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Middle East and Africa

The Chimera of the Islamic State

The condemnation of ISIS by the variegated galaxy of fundamentalists might be the occasion to call into question the ideal itself of the Islamic state, painful but necessary for those thinkers who pursue the idea of diversity for modern Islam.

‘ISIS does not represent true Islam’. How often has this been said in the last few months by Muslims of all persuasions – apart from the Jihadists themselves, of course. Appeals have been launched and public condemnations made. Fortunately. But if true Islam is not at home between Raqqa and Mossul, where is it to be found? On a personal and community level it is easy to respond. One can point to the many experiences in which Islam has been the motor of a moral commitment that enriches social co-existence (in pluralist societies such as those in the West) or, in fact, its anchor (in some Middle Eastern contexts). But on the political level the question becomes more complex, because for decades exponents of various currents that are improperly characterised as ‘fundamentalism’ have been saying that Islam offers a precise model of State. So, if they are right, where is the Islamic state today? Unlike other realities of the Muslim world, representatives of political Islam cannot avoid this question at a time when they are dissociating themselves from IS, simply because it has been a core part of their programme for decades.



And yet it seems proper that the Islamic state, to paraphrase the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), is ‘a spectre haunting the umma’. It has to be there, so the theory goes, but nobody knows where. It is not ISIS. But neither is it Saudi Arabia, with which for example the Muslim Brothers have an ‘open account’. And perhaps apart from those directly interested, hardly anyone would consider countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan or Mauretania (which adorn themselves with the title), as examples of an Islamic state in action, not to mention of course Iran, which is a priori suspect because of its Shi’ite leanings.



The elusive nature of the Islamic state appears all the more surprising if one considers that the cardinal principle of the entire doctrine, from the end of the 19th century, is that the Muslim religion supplies not only a value system for the afterlife and the present, but also concrete indications to achieve an alternative political community that differs from those currently on offer (‘neither with the West nor the East’ was a Khomeini slogan) and immediately viable, without having to wait for Judgment Day. And yet after a century in which rivers of ink and words have flowed to hammer this thesis into hearts and minds and after half a century in which, after the failure of Arab nationalism, enormous resources have been expended to put theory into practice, the Islamic state still does not exist. And when it is a matter of pinpointing the last Caliph endowed with full Islamic legitimacy, an ideologue as important as the Pakistani Mawdudi (m. 1979) finds himself obliged to go as far back as ‘Umar Ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, the pious Umayyad who reigned from 717 to 720, that is 1400 years ago. Let us be clear: it is not that great Muslim governors did not emerge later on, but the Islamic state is something more than a good sovereign, it is an entire regime coming true. If in fact it does come true.



Can it be argued that the delay in the manifestation of the authentic Islamic state is to be attributed to the West and its neo-colonial policies, ultimately supported by local ‘collaborator’ governors? In this case such an argument is weak. If indeed this political doctrine were the heart of the teaching in the Qur’an, it is unthinkable that adverse powers – and by definition the losers – can stop the arrival of the state beyond a certain limit. And so, after half a century of attempts, there is perhaps only the remaining, if disconcerting, possibility: that the Islamic state is a mirage that dissolves before precipitating in prosaic state laws or that, alternatively, undergoes a sad transformation and worryingly mutates into something like a medieval regime. This is not that different modernity, but modernity nonetheless, that these thinkers pursue when they envisage a state capable of competing with the great world powers.



The condemnation of ISIS ought therefore to lead, in the variegated galaxy of fundamentalism, to a radical discussion of the ideal itself of the Islamic state, however painful this may be. To stop before taking this last step would mean to lose an historic opportunity.


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