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Islamists and Modernity

Tarek Heggy
2012 / 9 / 14

Bear witness o pen, to what we say:

We shall not sleep, no,

Nor shall we waver,

Between “yes” and “no.”

(Amal Donqol)

The question of whether political Islam is a religious-theocratic movement or a political movement in the contemporary sense of the term will be determined by its attitude towards the system of values that intellectuals in advanced societies consider to be the basis of progress and modernity. It is necessary therefore to try and bring about a rapprochement between some if not all the basic values making up the system on the one hand, and the ideas and behavior of the movements of political Islam on the other. That is what I shall try to do in this article, which I hope can help bring political Islam closer to the values of modernity and progress.

The concept of the modern State:

Islamists are unable to comprehend and accept (let alone admire) the modern state system, which is a product of centuries of political, cultural, social and economic struggle for the advancement of humankind. The model they believe in is a very different one.

When the Prophet Mohamed lay on his death bed, he asked his close companion, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, to conduct public prayers in his stead. Upon his death soon after, the general consensus throughout much of the Muslim world was that the nomination of Abu Bakr was a sign that the Prophet believed him to be the best man to succeed him. Hence, Abu Bakr was elected by a council of tribal elders as the first Caliph (successor) and from the first day was regarded as the Prophet s designated successor. This historical model (as simple as the era in which it was conceived), continues to dominate the thinking of many Islamists, who see religion and politics as closely intertwined, indeed, as inseparable. Many decades later, attempts were made to give this model a philosophical and theoretical basis in a number of books that are today known as al-ahkam al sultaneya or the Supreme Decrees (among them is Al-Mawardy s book bearing the same title). Although the details of these “decrees” are no more than a mirror that reflects the stages of development in political thinking in the period between the seventh century and the following five centuries – details that are simplistic, naïve and primitive – today s Islamists still admire them and see them as a viable alternative to the modern state system.


The concept of pluralism is firmly entrenched in the culture and mind-set of advanced societies, where it is regarded as one of the main engines of progress and a requirement for human advancement. Societies that do not believe in pluralism and whose general cultural climate is not geared to accepting its results can never move forward. Just as Marxism rang the death knell of pluralism, inasmuch as all the political, economic, cultural and social systems it put in place were based on crushing whatever and whoever did not conform to its basic principles, so too political Islam is fundamentally anti-pluralism, even if Islamists claim otherwise. For an Islamist, who believes his ideology is the absolute truth, any dissent is an abomination that runs counter to the word of God Himself. Indeed, Islamists bring God into every sphere – constitutional, legal, political, economic, cultural, educational – even scientific. A case in point is the Theory of Evolution, which is roundly condemned by Islamists as sacrilegious.


Otherness, or the acceptance of the Other, is the dialectical fruit of pluralism. For the believer in pluralism, life is based on diversity in all spheres, systems, ideas and principles. This entails accepting the Other whatever form otherness takes. When an Islamist, who believes God is on his side and that he stands closest to the truth, claims to accept the Other, his acceptance is at least modest and relative – sometimes Machiavellian. He may say he believes in women s rights but then will say that women can occupy "most" but not "all" posts. He will also certainly say that neither women nor non-Muslims can ever become head of State. He will say he believes in freedom of belief but will determine in what others may believe. In Egypt today, in 2012, Islamists say that a person may be a Muslim, a Jew or a Christian but cannot be a Buddhist or a Bahai. Nor do they agree that freedom of belief means that a Muslim can convert to another religion.


From the womb of belief in pluralism is born an acceptance of the Other. From the womb of both is born “relativity”, in the sense that a widespread notion in the cultural climate of the more advanced societies is that opinions, judgments, theories and explanations are relative, not absolute. An Islamist may claim to believe in relativity, but any discussion with him about women, non-Muslims, the Theory of Evolution, or opinions that differ from his own et al will always prove that he can never whole-heartedly believe in relativity. He has transferred the notion of absolute from the realm of private affairs to that of public affairs. That is why Islamists are the only people in the world today who believe their ideology offers permanent solutions that are not subject to change for problems that are by their very nature changeable. If we argue that these solutions belong to a specific time and place, an Islamist will angrily reject this logic. A few weeks ago, in August 2012, the former Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mahdy Akef, declared that anyone who does not agree with the directives of the Muslim Brotherhood is "stupid and ignorant." His words express the way Islamists perceive any ideas that differ from their own.

