Alam, M. Shahid - Interview

Cihan Aksan

Posted Nov 20, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The following interview was conducted via email in November 2005.

M. Shahid Alam was born in Bangladesh, moved to Pakistan in 1971, and received his PhD in economics from Canada in 1979. He has published three books; his latest, Is There An Islamic Problem, was published by The Other Press, Kuala Lumpur, in 2004. His political essays have been featured in Dawn (Pakistan), The Nation (Pakistan), Al-Ahram (Egypt), The Star (Bangladesh), CounterPunch (USA), Commondreams (USA), Scoop (New Zealand) and others. Currently, Alam teaches economics at Northeastern University in Boston. He may be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Q: Islam as a religion holds within it a potent political force. Its message extends to the legal, economic and social organization of the Muslim community. Does this make it incompatible with secularism? Is secularism a deviation from the basic principles of Islam? Is it merely an idea imported from the West to which Islam can never relate? Or is there a place for a secular political order in Islamic countries?

A: Secularism is an idea and a system of governance. The idea seeks to create a secular man who lives his life without reference to God. It believes in the sufficiency of reason as a guide to life. Conversely, it rejects the authority of religion, as a source of meaning and values. As a system of governance, secularism is a bit less ambitious. On the assumption that life divides into a public and a private sphere, each neatly separable, it seeks to exclude religion from the public sphere. The objective is to create a system of laws that does not favor any religion.

The conflict between Islam any religion, for that matter ֖ and secularism as an idea should be transparent. A Muslim lives his life with reference to God, His Book and His Prophet. A Muslim also reasons because God reasons with him. The Quran urges man to use his reason and experience to understand God, His creation and His Book, and based on this understanding to create a just society. The secular idea is not only incompatible with Islam. Indeed, they must oppose each other.

As a system of governance, secularism can be expansive or accommodating. It can marginalize religion or give it greater sway over society. The actual results depend on a variety of factors. Most importantly, perhaps, it depends on the way the boundaries are drawn between the public and private spheres. Is the public sphere large or small? For instance, does it include education? Secondly, how rigorously does the state exclude religion from the public sphere? And what restrictions does it place on the expression of religion in the private sphere?

One can imagine an extreme form of secular governance. In this case, the public sphere is large Җ extending over education, media, laws of inheritance, relations between sexes, and modes of dress. It legislates religion out of this large public sphere, taking positions which contradict religious values. In addition, it inhibits the practice of religion even in traditionally private spheres. Very likely, this will breed discontent if a majority or even substantial segment of the population is religious. In the event, this form of secularism would also be incompatible with democracy.

On the other hand, secularism can be minimalist. This is a secularism that works within a limited public sphere, allows the democratic expression of widely-held religious values in the public sphere, and even supports religious organizations without discrimination in some activities (say, education or charitable work) provided they contribute to public order and morality. Indeed, variants of this minimalist secularism were the norm in most of the Muslim Sultanates before they were destroyed or restructured, starting in the nineteenth century, under the impact of Western power. If Muslim countries had enjoyed a measure of democracy over the past decades, this is the kind of secularism many of them would have produced.

In the face of colonial erosion of Islamic values and institutions followed by suppression of Islamic tendencies under corrupt and often militantly secular governments ֖ many Islamic thinkers have sought to recreate Islamic societies. In several instances this re-Islamization is more ambitious than any recent historical model. This reconstituted Islamic society must recognize the Quran and the Sunnah as the ultimate source of legislation on all questions. Some Islamic thinkers believe that this cannot be achieved under democratic governance. Others argue that democracy is compatible with Islam if its laws are subject to oversight by a council of Islamic scholars. It would appear that Iran illustrates this second model.


Q: Islam preserved much of the patriarchal nature of pre-Islamic society. In marriage, divorce, inheritance and other social relations the QurҒan appears to legitimize the unequal treatment of women. Is it possible to separate Islam and patriarchy? Can Islam ever promote gender equality? Is it open to gender reforms? Is the West using an ethnocentric perspective when it directs criticism at the status of women in Islam?

