The next 10 years does not bode well for British politics. At the European elections this year, only 22% of eligible British voters actually voted. The cash-for-honours and the MPs expenses scandals have generated widespread disillusionment. The EC predicts that in just 2 years, Britain’s national debt will increase to 88.2 per cent of GDP, and that by 2020 this could rise to 140 per cent of GDP. Meanwhile, the politics of the far-right are becoming increasingly mainstream, even prompting Labour and Tory spokespeople to co-opt their concerns on immigration, multiculturalism, and so on.
In such potentially dire circumstances, the temptation to deflect problems onto the ‘Other’ – namely, black and ethnic minority groups, particularly Muslims – will be greater. In this regard, British Muslims will have a particularly significant responsibility to engage fully in the British political system to promote social justice, public welfare, and government accountability. We will need to put in renewed efforts to show that Islamic and British values are mutually co-extensive, and that British Muslims are truly at home in British civil society.
Unfortunately, it is tempting to react in two ways: either accepting the goal of a global Islamic state while rejecting the use of violence to create it; or rejecting entirely any connection between Islam and politics. Ironically, both reactions lead us up the garden path.
Firstly, we should be very careful to remember that the sovereign nation-state is a modern invention, only coming into existence within the last two hundred odd years. Before that, states did not exist, borders were in flux, and empires based on aristocratic and dynastic rivalries used force to extract tribute from subject populations and monopolise trade. This was even more the case fourteen hundred years ago. As the Sudanese scholar Abdullahi an-Naim argues, the idea of the ‘Islamic state’ is an innovation that draws on European post-colonial discourse.
But just as it is a grave mistake to superimpose the modern nation-state onto Islam, it is an equally grave mistake to interpret this as implying that Islam is not political. As noted by Robert D Crane of the International Institute for Islamic Thought:
“In the Covenant of Madina the various autonomous tribes were incorporated in a single confederation with mutual rights and responsibilities. The Prophet called this confederation an umma or single community composed of different ethnic and religious ummas as sub-groups.
There was also a common law based on the practice of the Prophet Muhammad and the traditional laws of each religious group. The Islamic shari’a as a body of law and jurisprudence, like all the other Islamic disciplines, developed over the course of the centuries.
At the time of the Madina Covenant there was no state machinery to enforce the law, no police and no regular military, and not even an established judicial system. All social life was voluntary.
This changed when the Prophet died and especially when peoples in distant places embraced Islam, which led to the growth of power centers that eventually evolved into independent empires based on principles that were un-Islamic from the perspective of the original community of the Madina Covenant.”
Islam therefore advocates a progressive politics rooted in community governance, and based fundamentally on grassroots empowerment and the voluntary collective practice of community members. The Qur’an never makes reference to the idea of a ‘state’ as understood in modern conventional terms, even when discussing legal recourse, but instead addresses this voluntary community. Thus, we see a broad metaphysical conception of khalafa, where God tells the angels about the creation of the first man: “I am putting a khalifa on Earth.” (2:30)
Khalifa is often translated as ‘vicegerent’, denoting a representative of a higher authority. But a better term in English is ‘trustee’, conveying the idea of human beings carrying the amana or trust to be ‘caretakers’ of the Earth. Everyone of us is a ‘khalifa’ of God, the objective of which is the establishment of social justice: “We sent aforetime Our Messengers with Clear Signs and sent down with them the Book and the Balance (of Right and Wrong), that men may stand forth in justice.” (57:25)
In addition, the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions are replete with clearly delineated principles of just community governance, such as: mutual consultation between elected leaders and communities; freedom of speech and association, including the right to dissent against a ruling authority; freedom of religious belief; equality of access to means of economic production; equitable distribution and investment of public resources for sustainable development; responsibility to the most deprived classes through various social welfare policies; policymaking based on knowledge and research; compassion and flexibility in implementation of penal injunctions.
In summary, then, we are collectively responsible for working together as custodians of the Earth in God’s Name. This trust extends into the social sphere as a collective duty of the community. Islamic politics entails that communities should govern themselves, and that we are all responsible to cooperate with our fellow citizens (our “brothers in faith, or in humanity”, in the words of the fourth Caliph, Hazrat Ali) in creating and maintaining just, compassionate and accountable social institutions from the ground-up.
Dr Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is a bestselling author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Crisis of Civilization: How Climate, Oil, Food, Finance, Terror, and Warfare will Change the World (Pluto, 2010). He is the Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, and has authored four other books on terrorism and foreign policy, including most recently The London Bombings: An Independent Inquiry (Duckworth, 2006). He has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Sussex, where he has taught contemporary history and political theory.
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