Posts Tagged 'Salafi'

Challenging the ruler in the name of God

By: Bjørn Olav Utvik

In discussions of how Islamists relate to democracy the focus is commonly on the question of the sovereignty of God versus that of the people. In the Islamic Republic of Iran this has taken the form of the debate over the theory and institution of velayet-e faqih. This idea, promoted by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, implied that in the absence of the infallible imam in which most Shias believe the government should be headed by the most learned expert in Islamic law, the Sharia. Large sections of the clerical classes have all along opposed Khomeini’s theory on the grounds that such a direct involvement with politics by the clergy would corrupt religion.

But it is important to notice that the divide over whether the clerics, or religion in a wider sense, should have a direct role in politics, is not the same as the divide over more or less democratic attitudes towards politics.

Many of those who opposed direct clerical power were quite comfortable in accepting autocratic royal power in the years before the revolution. And among those supporting the revolution and even the principle of velayet-e faqih there were from the beginning some rather democratic interpretations of how the system should work. Not least with the emergence of the reformist trend within Iranian politics in the nineties many opinion makers, both clerical and lay, have argued for a system where popularly elected institutions control the main levers of power, where the clerical Supreme Leader is elected in truly democratic fashion, and where his role is reduced to that of providing general moral guidance. Increasingly, however, even the clerics within the reform trend have come to argue for a wholesale abolition of the institution of velayet-e faqih. They still call for the involvement of religion in politics but without any institutionalised privileges.

Against the reformists the most authoritarian sections of the clerics and the political establishment have developed an interpretation where the Supreme Leader is basically seen as representing divine authority not only in the sense of being learned in the scriptures but by being somehow selected by God and/or the Hidden Imam. The Leader is therefore seen as standing above all other institutions elected or not, and popular sovereignty (to the extent that it is accepted) is understood as clearly subordinate to the divinely inspired guidance of the Leader.

The question of the velayet-e faqih gives the discussion of democracy a special twist in Shia-dominated areas. Yet the more general question of divine sovereignty is valid even for the Sunnis and is raised in connection with the common Islamist demand for the Sharia as effective government-enforced law in Muslim countries. One basic question here is whether, or to what extent, this limits the freedom for the elected representatives of the people to legislate, and not least through which mechanism such limits would be imposed.

Were the principle of the Shari as the source and framework of legislation merely to be protected by rules making constitutional change more difficult than a simple majority in a single parliamentary session, this would stay within the kind of rules generally accepted in democratic systems as a necessary restriction on the right of the majority to arbitrarily change the basic principles of legislation and political system. If, however, some clerical institution be given the right to veto legislation on the basis of its non-accordance with the Sharia, this would be more openly in conflict with democratic thinking. In the draft programme of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers from 2007 the idea of a Higher Council of Islamic Clerics (ulama) with the right to review legislation was floated. Since this looked rather similar to the Iranian Guardian Council in existence since 1979, and since this Iranian institution dominated by clerics has in fact held legislation in an iron grip, criticism in Egypt was sharp.

Yet all these discussions tend somehow to obscure another struggle going on in the Muslim world with tremendous importance for long-term democratic change. This is the discussion where popular sovereignty is not posed against clerical authority or the Sharia but against the age-old principle of obedience to those in power, to wali al-amr, based on the Koranic verse 4:59 which contains the command “O you who have Faith! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those charged with authority among you”.

Saudi Arabia is a case in point. The arch-conservative clerical establishment in the kingdom have long upheld the idea of the absolute authority of the king as wali al-amr. While at one level emphasising that the duty of the king is to secure the effective implementation of the Law of God in the land, they do in practice not acknowledge any right on the part of the people to challenge even a king seen to deviate from that duty.

The legacy of the wahhabiyya, the religious tradition after the eighteenth-century reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, is split on this point. Historically the leading representatives of this tendency have tied their fortunes to a close alliance with the royal house of Al Saud, and while preaching a strict enforcement of their norms for moral behaviour vis-à-vis the population, in terms of political power they have equally strongly preached the need for obedience to the king.

Yet minority groups have charged that there must be limits to this obedience and that when the king is seen to deviate too far from the straight path he must be opposed if need be by arms. And with the growth of what became known as “the awakening”, al-sahwa, in the eighties and nineties the absolute authority of the king was on a whole new scale challenged on the basis of religion. Armed with a mix of deep-rooted wahhabi piety and new ideas of Islamic activism brought to Saudi Arabia by thousands of Muslim Brothers from Egypt who had fled repression in Egypt and now played a pivotal role in building the expanding education system of the kingdom, generations of young educated Saudis accused the rulers of being too lax in their implementation of Islamic rule.

