11th July 2023 The Tony Blair Institute’s report – a stale conceptual framework?

The report Reclaim Political Islam From the Islamists to Raise Moderate Muslim Voices  is addressed to “the international community” to explain certain “political nuances” to enable “positive change  in the Muslim world”. Published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, it is co-authored by Usama Hasan and Matthew Godwin, with a foreword by Monsignor Michael Nazir Ali.

 It is a restatement of the hegemonic project to save the Muslim world from itself and coax it towards “a model of Muslim civil religion that mirrors the United States under former President Barack”.  It deplores that “there are no moderate Muslim voices offering peaceful and conciliatory approaches.” It is a repackaging of Neo-Con wisdom 16-years on – remember Rand’s Building Moderate Muslim Networks (2007)? That too offered a prescription: “the potential partners of the west in the struggle against radical Islamism are moderate, secular and liberal Muslims with political values congruent to the universal values underlying all modern liberal societies.”

The report is written as a rapid-read for policy makers in the Western capitals’ corridors of power. Why else an 8-page appendix presenting fourteen centuries of Muslim history with sections with titles such as ‘The Prophet Muhammad’s Mission’, (“Before his death, he wrestled control [sic] of Mecca from his base in Medina”) and  ‘After the Prophet: Shia spiritual-royalism versus Sunni Republicanism’ (!). On  reaching the 20th Century, there is the single, inevitable quote from Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones in the section ‘Muslim responses to Western modernity since the Nineteenth Century’.

What about the brilliant responses from our pantheon of great twentieth century Muslims who have written about Islam and politics – that would include the Qutb brothers – but also Muhammad Iqbal, Marmaduke Pickthall (“You will say I am talking politics. No, I am talking religion. I am pleading for Allah’s kingdom on earth”), Maulana Maududi, Malek Bennabi, Ali Shariati, Muhammad Asad, Kalim Siddiqui, Rachid Ghannouchi . . . .

The report makes for some confused reading: for example it states, “There are many versions of Muslim politics, ranging from confessional Muslim states to Islamic religious nationalism and the most extreme representation – Islamism [. . .] Islamism is totalitarian, holding that religion should determine everything, overseen by an essentially Leninist concept of leadership, with edicts handed down by a ‘central committee’.” Yet, it also notes: “When there is a fusion in which religion has an equal or dominant influence compared to politics, this leads to Islamic religious nationalism strongly inspired by Islamism – such as Zia’s Pakistan or Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey [. . .]”.  So is Erdogan, who has recently emerged victorious after an election, a ‘totalitarian’ leader?

The report commends President Sisi of Egypt for a “subtle but important change” in wording of the 2014 Constitution:” it mentions the principles of sharia as the primary source of legislation, not the sharia itself. This is significant because the principles refer to the ethos of sharia, therefore representing a shift from the legalistic interpretations often favoured by Islamists towards dynamic ethical interpretations that are more likely to evolve. This philosophical change is significant because it can be considered part of a shift that orientates countries towards an “exit ramp” from Islamism to a post-Islamism world.”

Apart from honouring a dictator, this is a pretentious attempt at explaining the maqasid shariah! Moreover, it is the sharia’s legal framework that holds the ummah together, allowing a Muslim from Dakkar to feel at home in Dhaka – whether it be matters of personal law or commercial dealings. Even in the arts, it is the sharia that has led to the avoidance of human portraiture, so calligraphy is a form of creative expression from Canton to Casablanca.

There is also some sloppy editing: for example in one instance, Tunisia is cited as an example of the Obama-type ‘civil religion’ dispensation between religion and politics – “from 2011 to 2014” (p.20); else where, as examples of “Islamic civil religion”, there is “Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan and Tunisia between 2011 and 2019″ (p.23).

Hopefully the policy makers reading this report will be discerning. There is much thinking going on in Muslim academic and activist circles that is not beholden to Rand-type conceptual frameworks for an “exit ramp”,  Only recently, Istanbul hosted a unique conference on the theme ‘Umma Beyond the Nation-State: Imagination, Solidarity, Praxis’ (Ummatics Institute’s Inaugural Conference). The conference theme abstract noted, “global interconnections and neoliberal adjustments have weakened state territoriality; and from Euro-America to Israel, India and China, old-fashioned state nationalisms are being replaced by or recast in civilisational nationalisms that are fundamentally hostile to the Muslim Umma. At this time of transformation and the intensification of global inequities, approaching the middle of the fifteen hijri century, we seek to revisit and thematize the Muslim collectivity today”.  

So, there may be a sudden naya ujala that will be as disconcerting for the West’s policy makers as was Lenin’s coming to power in 1917!

It is interesting to see a foreword by ‘Monsignor Michael Nazir Ali’. It seems that he has now reverted to the faith of his birth, Roman Catholicism, after having served as the Anglican Bishop of Rochester.

click here for report.