"You Can't Bake an Islamic State"

THE OTHER MALAYSIA: You can’t bake an Islamic state —Farish A Noor
Daily Times, January 20, 2007

Living as we do in a world that is undergoing rapid structural-economic transformation, many a Muslim government has tried to solve the problem of nation-building by recourse to Islam, through using religion as a system of values that may glue a nation together.

In some cases this has led to the development of a statist discourse of Islam, in which Islam is used as a discourse of legitimation by the state. In some other cases Muslim states have opted for selective appropriation and implementation of Islamic laws and norms in an attempt to impose some degree of order on society as a whole.

Much of this has been motivated by the fact that many Muslim societies are experiencing the visible signs of pluralisation and difference as a result of social advancement, widening educational opportunities, urban migration and the politicisation of citizens’ interests.

Well, the technocrats of the Muslim world may be happy with such an approach, working, as they often do, according to the belief that religion can be a variable factor which can be injected into the political process in order to obtain the desired results. More often than not, however, the approach can be as simplistic as it is clumsy, based on the assumption that nation-building can be a controlled process, like a recipe for a cake.

The fact is that one cannot simply inject religion into politics like one mixes flour, sugar and eggs to make a pudding. One does not, and cannot, add 100 kilograms of Islam to 100 kilograms of constitutionalism and hope to bake an Islamic state.

Part of the problem lies in the confused attempt to mix two abstract variables: ‘Islam’ and ‘national unity’ together. For a start, when talking about ‘Islam’ with a capital ‘I’, it has to be noted that we are not talking about a simple concept with a verifiable referent. Islam is a complex system of ideas, beliefs, values, modes of social praxis and norms, a code of aesthetics and culture, as well as being primarily a belief system founded on a theology and cosmology. Over the past one-and-a-half millennia, Islam has evolved and adapted its normative praxis to suit the changing times and we all know by now that on the level of popular Islam there are really many ‘Islams’ and not one.

Likewise the ‘nation’ is not a simple idea that can be reduced essentially to a group of people occupying a specific geographical area. Nations are imagined communities (to borrow Benedict Anderson’s phrase) that are historically contingent, constructed collective fictions held together by the continuities of history as much as the conflicts within that history. There has never been a homogenous, simplified nation and can never be one.

To claim that the challenge of nation-building can be solved when a specific religion is foregrounded as the primary belief system of that nation, overlooks the fact that both the nation and the religion are complex entities. Here lies the danger in many a nation-building project: For if ‘national unity’ is meant to imply the creation of a singular, unified and unitary nation, then we are already walking on the path that leads us to totalitarianism and majoritarianism.

Surely we should realise by now that modern nations are complex, and increasingly so, and that the only way that any fictional notion of unity can be achieved is by the elimination of difference? That is why so many nation-building programmes have ended up as pogroms instead, with the persecution of minorities, the oppression of subaltern voices, the erasure of the language, culture and history of the marginalised being the norm. Nation-building, when determined with a unitary objective in mind, is more often than not a recipe for one form of fascism or another.

Thus, for modernising Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia, the challenges are obvious. Now more than ever we need to recognise that religion can be as much an obstacle to nation-building as it can facilitate it, particularly when the discourse of religion is monopolised by state elites who only see in it a tool of power and its perpetuation.

Can countries like Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia open up spaces for the debate and healthy evolution of popular Islam that reflect the diversity of their communities, and can these communities militate for a progressive Islam that speaks the language of the plural masses, of the subaltern and the marginalised? In other words can we see the development of what the Muslim intellectual Farid Esack calls the “Islam of the powerless”, a discourse of Islam that takes the side of the popular masses and that critiques the workings of power?

Or, as the discourse of Islam comes under the purview of the state and Islamo-technocrats, will we witness the increasing instrumentalisation of religion, and Islam in particular, for the sake of the reproduction and perpetuation of power? Will the discourse and values of Islam ultimately serve as the tools for regime maintenance in these Muslim countries?

These are the questions that strike deep into the heart of the Islamic state and national unity debates today. The solution to the questions lies not only in the corpus of Islamic norms and values, but also in the presence (or absence) of political will among Muslim leaders, intellectuals, clerics and lawyers the world over.

One thing, however, is certain: The pluralism and differences within the Muslim world today are clearer than ever. More and more Muslim constituencies are emerging, such as Muslim feminists, Muslim leftists, secular Muslims, etc. and their demands are being politicised. Dealing with such alterity and difference will require political maturity and a genuine appreciation of pluralism, and not empty slogans of unity and harmony.

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and historian; and one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research website

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