A: Western imagination has been fertile at inventing projects for reforming the world, not least the world of Islam. This is their perennial cover for world domination: they are always engaged in civilizing the people they exploit, enslave or exterminate. In the Islamic world, the white man has been championing womens rights since the late nineteenth century, even when they denied rights to their own women. Trapped inside the walls of harems, denied dignity in polygamous marriages, segregated, burqa-clad, or subjected to clitoral mutilation Җ the Islamic woman desperately awaits liberationђ by white male warriors in shining armor. It would be quite a revelation if the West stopped taking an imperialist or ethnocentric approach to the status of women in Islam.

It would appear that the premise of this set of questions is West-centric. They seem to accept Western standards in the field of womens rights. They accept Western criticisms of what goes under the name of patriarchy. They assume that the non-Islamic world has attained ґgender equality, that only Islam refuses to catch up. They appear to assume that gender equality Җ according to some mechanical calculus is always desirable, or it is a value to be attained at all costs. They also ignore the fact that modern, capitalist society subjects women to new indignities, new forms of servitude, new pathologies, which may well be worse than the abuses of women in traditional societies.

An obsessive focus on women֒s rights emerges from the matrix of Western notions of individualism and freedom, values that quite nicely dovetail with the imperatives of capital. Are individualism and freedom the only values worth pursuing? In an Islamic society the question of womens rights, menҒs rights, and childrens rights must be considered as interlinked issues, as concerns that are dominated by its overarching spiritual goals Җ of men, women and children supporting each other in the creation of a just, balanced and God-centered society.

Should society pursue Western ideas of individualism and rights even if they erode family values values which recognize the primacy of male-female relationships, the raising of balanced children, and the care of the sick and elderly? Or should we expose the family to the merciless blast of market forces: let the market produce and deliver these ֑family services? What should we think of a market-driven set of rights if it led a majority of women to sacrifice marriage and motherhood for careers; if it persuaded men to jettison their duties as a father, son or brother? The West has accepted market-driven notions of ґrights as supreme values. Should Muslims willy-nilly follow suit? Or should they seek greater justice in gender-relations within the matrix of their own system of values?


Q: Islamic feminism advocates a re-reading of the Quran and the hadiths to find confirmation of gender equality. By confronting the traditional male interpretations of Islamic texts, it intends to demonstrate that patriarchal attitudes have distorted the principle of equality in Islam. But can feminist discourse be articulated within an Islamic framework? Is Islamic feminism in conflict with secular feminism? Is it more effective than secular feminism in the fight for the emancipation of women in Islamic countries?

A: The feminist discourse is both a field of enquiry and a movement. As a field of enquiry, it seeks to understand how laws and institutions have been structured to ґadvantage men over women. As a movement, feminism seeks to dislodge these ґadvantages by seeking equality for women in the public and private spheres.

The feministsҒ understanding of male advantagesђ is not value-neutral. In general, they perceive any differentia in the legal or social positions of men and women as a male advantage, and the expression of superior male power. Generally, they do not seek to understand if these differentia have their origins in some other imperatives, whether they relate to differences between male and female biology, temperament or aptitudes; whether they seek to conserve the family as an institution; whether they support the pursuit of our spiritual vocation as men and women; or whether they contribute to public order. In other words, feminists regard equalityђ in all public and private spheres as an absolute value that pays no regard to other values.

I dont think that this secular feminist discourse can be accommodated within an Islamic framework. However, it appears to me that this discourse can be Islamized if a new understanding of the differentia between men and women in Islamic law is developed, one that pays close attention to Islamic values relating to spirituality, justice, family, and public order. This has to be an Islamic endeavor, led by men and women who bring a commitment to Islamic values.

Clearly, there is room for Muslim men and women to engage in a fresh reading of the QurҒan and Sunnah to begin to identify those differentia between the rights of men and women in Islamic legal systems that are not rooted in Islams two canonical sources. These new understandings could then be used to enlarge the rights of women beyond what is accepted in the established schools of Islamic law.

