The arc of history has no joints. There are no hinges; no corners; no angles; at least not while you are living through it. Later historians pinpoint so-called “watershed moments” in history, events that represent the beginning, or perhaps the peak, of what will eventually become significant change of one kind or another. But this is all in retrospect. For the people living through it, change is often imperceptible, and indeed, just as often, non-existent.
I remember as a new convert to Islam, being told that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was an earth-shattering catastrophe, and that life as Muslims had known it for a thousand years came to a sudden and drastic end. I was told that Ataturk utterly and completely obliterated religion from Turkey; and that, as it were, over night, the entire Muslim world capsized into secular misery and oppression. The Khilafah Paradise was lost.
But, in real life, there are no such things as moments that “change everything”.
By 1924, the Ottoman Empire barely existed in any real organised, hierarchical way, and its demise had very little practical impact on the daily lives of Muslims around the world. Turks living in the countryside continued, generation to generation, much as they always had; from the Ottoman era, through the Kemalists, through military coups, and right up until Erdogan’s reign today. And the same holds true for the rest of the Muslim world. Because the truth of the matter is that for most people the state is a marginal player in their lives.
We have lived through oppressive regimes, unjust governors, corrupt judiciaries, greedy politicians, abusive security services, and so forth, all along. And sometimes things have been better, and sometimes they have been worse. There is no formula to suspend this cycle from continuing, there is no antidote for the fundamental realities of human society.
This is the lie at the heart of Islamism; and this is one of the things that makes me angry about it.
I have argued for quite some time now that the role of Islamists should not be to seek power; it should not be to “establish” an “Islamic state”; or to “revive the Khilafah”; nor even to seek the imposition of Shari’ah (whatever that means). The end of the Ottoman Empire did not necessitate the invention of a political ideology that would, for all intents and purposes, replace the actual religion; but that is what happened, and it has proven to be a far more catastrophic development than the event which precipitated it. Yes, I said it. The invention of the ideology of Political Islam has been a greater disaster for the Muslim ummah than the dismantling of the Ottoman Khilafah. They have warped our understanding of Islam itself, essentially grafting into the creed a statist political obsession that, by necessity, radicalizes us. They have made the Khilafah a sixth pillar of the religion.
Islam is sufficient guidance for helping us cope with political collapse, with tyranny, with injustice. It always has been enough to help us cope throughout centuries of political turmoil. Muslims have always understood their duty to speak the truth to power, to enjoin what is good, to advise the rulers, to obey what is obedience to Allah and disobey what is not; and to work for the betterment of society. And we have always understood that the practical manifestation of these duties will vary depending on the time and place and circumstances.
It is not as though every ruler from the abdication of Hassan bin Ali until 1924 was pious and just; indeed, the just and pious rulers are remembered precisely because of their infrequency; and all along, the righteous Muslims have struggled in one way or another to improve the conditions, correct their governments, and tried to live in accordance with, and to promote the values and objectives of the Shari’ah; without undertaking strategies and tactics that cause more disruption than benefit. And this is what we are supposed to be doing now. This is what Islamism, if we insist on using the term, should be about.
I guarantee you that if the Ottoman Empire had persevered, and if it still existed today; our lives would not be obviously different than they are right now. The rise of Western power, of American supremacy, and the ascendancy of multinational corporate sovereignty would all still have occurred, and the impact of these trends on our societies would still have happened; and we would be dealing with almost the exact circumstances that we are dealing with at this moment.
So, in my view, it is time for the Islamists to stop reminiscing about an idyllic past that did not really exist; and to stop fantasizing about a Utopian future that never will exist; and to start dealing with reality as it is in a manner consistent with what the religion actually says. Stop pretending that there were ever watershed moments that changed everything, and stop pretending that there will be any such moments in the future. Just work practically within your own sphere of influence to improve our societies; no more, no less; just as the righteous believers did before you.