One of the reports I followed this week was the arrest of 15 Muslim extremists in Moscow, following a police raid on the eastern part of the Russian capital. On site, authorities found multiple explosives, weapons and ammo. Apparently they were part of an organization named Al-Takfir wal-Hijra, which has links to al-Qaeda. The group is well known in Russia and the most interesting thing about the report was the fact that Russian authorities filmed it.
These groups are, to a great extent, responsible for the reputation Muslims and the Islamic ideology share in western public opinion. Extremism tends to silence the more moderate speeches, a feat which is not exclusive to Muslims.
These groups want to change the state and turn it into an Islamic state. It seems a daunting idea but, at the same time, we had no quarrels in supporting the creation of a Jewish state. I find it is, therefore, important to understand what these organizations propose.
The movement behind the creation of an Islamic State is known as Political Islam and it has been growing since the beginning of the 20th Century. Middle Eastern citizens, disappointed with the State model put in place by the colonial powers that ruled them, aimed to solve the political, social and spiritual woes of their society, with a radical shift towards the Koran.
The advocates of this system aim to recreate the political system that the prophet Mohammed established in Medina, which was ruled under the sharia (Islamic law). However, in this distant past, politics was always a step ahead of religion. In the historical Islamic state, religion and politics were brought together through an effort by the state to legitimize the taxation of its Muslim citizens, which it required to support its growing needs. Politics appropriated religion and not the other way around.
The current version of the Islamic state aims to exist in a different way, putting religion ahead of politics, in an attempt to justify the actions of those who intend to seize power or of those that seem determined to maintain it. It is mostly a rhetoric tool that combines attacks on imperialism, colonialism and Zionism to hide the fact that it is an ideology that seeks the exact same thing as other state models. The final objective is always power.
However, as I mentioned above, the voices that talk the loudest are usually the more extremist ones. There have been good examples of Islamic ummahs, or communities, where there was a close relationship between politics and religion which could have become benchmark examples of how Political Islam can be implemented.
One such example is the case of Somalia where these Islamic communities replaced the government of the war torn country. After the country succumbed to a civil war and lost the institutions that made it a state, some local communities stepped in and made sure that certain public goods were guaranteed, namely security. The problem of piracy, one of the reasons why we know Somalia so well, was even reduced through the actions of these ummahs – security on land meant security in on the sea.
Unfortunately these small experiences have faced the opposition of foreign powers who fear they might be harboring terrorists. They have fought these ummahs and silenced some of the more moderate voices and provided incentive for the appearance of more extreme ones. There are still some surviving examples in Somalia (the case of Somaliland) but it is still to early to tell how they will their growth into the Modern State system be.
Although there have been some developments, Islamic political ideology has not been able to provide a definition of the state model in proposes. Different contexts seem to provide different results, as witnessed by the Muslim Brotherhood short rule in Egypt or the example provided by the Islamic Republic of Iran. In its essence the system seems undemocratic but, at the same time, built on the pillars of ancestry, experience and tradition as guides that governments must follow. Extremism is one of many ways to approach it and one must keep an open mind. If tolerance is added to the mix, there seems to be some value in keeping religion (not only Islam but others) in politics.
This is all very theoretical or hypothetical, at best. Even so, it is an area worth exploring, specially considering that one of the biggest criticisms made, in modern democracies, is that politics is somewhat out of touch with reality. Maybe a closer connection to the social and ethical values of religion could help restore some of the lost credibility. I do not know if it will work, but it is certainly worth exploring.