Scarlet Jihad

Communist flag. Kerala, India.

Jihad is not just an obsession in my country of Pakistan. The entire region has become enamoured with the idea, even as it rejects Salafi jihadist groups such as Al-Qaida and the Taliban. It is not because of a debate between liberalism and conservatism, or whether or not Islam is compatible with Enlightenment values. It is because for many Muslims, Islamism is the new post-Soviet Marxism. The appeal of jihad is wrapped up in that.

This can be problematic. Apart from the obvious issues with terrorist violence, no one really distinguishes between different types of Islamism. It is seen as a uniformly right-wing force equally informs leaders as diverse as Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Osama Bin Laden. The diversity of individual models is erased, with the false picture then being either loved or hated as an alternative form of social organizing. It is either loved as emancipatory, or feared as an impending catastrophe, synonymous with the regression of modern civilization.

Islamism’s current appeal makes perfect sense. The shortcomings of the Cold War Muslim Left had almost completely discredited socialism and pan-Arabism by the late 1960’s, especially after its main proponent, Gamal Abdul Nasser, was left humiliated by the Six Day War.

Since pan-Arabism was one of the three forces that emerged from the question of the colonized Muslim world, its effective banishment has left the debate raging between the other two: secular republicanism, and right-wing Salafism. Although both groups theoretically aim at a wider Muslim revival, they are locked in a state of paralyzing antagonism in which “ethical renaissance” means “surviving the other party.” Secularists await the end of Islamism, and Islamists seek to outlast secularism.

Both camps miss the point. It is not that one movement for renewal in the Muslim world is better than the others. It is that they all represent particular strategies for approaching the broader problem. Combinations of all three are the best way forward, and have arguably been done before. After all, Sayyid Qutb was both a Communist and an Islamic fundamentalist. While there are certainly policy differences, all three movements act on a core drive to revitalize the Muslim world after the trauma of imperialism.

Going forward with that, though, requires shifting our attitudes towards secularism. We are taught to believe that religion is incompatible with functional democracy, but we need to be careful. Although there are limits to religious discourse, spirituality informs personal ethics. Religion cannot be sanitized against in a manner that deprives ethical discussion in the realm of politics. Moreover, ethical politics cannot only be discussed. They should be applied towards an overall framework in public and private life.

If the Muslim world is to find the ethical renaissance that it deserves, then the ideology of Liberation Islam that we have been experimenting with over the last few weeks must translate the best possible ethics into smart politics and compelling strategies for social change. This would involve a left-wing jihad that seeks to realize a so-called “Rashidun society.”

Map of the Caliphate. Egyptian schoolbook, 1965.
Map of the Caliphate. Egyptian schoolbook, 1965.

Jihad should be seen as a form of praxis, through which Liberation Islam realizes itself. We must start with the internal jihad, which is based on the idea that energy must be invested in order to transform the self into being more in line with Islamic expectation. This is crucial. As Surat ar-Ra’d says, “Allah does not change a person’s condition until they change what is in their inner selves.” Ideological social panaceas are useless if they are not accompanied by organized action that must involve the self as much as it does populist mobilization.

As readers of previous articles in this series will remember, our left-wing interpretation of tawheed is essentially that the oneness of Allah also implies the oneness of humanity, which is an anarchist message. Tawheed is meant to inform an ethical universalism, under which all social and biological distinctions are basically irrelevant since they have no impact on human dignity. This is why human beings are interpreted to be khalifas, or trustees of the universe. They were born with a responsibility to respect the entirety of nature and community, without exception.

The method of jihad we practice to more fully meet our responsibilities to each other, and the world around us, may seem very close to bid’ah (“innovation.”) However, it is actually just an attempt to ground Islam in the present so that we may better envision the future.

We must first renew our personal understanding of Islam, and distance ourselves from literalist interpretations, by admitting that the Qu’ran contains a great deal of mythology. This does not mean it is worthless. It just means that its descriptions of creation and human history are meant to be more poetic than factual. There is absolutely no reason that they cannot be used to meditate on the human condition while the reader still trusts scientific achievements like M-Theory and the theory of evolution.

We must also be brave enough to unravel the idea of Allah being a psychological manifestation of humanity’s most ideal qualities, rather than a sentient actor that can solve our anxieties about mortality. Are we khalifas of Allah? Or are we khalifas of a universal ethic that finds a singular manifestation in the idea of an indivisible Allah? Modern psychoanalysis has many insights that we can use to further refresh our understanding of the religion.

