By Arab News
By Dr. Matthew Godwin and Dr. Usama Hasan
Millions watched last month as the UK’s King Charles was crowned by the archbishop of Canterbury in a ceremony steeped in Christian tradition but attended by leaders of other faiths, who played prominent roles in the day’s events. Less than a week later, Archbishop Justin Welby was generating headlines again, this time for criticizing the government’s policies toward migrants from his place in the House of Lords.
As we argue in a new report released this week, faith plays a role in politics and public life in many countries. Hinduism in India, Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Judaism in Israel remain sources of both unity and division. And for the world’s more than 50 Muslim-majority countries, Islam has often been entwined with politics. Far from being static, countries where Islam is the largest religion have experienced immense change in their systems of government and the formal role played by Islam. However, for too long, Islamists have dominated the political discourse.
Representing a theologically warped and troubling ideology, Islamists believe that it is an obligation for Muslims to reestablish a clerocracy reminiscent of the rule of the Prophet in the early years of the faith. Overlooking centuries of pluralism and political evolution in Muslim polities, their extremist interpretation is now systemic in the Islamic Republic’s Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban, while terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, Daesh and others attack and seek to replace the state throughout the Middle East and Africa.
We make the case that confronting these ideologies needs to go beyond the battlefield, to the battle for ideas. Moderate Muslims are by the far the majority in every country, yet Islamists have for too long dominated Muslim thinking in politics. We argue that moderate Muslim voices must be strengthened and empowered as a “third way” between a secularism not in keeping with Muslim-majority states and violent Islamism.
Understanding where and how to recognize and support moderate Muslims requires understanding political variation in Muslim-majority countries and we offer a new framework to consider dynamic change in these nations. Egypt, for instance, underwent a transformation from Islamic nationalism to Islamism and then back again in the last decade. In neighboring Tunisia, it went from Islamic nationalism to a secular republic. In Pakistan, the country has long oscillated between secular republicanism and Islamist thinking.
Many other countries, including in the Gulf region, have been working to modernize their states and societies, reducing the role of religious institutions such as the religious police, as well as encouraging the participation of women in business and public life. While many observers in the West continue to view some Muslim-majority countries, especially in the Middle East, as “backward,” they have failed to take into account social and theological reforms. For example, the ongoing social reforms in Saudi Arabia have been championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after listening to the Saudi public, especially women, and by encouraging jurisprudential deliberations by Saudi religious scholars.
The country’s feared religious police, the Mutawa, was reformed in 2016 into an institution with more moderate leadership and more of an advisory, rather than a disciplinary, role. The current Hajj season reminds us that, in 2021, the authorities removed the requirement for women to be accompanied by a male guardian (mahram) for the pilgrimage to Makkah.
Before that, in 2019, the Saudi-sponsored Muslim World League announced the historic Makkah Charter, after a conference attended by 1,200 Islamic scholars from 139 countries. Prominent participants and speakers at the conference hailed from 27 different Muslim groups and schools of thought, including Sunni and Shiite. The Makkah Charter calls for religious dialogue, pluralism, partnership and cooperation. Furthermore, it rejects ethnic or religious supremacy, affirming human fraternity and equality. It also promotes ethical global development, protection of the environment and cultural and civilizational dialogue.
The impact of the Makkah Charter has been extensive. It was adopted unanimously by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in 2020, meaning that it is recommended for use in religious, cultural and educational institutions in OIC countries. The charter has also been launched and promoted in the US, continental Europe and, this year, in London, where extremist groups attempted but failed to discourage British Muslim communities from engaging with it.
We argue that transformations such as these are leading many Muslim states on a pragmatic path toward what former US President Barack Obama called “civil religion,” wherein state institutions are largely secular, but where people of faith are able to participate in public life informed and inspired by their religious values. As they move toward more pluralistic societies, Muslim-majority states should not have to make a false choice between secularism and Islamism, but can take a third way where Islam remains a fundamentally important part of politics and public life.
The reelection of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkiye reflects the shifting contours in Muslim-majority states. A country that once embraced a vehement secularism has now been led by an Islamist for more than two decades. As opposition parties in the country reflect on the recent election, they should turn away from the desire to exclude faith wholesale from public life and recognize the legitimate participation of moderate Muslims. Indeed, inclusion is probably the best approach to contesting Islamist thinking.
Next year marks the centenary of the official abolition of the Ottoman Empire, the world’s last caliphate. Islamists will use this occasion to lament the end of a theocratic state, albeit a largely secular one, and to call for the return to rule of those who they think know the mind of God. Religion will always be important in Muslim-majority countries, as it is in many non-Muslim states, and the best way to confront violent Islamism is to recognize and support moderate Muslims in politics.
About the authors:
- Dr. Matthew Godwin is a program lead in the geopolitics team at the Tony Blair Institute.
- Dr. Usama Hasan is a senior analyst at the Tony Blair Institute and is a practicing imam.