in all of Tabriz only one could be found. Although this must be exaggerated, as other reports say there were many Shiites in Tabriz, it suggests how little contact Ismail, his followers, or most Tabrizis had with official Shiism. The Safavid rulers soon turned their doctrine, which they may not have known was different from learned Twelver Shiism, from one suitable for popular, enthusiastic, egalitarian revolt and conquest into one suitable for stable, conservative rule and succeeded in enlisting men from the old Persian bureaucracy, and imported some of the official Twelver theologians from nearby Arabic-speaking lands. More than most Islamic dynasties the Safavids worked for conversion to their branch of Islam and for ideological conformity. Ismail demanded that all preachers and mullahs publicly curse the first three (Sunni) caliphs, usurpers of the place of Ali, and this "loyalty-oath mentality" remained characteristic of many Safavid rulers. One of the main reasons for such rigour by Ismail and his followers was to give Iran ideological distinction and identity vis-à-vis its (Sunni) military-political enemies.

The Sunni Ottoman empire Ismail came to power on the eve of Sunni Ottoman expansion into the Near East by Sultan Selim. The Anatolian tribes who helped the Safavids were hostile to the Ottoman government both because they resisted centralisation and for religio-ideological reasons. Ismail must have considered a new affirmation of the differences between Twelver Shiism and Sunnism to be important in creating ideological identity in Iran as a rampart against the Sunni Ottomans.

Origin of Arab nationalism

During the second half of the 19th century, the Arab Christians of Syria and Lebanon experienced an economic and literary renaissance that is known as al nahdah, the wakening. This resurgence also affected the Arab Muslims of the region, but its greatest impact was on members of the Christian communities. The main catalysts for the awakening were foreign Christian missionary activity and the printing press.

Beginning at the time of the Egyptian occupation of Syria (1831-1840), activities of US Protestant, French Catholic and Russian Orthodox missionaries increased dramatically. The original missionary impulse to convert the local Christians to mainstream Western versions of the faith quickly shifted to a concern for lay education and to a heated competition, especially between Presbyterians and Jesuits, to enrol members of the local Christian communities in their schools. By 1860, the Presbyterians had founded 33 schools in Beirut, Jerusalem and the village of Lebanon. This was capped in 1866 by the opening in Beirut of the US-sponsored Syrian Protestant College (later the American University of Beirut), an institution that was to produce a glittering list of alumni in the fields of politics, medicine and literature. The Jesuits were equally industrious, founding schools in Beirut, Damascus and Aleppo, along with the villages. In addition to their concern with establishing schools, the US and Jesuit missions imported Arabic printing presses which they used to produce textbooks and religious materials that served as the inspiration for the development of a lively journalistic tradition.

The career of Butrus Al Bustani (1819-1883) exemplifies the Arab cultural awakening. His objective was to spread knowledge and appreciation of the Arabic language, and the cumulative impact of his life and work "contributed to the creation of modern Arabic expository prose, of a language true to its past in grammar and idiom, but made capable of expressing simply, precisely and directly the concepts of modern thought".

The emphasis on the Arabic language that was at the heart of al nahdah led naturally to a heightened awareness of the cultural identity of the Arab community. This was especially marked among the Christian Arabs, the principal beneficiaries of the foreign educational missions. Because of their Christianity, they did not regard the new ideas and institutions coming from Europe as a threat to the foundations of their civilisations and they did not have to go through the elaborate intellectual exercises of the Muslim reformers in order to justify change and the acceptance of Western concepts of political and social organisation.

Christian Arabs, as members of a restricted minority community, had a special interest in promoting the concept of equality based on non-sectarian considerations, but the appeal of a shared sentiment of Arabness also attracted Muslims. It served to increase the Arab community's awareness of its distinctiveness and historical achievements. As such, the Arab awakening represented yet another challenge to the Sunni Ottoman system.

Conclusion

It is important to distinguish between Islamic identity and Islamic law. Islamic identity is the personal value of each Muslim as an individual, which describes his relation with his family and outside interaction. This differs from Islamic law (Sharia) which is the state's code of interaction. Also, the Islamic identity doesn't contradict the modern civil law and its codes.

In spite of that, autocratic and military regimes have personal issues with the Islamic Brotherhood and its affiliate, the Justice and Development party, while most of the Arabs and Muslims don't even know the agenda of such Islamic parties. So the citizens of the Arab and Islamic states vote for these parties for the sake of returning to the Islamic identity, not for the codes of Sharia or the Islamic parties agenda.

However, dictators and heads of autocratic states who challenge the Islamic identity will never be able to break the spirit and will of their societies, rather they will be discredited and lose legitimacy. Turkey's military leadership and Morocco's monarch showed examples of good leadership by accepting the peoples' will and electing Islamic parties leading the government with Islamic identity rather than Sharia. On the other hand, some Arab states tried to establish Kemalism and identified Islamic parties as a threat to the international community. Also dictators seek to buy and manipulate Western state ethics for the sake of assistance in their challenge against democratically elected Islamic parties.

No doubt the dilemma of identity that was created by dictators or Western state has come to an end. This is due to the spread of democracy and the establishment of society's will, which resulted in Islamic inward-looking governance rather than autocratic regimes with outward policies to satisfy the great powers and to establish their rule.

 

Dr Mansour Bin Tahnoun Al Nahyan lectures in Political Science at the American University of Sharjah.

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