Economy, Jobs and Business

Religion and the politics of Muslim societies

5 min


Jean-Philippe Platteau

It is widely believed that Islam is a reactionary religion that defends tradition against modernity and individual freedom. This column challenges that view, stressing instead that Islam is vulnerable to political manipulation, and showing how the threat of religious extremism is especially high because of Islam’s decentralized organization. The cynical strategies of Muslim autocrats, self-appointed religious leaders and Western powers have all contributed to the creation of deep social divisions.

According to one well-publicized account, the difference between Christianity and Islam is so radical that it reflects a ‘clash of civilizations’: the Western perception of the separation of religion from politics and the assertion of individual rights opposes an all-encompassing view of divine law that implies the amalgamation of religion and politics and the recognition of collective rights.

Reality is more complex:

  • First, Islamic doctrine contains few precise injunctions as to how a good Muslim ought to behave.
  • Second, official Islam needs to be carefully distinguished from the Islam of the masses.

There are multiple sources of Islamic law, different schools of thought and variations within them. Differences occur in high spheres of the faith, among the jurists of Islam. Many more variations appear when we descend to the world of ordinary people who live mostly in rural areas, small towns or the peripheries of cities. These are the domains of ‘low Islam’, where customary norms and practices remain very influential.

The considerable variety and flexibility of Islam result from the decentralized organization of a religion that does not grant to its official representatives the power to offer a unique and authorized interpretation of the Prophet’s legacy.

Since the Quran does not deal with constitutional and administrative matters, and the few Islamic prescriptions regarding proper political behavior are stated in rather general terms, Islamic officialdom has never constituted a real obstacle to despotism and tyranny. Even in the best cases, its countervailing power was limited to offering political opponents the shelter of sanctuaries.

It was especially weak because the scholars of Islam, the ulama, adhered to the doctrine that social and political order is what matters most, and that despotism is preferable to civil war and anarchy. To the extent that they received ample material privileges from the sovereign and that they belonged to important families tightly entwined with power circles, they were not simply passive attendants but active collaborators, often ready to make the requested pronouncements to legitimize an autocratic regime.

In many historical instances, a political-religious equilibrium prevailed, under which the autocratic regime was stable and its relationship to the clerics essentially cooperative. By co-opting religious scholars who were left largely free to make decisions in matters of personal status, and by committing to pursue relatively moderate actions and policies, the ruler ensured that spiritual legitimacy was credibly conferred on the state.

But this outcome does not obtain in situations of state crisis. For example, when there is a power vacuum at the centre or the central state is weak, religious clerics tend to rise to the frontline of politics to fill the vacuum and protect ordinary people from the vicissitudes of civil war or lawlessness.

Think of Iran under the Qâjars. The intervention of the clerics contributed decisively to ending a situation of weak central political power that had disastrous consequences for the middle classes and ordinary people. The success of popular demonstrations that they instigated encouraged them to intensify their actions; and their active engagement against the iniquitous policies of the Shah and his government enhanced their social prestige and influence among the population, including the merchant classes.

As a result, their leadership role was gradually confirmed and sustained by the popular will. Rather than being an intrinsic characteristic of Islam, the meddling of a fraction of the men of religion in opposition politics constituted a response to a conjunction of circumstances.

 When the policies followed by an autocrat are deeply unpopular, and when he is highly corrupt, buying off all the clerics through material privileges proves too costly and political instability is inevitable. Political opposition is especially threatening because the clerics whom the ruler does not control, the self-appointed clerics, become very vocal.

It is then tempting for secular rulers with a despotic bent to use the legitimizing force of official Islam more intensely for the purpose of defeating both the religious discourse of clerical opposition leaders and the secular discourse of left-wing forces.

The end result has too often been the tragic eradication of progressive secular forces (including trade unions, student movements, and intellectual and professional associations) and the emergence of polarized societies in which the language of Islam became the only tolerated way to express political opposition.

The division between official clerics pronouncing fatwas in the regime’s support and self-appointed clerics identifying with the masses and pronouncing counter-fatwas injects a dangerous poison into a political climate dominated by anathemas rather than reasoned arguments.

The recent experiences of Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Malaysia, Pakistan, Palestine, Sudan and Syria all illustrate how Islam can be politically instrumental and how an obscurantist deadlock is thereby created.

The rise of fundamentalist religious thinking in Islam may be largely attributed to the reality that:

  • People associate their governments’ failures to meet the challenges of modernity with the failures of secularism and the Western path, and
  • Military defeats have contributed to creating a profound self-doubt crisis.

An important implication of the perceived failure of secularism, and of the subjugation and even obliteration of secular, left-oriented movements and organizations at the behest of cynical and myopic secular rulers, is that Islam has little competition when it comes to articulating popular opposition to corrupt and inequitable governments.

The religious idiom is the only one left that people, especially young, educated, lower-middle class people, can use to communicate criticism and protest against repression, social injustice, lack of political participation, and threats to collective identity.

Western powers have contributed in two ways to exacerbating the role of violent Islamist movements:

  • First, they have often nurtured such movements seen as tactical allies in their struggle against Arab nationalism and communism.
  • Second, by practicing double standards in their foreign policies, starting with colonial policies, they have helped to victimize Muslim populations across the world.

Added to the cynical play of Muslim autocrats, these strategies have contributed to the creation of deep divisions within the body of Muslim societies.


Jean-Philippe Platteau
Emeritus Professor, University of Namur