There are several grounds for believing that a fresh reading of the QurҒan in particular ֖ holds out hope for bringing greater justice in the relations between men and women. In several cases, the actual relations between men and women reflect local customs often tribal customs ֖ that can be discredited by showing that they violate Islamic norms. In other cases, established shariah rulings on womenҒs rights have been influenced by non-Islamic beliefs and practices. This is not hard to understand, since the gathering and codification of Prophetic traditions, during the first few centuries of Islamic history, occurred in a Middle Eastern milieu that was still saturated by pre-Islamic traditions of misogyny and the seclusion of women. Some of these spurious traditions, then, became a source of Islamic laws.

This creates an opportunity for serious work by leading Islamic scholars of impeccable integrity to undertake afresh the task of codification of the Prophetic traditions to screen out those traditions on women, race, and governance, among others ֖ which directly contradict the value systems enunciated in the Quran. In addition, through similar collective efforts, Islamic scholars should engage in ijtihad to translate Islamic notions of eeman, taqwa, ґadl and ihsaan into new proposals for ordering relations among Muslims, the civil society and the state, and relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. This is a task that should be given the highest priority by the Ummah.


Q: In Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations?” we find the modern world defined by cultural conflicts, not ideological or economic ones. Seven or eight major civilizations are identified, but the confrontation between Islam and the West is placed centre stage. How can we interpret this culturalist approach to world politics? Is it an important thesis which describes a “new phase” in international relations? Or is it merely part of the attempt to find a new “Other” to justify US foreign policy in the aftermath of the Cold War?

A: Perhaps the most singular development over the three centuries following the voyages of Columbus and Vasco de Gama was the mobilization of the state and nation in the service of capital. This first happened in a small number of West European countries, giving their capital an enormous long-run advantage over other aggregates of capital. Backed by the resources of the state and nation, Portuguese, Spanish, and, later, Dutch, British and French capital gradually colonized much of the world. As their monopoly profits were ploughed back into shipping, ports, canals, manufactures, universities, libraries and scientific academies, these countries developed, grew rich, and built powerful armies. Eventually, starting in the nineteenth century, when these economies switched to fossil fuels, this new virtually inexhaustible source of energy gave a formidable boost to their developmental processes. Now they gained a growing economic, financial, technological and military lead over the rest of the world which would be unbeatable for a long time. They went out and colonized much of the rest of the world. The gap between these Western countries whose numbers grew slowly ֖ and the rest of the world grew, creating a bipolar global economy, consisting of a Center and its Periphery. Ever since, capital from the Center has sought to monopolize economic opportunities in the Periphery.

This global capitalist system suffered from several contradictions. First, there was the growing conflict between capitalists and the working classes at the Center. Karl Marx had predicted that as the working classes at the Center grew in size and consciousness, they would mobilize to overthrow capital and establish socialism. This systemic change might be advanced by two additional contradictions in capitalism. Capitalist economies were subject to wide periodic swings, often creating very high levels of unemployment and misery in the working classes. This would deepen solidarity in the working classes. In addition, rivalry between national aggregates of capital for markets, resources, monopolies and territories would push them into wars. As the capitalist states bloodied themselves, this would create an opening for socialist revolutions.

Contrary to Karl Marxs prognosis, the Center did not experience a socialist transformation despite business cycles and two major internecine wars. Instead, the hegemony of the Center was challenged by the Periphery. The expansion of capital from the Center into the Periphery Җ through force and the asymmetric action of markets soon provoked a countervailing response from the Periphery. This took two forms: movements for national liberation and more radical movements which sought to overthrow capitalism in the Periphery. These dual developments were aided by internecine wars amongst the capitalist countries. In the midst of the conflict and chaos of World War I, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, and broke away from the world capitalist system to establish the world֒s first communist economy. This was followed during World War II by the establishment of another communist economy in China, the worlds largest country. World War II also led to the dismantling of the major colonial empires and the emergence of dozens of newly independent but poor countries. Even as these countries sought to develop their own capitalist base, the Center strove to defeat their efforts with covert actions and occasional wars. At the same time, the United States began a military build-up Җ known as the Cold War ostensibly to match the threat of global communism.

