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Arab Spring: an end to the myth of an Islamic state

By Naser Ghobadzadeh - posted Thursday, 29 September 2011

"Some Western media portray me like Khomeini, but that's not me."

In his first interview after returning to his homeland of Tunisia, the leader of Hizb al-Nahda, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, made it clear that an Islamic statewas not an option for his country. While this may be an exceptional example, it is not the only example of the unpopularity of the Islamic state in the Arab Spring. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood reacted negatively to Ayatollah Khamenei's claim crediting Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution for the recent uprisings in the Middle Eastern region. The Muslim Brotherhood retaliated by saying that the Egyptian revolution was not an Islamic Revolution. This assertion appears based on different socio-political objectives. Mainstream Islamists insist that creating an Islamic state is not part of their agenda. Those at grassroots level evince similar thoughts. Observation of a young religious-looking man in Tunisia saying that Islam is a religion and not a political ideology prompted recall of a scholarly debate by Iranian philosopher, Abdulkarim Soroush, who has published several books and articles conveying this very message. Additional evidence was the recent Gallup poll conducted following the fall from power of Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, which showed that less than one per cent of Egyptians favoured an Iranian-style Islamic state. In addition, establishing an Islamic state no longer holds pride of place on Hezbollah's agenda.

This diminished ideal of an Islamic state is not the child of recent events in the region. Recent events have merely provided an appropriate milieu in which this shift has been able to flourish. Much earlier than the recent uprisings, this shift was described by Asef Bayat as a post-Islamist era. Its deep socio-cultural roots are well explained by John Keane, who referred to the phenomenon as "religious secularity". Furthermore, it is not confined solely to the Middle East and North Africa. Although their experiences have been different, Muslim countries in South East Asia have followed a similar path, which Lily Rahim alluded to as "the Quasi-Secular states".


The idea of an Islamic state is quite young in the Muslim world. There is no record of the existence of an Islamic state during the fourteen centuries of Islamic history. It was only over the last decades of the 20th century that the idea of an Islamic state gained rapid momentum in the Muslim world. Despite its perceived strong socio-cultural features, however, this ideal has experienced a rapid decline in recent times. A close look at the experiences of those living in Islamic states may provide a reasonable explanation for such rapid decline.

Pakistan was the first country in the contemporary world to be officially named an 'Islamic Republic'. In spite of some efforts, e.g., General Zia-ul-Haq's Islamisation programs (1977-1988), the state's official policy never manifested characteristics of an Islamic state. This is why whenever there is a debate about the Islamic state, Pakistan is usually excluded. Instead, two other cases are frequently referred to as bearers of this title: Iran (after the 1979 revolution) and Afghanistan (when the Taliban assumed control of the capital city of Kabul in 1995). It is difficult to praise these instances of Islamic states today. Both cases have given rise to a loathing which explains the absence of any desire for an Islamic state in the contemporary Muslim world.

The most extremist Islamic state was the Islamic state of Afghanistan which survived for only five years. The Taliban's practice of Shari'a law had little appeal to potential converts. The reality has been horrifying stories and images that came to signify Afghanistan's Islamic State. This was evident in its abandonment by the majority of Muslim countries prior to the USA directing its gunfire towards Afghanistan.This is also why Afghanistan is not widely known an 'Islamic state'. Rather, reference to the Taliban became a simple way of describing what was happening in Afghanistan. The Taliban also played a significant role in terrifying other parts of the Muslim world, having the effect of dissuading them from accepting the idea of an Islamic state.

After Pakistan (1956) and Mauritania (1958), Iran was the third state to be officially called an 'Islamic Republic' in the modern age. Iran's experience has been ground -breaking not only because of its commitment to practicing Shari'a law, but also in light of the Ulama's direct political leadership. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the emergence of the Islamic state in Iran represented a significant contribution to the subversion of the global secularisation thesis, popularised in turn by Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. It fuelled other Islamic movements in the closing decades of the 20th century. "Islam is the solution" (al-Islam huwa al-hal) became the main slogan of most of the Islamic movements that have striven to find solutions to the myriad problems facing Muslims in the modern world.

