Thursday, October 27, 2011

Islam as the Solution in the age of Islamism 0: Salafis and the Middle Way

It is a well-known marketing strategy to make your ideal sales point the middle choice, because people naturally avoid making extreme decisions. So, if you want to sell, say, 12 ounces of a drink, you make the small 8 ounces and the large 16, and more people are then likely to gravitate toward that "middle choice." Something very similar is developing in my native Egypt. The ancien regime tried very hard to portray all Islamists as essentially the same -- a line that was largely bought by Western powers and groups that perceived themselves as threatened minorities, who therefore acquiesced to the authoritarian bargains of Mubarak et al. I must say that my impression is that the latter were not particularly devious in this portrayal of Islamism: Mubarak et al truly believed that all Islamists were the same, much like Turkish secularists have believed for nearly a century, and the supporters of this view in both countries to this day believe that the solution is ultra secularism.

The interesting thing is that the ascent of Salafis in my native Egypt has driven otherwise secularist minded political commentators to think of the Muslim Brotherhood as the middle choice, and hence to make their peace with it, albeit not completely. Of course, Western powers have likewise felt cautiously optimistic about the Brotherhood as a potential part of the solution to problems of the Middle East, including Secretary Clinton's comments about the Brotherhood and France's attitude toward the Tunisian-Brotherhood-offshoot Al-Nahda party, which has been the primary victor in the first post-Bin-Ali Tunisian parliamentary elections. The trend is unmistakable, and in their declaration of liberation of Libya from the Qaddhafi clan, the Libyan National Transition Council (NTC) has clearly indicated that they plan to follow a moderate Islamist agenda.

Everyone should have seen this coming. The rise of Islamism over the past century has gone through multiple phases, from the modernist salafism of Muhammad Abduh to the socio-political program of the early Muslim brotherhood, and later mixture of both with Arabian-based puritanical Islamism (I would have written Wahhabist, except that this term has become pejorative in recent years, and I wish to avoid it). Of course, "Islamist" itself has become a pejorative term, and the Muslim Brotherhood's and its regional offshoots' use of the slogan "Islam is the solution" has been interpreted as a promise of implementing Islamism in the same manner that has been destructive in Pakistan and elsewhere. Certainly, the statement of Mr. Abdel Jalil (of NTC) that singled out allowing polygamy and introducing "Islamic banks" (an oxymoron if there ever was one, based on the incentives and practices of "Islamic bankers") confirmed the fears of many that Islamists really have no concrete agenda, and will resort to identity politics (perhaps even in dress) and cosmetic legalism (as is done in the stratagem-based legal arbitrage that is today's "Islamic finance") at least to appease their Islamist supporters.

I hope to be able to blog on this on a more regular basis. After all, I gave up a lot of my credibility as an academic economist 14 years ago in order to study the nexus between Islamic teachings and economics, so I hope to have something to show for all this time. I first became interested in this issue when I spent an academic year at the International Monetary Fund working on the economies of the West Bank and Gaza, shortly after the Palestinian Authority took charge of these areas. It was the advent of Islamic banks, especially in Gaza, and the palpable rise of Islamism that convinced me that what happened in Pakistan -- the politicians' need to adopt "Islamic" policies, whatever that may be -- will soon be coming to my native Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. Of course, GCC monarchies have for some time appeased their Islamists in a variety of socio-political areas, including accommodation for "Islamic finance," but these countries are not my main concern at this time, although they will definitely have to deal with the secondary effects of the shape that Islamism takes in Egypt and elsewhere, and will therefore be active participants in trying to shape it.

The professional question for me (as an economist) is what economic strategies and policies will emerge as rising Islamism of the population is reflected in national and regional policies. At the risk of offending the many respectable scholars who have worked on "Islamic economics," I must admit that the discipline has not produced much credible or useful research. In fact, most of the researchers in this field (including at the Islamic Development Bank and elsewhere) have been from Pakistan, and the latter has had one of the most abysmal economic performances, and no clear "Islamic economic" agenda.

So, the question is what shape the "Islamic solution" can take for Egypt and her neighbors. The point that "Islam is the solution" must be taken as political reality because a century of rising Islamism, especially after the failures of alternative Arabist and Quasi-Capitalist ideologies (after the defeat of 1967 and uprisings/revolutions of 2011, respectively) have made any solution that cannot be framed Islamically dead upon arrival. Therefore, any solutions with a chance of implementation must be harmonious with the Islamist mindset, and if there is a solution, it must be framable as Islamic. But what exactly is the intersection of the various Islamist mindsets? The answer to this question would require defining what exactly constitutes Islamism (the wiki entry is surprisingly good), then reviewing some of the main thought processes of influential Islamists. Only then can we get to economic policies that might work well in a society that has adopted that mindset.... but that will take a number of posts, on which I hope to work a little bit each day...


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