My assignment Politics of Islamic Resurgence

>> Wednesday, March 25, 2009

So I am taking the class, "Politics of Islamic Resurgence" the 1st paper assignment was “The dramatic rise in Islamist movements over the past 30 years is primarily a response to economic distress. Had states in the Muslim world managed the process of economic development and distribution better, Islamic movements would have failed to find a mass constituency.” Agree? Disagree? Agree with qualifications? Take a position on this question and provide specific evidence to support your position from the two country cases (Iran and Egypt) we have studied so far. Unfortunately I was limited to the readings in the class!!

Here is what I wrote

The dramatic rise of Islamist movements over the last 30 years is not primarily a response to economic distress. Islamist movements would still find a mass constituency even if countries in the Muslim world managed the economy better. Many of the changes these Islamist movements were calling for had very little to do with economy. Some changes actually would have hindered the economy. Other Islamist movements had their followers live under harsh and cramped furnished flats.

One can be mislead into believing Islamic movements spawned from the unacceptable economic conditions of the countries in the Muslim world because the Islamic movements did alleviate some of the economic problems people were facing. For example the Ikhwan in Egypt helped university students’ access affordable textbooks and study aids. They even helped provide students with free revision classes. These services were provided since the 1970s and improved in quality in the following two decades. Not only did the Ikhwan improve services that already existed but also created new services. One of the new services introduced in 1984-85 was the Medical Family Project. The Medical Family Project provided free healthcare to students in the Faculty of Medicine. The care itself was from the teachers of the Faculty of Medicine[1].

Teachers were suffering just like their students. The teachers’ salaries were low and they had no healthcare. Furthermore they lacked decent affordable accommodations unless they inherited wealth. Young teachers were unable to marry because they had to face all these economic problems. In 1986 the Ikhwan convinced the government to provide cheap housing for junior members of the teaching staff. The government gave 208 flats to the junior teaching staff[2].

There is no denying that Islamic movements such as the ikhwan obtained some of their following from the people they helped. Furthermore there is no denying that Islamic movements such as the one in Iran obtained members from groups that were being treated unfairly by the government. One such group was the bazaaries. The bazaaries were under attack by the Shah in his plan to modernize his state. The Shah said, “The bazaaries are a fanatic lot highly resistant to change because of their locations afford a lucrative monopoly. I could not stop building supermarkets. I wanted a modern country. Moving against the bazaars was typical of the political and social risks I had to take in my drive for modernization.”[3] From the Shah’s statement we can conclude that the bazaaries who joined the Islamic movement in Iran were economically well off and gave funding to the movement. However it does not explain why they chose to support the Islamist movement and not the other movements. If they were against the Shah purely for economic reasons, then they could have joined and supported any movement that promised them the most economic prosperity. The Islamist movement in Iran as Ayatollah Khomeini put it, “We did not create the revolution to lower the price of melon.” And as Ali Akbar Mohtashemi said, “ultimately Islam will become the supreme power.”[4] It is clear that Islamist movements did address economic distress but the movement was not caused by economic distress nor was fixing the economic problems of the people the main goal for Islamist movements. In fact many Islamist movements had an anti-western rhetoric and if these movements were caused by economic problems then solving these economic problems would end the movement and the Muslim state will be more accepting of the West. However two nations that have witnessed economic growth have had opposite relations with the West. In the case of Algeria, relations with the West improved while in Saudi Arabia, relations with the West have gotten worse.[5]

If economy was the driving force for Islamic movements then how come these movements have flourished in nations economically well off? Kuwait has a good economy and people live a luxurious and westernized life style. But Islamists generally win the most seats in the parliament. The Islamic movements started in the 1970s, the same decade the oil-exporting nations were seeing economic growth. Furthermore Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan all did financially well in the 1990s but their Islamist movements still gained momentum those years. Poor Muslim countries such as Bangladesh, Yemen and Niger had no Islamist movement. [6] If economic distress was the primary reason the Islamist movements rose in the last 30 years then we should have seen major Islamic movements in Bangladesh, Yemen and Niger.

