Reza Pankhurst and the Dream of the Caliphate


This post discusses some of the issues raised in my review on Amazon of Reza Pankhurst’s book, the Inevitable Caliphate.

The book has many merits, not least in providing me, as a secular atheist, an insight into what political Islamists are thinking about when they call for the restoration of a caliphate. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, there have been lots of questions asked about whether Islam and liberal democracy are compatible. In this book, Pankhurst doesn’t answer this question. For him, it’s not even worth asking. Islam provides an alternative ‘paradigm’, both to understand the world and how to act in it. When Islamists denounce tyrants they are not calling for a liberal democratic replacement. They want an Islamic alternative because they think it is superior to liberal democracy. When they say Islam is the solution, they mean it.

Pankhurst, at least not in this book, is not as blunt as this. His book is lathered with academic terms like ‘discourse’, ‘paradigms’ ‘hegemony’ which makes him sound evasive. Nonetheless, my guess is that, were he to be pressed for an answer, ‘Is Islam compatible with liberal democracy or not?’ then he would reply: ‘’No, it is not but it does not matter. To even ask the question is to assume that Islam has to ‘justify’ itself against a liberal democratic yardstick. In fact, why don’t we turn the question around? Is liberal democracy compatible with the requirements of Islam, of Sharia law, which we think God has commanded all humanity to live by?”

I could be putting words in his mouth. One has to try to infer what he thinks from his discussion of the thought of an organisation with which he has been linked, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which openly calls for the restoration of the caliphate. Pankhurst spent time in an Egyptian jail, where he was  tortured, on account of his alleged affiliation with it. Whether or not he was a member, his sympathies with the organisation’s aims are overt throughout the book. However, the focus here is not on unmasking Pankhurst. Hizb is legal in United Kingdom. Pankhurst has never advocated violence to achieve its aims. Amnesty International UK did nothing amiss in adopting him as a Prisoner of Conscience.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious issues to be had with Hizb’s value system, values which Pankhurst shares. On the face of it, as Pankhurst describes on page 99 of his book, the proposed scheme for the caliphate’s accomplishment seems reasonable enough. Liberation of Muslims means first of all an ‘intellectual liberation’ from colonialism. For this to be achieved, a ‘public consensus’ needs to be forged, agreeing that Islam becomes the ‘reference point’ for all societal relationships. At this point, society would ‘demand’ that the State applies Sharia to regulate social relationships in accordance with Islam, through the caliphate government.

There need be no coercion or violence in this. The caliphate is not imposed. It arises from consensus. Pankhurst thinks that there is empirical evidence to suggest that this consensus is half-way to being achieved, citing poll evidence to suggest that Muslims do indeed want to live united, under the auspices of an Islamic State.

It’s a neat scheme but it overlooks many messy realities. For one thing, the consensus which is supposed to pave the way for the peaceful imposition of the caliphate, is to be attained among Sunni Muslims only. What about Israel? What about Shias? What about non-Muslim minorities like Arab Christians, who lived in ‘Muslim’ lands long before the Muslims arrived? These people would not want to live under Sharia. They would either have to be forced to live under it or forced to leave.

More to the point, how is consensus to be obtained among the Sunni majority? The Sunni-Shia divide is not the only fault line in the Middle East. Sunnis themselves are divided. Islam is but one allegiance, albeit a crucial one but it stands in competition with other allegiances, to class, region, tribe, nation, family, to name just a few. One notes that the so-called ‘artificial’ borders of contemporary Islamic countries show remarkable resilience. Iraqi insurgents killed each other as well as Americans but not to abolish Iraq. Aside from the Islamic State, Assad’s Syrian opponents are fighting for a Syria without Assad. Some fight for a Syria ruled by Sharia but not to do away with Syria and have it merged with a Pan-Islamic entity. Turkish Sunnis are not going to surrender their Turkish identity, an identity which the borders of modern Turkey do much to define. Egypt’s stature in the Muslim world is, in part, because of its pre-Islamic inheritance of an ancient civilisation predating Islam by millennia. It’s by no means clear that a caliphate can overcome these competing demands of loyalty.

