Is Islamism the Muslim Form of Liberation Theology?

There is no doubt that Islamism, in its various forms, plays a major role in the evolution of Muslim societies, in the struggles that are developing there. What explains this centrality? Can we draw a parallel between Islamism and Christian liberation theology? Interview.

Alain Gresh.Why is Islamism the dominant political language in the Arab world, the Islamic world? There was a time when there were other languages, socialism, Arab nationalism. . .

Asef Bayat. — Let me begin by making clear what I mean by Islamism, in particular the type that has emerged since the 1970s. By Islamism I am referring to those ideologies and movements that want to establish some kind of Islamic order—an Islamic state, sharia law and moral codes in Muslim societies and communities. Of course, the Islamist trends vary in terms of how to achieve these goals—they may be reformist, revolutionary, jihadi, or quietist. Yes, before the prevalence of Islamism, there were other kinds of largely secular political languages, like Arab nationalism or socialism. But I think Islamism of the 1970s emerged primarily because of the (perceived or real) failure of those political models in what they had promised. So, historically speaking, Islamism has been the political language, not simply of the marginalized but particularly of high-achieving middle classes who saw their dream of social equity and justice betrayed by the failure of secular nationalist project, capitalist modernity (represented by regional monarchs and sheikhdoms), and socialist utopia (embodied in the post-colonial modernist secular and populist states). Islamists aspired to an alternative social and political order with roots in “indigenous”, Islamic history, values and thought. Even though different currents of Islamists have adopted different ways to achieve their ultimate goals, they have all used a religious, Islamic language and conceptual framework, favoring conservative social mores and an exclusive social order; they have displayed a patriarchal disposition and often intolerant attitudes towards different ideas and lifestyles. Theirs, then, has been an ideology and a movement resting on a blend of religiosity and obligation, with little commitment to the language of rights.

Clearly then, Islamism has been oppositional. But the interesting question, as observers like Bobby Sayyid suggest1, is not whether Islamism is oppositional, but rather why so much of political opposition in the Muslim world takes an Islamist form. I think that the resiliency of Islamism—despite its failures, transformations, and post-Islamization—lies primarily in its serving as an identity marker in a global time that is deeply invested in the politics of “who we are”. Secondly, Islamism offers an ideological package filled with seemingly consistent components, clear responses, and simple remedies, such that it automatically ejects philosophical doubts, intellectual ambiguities, or skeptical probing. And finally, Islamism continues to project a utopian image of itself in a world in which the grand ideals and dreamlands (such as communism, democracy, freedom) have collapsed or being questioned; it continues to project itself as a unique combatant, revolutionary and emancipatory ideology.

A. G. While Islamism is challenging the imperialist domination, is it challenging the neoliberal order? And what does it mean to challenge the imperialist order when you support neoliberalism?

A. B. — Well, the notion of “anti-imperialism” has traditionally held a normative stand, referring to a just struggle that is waged by often secular progressive forces to liberate subjugated peoples from the diktat of global capitalism and imperial (economic, political and cultural) domination; wanting to establish self-rule, social justice, and support for the working people and the subaltern subjects—women, minorities, and marginalized groups. The Zapatista movement in the Mexican Chiapas, and Anti-Globalization Movement may be said to represent such anti-imperialist struggles. In this understanding, the notion of “empire” is different from the liberal concept, where, according to Kenneth Pomeranz, “leaders of one society rule directly or indirectly over at least one other society”,2 using instruments that differ from those they used to rule at home. In the liberal conception, empire is not all that bad, in the way that the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson speaks of the British and the US empires3, because it spreads liberal values and the institutions of democracy across the globe.

The anti-imperialist thinking, however, draws on a left-critical notion of empire, something close to what David Harvey views as a mix of “neoliberal restructurings worldwide and the neoconservative attempt to establish and maintain a coherent moral order in both the global and various national situations”; in this understanding, imperialism results from the need for capital to dispose of its surplus, which by necessity involves geographical expansion. Put crudely, capital needs the state to clear the way for a secure and less troubled context for overseas expansion, which would involve not just economic restructuring but also political, ideological and military influence. Today’s imperialism is so ingrained in neoliberal normativity that it is hard to imagine how anyone can claim to challenge the empire while taking neoliberalism for granted.