Furthermore there are multiple Islamist movements. Most of them are divided and the divisions are not on economical differences. One main division amongst the Islamist movement in Egypt was the interpretation of Sayyid Qutb’s Signposts. The Islamists had to decide whether to spiritually separate themselves from society or literally excommunicate themselves from the rest of society.[7] The Society of Muslims led by Shukri Mustafa was one of the Islamist groups that interpreted Sayyid Qutb’s words literally. The Society of Muslims lived in a tiny community. They took residence in small furnished apartments often having to share with other members. Furthermore the community grew its own food and abandoned state employment. Most of the wealth this group obtained was from overseas members. And unlike the Ikhwan they supported illiteracy and encouraged people not to go to school.[8] If the Islamic movements were based primarily on economics then why did these Islamists live in cramped apartments with strangers? These individuals could have lived in the same conditions with family members they knew and instead of getting economic help from overseas Society members they could moonlight for their family members and borrow money from their family members too. Furthermore the claim that students have economic problems and become members of Islamist movements because they gain financial aid from the Islamist group does not hold up. Many young people joined Shukri’s group and they received no financial aid for schooling, rather they were encouraged not to go. Also Shukri and his group had problems with other Muslims. Some of these other Muslims were, Mahmud Shaltut who was the sheikh of Al-Azhar and gave a fatwa declaring that banking interest was permissible and Sheikh Sha’rawi who claimed that Treasury bonds did not contravene divine laws.[9] Both these fatwas would economically help people and the nation as a whole. However Islamists such as Shukri were against it.

Hassan Al-Banna the founder of the Ikhwan focused mostly on religious social reform rather than economic reform. He did address economic reform but only at the very end. He first addressed military and government reforms. He placed more emphasis on Muslim unity than on economic prosperity. Furthermore the bulk of his reforms are religious. He calls for the confiscation of provocative books and stories, a uniform mode of dress (which we can conclude means an Islamic way of dressing which is loose and covers the entire body), closure of dance-halls, banning of alcohol, the segregation of men and women etc.[10] Most of these social reforms have nothing to do with economic prosperity. In fact Hassan al-Banna calls to close down potential businesses that make a lot of money such as liquor stores and dance clubs. In addition to closing down profitable businesses, his economic reforms call for the outlawing of usury or interest which can help a nation in economic distress.

There is no denying Islamist movements have helped individuals with economic welfare and in turn because of the aid provided, the individual later joined the movement. However the causes for these movements to rise are not because of economic distress. Rather they rise because of the goal they are trying to accomplish and that is to create an Islamic state. The first steps Hassan Al-Banna calls for are to strengthen the military and for a diffusion of the Islamic spirit to unite all of the Muslim lands.[11] A clear example of what a state needs in this anarchic international structure, sovereignty amongst its people and security. Wajdi Ghunayim claimed that wealth was not the end but a means to an end, power. Mustafa Mashhur said, “The slogan “God is Great” will reverberate until Islam spreads throughout the world.”[12] Islamic movements were not interested in creating luxurious lifestyles for people. Rather they were interested in creating a state and having unity and justice.

Works Cited

Daniel Pipes, “God and Mammon: Does Poverty Cause Militant Islam?” The National Interest Number 2 (Winter 2001): 14-21

Giles Keppel, Muslim Extremism in Egypt (Berkeley, University of California Press 1985) p. 26-171; 191-240

Hassan al-Banna, Majmuat Rasail, trans. Charles Wendell (Berkeley, 1978): 1-10; 103-132

Hesham Al-Awali, “Mubarak and the Islamists: Why Did the Honeymoon End?” Middle East Journal 59:1 (Winter 2005): 62-80

Mohsen Milani, The Making of Iran’s Islamic Revolution (Boulder: Westview, 1994): 23-72; 93-104

[1] Al-Awali Hesham, “Mubarak and the Islamists: Why Did the Honeymoon End?” Middle East Journal 59:1 (Winter 2005):64

[2] Ibid., 65.

[3] Milani Mohsen, The Making of Iran’s Islamic Revolution (Boulder: Westview, 1994): 63

[4] Pipes Daniel, “God and Mammon: Does Poverty Cause Militant Islam?” The National Interest Number 2 (Winter 2001): 20-21

[5] Ibid., 19

[6] Ibid., 17-18

[7] Keppel Giles, Muslim Extremism in Egypt (Berkeley, University of California Press 1985) p. 74

[8] Ibid., 88-89

[9] Ibid., 80

[10] Al-Banna Hassan, Majmuat Rasail, trans. Charles Wendell (Berkeley, 1978): 125-131

[11] Ibid., 126

[12] Pipes Daniel, “God and Mammon: Does Poverty Cause Militant Islam?” The National Interest Number 2 (Winter 2001): 20-21