These aren’t the only questions that we should ask ourselves, especially since we need to bear in mind our own personal privilege within wider society (without falling into the trap of flaggelating ourselves out of guilt.) I have purposefully picked ones that are difficult because they summon provincial violence in those who are threatened by them. Facing those opponents down critically, and having the courage to face scary concepts, is exactly what is required by internal jihad. It is meant to progress the human condition, after all, which causes a great deal of tumult.

Superhero projection. France, 2013.
Superhero projection. France, 2013.

The point, though, is that jihad results in a kinder and more empowered humanity that has survived the struggle of introspective transformation. There can be no analytical limits to how that can happen, otherwise, the process will be stunted. We must question everything. Islam, state governance, and the marketplace must be dissected in the same way as modern culture. If that happens, then internal jihad really can be one step towards realizing the Rashidun Caliphate.

Let us be clear though: we are not attempting to turn back the clock. The Rashidun Caliphate is a historical period that can never be experienced again, and I’m not even sure why we would do that, considering that Caliph Umar was beaten to death by an angry mob in his house, and the period ended with the Sunni-Shi’a schism. When we discuss a “Rashidun society,” we are talking about one in which an ethical renaissance has achieved critical mass.

It is additionally difficult to talk about the Caliphate because modern political science has warped our understanding of it. The consensus is that the Caliphate is just another state apparatus that exercises itself through strong institutions and a monopoly on state violence. However, this conception of the state only came about from the Treaty of Westphalia that marked the beginning of modern liberalism.

The concept of the Caliphate predates it by nearly a thousand years, and was never explicitly meant to be a modern nation-state. How could it be? Islam predates the notion, and emerged in a historical setting in which the world was predominantly tribal and feudal, with social life being almost completely voluntary.

One could certainly argue that recent projects of right-wing Islamic republicanism are a means to renew understanding of Muslim social organizing. If that is the case, then they are doing it incorrectly, since the Westphalia Peace very clearly exchanged state power for that of the European church. Muslims have been critical of human institutions that claim some semblance of divine right since the fall of the Abbasids.

We must open ourselves to other possibilities, including ones which seek to realize the Caliphate more abstractly. Here we should reinterpret the Caliphate to be a domain of empowered and boundless love, rather than a cocoon that protects the community from alienating forces in the world around it.

The terms dar al-salam and dar al-harb, which are often cited in Islamophobic rhetoric since they literally mean “Houses of Islam and War,” actually refer to whether or not the ummah can find peace in a specific geological area. We can expand that concept of ummah based on the teachings of Ibn Taymiyyah, who believed that the ummah is a body of autonomous solidarity that is based in collective submission to the teachings of Allah. If we get more abstract about what “collective submission” to those teachings means, then the ideas instantly become universal.

Shahadah flag. Turkey, 2005.
Shahadah flag. Turkey, 2005.

While this notion of Muslim geographic safety can be debated on more traditional and structural terms, especially in an era of Islamophobia, it can also be used to unlock the idea of the Caliphate being more of an abstract cosmopolis that operates on social relationshal terms, rather than institutional ones.

The “Rashidun society” is therefore one that recalls the era’s utopian vision and articulates it in a manner appropriate to modern circumstances. There is no way that can happen without praxis in public life that complements the internal jihad through struggling for a more just and equitable society. We basically have to tackle the idea of external jihad, and its service in realizing the objectives of Liberation Islam throughout society. There are two ways this has to happen: through a sociopolitical jihad, and an economic one.

Sociopolitical jihad must tackle the very idea of power. It can be a bit Salafist in how it does this, by reviving the early Islamic idea of haqq al-hurriyah (“rule of self-determination.”) There are two sub-elements, or hajja, that inform this approach. The first is the idea of responsible khilafa trusteeship that we have already outlined, as applied to a variety of struggles from environmentalism, to racism and classism. The second deals with democracy itself, as achieved through a combination of shura and ijma.

There has always been an uneasy balance between shura, which is essentially an apparatus of representative democracy, and ijma, a concept that is more concerned with civil agreement and consensus. Neither were meant to exist without the other, since shura is the parliamentary framework by which representative government can constitute itself, and ijma is the popular discussion needed to guide that government to fulfill its responsibilities.

The fight for left-wing jihadists is to reflect on which structures can best meet that balance under Liberation Islam. Will they be traditional parliaments expanded to have a populist voice? Will they do away with constitutional democracy altogether, instead positing another model, like shura workers’ councils? The only certainty is that political organizing must constantly be renewed in the same way as Islamic understanding. We have already moved beyond the original pacts made in the Prophet’s lifetime through the Charter of Medina. We must continue to go forward with an recharged vision.

Shura in Zabur. Afghanistan, 2009.