Human Rights:

Human rights, including freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom of opinion and other basic rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are the fruits of a long and arduous human struggle. The problem Islamists have with human rights is that they will accept only those they believe are compatible with the will of God. If we tell an Islamist that a person has the right to be a Buddhist or a Baha i, he will argue that freedom of belief applies only to the three Abrahamic religions. And if we tell him a woman is entitled to wear whatever she pleases, he will refuse on the basis of his personal moral certainties which, again, reflect the will of God! If we tell him a Muslim is entitled to convert to Judaism or Christianity, he will once again use his absolute moral certainty to refute this human right. Thus human rights have a ceiling constructed from his perceptions of the will of God.


Fear of and desire for women, the need to place them in a cage and keep them under constant surveillance, are the main characteristics of the Islamist view of women. There is no doubt that an Islamist sees women as beings who are inferior, albeit only slightly, to men. He will use what Nature imposed on women to prove his point: menstruation renders women s religious standing less than that of men as far as an Islamist is concerned. Most Islamists are pathologically obsessed with women. Like Hassidic Jews, they believe women are the source of all evil and that, as such, they need to be kept under tight control. Nowhere is this view of women more stringently upheld than in Saudi Arabia, where women are subjected to the most extreme constraints imaginable. Despite this – or rather, because of this – sexual relations in this radical Islamic society are quite chaotic. Not surprisingly, this environment sets an extremely low ceiling on women s rights and any attempt to raise the ceiling comes up against ferocious resistance. As far as Islamists are concerned, some issues are not open for discussion. One of these is the way a woman s testimony in court is worth only half that of a man s. This ludicrous rule applies across the board. Thus if, say, Mme Curie, winner of two Nobel prizes, were to testify in court, her testimony would be worth only half the testimony of a man holding a primary school certificate. Another issue no Islamist is willing to reconsider is inheritance laws, which provide that a woman s share in an inheritance is half that of a man s. The list is endless: a woman may not become head of state; a woman may not enact laws dealing with marriage, divorce, child custody, etc.

The rule of law in its contemporary meaning:

Islamists strongly believe that observing man-made constitutional and legal rules is a grave mistake from both the religious and social points of view because they consider that humans are not qualified to lay down a constitutional and legal framework to govern themselves. Ever since Egypt adopted a modern law system in 1883, Islamists have been vocally opposed to the adoption of man-made laws. And when the works of Sayed Qutb (1906 – 1966) became the most important literature of political Islam (much of it taken from the Indo-Pakistani Islamist thinker Abul Ala Mawdoody, whose writings were among the reasons for the wars between India and Pakistan), the Islamist view of man-made laws came to be articulated in the following terms: Only God knows the deficiencies of mortals and consequently that they are not fit to lay down the rules governing relations between people in all their forms. From this sprang the "theory of hakemeya" in which all Islamists believe, although they differ as to how long it would take to apply the theory. The cornerstone of the theory, which is the essence of Islamic thinking, is that humans must not set the rules governing relations between people, but that these can only be set by the Almighty. To this day, not a single leader of any movement of political Islam has reconsidered the idea of hakemeya introduced by Sayed Qutb in his famous treatise, "Signposts Along the Road" (considered a rehash of ideas formulated originally by Mawdoody). Thus the Islamist has a constant problem with man-made constitutional and legal rules. Even though the great jurist Dr. Sanhouri, (who drafted the Egyptian Civil Code in 1948) said that he saw nothing in the provisions and articles of the Code, inspired by the French Civil Code, that deviated from the principles of Islamic Shari a, this means nothing to any of the schools of political Islam, who remain convinced that their primary political task is to apply a comprehensive legal system derived from the Shari a, which, in their opinion, expresses the will of God.


Certainly the leaderships of most schools of political Islam refuse to describe the suicide attacks launched by Muslim fanatics against civilians as terrorist attacks. Certainly too none of them consider Osama bin Laden a terrorist. Indeed, most hold him in high regard. When the Islamist candidate for the Egyptian presidency, Abdul Moneim Abul Fetouh, was asked whether he considered bin Laden a terrorist, he replied, "It is America that is the terrorist." In fact, an Islamist cannot condemn violence against civilians in all its forms and aspects, directly leading to the failure of the international community to come up with a definition of terrorism acceptable to all. Islamists are united in their belief that they are entitled, indeed, duty bound, to abstain from accepting a definition of terrorism before they are firmly in power. I am positive that over half the people living in societies like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen would refuse to describe bin Laden as a terrorist.

