Islam, Egypt and political theory

The Economist

ON the face of things, this week’s events in Egypt have validated a theory about Islam and society that seemed contrarian when it was first floated. In 1992 a French analyst of the Muslim world, Olivier Roy, published a book entitled “L’échec de l’Islam politique“—translated into English three years later as “The Failure of Political Islam“. 

Back then, political Islam—the idea that Islam could provide a platform for taking and exercising power in modern times—seemed to be doing quite well. The Islamic masters of Iran, having withstood a long war with Iraq, were looking for new places to extend their influence, including the former Soviet republics to their north. In Algeria, an Islamist party had won a clear electoral majority, triggering a military intervention and then a civil war whose outcome was anybody’s guess. It seemed clear that wherever secular despots were willing to relax their grip, Islamist parties would step into the void.

But none of those things disproved the thesis of Mr Roy, who is now a professor at the European University Institute. One of his simplest but most compelling points was that for all its power as a mobilising slogan, Islam just does not provide the answers to the problems of governing a modern state. Quite recently the resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the Arab spring seemed, once again, to challenge Mr Roy’s analysis. But as of this week, he could be forgiven for saying: “I told you so.”

In fact, he was saying more interesting things than that when I spoke to him today. These are some of the points he has made about the turmoil in Cairo. The Brotherhood regime in Egypt fell, of course, under the weight of its own incompetence (and in particular its failure to recruit technocrats) and its perceived nepotism. These sins fell short of big-time corruption, because the government did not last long enough to refine that art; but it still looked pretty bad. Nor, Mr Roy told me, could the Morsi government consolidate its power by “Islamising society”—one of the Brotherhood’s stated goals—because Egyptian society was about as Islamised as it could be already.

So did that “Islamisation of society” represent a success at least for the Brotherhood’s work as a semi-clandestine, semi-overt opposition movement over the past several decades? Not really, because Egypt’s Islamised social world was not centrally co-ordinated, as the Brotherhood would like it to be, but highly diverse, with sub-cultures growing around particular charismatic preachers and theological trends. Egypt’s Muslim majority might be devout, but it was also “modern” in the sense that more than one Islamic style was available and individuals could make their choice. Even the strict back-to-basics form of Islam known as Salafism was a kind of modern choice, in the sense that individuals, rather than groups, opt it into it.

Mr Roy is surely right to stress that Islam cannot provide detailed prescriptions for governing a modern state. As another scholarly Islam-watcher, Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim of America’s Emory University, has pointed out, Islam cannot even provide a clear basis for the centralised administration of family law, even though Islamic texts have a huge amount to say about family law. That is because the very idea of centralised administration did not exist at the time when the various schools of Muslim family law were evolved; in those days many matters were adjudicated at the level of the local community or the clan.

But the fact that a political project is ultimately impossible will not stop people shouting for it, dying for it, trying their best to implement it. An ideology can still play an important role in history, even if it has little to contribute to the challenges of complex societies. And there is a sense in which all political projects, conceived in the abstract, are bound to fail when they face contact with hard reality. After all, as a famously jaded French philosopher said, at some level everybody fails in life.