When it comes to economic jihad, though, it is very obvious what needs to be done. For starters, it is impossible to deal with the idea of power without understanding how economic power is leveraged in the modern world. We live in a late phase of free-market economics. Industrial production has now mostly relocated to the Global South. Post-industrial service economy and financial speculation rules a hyper-consumerist Global North. The order of the day, from the United States to Pakistan, is “progress,” by which elites term a constant process of growth and destruction that creates wealth and fetishized products that form the basis of society.

However, the global financial order, especially when it comes to interest, is almost totally incompatible with Islamic economics. This doesn’t mean that combinations don’t happen. It just means that they aren’t motivated by intelligent spirituality.

The primary issue is that current economic models privilege the marketplace, and subordinate the interests of the community to it. Prophet Muhammad, probably because he was a trader, made it very clear that Muslims should aim for the opposite situation. This is why, upon his arrival in Medina, he made the decision to build a marketplace controlled by the community rather than a mosque. He considered the economy being under popular control to be more important than even having a place to worship.

Another is the notion of private property, and what can actually be exchanged. While economics in the Anglo-American mode is based on the idea that any piece of land can be bought and sold, Islamic economics has always been very clear that the concept of private property should never encompass community resources, including nature, sources of raw materials, and similar land. Moreover, all property should be handled ethically, and the wealth extracted should benefit everyone, through redistributive measures like the zakat.

Part of the way this is supposed to happen is through the stipulation that a Muslim cannot lay claim to land that they don’t personally cultivate. This is a labor-oriented idea of private property, where ownership is a function of labour, and the worker acts as an entrepreneur. It decentralizes production because although there are still financiers, they are never exploitatively profiting from the people they fund, especially since they can’t use interest loans as they are haram.

While the economy has gotten far more complicated since Islam first emerged, these core ideas can still form the basis of a comprehensive economic program that tackles everything from food and water, to public parks and banking institutions.

Carved and painted Shahadah. Dome of the Rock, 2010.

Jihad is an essential part of Islam, and especially Liberation Islam, because it is the praxis that accompanies a willingness to fight for a better world. Hesitation about these types of politics is usually motivated by either an unwillingness to abandon the separation between Church and State (neatly morphed to be “Mosque and State” in progressive Muslim circles,) or an irrational provincialism that finds rational voice in Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations.

The former is a fair point, especially given how religious passion built the foundations for Ayatollah Khomeini’s far-right projects after the Islamic Revolution. At the same time, though, we have to remember what Tariq Ramadan describes as a “relationship between dogma and rationality.”

It isn’t that religion itself leads to dogma. Modern secularism is crippled by its assertion that they are irreversibly fused. The problem is that dogmatism of any type leads to oppression, and brings about a wider social framework that dominates in the name of a ruling ideology.

That can be anything, whether Islamism or secularism, and arises from a refusal to be rational and critical, which leads to people falling back on dogmatism. Muslims need to remember that whatever their own desires, the Prophet once said, “Whoever accepts a tyrant is guilty of tyranny.” We have to take responsibility for political situations, mobilize against ones which hinge on domination, and be inspired by criticism like this to prevent the ascension of yet another reactionary figure in Muslim politics.

As for the argument from Huntington, we do not need to dive into the alleged inability of Islam to reconcile itself with modernity. It is an argument that dominates Western politics. We just have to remember that jihad isn’t increasingly popular because of a crisis between civilizations. It is the result of a crisis in Western civilization itself, which is mired in a series of normalized conflicts that have particular manifestations in the Muslim world. That crisis is being made stunningly manifest in militarism, massive inequality, and climate change.

As it unfolds, Muslims have a responsibility to respond positively, such as through a notion of jihad that seeks to realize Liberation Islam. This cannot be done with bloody violence, if only because Islam stipulates that war has strict limitations and can only ever be waged in self-defence. It must be done with a willingness to envision and realize a better world.

This article is not meant to answer every question. It aims to help readers pay attention to the right ones. What will Islamizing the economy come to mean? What is the right balance between an objective constitution, and the particular needs of those governed by it? And so on. The objective of jihad is a humanity that finds itself closer to embodying its full potential.

Muslims need to tackle modern dysfunctions and achieve the dream of a Rashidun society. It can be done if the concept is attached to smart politics. Liberation doesn’t just happen: it’s a process that requires kinetic praxis in order to realize, especially in the face of new challenges. The same is true of Liberation Islam, and we must accept the struggle and meet them head on.



Photographs courtesy of Andrew Brix, Paolo PorsiaFrédéric BissonMohammad Jihad, ISAF Media, and Asim Bharwani.

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