The Cold War ended rather suddenly with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. The greatest single challenge to the global capitalist system had collapsed. This discredited both communism and socialism. It also led to the collapse of the developmental state, the concerted effort of former colonies to develop their economies with indigenous capital and technology. The IMF and the World Bank, with the help of a new set of global rules imposed by the WTO, took over the task of re-opening the Periphery for takeover by the Center. Nearly all countries in the Periphery were reduced to the status of ֑open-door economies; their governments had little control over their economic policies. Nevertheless, a few countries in the Periphery managed to preserve and develop their indigenous capitalist base. There were a few successes in the Far East: nurtured by the Center itself to combat the spread of communism. And then, there were China and India. With a third of the worldҒs population, low wages, rapidly advancing skills, and vigorous indigenous capital, they would soon offer a growing challenge to the Center. Thus, in the very hour of its greatest triumph, the Center faced a broad-spectrum challenge to its economic dominance.

The collapse of communism was heralded by some as the end of historyђ, as the final triumph of capitalism. No doubt the Center had triumphed, though it is a bit premature to say if this triumph would be final. The Soviet collapse had another more ominous consequence. It had removed a powerful check on US imperial ambitions. The US was now the sole superpower, with a military budget nearly equal to that of the rest of the world. During the Cold War, the US had generally sought control through covert actions, foreign aid, propaganda and proxy wars; only rarely did it engage in direct military action. Now it would be tempted to go down the path of naked imperialism.

The United States possessed absolute power: or so it seemed. A group of Republican hawks began formulating plans in the early 1990s to leverage this power, to make it enduring. These hawks better known as the neoconservatives, most of whom were also close allies of Israel ֖ were planning to use military power to prevent the emergence of any challenges to American dominance. They began to make the case for pre-emptive and preventive wars as an instrument of foreign policy. They started manufacturing threats of WMDs. Countries, mostly in the Middle East, that still resisted American dictate were categorized as rogue states. The neoconservatives had their eye on the oil fields in the Middle East, still the single greatest strategic prize in world history. If they could seize the oil spigot, they thought they could bend Europe, China, India and Japan to their will. After waiting out the presidency of Bill Clinton, the neoconservative hawks were back in power under President George Bush in 2000. They had their hands on the levers of power in the Defense Department. They waited for a galvanizing event to launch their plan. Without much delay, it arrived on September 11, 2001. It has already led to the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. More wars are planned against Syria and Iran and, in future rounds, against Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Samuel Huntingtons thesis of a new era of ґcivilizational clashes is primarily an ideological cover for the wars that the US planned against the Periphery, starting in the 1990s, now that the Soviets were not around to check their ambitions. Since the Middle East was the primary target of US-Israeli imperial designs Җ because of its oil and Israeli ambition of balkanizing the region American and Israeli ideologues emphasized the threat from Islamic societies. This was the ֑rogue civilization whose refusal to modernize, whose rejection of democracy, whose oppression of women, and whose terrorism posed the greatest threat to world order. Moreover, at the root of all these problems was an intransigent religion: Islam. This old enemy was now spawning new threats: Islamic fundamentalism, Islamo-fascism, and Islamic terrorism. The West now had an enemy that could arouse their old fears about Islam. It would now be easy to justify the wars planned against Iraq, Iran and Syria.


Q: The intellectual history of political Islam is infused with the traditions of the Salafist or Wahhabi School and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the ideas of thinkers such as Abul A’la Maududi and Sayyid Qutb. But it is also framed by the political ideologies that inspired modern national liberation movements in the Third World, particularly Marxism-Leninism. Could it be that the political project is far more important than the religious one in defining the identity of Islamist groups? Is the religious message reduced to an instrument to articulate concerns over modern imperialism? Is this why Islamist groups receive considerable ideological support from left-wing thinkers in the West?

A: The recent Western discourse on Islam speaks of political Islam as largely a phenomenon of the twentieth century that becomes visible with the formation of the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen in Egypt or the emergence of a Wahhabi state in Arabia. This is a myopic view of Islamic history.

In the first century of Islam, tribal, dynastic and personal rivalries were played out in the language of the proper qualifications of Islamic rulers or their legitimate functions. In the middle of the second Islamic century, the revolution that overthrew the Omayyads sought to establish a more egalitarian Islam that accorded equal treatment to Arab and non-Arab Muslims. Over the next few centuries, ethnic and tribal revolts against established states were justified in terms of various ShiҒite movements, always led by men who claimed descent from Ali and Fatima.