A balanced cognitive formation:

I have always believed that a common feature of fanatics the world over is the lack of a balanced cognitive formation. This is as true of the ultra-orthodox Hassidic Jew as it is of the fundamentalist Muslim, whose respective mindsets are closed to the fruits of human creativity and ingenuity in all or most cultural and intellectual spheres. Conversely, a person whose mindset has been enriched by the fruits of human creativity spawned by the civilizations of Ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the remarkable examples of human creativity over the last three centuries, which are the richest in human history, cannot be a fundamentalist or a fanatic. I have made it a point to read for myself the favoured reading material of Hassidic Jews, Salafi Muslims and conservative Muslims of the Hannabalite persuasion – a group that includes all the men of religion in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and all Sunni Muslim countries – who admire the fatwas put out by the jurists and proselytizers of this harsh creed, like ibn-Taymiyah, ibn-Qaiym Al-Juzeya and Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab. The great majority of these zealots read only the literature of their own creed. In this connection, I heard many of the leading men of religion in Saudi Arabia warn of the dangers of reading what I consider the finest examples of human creativity, from Homer to Dante, from Shakespeare and Racine to Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Diderot, from Decartes to Kant, from Victor Hugo to Albert Camus. Their aversion to music, art and theatre is equally strong. Perhaps the following anecdote will illustrate the magnitude of this calamitous state of affairs: In August 2012, Chinese astronauts returned to earth from a mission in space. A picture was published of the female astronaut climbing out of the spaceship helped by a male colleague. A Salafi web site on the Internet ran the picture with a comment that did not touch on the many wondrous aspects it represented, focusing instead on the depravity of a male holding a female by the arm to help her out of the spaceship! And, in a tragic incident that was widely reported a few years ago, a fire broke out at a girls school in Saudi Arabia. Many of the girls who tried to flee the burning building were prevented from leaving by the firefighters because in their haste to leave they had not donned their hijab. As a result, they burned to death.


Islamist literature, culture and ideology are based on a division of the world and humanity into two camps: the first is called dar al Islam (the domain of Islam), the second dar el harb (the domain of war). This division continues to dominate the mind set of Islamists, who find it difficult as a consequence to understand and accept the contemporary understanding of humanity and how far it has come in removing boundaries between cultures and societies. I believe that to this day Islamists perceive the Other [the denizen of the domain of war] as an enemy whom they hold responsible for all their problems, from the time of colonialism to the adversities they are facing today. Two years ago, the prominent Islamist leader Abdul Moneim Abul Fetouh [a candidate in Egypt s presidential elections in May 2012] published a book in which he asserted that all the problems faced by Muslim societies today can be traced to colonialism. What Mr. Abul Fetouh failed to tell us is why the Europeans colonized us and why we did not colonize them! Nor did he tell us why most of the Arabian Peninsula has remained in a state of extreme backwardness for the last hundred years although it was not colonized.

Taqiya [Dissimulation]:

The principle of taqiya or dissimulation is a fundamental tenet of Shi ism which has crept into the practices of contemporary political Islam, whether Shi ite or Sunni. What it means basically is that when a believer finds himself in a position where his adversaries are in the ascendancy, he is allowed to profess outwardly the opposite of his true beliefs. The principle has been adopted wholeheartedly by the Muslim Brotherhood. Since the downfall of former president Hosni Mubarak, they have regaled us with a series of contradictory statements, taking a position one day only to take an opposite position the next. The use of taqiya to mask their real intentions is evident – and worrisome – in the declarations they make in meetings with officials from cultures that despise lying about things like their renunciation of violence, their upholding of women s rights and their respect for non-Muslims. Although these declarations are contrary to their real beliefs and intentions, they are religiously permissible as long as Islamists have not yet established themselves firmly in power. If Machiavelli heard what taqiyah means to some Muslims he would hail them as more Machiavellian than himself.

In conclusion, after forty years of closely following political Islam and its literature and writing about it, including a thesis on the Islamic system of punishments, I can see no possibility of reconciling political Islam with the values of progress and modernity. At the same time however, I believe that their exercise of political power within the framework of a modern constitution and modern laws could make the parties of political Islam similar to their Christian counterparts in Europe. But I am talking here of a possible, far from certain, process, of a long journey on which they have yet to embark.

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