During the cold-war era, Islamic groups and thinkers were often competing with their key ideological rival—Marxism—to pursue anti-capitalist, populist and social justice postures. We saw this in the socialist ideas of Mahmoud Taha in Sudan, anti-capitalism of Syed Qutb, Islamic left of Hasan Hanafi in Egypt, economic Marxism of Ali Shariati in Iran, or distributionist perspective of Muhammad Baqir Sadr in Iraq. So, while some kind of left populism characterized the Islamism of the 1980s and 1990s, we see today a tendency towards neoliberal populism among both Islamists and post-Islamists—for instance, in the thinking of figures like Ahmadinejad of Iran, Kheirat al-Shater of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, Turkey’s Erdoğan, or the so-called Costa Salafis4 who are not interested in distribution and welfare, but “prosperity” through individual entrepreneurship. This represents a significant shift to what might be called “neo-Islamism” of our neoliberal times. This “neo-Islamism” basically takes the market society for granted, but focuses instead on “cultural” struggles and violent methods (by militant Jihadies) to deter western imperial hegemony. Indeed, no other political force in recent years seems to have inflicted more economic, geopolitical, and physical injury to Western powers than militant Islamism. But how liberatory this fight has been for the ordinary Muslims? In other words, what is there in the Islamist “anti-imperialism” for the Muslim subaltern—the poor, the marginalized, the excluded? In the book Revolution without Revolutionaries (see below), I suggest that Islamist “anti-imperialism” has been non-liberatory, to say the least, even oppressive—it’s violence has triggered “war on terror” victimizing the mostly ordinary Muslims; it has emboldened autocratic regimes to quell dissent in the name of anti-terror campaign; and when Islamists have had a chance to rule, they have established authoritarian religious rule, exclusivist social order and moral discipline (theirs has been somewhat similar to Robert Mugabe’s “anti-imperialism”). Islamists’ “anti-imperialism” has been largely self-serving; their “cultural struggle” in particular has served to shield their ideological hegemony from the barrage of competing ideas and lifestyles that globalization unleashes. Such “anti-imperialism” does not necessarily bring anything better for the Muslim subaltern. It is on such grounds that I am increasingly inclined to forego the whole notion of “anti-imperialism” in favor of accentuating the objective of “liberation”—by which I mean freeing the populace from all types of (social, economic, political, ethnic, religious, or patriarchal) subjugation by establishing an inclusive and egalitarian social order. In other words, the goal is not anti-imperialism per se, but liberation. Because anti-imperialism does not necessarily cause liberation, but liberation is inescapably anti-imperialist.

A. G.What are the differences between the theology of liberation and Islamism?

A. B. — Despite that both Islamism and liberation theology (in Latin America) often deploy religious language in their outlooks, they are quite different in other respects. Whereas Islamism takes the establishment of an “Islamic order” as its principal objective from which social justice and the advancement of the deprived may follow, the liberation theology considers the “liberation of the poor” as its point of departure; the Gospel is then reread and reinterpreted to achieve this fundamental goal. The principal question for liberation theology was “how we can be Christians in the world of misery?” “We can be Christians, authentic Christians, only by living our faith in a liberating way”, the theologians Boff brothers replied.

Originally liberation theology was a reaction to, and a reflection of, the hideous imperial legacy of the Catholic Church in Latin America. In contrast to the Islamic ulema (scholars) who were mostly involved in anti-colonial struggles in the Middle East, the Latin American Catholic Church was an instrument of Iberian colonialism, which was to bring riches to Spain and Portugal and to Christianize the colonies. Not only did the Church support colonial rule, it continued to back the wealthy conservative classes in society after independence was achieved. Even some rethinking during the 1930s, reflected in the “New Christendom” and the subsequent emergence of Christian Democratic Parties, failed to overturn the Church’s old conservative disposition. Yet dramatic social and political events (such as poverty and oppression, military coups, American support of the elites, the failure of the Christian Democratic Parties, the sudden victory of the Cuban Revolution and the wave of popular guerrilla movements) had pushed the Church to the brink of social irrelevance. There was a need to intervene to save Catholicism from the conservatism of the Church’s elites. In this sense, liberation theologians were similar not to Islamists but to post-Islamist intellectuals and critical clerics who were concerned with rescuing Islam as an inclusive religion from the exclusivist practices of authoritarian Islamism; “republican theology” became the central thrust in post-Islamist religious discourse, as I have shown in my book Making Islam Democratic (2007). But the post-Islamist embrace of market was no match to the socialist developmentalism of the Latin American liberation theology.

