The current governing paradigm in most Middle Eastern countries is marked by executive supremacy unbridled by any legal body or branch of government to restrain the oppressive power of the ruler. Bereft of a legitimate legislature and judiciary to counteract and neutralize an unjust and authoritarian executive, these Middle Eastern countries must seek to reform and ameliorate their form of governance to attain prosperity, just rule, and political justice.
A political movement, gaining momentum in majority Muslim countries, yearns to revive the Islamic state—a model which persisted successfully for centuries before realizing its demise during the late Ottoman Period. How did this Islamic state succeed and can it be recreated and transposed to the twenty-first century?
The success of the Islamic state of the Ottoman Empire was attributed to institutions founded on the basis of Shari‛a–divine law sourced from the Koran. Under this traditional Islamic constitution, the scholarly class maintained their status as “guardians of the law,” interpreting God’s word and issuing binding and respected judgments. Equilibrium was established between the ruler and the scholars, as the ruler accepted the law as the supreme authority superseding his own. This mode of governance achieved parity with other great empires and persisted for several centuries. Influenced by the reforms of the West, however, the Ottoman Empire initiated a reform process known as the Tanzimat, effecting a momentous change in the system: law codification. This process lacked strident resistance by the scholars who failed to recognize the threat codification posed to their status. The scholarly class could have converted into an independent legislature or judiciary, but instead was essentially replaced by codified law, transforming the Shari’a from a body of rules interpreted by the scholars to a tool of the state. The ruler was no longer bound by the law, but instead held sole authority over it. These written legal codes supplanted the function of the scholars, in effect abolishing the critical counterbalance to the authority of the ruler and establishing the governmental framework that exists today in many Middle Eastern countries.
The movement gripping Muslim society today seeks to rectify the constitutional inefficiencies of the modern political system. As dictated by the Islamists driving the movement, the basis of this reconstruction requires reinstalling Shari‛a as the supreme authority and creating a legal body to counterbalance the executive. This new government rejects exact emulation of the traditional Islamic constitution, as the Islamists deny the scholarly class a return to their former Ottoman status. In lieu of the scholars, what legitimate institutions will dispense/interpret/legislate Islamic law and from where will their authority emanate? Islamists propose fusing Islamic values with liberal democracy, establishing either an elected generic xanax v 2089 legislature or a judiciary with the right of constitutional review to legally check executive power. In this new government, Shari‛a will prove compatible with democracy, evinced by Shari‛a -oriented political parties and an elected legislature founded on the precepts of Shari‛a. These Islamists may offer an attractive option to secular autocratic regimes which have proven dysfunctional, precipitating the likelihood that Islamists will garner significant votes in democratic elections. Ultimately, Islamists seek a return to a “purer order” by which Shari‛a regulates social and political existence.
What is the likelihood of a successful transition to this new paradigm in the Middle East? Some vestiges of Islamic law exist today, but all have failed to provide the form of effective governance a revival of the classic Islamic state promises. Sunni Muslims have followed a slower trajectory in pursuit of an Islamic state than their counterpart, as the Shi’a has established an Islamic state in Iran after the 1979 revolution. Although the Iranian scholars restored their role as “guardians of the law,” they essentially became the ruling class, resulting in an unchecked executive and a flawed system of governance. Saudi Arabia maintains a scholarly class that provides a certain level of counterbalance to the state; the degree of autonomy is questioned however, since the scholars are a part of the ruling class. Other constitutions forbid the legislature from enacting a law which contradicts the basic canons of Islam. Clearly a modern and successful Islamic state has yet to take hold.
The possibility exists to recreate a form of Shari‛a governance in Arab countries combining new concepts with old practices, but possible barriers—external and internal—may impede or retard this transition. The internal resistance stems from the ruling class itself, as they will not voluntarily relinquish their monopoly on power and will quash Islamist political movements that threaten their supremacy. External resistance emanates from the interests of the great powers. The grand transition required for democratization and reform will certainly engender instability during the protracted time period before which these new institutions become effectual. Consequently, the great powers outside the Middle East opt for stability in lieu of change, as not to upset, for instance, their economic interests. The Bush administration, however, advanced the project of democratization in the Middle East based on the assumption that removing autocratic regimes from power would extinguish the sources and causes for radicalism, extremism, and fanatical ideologies. However, if free elections were to occur, the possibility of Islamic parties being elected is likely and since Islamism triggers an image of violence and radicalism in western minds, the United States will balk at even moderate Islamic parties assuming a position of power. Free elections have indeed materialized this fear of a radical Islamic party rising to power: the 1992 Algerian elections and the 2006 Palestinian elections, for example. Therefore, allowing democracy to take root in the Middle East, but denying radical elements power, is a dangerous gamble.
Feldman, Noah. The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State. Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 2008.