Book Review: The state and Islamists' political imagination

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Sunday 17 May 2015

The author does not provide a political analysis of current events, but instead looks at Islamism and conceptions of the modern state

Al-Khayal Al-Siyasi Lil-Islamiyyeen (The Islamists' Political Imagination) by Heba Raouf Ezzat, Al-Maktaba Al-Arabiya for Research and Publishing, Beirut, 2015. pp.144.

In a word of caution to the reader: political scientist Heba Raouf Ezzat writes in the preface to her new work that “those who are searching for political analysis of current events, including dates and names, will not find it in this book.”

This is because her objective is to build a critical mentality and open horizon in order to keep up with interpretations in political theory. Given this, the reader will find some hardship in the extreme abstraction and rigid theorisation of concepts and tools of research, and the usage of academic language to avoid engagement with the current political reality — especially after the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The author’s point of departure is the basic idea that the current Islamic arena is in dire need of debate on the conceptions of any possible Islamic state — and of revising this concept. In parallel with this revision, the modern state in its national manifestation should be also revised. 

In this context, Ezzat argues that "We are in the direst need of renewing our conceptions" regarding the modern state, just as we need to “renovate religious practices.” What is intended is to provide ways and tools for establishing religion — according to the author's description — and applying its provisions and achieving its purposes.

The state, Ezzat adds, shouldn't be treated as an idol, as originally it was a tool for taking care of people's interests, and a human creation. The state can also be changed into a tool for hegemony and tyranny in the hands of those who have money. Unfortunately, the author doesn't comment on certain pressng issues, including the so-called Islamic State group, the Islamic concept of the “land of war”, takfirism (i.e., accusing someone of being an unbeliever), and other Islamic ideas that aren't compatible with the concept of the state being a human product, so the reader does not learn her position on these issues.  

Ezzat writes that her book is the result of three decades of research and specialisation in the concept of the state, first as a student in the Department of Political Science at Cairo University, while preparing her Master’s thesis on women and politics from an Islamic perspective, and while writing her dissertation on citizenship.

The book has four main topics. In the first section, Ezzat cautions that there is a danger of mistakenly putting an Islamic  façade on the modern state without realising that there is an inherent logic to the state that is at odds with the Islamic legislative system. In other words, the Islamisation of the modern nation state needs revision, and Ezzat suggests opening the door to other schools of thought on the state, such as Marxism, in this regard. 

Her second topic — titled "The space of The New Al-Manar" — is a rereading and discussion of the basic ideas published by The New Al-Manar quarterly, an Islamist magazine that began publishing in 1998. Ezzat argues that it is the only Islamist independent publication at present in Egypt after other platforms have been suppressed or closed.

It is an interesting section that aims as exploring “the pillars of the Islamists' political imagination,” writes the author. It seems that what's meant by political imagination is the Islamists' special understanding of the state and their criticism of it. Ezzat doesn't present a content analysis of the studies, essays and viewpoints contained in Al-Manar, but rather an analytical reading of Islamist thought, to determine the source of the crisis in Islamist discourse in dealing with not only democracy but with politics itself.

Ezzat hurries to assert that the objective of rereading The New Al-Manar isn't to criticise the Islamists for the sake of it — although criticising the Islamists or non–Islamists is in fact an academic duty in order to continue developing dialogue and discussion. Instead, Ezzat points out that she doesn't hold up liberal democracy as the perfect model, and that things should be evaluated whether one agrees or disagrees with them conceptually. 

In her third section, Ezzat continues to reread The New Al-Manar from another perspective, focusing on the Islamists' ignorance of the liberal experience and of democratic thought. She argues that this ignorance, and the relationship between liberalism and global capitalism, contributed to keeping Islamist discourse away from its deserved place in world political thought.

In the fourth topic, titled "Imagining the Future," Ezzat writes that the next stage in what she calls "post-Muslim Brotherhood rule" will be divided into four paths. The first path is the peaceful revolutionary struggle path, which will see Islamists cling to both the Islamic point of reference and to democratic legitimacy, after being liberated from the hegemony of the old organisations. The second path is that of civil struggle, which will be antagonistic towards the old discourse and organisations and blame them for the revolution's failure. The third path is organisational and intellectual renovation within the large Islamist organisations in a way that will change their nature and direction. The fourth path is that of more radical resistance, using violent means and discarding democracy, as is occurring now among some Islamists.

Finally, Ezzat argues, it is impossible to predict which one of the paths will predominate, but what is certain is that the significance of most of Islamist concepts regarding the state will be changed.

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