So, unlike Islamism, liberation theology was not so much an expression of cultural identity in the sense of self-preservation vis-à-vis a dominating Western “other”; it was rather imbedded in the indigenous discourse of development, underdevelopment, and dependency that Latin America was fiercely debating at the time. In fact, the phrase “theology of liberation” emerged in the context of clerics exploring a “theology of development”. It was Gustavo Gutierrez who, during the Conference of the World Council of Churches held in Switzerland in 1969, replaced that term with the “theology of liberation”; he popularized the concept through his book, Liberation Theology. Central to this notion was, of course, the emancipation of the subaltern.

In contrast, Islamism had a different birth and birthplace. Broadly speaking, Islamism emerged since the 1970s as a language of self-assertion to mobilize those (largely middle class high achievers) who felt marginalized by the dominant economic, political, or cultural processes, those for whom the failure of both capitalist modernity and socialist utopia made the language of morality (religion) a substitute for politics. In a sense, it was the Muslim middle-class way of saying “No” to those whom they considered their “excluders”—their national elites, secular governments, and these governments’ Western allies. So Islamists rejected Western cultural domination, its political rationale, moral sensibilities and cultural symbols, even if in practice many of them shared those traits, as in their neckties, food, and technologies. As an alternative to existing models they attempted to offer an alternative society and state for Muslim humanity.

While Islamists aimed to Islamize their society, polity and economy, liberation theologians never intended to Christianize their society or states, but rather to change society from the vantage point of the deprived. Liberation theology, then, had much in common with humanist, democratic, and popular movements in Latin America, including labor unions, peasant leagues, student groups and guerrilla movements, with whom it organized campaigns, strikes, demonstrations, land occupations and development work. Here, as a partner of a broad popular movement, liberation theology aimed not to proselytize, nor to make the coalition partners Christian, but to help advance the cause of the liberation movement in general. More importantly, liberation theology shared a great deal with humanist Marxism. Indeed, both Latin American Marxism and liberation theology had been influenced by the language of the radical “dependencia” of the 1960s and 1970s that originated primarily in the South American continent. Prominent priests such as Clodovo and Leonardo Boff (Brazil), Gustavo Gutiérrez (Peru), José Míguez Bonino (Venezuela), and Camilo Torres (Colombia) were intellectual theologians equipped with the discourse of dependency and Marxist humanism.

A. G.Can we see the emergence of an “Islamic left?”

A. B. — As I pointed out earlier, old Islamism of the cold-war period did have quite strong anti-capitalist, populist, distributionist, and social justice postures, even though it was socially conservative, politically authoritarian, and ideologically exclusivist. The current post-Islamist currents want to address the authoritarian and exclusivist shortcomings of Islamism by speaking of inclusion, pluralism and citizen rights (for instance, the Iranian “reformists”, Tunisia’s al-Nahda Party, the Justice and Development Party AKP in Turkey until 2010, and the like). But, despite their pluralistic tendencies, post-Islamists (just like the neo-Islamism) have invariably embraced capitalist rationale, leaving people’s welfare to the impulse of the market, and making no programmatic commitments for equality and social justice. Look at AKP, al-Nahda and others, they are happy to go along with marketization, privatization, urban gentrification, as if the demands for social justice can be addressed by a few acts of charity and free iftar during the Ramadan. If post-Islamism as a project is to have a future, it needs to address not just “personal liberties,” but also social justice for the meagre and marginalized. It needs to turn into some kind of “Post-Islamist Social Democracy.” It can resurrect the ideals of the “Islamic left” without abandoning its embrace of pluralist democracy.

My remarks here draw heavily on the chapter 4 of my book Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Stanford University Press, 2017) where I have elaborated on these and other relevant themes in much more detail and nuance. Readers who are interested in more details may refer to this book.

1A Fundamental Fear : Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism, Zed Books, 2015.

2Kenneth Pomeranz, « Empire and “Civilizing Mission”: Past and Present », Daedalus, Springs 2005 ; p. 34-35.

3Niall Ferguson, « The Unconscious Colossus: Limits of (and Alternative to) American Empire », Daedalus, ibid. See also Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, Londres, Allen Lane, 2003 ; p. 358.

4EDITOR’S NOTE. Egyptian movement, founded in 2011, claiming to be Salafist but which aimed to challenge religious stereotypes and promote tolerance and cooperation between people of different social and religious backgrounds. It takes its name from its first meeting places, the cafés of the Costa chain.