This issue continues MERIP’s inquiry into the dynamic relationship of religion and politics in the Middle East. Our authors pay particular attention to the various ways in which Islam, the dominant religion in the region, enters into the equations of state power and popular opposition in countries as different as Morocco, Egypt, Iran and Turkey.
Their perceptions are sometimes startlingly obvious yet paradoxical. Sami Zubaida finds, for instance, that Iran’s revolution has “Islamicized” virtually all political discourse in that country, but within that Islamist frame of reference there is a relatively open political field that more nearly resembles Western practice than that of most neighboring Muslim states. Fatima Mernissi reminds us that the campaign to veil Muslim women itself indicates the extent to which traditional “Islamic” behavior and identity has been supplanted in practice. The insistence of the Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere that all aspects of life conform to a single interpretation of divine law eloquently testifies to the fact that most Muslims do not understand Islam in that way at all. The words and experiences of two leaders of Tunisia’s Islamist movements convey the difficulty of constructing a cohesive, forward-looking political movement grounded in traditional tenets. They confirm Mernissi’s emphasis on the profound impact of expanded university education on relations of geography, class and gender, and on the question of identity as a major force giving rise to Islamist movements.
If any single theme emerges from these contributions, it is this: “Islam” offers no analytic shorthand for grasping the character or direction of political change in the region. Islam as a religious doctrine has several transcendant features, points of belief to which all Muslims subscribe. Even as a belief system, though, Islam means different things to those who proclaim their identity as Muslims. Beyond the major divide of Sunni and Shi‘i and other schisms, there are significant differences between classes old and new, between those living in the cities and in the provincial towns and in the countryside, differences between the trained orthodoxy of a preacher or scholar and the folk practices of a peasant or worker: what each means by “Islam” in daily life is likely quite distinct and certainly resembles very little the images of “Islam” purveyed in the West.
Whatever unifying features Islam incorporates as a formal system of religious belief, it varies widely and sometimes radically as a political or social movement, its meaning and significance supplied by the country and the context. The revolutionary movement that seized power in Iran, including its Islamic component, was chiefly an urban movement. Afghanistan’s “holy warriors,” by contrast, are largely rural. The problem in Afghanistan, as Fred Halliday has noted elsewhere, is not Islam: “anyone can go to the mosque and pray. ‘Islam’ rather stands for a set of social and political practices that the 1978 revolution and the strengthening of the state threaten — the autonomy of the countryside, the power of the landlords and tribal chiefs, the subordinate position of women.” For some regimes like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which cloak their legitimacy in Islam, religion serves as an element of social control, a pillar of the status quo. Other states, like Egypt and Tunisia, face sizeable opposition movements advocating Islamic rule. The position of outside patrons varies accordingly. Nothing exhibits this better than the Reagan administration“s prodigious bankrolling of those Afghan groups whose ideology most closely resembles that of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the very embodiment of “Islamic” fanaticism.