What is important in our connection here is that, while hardly a vanguard of liberalism, the sahwa contained a basic anti-authoritarian element in that it challenged the untouchable authority of the king and thus broke a taboo in the country. Now, twenty years later, the proponents of the sahwa have taken their original message in several diverging directions. One group, often termed Islamo-liberals, like the lawyer Abd al-Aziz al-Qasim advocate a constitutional monarchy where affairs would be decided according to a parliamentary system. Others, for instance those close to the salafi Kuwaiti reform thinker Hakim al-Mutayri, of whom I have written here earlier, combine a more conservative interpretation of religion in general with a total rejection of monarchy in favour of the sovereign right of the people to choose their rulers. Yet again, on the extreme fringes of the sahwa heritage there are those who go along with the jihadi line of Usama bin Ladin as represented in the nefarious organisation al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

What they all have in common, however, is their rejection of any absolute duty of obedience towards the monarch without the right to publicly challenge his policies. And this is a common trait for modern Islamist activism in most of its incarnations, from the most moderate and liberal to the most revolutionary and strictly religious: the acceptance of the right of the people to challenge the ruler.

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What comes out of the desert these days

By: Bjørn Olav Utvik

Hakim al-Mutayri

Hakim al-Mutayri

Freedom or the Deluge and The Liberation of Man. Interesting book titles coming from a member of presumably the most conservative ideological tendency and of one of the most conservative social layers within one of the most conservative regions of the world, the Arab Gulf monarchies.

Hakim al-Mutayri is a member of the Mutayr tribe, one of the largest Bedouin tribes in Kuwait. He is educated in Islamic studies in Kuwait, Mecca and Fez, with a doctorate in Sharia Law from the prestigious Qarawiyyin university in the latter city. He also has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Birmingham. He is a long-time member of the Salafi Movement in Kuwait and one of the founders of Kuwait’s only formal political party, the Hizb al-Umma (Party of the Nation).

In his books Mutayri radically reconsiders Islamic orthodoxy as it relates to the preferred political system. He emphatically states that Islam properly understood has human freedom as its basic premise, and that in political terms this translates to the right of people to freely exchange ideas and not least to freely choose, and if need dismiss, political leaders. He boldly diagnoses the root of the Muslim problem with democracy to lie in the fact that the classical literature of interpretation of the holy sources were written at a time when despotism and hereditary rule had taken the place of the rule of the Prophet and his immediate successors where, according to Mutayri, rule was based on consultation of the people.

The religious scholars writing from the ninth century onwards felt bound to legitimise the military rulers of their time, he states, and cannot be taken as guidance today. He also digs deeper in claiming that the promotion of the idea of divine determination of events where human action and free will is reduced to insignificance is linked to this same agenda of securing the rule of those in power, and has done immense harm to the Muslim world.

Kuwait is special in that it has a salafi movement that engages in political work. What is a salafi? It is common understanding that the salafis are a particularly conservative brand of Islamists. Rather than seeking a way for the Muslim world to advance while staying true to the faith, the salafis concern themselves primarily with trying to replicate in detail the way of life at the Prophet’s time, and guarding against any deviation from the literally understood teachings of the Koran and the Hadith, the reports on the sayings and doings of the Prophet.

Salafis generally consider politics a business to be left to those in power. So the Kuwaiti salafis are deviating by the mere act of entering politics. But Mutayri from the depth of the salafi heartland produces an ideology seemingly at sharp odds with what most of us thought contemporary salaifsm was all about.

Westerners are often prejudiced against Arabs in general and more specifically against those who take their religion seriously, as the recent trouble over minarets in Switzerland amply demonstrates. Muslims are seen by some as representing an alien religion that threatens to bring us back to the Middle Ages.

In Muslim countries like Egypt, Morocco and Lebanon there is even among the Islamists a heavy prejudice against anything coming from places like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Gulf Arabs are considered backward, uneducated and steeped in the traditions of the Bedouin, making their understanding of religion far more conservative even that the one being preached by movements like the Muslim Brothers in Egypt. At the same time the Gulf people are considered to be somewhat corrupted by  the high level of income and the fact of being secured high standards of living without having to work, the actual work being done by other Arabs and by armies of Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians and Filipinos.

Arriving then in for instance Kuwait and talking to people one discovers yet another level of prejudice. For among the whole spectrum of political opinion from liberal to Islamist all are warning against the reactionary effect of the growing role of the Bedouin part of the population with their backward ideas and tribal customs. The Bedouin only recently got political rights, and now the urban people of Kuwait city feel their position undermined by the uncultured Bedouin who produce more children, children who are now getting educated and elected to Parliament. And there they join the growing number of salafis.

Even among the salafis themselves the urban warn against the Bedouin.

A surprise then to find that precisely among the Bedouin salafis one encounters one of the more innovative thinkers within the international Islamist movement, and, in the Kuwaiti context, the ideologue that most boldly challenges the birth right of the royal Sabah family to control the affairs of the country.


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