The Irrelevance of the “Pursuit of Happiness” in Islamic Politics.
So far, the interminable Arab Spring has accomplished nothing towards making the lives of ordinary people more secure against tyranny, more prosperous or more stable – in a word “happier.” Indeed, it should be clear to all by now that “happiness” as we understand it is not on the program.
It will sound like high treason against everything that the politically correct allow us to say out loud, but the fact is that the last time when public life was stable enough in the Middle East to provide the minimum conditions for the achievement of “happiness” in private life was when the entire region was ruled by European Empires or by Mandates, held under the League of Nations. It has all been downhill since the imperial masters yielded independence to the many “nations” that now figure on our maps of the Middle East – a process that began in the early 1940s.
No doubt, Arabs do dream about a happier future, but so far as I can see their dreams have no features in common with our vision, which derives ultimately (despite the preclusive secularity of our current culture) from philosophical premises established in the early fifth century by the Christian philosopher Augustine of Hippo upon the theological premises of the Gospel.
Underlying all Christian political theory is the belief that each individual life is an eternal life. In this light, the fundamental duty of any government that Christians are obliged to obey is to sustain conditions that allow each individual to keep alive his hope for the eternal future by setting clear boundaries against the natural tendency of governments to prefer their ambitions against all private ambitions.
Government’s legitimate sphere is confined to assisting us in The Pursuit of Happiness. In the course of many centuries of experiment, our civilization worked its way to the proposition that limited, representative and democratic government is the best means for accomplishing our Happiness. The very best one-line expression of this legacy is in the famous dictum of Reinhold Niebuhr: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; man’s inclination to injustice makes it necessary.”
Events of the last three years (since the interminable Arab Spring began to unfold in December, 2010) make abundantly clear that Islam cannot accommodate this insight. Its image of the human individual as abject and helpless before the ruthless judgment of Allah — as having no right to question what life has given him — prohibits the occurrence of the idea of improvement of the conditions of life by means of human effort.
The Concept of Righteous Government in Islam.
Occupying more-or-less the same place (mechanically speaking) where the idea of progress stands in our civilization there is in Islam the myth of an original “righteous” regime over mankind, embodied in time and place in a righteous Caliph (or supreme Spiritual Leader.) Connected to that myth is a story (totally-unconvincing to anyone outside the faith) of how the office of Caliph, the successor to the mantle of Prophet Muhammad, was captured by evil characters motivated by lust for power and only pretending to care for Muhammad’s legacy. In the Shia version of this myth, this betrayal occurred in the very first weeks following Muhammad’s death. In the Sunni version, a righteous Caliphate existed for a few decades following Muhammad’s death and has occurred occasionally here and there along the path of history, but does not exist today. By the reckoning of Sunni Muslims, the last moment of unity under a generally-recognized Caliph ended when the Crusader Powers, conniving with traitors to Islam acting under the banner of the Young Turks, dismantled the Ottoman Empire and dismissed the last Caliph from his palace in Istanbul.
In both versions the duty of virtuous Muslims is clear: it is to eliminate the evil human forces that are preventing the restoration of virtuous government as clearly provided in the Qur’an. Before this can be achieved, all national and international institutions that depend upon Judeo-Christian or upon secular understanding of moral order must be removed. This is simply because the pure vision of Islam cannot be compromised by admixture with other theories of order.
All Muslims everywhere belong to the dar-al-Islam, the world that is ruled by the Will of Allah. In fact, Muslims do not, in the truest sense, belong to anything else. This holistic reality explains the irrelevance of the other models of belonging which spring to our minds when we think of “citizenship”, “nationality,” “nation”, “race,” “tribe,” et cetera. All these secular models of belonging Muslim theologians denigrate as qawmiya, reflecting the “evil of tribalism.” The matter was put succinctly by a grand vizier of the old Ottoman Empire: “The Fatherland of a Muslim is wherever the Holy Law of Islam prevails.” [Quoted in Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (New York: Oxford U.P. 1993), p. 136.]
But Muslims also understand that not everyone who claims to be in full obedience towards Islam is so in truth. Unhappily, many have fallen from the true path, even while imagining that they are on it and that you are not. Life is like that.
Origins of the Shia/Sunni Split.
When asked how future Muslims would discover the “straight path” following his death, Prophet Muhammad replied: “My community will not agree on an error.” In reality, however, a bloody war for ownership of Islam broke out at once upon the death of the Prophet. The earliest years of Islam’s history were unremittingly bloody. Three of these first four Rightly Guided Caliphs died violent deaths, two of them at the hands of fellow Muslims. Obviously, Muhammad had been in error.
The larger of the two major branches within Islam, the Sunnis, concedes that imperfection has to be presumed in the lives of Muhammad’s immediate successors, including the first four; but they insist upon the basic trustworthiness of what the tradition tells them about what Muhammad did and said, and they afford the same trust to what was taught by Muhammad’s successors. On the other hand, Shia Islam, the lesser of the two major branches, teaches that everything that is taught by and about the first Caliphs is a pack of lies.
“Shia” is the short form of an Arabic phrase meaning “followers” or “party” and refers to the partisans of Muhammad’s son-in-law Hussein ibn-Ali, whom, they believe, Muhammad had intended to be his successor and from whom (on this view) the rightful succession had been stolen at the moment of Muhammad’s death in 632 AD by Muhammad’s father-in-law Abu Bakr. All the disorder that has marked Islamic history ever since has fallen from this original sin that took place under the Prophet’s roof. Not incidentally, Shia Muslims assert that this aboriginal sin against Islam exercise was cunningly orchestrated by a Jew. [Tarek Fatah, The Jew Is Not My Enemy (Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2010.), pp. 32-37.]
Characteristically, the historic turning-point in this succession crisis took the form not of a conference or a general council of the faithful but of a mighty battle – the Battle of Karbala, fought in the year 61 of the Islamic calendar (October 19, 660 in our calendar.) Among the casualties on the Shia side were 62 “Companions,” including Hussein ibn-Ali himself. Ever since that day, Shiite youth have been mourning this loss with gory displays of self-mutilation in highly-popular parades on the anniversary of the event.
What seems conspicuous and self-evident to us – that each side was equally dedicated to the liquidation of the other — does not occur to Muslims. The zero-sum thinking characteristic of Islam requires that one side only in every dispute, whether (as we would think) about marginal matters or about matters of eternal significance, is absolutely virtuous and those dying in its service are martyrs, while the other side are unqualifiedly evil, and totally deserving of vilification by faithful Muslims every day as they languish in everlasting torment in hell.
This mentality is not declining. It has in fact grown in intensity with each passing year since the beginning.
Indeed, as many of the best-informed scholars of life in the heartland of Islam have been telling us over the last few weeks, the venom that has been pouring from this open sore for over fourteen hundred years has now surged to an unprecedented height – to the point that a new civil war is building in the heartland of Islam.