Month: January 2017

A revolution of apathy


(To be published in Arabic for Arabi21)

 

Ever since both sides of my family came to the United States they were farmers; which means, almost by definition, they were Democrats. My grandparents loved Roosevelt, and my parents loved Kennedy.

I was, myself, active in the Democratic Party.  I was a precinct coordinator for the 1988 Presidential Election before I was old enough to vote.  On my eighteenth birthday I registered to vote, and increased my party involvement as much as I could.

I saw very quickly, however, that the Democratic Party was no longer the party of Roosevelt, nor even the party of Kennedy.  It was a party that took it as a given that they would receive the electoral support of the poor and minorities, but that it had very little actual concern for them.  I saw, even on the local level, that it was a party of upper class, wealthy conservatives; or anyway,, they seemed wealthy and conservative to me.  They were homeowners with two-car garages filled to capacity, living in palatial suburbs.  They were basically Republicans, as far as I could tell.

And this is pretty much the direction the Democratic Party continued to move for next 20 years.  They could still take it as a given that they would get the votes of the poor and minorities simply because everyone believed that the Republicans would be even worse.  By 2016, very few people believed that anymore. The closest thing we had to a Democrat was Bernie Sanders, and the Democratic Party treated him like a leper. If either Roosevelt or Kennedy ran today, the Democratic Party would consider them radical Leftists, even though they would be expressing the things most of the population still believes in.

So, yes, huge swathes of the electorate just refused to participate.

It is absolutely true that Trump won the election because the population is disillusioned with the political process, and they are fed up with the status quo. It is not true, however, that this profound dissatisfaction translated to support for Trump; it didn’t.  It translated to disgust, apathy, and lack of participation.  There is no “Trump Movement”.  On almost every issue, he is out of step with the views of the population.

Over half of the  eligible voters  didn’t vote at all, and if you subtract from Trump’s votes those who simply supported him because they hated Hillary Clinton, his actual core of supporters probably only represents somewhere between 10-15% of the electorate. And, frankly, if Hillary Clinton had won (and she did win the popular vote), the same basic calculation would apply.  She probably had an even smaller core of genuine supporters; Democrats voted for her because of party loyalty, and to vote against Trump.  So no matter how it had turned out, the US president would be elected by basically a fringe minority

So there is a movement taking place in America, but it is manifesting itself, not in political participation, but in rejection. The majority is turning away from the political process for the redress of their grievances.

I hoped that Hillary would win, not because I still feel any loyalty to the Democratic Party, but because I believed that the…shall we call it the “Rejectionist Revolution”?…opposition would manifest itself in policy criticisms and a genuine political critique; whereas I believe that under Trump, opposition is more likely to be expressed in personal loathing for the man himself.

If that is the case, politics will not change.  Indeed, “status quo” politics will likely make resurgence in the next election cycle.  The Democrats are not going to have to change, because they are not going to be the party that faces the criticism, and, insofar as they are now the opposition party, they will keep their complaints on a petty and irrelevant level, as they did throughout the campaign, and in the days leading u to the inauguration.  They will not have to be rehabilitated; and they desperately need to be rehabilitated.

Gulf-subsidized Islamism

Like any social movement, in order for Political Islam to succeed, it will need to grow from the grassroots.  It will need to express and address not only the genuine concerns of the general public, but it will also have to reflect their understanding, interpretation, and their relationship with Islam.  Islamist leadership is going to have to learn to preach less and listen more.

But we have a problem.

 

Gulf money has created a class of career Islamists; people who make their living promoting a version of Islamism that suits the ideology and interests of rich Khaleeji shaykhs, even if it does not adhere to the views of the masses. We know from extensive polling data that the majority of Muslims support making Shari’ah the law of the land.  Most Muslims would like to see their governments become more Islamic. But at the same time, most Islamist parties are losing their appeal for the general public, who tend to view them as either too extreme or too obsequious. The Islamists are becoming increasingly disconnected from the people who should be their constituency; and I believe a major reason for that is that they no longer have to depend upon them for their financial survival.

 

Instead, Islamist organizations and individuals rely on the patronage of wealthy men from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE. The GCC has become a giant ATM machine for them, and it is much easier and more lucrative to go to the Gulf for a handout that will be given in huge bundles of cash rather than to collect a few coins here and there from the generally impoverished Muslim community at large.  But this affects the entire discourse of Political Islam, and this discourse affects the extent to which the idea resonates with the Muslim community; or alienates them.

 

Political Islam is becoming a propaganda project rather than a social movement.  The vision of Islamism is being determined, not from the grassroots, but from palaces in the Gulf States. It is not a “peoples’ Islamsim”. It is an Islamism of elites.  And this is reflected in how impractical, utopian, narrow-minded and absolutist the discourse is becoming.  It reflects a vision of people who live in a bubble of relative privilege. It is anti-democratic, pro-capitalist, intolerant, and astoundingly uneducated about the real dynamics of geopolitics, economics, and international affairs in general. And, it is worth noting, it is a vision which is never applied to the Gulf States themselves.

 

To some extent, we can assume that Islamism’s Gulf sponsors are sincerely driven by ideology.  They genuinely believe in their interpretation of the religion, and really think that the Muslim masses are astray to one degree or another; so they use their wealth to try to purge us of our misunderstandings.  Most Muslims believe in following the approach of the first three generations of Islam; but most of us are not Najdi, “Wahhabi” or “Salafi” or whatever term you want to use for their puritanical, literalist interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah. Following the example of the Sahabah and the Salaf means different things to different people.  I am not criticizing the Salafi minhaj, but it is not the only acceptable minhaj.  It developed as a necessary reformist response to the particular circumstances at a particular time and place.  The “Najdi da’awah” did not gain much traction in the wider Muslim world for over 100 years; basically, not until the region’s oil wealth began to flow. For even most of my life, the Salafis were associated with the view that Muslims should not involve themselves in politics.  They were the people that focused on the length of someone’s beard and trousers, and they thought Sayid Qutb was a deviant.

 

Today most of the Islamic organizations in the world, from humanitarian relief to schools, from websites to satellite channels, depend on money from the Arabian Gulf.  And, yes, Islamist parties from across the spectrum, from the Ikhwan to the jihadis, all turn to the GCC for considerable portions of their budget. And this trend of dependency has had an accompanying trend of intellectual ossification, if not outright petrification.

 

One would be forgiven for suspecting that the Khaleej decided to begin funding Islamism in order to control and undermine it.  Whatever the case may be, the Gulf is in a position to dominate the discourse of Political Islam today, and unless we begin to build a grassroots popular Islamic movement, I fear that the entire Islamist project will become increasingly irrelevant to the lives of most Muslims.