In recent centuries, the first movements of resistance against the Western invasion of Islamic lands were mobilized in the name of Islam. In Algeria, the Caucasus, Somalia and Libya, the resistance was led by tribal Islam under the leadership of Sufi Sheikhs. In Iran, starting in the late nineteenth century, the resistance was led by traditional ulama. In Arabia, a new puritanical Islam і later known as Wahhabism sought to regenerate Islamic power purportedly by returning to the ways of the first Muslims.

These movements failed to stem the tide of Western imperialism. The West conquered Islamic lands, overthrew the Islamic order, marginalized Islamic courts and educational systems, and created a new learned class, schooled in European languages and convinced of the superiority of Western values. The liberation movements in Islamic countries were led by members of this new Westernized class, espousing ethnic nationalism over Islamic identity, and secular in their politics. Most of these new states were allied with the US. In the Arab world, a few states ֖ important ones, like Egypt and Syria were more radical and joined the Soviet camp. But nearly all of them failed to bring a sense of dignity or prosperity to their societies. The largest Muslim state, Pakistan, split in two after a civil war. The radical Arab states suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of the colonial-settler state of Israel. Iran was returned to repressive monarchy after a brief spell of democracy and sovereignty. Decolonization, nationalism, Westernization, secularism, socialism, monarchical Islam, and vast oil reserves had done little to reverse the fragmentation, decline and humiliation of the Islamic world.

The latest wave of political Islam is fundamentally a revolt against the ongoing humiliation of the Islamic world ֖ against its political subjugation, against its humiliation in wars, and against the marginalization of Islam in the public sphere. This political Islam speaks the language of return to the vigor and purity of classical Islam. It is against the accommodations that Sufi Islam makes to populist cults of human intercession. It is equally against modernist Islam which often seeks to forge an Islam that is friendlier to Western values. It seeks to overthrow Western control over Islamic polities as a prelude to creating Islamic unity. It fervently believes in Islamic solutions to all of lifes challenges. It offers itself as an alternative to capitalism, consumerism and secularism.

It would be surprising if the Islamic revolt in a major section of the Periphery did not command the attention Җ and even sympathy of leftist circles everywhere. This revolt ֖ as I have explained has two dimensions. On the one hand, it is anti-imperialist. It clearly understands that US imperialism, in the post-war period, has held the Middle East in a tighter grip than any other region of the world. It understands clearly the role that oil and Israel play in this imperialistic venture. It looks upon Israel not as a mere instrument of US imperial control over the Middle East. Instead, Israel is seen as an autonomous imperialist force ֖ a racist, colonial-settler state that partners with the US to deepen its own control over the Middle East. It understands how this partnership has divided, exploited, and distorted the political and economic evolution of this region. In this sense, the Islamic revolt is a movement for the liberation of Islamic lands, similar to earlier movements for national liberation and sovereignty.

There is of course the second dimension of the Islamic resistance ֖ its Islamic symbols and aims which raise concerns in Western Leftist circles. Do these Islamic symbols and aims constitute the true essence of this resistance? Or, have they been introduced to mobilize large masses of people, nearly a fourth of the world֒s population, in a struggle against the injustice of the neo-colonial order imposed on the Islamic world? It is clear that the success of the Islamic resistance will not lead to the establishment of a socialist order. But it will weaken and challenge, perhaps even overthrow, US-Israeli hegemony over the Middle East. This might also lead to the evacuation of American economic interests from the region.

Arguably, the evacuation of American capital from the Islamic world may cause deeper tremors than the exclusion of Western capital from China after the Communist revolution there. There are several reasons for this. The Islamic world today contains a somewhat larger share of the worlds population than China did in 1948. Moreover, unlike China, the Islamic world occupies large swathes of territory stretching from West Africa to East Asia. Most importantly, US economic interests in the region Җ because of oil alone are a great deal more weighty than Western interests in China in 1948. In other words, the Islamic resistance ֖ whatever the ideology that motivates it can potentially cause serious dislocations in the global capitalist order. That alone should arouse the interest of those leftists who see revolutionary opportunity in these dislocations.

Originally published at and reprinted in TAM with permission of Shahid Alam.