In contrast to the Taliban, Iran's case is somewhat controversial. Having benefited from its oil production and by adopting a more pragmatic policy, Iran's ruling clergy may claim a considerably better governance record than other Islamic states. However, this does not suggest that Iran has been a successful experiment let alone a model for other Muslim countries. Iran's clerical establishment has failed to achieve constructive economic and political policies. It faces serious economic problems in the form of double-digit unemployment and high inflation rates. According to the IMF, Iran's inflation rate during the period 2008/2009 was 25.4 per cent. The unemployment rate was 14.6 in 2010. The IMF announced a growth rate of only one per cent in 2010, a figure which is expected to decline to zero in 2011.

Furthermore, no-one will agree with the hardliners that the Islamic state of Iran is politically stable. Despite the ruling clergy's efforts to link the recent uprisings to the 1979 revolution, they correspond to the political and civil unrest evident in the Islamic state of Iran in 2009. Although the ruling clergy managed to quell the riots, the situation remains very fragile. Any unexpected event could spark another political crisis. Even the Islamic state's claim to have increased religiosity is not supported by solid evidence.


In his book entitled Islam and the secular state: negotiating the future of Shari'a, Abd Allah Ahmad Na'im proposed the secular state as a better and superior political articulation: one that would serve religion better than an Islamic state. It may be argued that the contemporary Muslim world tends to subscribe to this model rather than using religion as a political platform. This is evident in the perspectives of Al-Nahda in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb Al-Wasat in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, and the Gülen movement in Turkey. This is why the Turkish secular model has been warmly greeted by the contemporary Muslim world. Thanks to modern media, the Muslim world is well informed of the circumstances prevailing in those countries that support the idea of an Islamic state.

In contrast to the failure of Islamic states, the Turkish model is inspiring in many respects. Eight years of governance have seen the AKP guide Turkey to stability and prosperity. Eight years ago, the Turkish economy was fraught with difficulties; but over time, its economic achievements have gained international recognition. Turkey's GDP has increased three times during the two terms of AKP governance. Its place in the world economy ranking has jumped from 16 to 26. And, most importantly, these achievements have come at no political cost. The Turkish position in regional and international politics is testimony to the remarkable achievements of the country's leading Islamic party, the AKP.

Turkey's active efforts to support the Palestinians during the three week bombing of the Gaza strip in 2008-2009 was just a stepping-off point in the creation of a reputation for Turkey within the Muslim world in general and the Arab world in particular. It wasn't long before Turkey also hijacked Iran's three decade long investment in Lebanon: the Turkish flag was widely waved in Beirut streets. From Tahrir Square and the Muslim Brotherhood office in Cairo, to the Hizb al-Nahda office in Tunisia, the AKP and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are mooted as the sole model for a new Arab political mosaic. And, trying to distance themselves from Khomeini and Iran, Islamic groups are now making their best efforts to draw their inspirations from Turkey. This may have provoked Erdogan to address people located within the wide borders of Ottoman where people are celebrating his third term in the office. Erdogan, of course, does not mean the re-emergence of the Ottoman Othman empire in classical terms; but, undoubtedly he intends to present the Turkish non-clerical establishment as the avenue of reconciliation between Islam and democracy.

In summation, the lived experience of Islamic states in the contemporary world has failed to offer a promising vision. This is the main reason for the absence of an Islamic state as an option in the recent political developments in North Africa and the Middle East. While a transition to democracy is not an easy proposition for these Muslim countries, the Turkish model offers assurance to both the secular and religious forces within them. And, no less importantly, it enjoys the support of the western countries.

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About the Author

Naser Ghobadzadeh worked as editor-in-chief of foreign policy service of Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA). He has also published a book about value changes in Iran and its impact on political climate. He is now a PhD candidate in the Department of Government and I.R., University of Sydney.

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