The problems with Pankhurst scheme are not just located in the real world but in the scheme itself. Pankhurst sounds reasonable enough when he talks of the need to achieve consensus to lay the foundations for such a state. However, there is plenty of room here for coercion of the recalcitrant. Remember Hizb aims to establish a ‘new opinion’ to demand that living under an Islamic order is not just permissible but mandatory:

‘Therefore if people in an area are “bonded” by a public opinion in which Islamic thoughts and emotions were dominant, believing that Islam should be the sole regulator [of society] … and awarding sole legitimacy towards the Shari’a even though individuals in that society may remain irreligious in their personal conduct, the natural next step would be to establish a system which would enforce and protect that regulation and consequently reform individuals in that society. It is at this point that Hizb would then seek to engineer through either mobilising popular support or by calling on the military establishment to enforce a change in power, in line with public opinion.’ (pp. 113-14)

What this sounds like is an Islamic version of the tyranny of the majority. Not all people have to be persuaded just so long as sufficient number are so convinced as to overawe any doubters. There is no room for freedom of conscience or dissent in this scheme. Pankhurst goes on to write that, for Taqiudeen Al-Nabahani, the founder of the movement, it is not the individual that reforms society but society that reforms the individual.

But when one reflects on this, one realises that what we have is here is not a tyranny of the majority in the sense that the majority of the persuaded impose their will on the unpersuaded. Individuals do not change first and then consent to have the new order imposed. They consent to have the new order imposed on them and forced to change. Even if they are irreligious in their conduct, they agree to be ‘bonded’ by Shari’a and reformed according to its strictures. This sounds more like the tyranny of the minority over the majority, who somehow are meant to submit to whatever it is the minority thinks is good for them. Who is to decide what Shari’a is – and then compel others to ‘reform’ in order to live by it? How is reform to be achieved? With what means? For all this talk of ‘liberating’ Muslims from intellectual colonialism, does this mean liberation from modern forms of political organisation that originated in the West, like the state, and organised militaries armed with weapons invented in the west, which Hizb might call upon to enforce the new Islamic order (Shari’a under the shadow of an F-16 jet?)?

I cannot tell whether Pankhurst’ equivocation on the question of coercion in his scheme is down to disingenuousness or because he has not thought things through. I don’t find it plausible that a thinker who is assiduous and fastidious in his style of argument can have failed to notice what the implications of his scheme are. Either way, the conceptual and practical obstacles to realising Hizb’s dream are formidable.

Apart from this, his thinking – though he may well deny this – has parallels in Western thought, such as the Platonic idea of the philosopher king. If this is true, then other Western thinkers should have something to say to him about the limitations of such thought. The sum of the West, he seems to insinuate, is Guantanamo Bay.

This is a man for whom Amnesty International pleaded, on the basis of universal secular values like human rights, ideas that originated in the West. Though he thanks Amnesty International in the acknowledgements section there is no discussion of what this organisation and the values it expresses mean for his analysis. In his strict, stark partition between ‘paradigms’ (where does this word originate from, by the way?), there appears to be no need for Muslim thinkers to learn from what Western theorists have to say about ‘checks and balances’, ‘separation of powers’, the ‘rule of law’ and what these terms mean for the practical exercise of power.

Instead, it seems a restoration of cardinal Islamic virtues expressed in Sharia will simply obviate the need to consider these matters. One wonders if there is room, in this ideal political order, for an organisation like Amnesty International. One suspects not.

What we have instead is an Islamic version of the ‘Garden of Eden’ myth. The problems are down to departing from the true path of classical virtue. But, pernicious as Western foreign policy, corrupt regimes etc. have been, it is not possible to overlook that one of the root causes of the maladies afflicting the Islamic world is the persistence of faith, or at least an ossified version of it, especially its effect on education, such as the wholesale rejection of Darwinism, the prevalence of anti-Semitism, conspiratorial thinking and the like. Even if the reign of the four rightly-guided ones was everything it was cracked up to be, it doesn’t follow that such a model is worthy of emulation now, in a world that bears no resemblance to its original incarnation in the 7th and 8th Centuries. Even if Pankhurst and Hizb were to see their dream fulfilled, it doesn’t follow that that they will have found the solution. In the meantime, pursuing such a dream will continue to cause more problems than it solves.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s