Sunday, April 06, 2008

Religion as the solution to collective action problems

In the West, and in westernized circles in the Islamic world, religious movements are generally regarded with great fear and trepidation. Many of the images associated with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the post-revolution Iranian quasi theocracy, and even the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, suggest that "Islam is the solution" is at best a vacuous slogan, and at worst a dangerous recipe for replacing one tyranny with another, or creating a cooperation between tyrannies: one secular and military, and the other religious. 

Those worries are justified. Indeed, mixing religion with identity politics and sociopolitical activism has been counterproductive more often than not, in Islamic as well as world history. The political platform of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which was published last year in draft form, suggests that the leaders of today's better-organized Islamist groups may lack the political acumen to produce viable alternatives in the short-to-medium term, as Diaa Rashwan -- arguably the best contemporary analyst of Islamist movements -- has suggested. 

The obvious success story that Islamists would cite, and anti-Islamists would challenge, is the current Turkish experience with Justice and Development Party. The challengers are correct, of course, that Turkish circumstances are different from those of other majority-Muslim countries -- for one thing, the mainly Sufi Turkish Islamist tide of the Nursi-inspired Gulen is very different from the poorly-named "Salafi" tide exported from Arabia to most other parts of the Islamic world over the past four decades. Those fundamental differences notwithstanding, and earlier failures of the AKP's Erbakan-led predecessor, the Turkish experiment, and its lessons for other Muslim-majority countries, should not be minimized.

At a recent conference in Cairo, I asked the speaker -- who was speaking about collective-action problems, and the pattern of replacing one corrupt leadership with another in various parts of the developing world -- I asked him why he had omitted religion from his analysis. Doesn't religion by its very nature constitute a long-term social contract that solves even the most difficult collective action problems? I was thinking at the time, of the Qur'anic verse [3:103], which explicitly advocates unity through religion as an alternative to social dysfunction, which currently plagues many majority-Muslim countries. The speaker admitted that Islamist groups have in fact been more successful even than their countries' governments at providing social services and otherwise solving collective action problems.

The problem, of course, is that seeking the solution in religion is a very risky strategy. The examples of Taliban, Iran, Sudan, etc. should not be minimized either. The fear is not accurately explained in the glib Bernard Lewis warning that political Islam would be "one man, one vote, once." The fear more generically is that political leaders who reach positions of power on religious platforms tend to claim Divine authority, directly or indirectly. This makes them less open to criticism by those who question their views on secular or alternative-interpretation religious grounds. Thus, one corrupt and misguided secular-military tyranny is more than likely in this scenario to be replaced by a corrupt and misguided pseudo-religious tyranny.

In the absence of any other mechanism for political opposition to the status-quo regimes to solve their collective action problems, one must therefore ask three questions:
  1. Is the status quo sufficiently destructive to justify playing the very risky political-religion card? Some contemporary analysts seem to conclude that the risk of invoking anti-humanist fundamentalist-religious solutions is greater. A counter argument would be that elitist humanism, and condescending characterizations of religiosity of any kind as fundamentalist and anti-humanist, betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the tenets of humanism that the protagonist purports to champion.
  2. Is it riskier to allow political-Islam movements to learn on the job? Al-Turabi is arguably one of the most enlightened and sophisticated of the proponents of political Islam, and yet, his Sudanese political-Islamic experiment of learning-by-doing was catastrophic. 
  3. Is it possible to integrate political-Islamist movements in more seasoned opposition and ruling-party platforms? This approach seems to have had a checkered history in contemporary politics, dating back at least to the short-lived partnership of the Muslim Brotherhood with the Egyptian Free Officers before and shortly after the 1952 revolution/coup, serving more recently as legitimacy and political vehicles for presidents as different as Egypt's Sadat and Pakistan's Zia Ul-Haq, and making carefully-managed parliamentary appearances in Jordan, Egypt, and elsewhere. Those experiments seemed promising in principle, but have always failed because the group in power truly has no incentive to concede it to political-Islamic groups, neither in the short nor in the long run.
This brings us back full circle to the Western and western-minded apprehensions regarding political Islam: Yes, this is a force that may solve today's critical collective action problems of the Islamic world and replace the current dysfunctional social environment with a viable social contract. However, unleashing the forces of religious identity politics and incoherent pietist rhetoric may prevent religion from playing this positive role; and may even exacerbate social, economic, and political problems, as many failed experiments have demonstrated. Can we afford to wait for "destructive chaos" to produce functioning social mechanisms? Can we afford to let political Islamists learn from failures of incoherent-pietist regimes so that they may find a realist Islamic-democratic template that embodies the true essence of religious social contracts?

We cannot expect any elected official(who worries about her or his political future and legacy) or business community (who worry primarily about their immediate economic fortunes) to contemplate those questions seriously. Likewise, we cannot expect the ideologues and the political opportunists who are most likely to influence political-Islamic movements, either to find viable solutions or to convince the political and business elites to adopt them.

This leaves us with the general public, who stand to win the most if the religious-political solution succeeds in delivering a functioning social contract. The collective action problem of forging this social contract appears to require solving what appears to be a more difficult collective action problem of channeling increased religiosity into viable political processes. This is often possible -- especially in the Islamic world -- only through the emergence of highly- charismatic (almost-prophetic) leaders who can articulate the vision for that social contract. Without the support of military, political, and business leaders, such leaders are highly unlikely to succeed, or even to survive. 

All hope is not lost: The tide of increased religiosity has begun to reach those upper echelons of military, political, and economic circles. Unfortunately, it is a type of religiosity that is highly personal and generally divorced from any notion of changing the political and social status quo. A religious-reformist agenda, such as that of Muhammad Abduh in the early twentieth century, may tap into that swell of religiosity to forge the nucleus of a new social contract and functioning Islamic-democratic political system. Candidates for leading this reformist tide must resist political, financial, and social bribes, while avoiding the risks of offending the various powers' vested interests. This is a very tall order. On the other hand, it is also the nature of religiosity that one never loses hope, and waits -- despite all expectations of failure -- for a successful reformation.