The Imagined Islamic Identity: The Dilemma

By As-Sayyed Yassin

Translation provided by Tony Badran (The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies)

June 17, 2005

One of the most significant problems facing the modern Arab state is the problem of the imagined Islamic identity. The premise of those who espouse this ideology is, simply put, to recapture a supposed "paradise lost," that is the first era of Islam, and all of its alleged values, customs and directions. This is done by distorting texts, through the media and propaganda, intellectual and moral terrorism against those who disagree, and physical terrorism against the state.

The most dangerous phenomenon accompanying this fundamentalist religious wave is the complicity that these fundamentalist groups have created with the modern Arab state and its institutions, including traditional religious organizations, that are attempting to shore up their waning political legitimacy and appease religious crowds.

These fundamentalist Islamic ideas were applied in Sudan, when the National Islamic Front succeeded in taking power after a military coup in 1989. The pioneer of this experiment was the Sudanese Islamist Hassan at-Turabi. However, as noted by Dr. Haydar Ibrahim Ali, director of the Center for Sudanese Studies, in his 2004 book "The Fall of the Cultural Project," this imagined Islamic identity failed miserably in the domains of politics, economy, culture and society, as it was based, "on an imaginary and abstract ideology, which was also a-historical, believing that time froze at a point in the past that could be recaptured indefinitely in the future of human history."

Nevertheless this experiment was hailed in Islamist circles as the first true Islamic state in the Arab world to properly implement the laws of Islam, and still has many adherents.

This imagined Islamic identity rests on several political, epistemological, economical, cultural and social pillars. Perhaps the most notable is holding the concept of Shura against that of Western democracy. The problem is that Shura was only applied briefly and in a limited way before it became defunct after the takeover of Mu'awiya bin Abi Sufyan. It never had the chance to develop into an institution with rules, laws, and applications. It simply became an empty slogan to be raised against democracy in a futile attempt at comparison. Meanwhile, Islamists agree to use democracy as a cover in order to enter legitimately in the political arena.

If Shura is the main political component, then the "Islamization of knowledge" is the epistemological component. The latter concept, launched by Taha Jaber Alwani in Washington, is based on a silly imaginary idea that calls for "synthesizing Western knowledge" then "Islamizing" it. The only result of such a concept is to isolate, in allegedly “Islamic” epistemological caves, researchers in the Arab and Islamic world from the universal thought currents.

In economics, they [the Islamists] claimed a distinct "Islamic economy." This concept was born in India in the 1940s as an attempt to create an imagined Islamic identity in the latter years of British colonialism. There is also the movement of "Islamic Banking" which is now spreading in many Arabic and Islamic countries. However, like "Islamization of knowledge," it is a total failure because no economy can be viable if it is separate from the world economy.

If we look at culture, we see this extremist Islamist project practicing ostracism in the intellectual and cultural domains, and playing the same role as the Inquisition of the European Middle Ages. It censors intellectual, literary and artistic works, calls for books and works of art to be banned and accuses their authors of apostasy.

In terms of values, these Islamists are regressive and reject modern values such as individual rights, rationalism, women's rights, etc… Restricting people's clothing, narrow mindedness and hostility towards interactions with the “Other” characterize those who propagate the imagined Islamic identity.

And now they are trying to enter the political arena in order to implement their "Islamic state," and they are being met with goodwill on the part of international powers trying to change the nature of the authoritarian regimes. Hence the double dilemma of Arab society and the modern Arab state [that face the Islamist threat], whose legitimacy has been eroded as a consequence of not following modern principles, not least of which is the peaceful change of political power.

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