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Despotism, Dissidence and the Statist Principal

Despotism has supposedly afflicted Muslims for centuries as a matter of fact. Explanations abound about how this state of affairs came into being: Islam is inherently totalitarian or fatalistic, the Umayyad and later caliphs usurped political office through the force of arms, and the European import of fascism into the Muslim world has reinforced existing despotic tendencies. From theology to modernity, Muslims appear to have lost the ability to deviate from the imperative to obey a patriarch, a religious scholar or even a political authority. In such a situation, the state or its surrogates reigns supreme with little or no space, imaginatively, to dissent or for dissidence on the part of Muslims. Visual representations in Orientalist paintings limit and project this imagination in the form of oriental despots with swords at their waists surrounded by obedient subjects.

The regulatory strategy of the statist principal throughout the world has recently experienced renewed vigour in the form of the political centre, also known as the modern state. At all costs, the political centre, a new invention among human beings, must hold and stem the tide of anarchy that threatens our way of life or the more mundane rhetoric of ‘national security’. Statist principal thus refers to both the state as leader in a personalist sense (a cult of personality surrounding politicians) and in an impersonal sense (the complex web or machinery of bureaucrats, representatives and procedures). In either sense, the paramountcy of the state demands direct and unmediated loyalty, or at least obedience, of the civic body composed by specific individuals.

States in their contemporary mould have exacted precise commitments from their citizens through a variety of strategies ranging from discipline to persuasion to consent. The relationship between dissidence and the statist principal can be considered as one between the right to disobey (citizens) and the right to be obeyed (the state). In defiance of the conventional wisdom about them, Muslims have for centuries dissented from the scripts and theatrics directed from above by political authorities. Dissidence was and continues to be couched in terms congruent if not defined by Muslim religious convictions and rationales. However, this practice of dissent has tended not to be aimed at tearing the fabric of the state but rather loosening its strings of fear, discipline and domination experienced on a daily basis.

The continuous emergence of dissidents among Muslims belies the obsession with despotism by non-Muslim and even Muslim commentators. What is commonly known as ‘speaking truth to power’ figures prominently in how Muslims claim for themselves the means or ‘apparatus’ for forming their subjectivities, in other words how they see the world and formulate their ethical worldviews. Mohsen Kadivar (exiled), Anwar Ibrahim (newly freed) and Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh (imprisoned) are living testaments to the ethical rule of criticism directed at the political centre and the dire consequences of doing so in environments that tolerate no dissent. The statist principal in its various guises, theocratic, national or secular, has been questioned.

Dissent in Iran’s theocratic state took a theological turn in the writings of Mohsen Kadivar, a religious scholar from the traditional seminary, and Abdolkarim Soroush in his peculiar version of Karl Popper’s ideas. Kadivar’s challenge to the ideologues who underwrite the existence and primacy of the ‘Islamic regime’ was both indigenous and internal somewhat coloured by a modernist dye, with the latter trait not dissimilar to that of his governmental opponents. These opponents who cry foul at Orientalism, in a curious and ironic twist of events, have written a blank cheque for state legitimacy that seemingly confirms the stereotypes of ‘oriental despotism’. While Kadivar, anticipated by Soroush, has tried to carve space for dissent, official voices appear to insist that Islam and despotism are natural fits. For the champions of theocracy, self-orientalising is the rule of the day.

The costs paid by Kadivar and Soroush for their dissent and disavowal of the official regime script have been harassment and fleeing abroad. For these two dissidents, exile has caused them to lose the decades-old moral and political credibility which they cultivated through their principled stances and presence in an authoritarian milieu also experienced by their supporters and allies. Disillusionment among these supporters and allies that Kadivar and Soroush have left them to deal with the political fallout of their ideas may perhaps point to a deliberate strategy by the Iranian regime in stifling dissent through the combination of conspiracy, coercion and exile.

Since the late 1990s, Anwar Ibrahim has wrestled with political controversy in and out of prison in Malaysia. However, a royal pardon this past May saw him freed. Ibrahim’s flight into dissidence began with his fall from grace in government under Mahathir Mohamed, his one-time mentor. The former Islamist youth leader turned symbol of unity in a multicultural Malaysia has survived the onslaught against his moral integrity. Former opponents, those who initially imprisoned Ibrahim, have recognised his clout and are ready to play ball with him. Barisan Nasional’s over half a century of one-party rule, following allegations of massive financial corruption involving billions of dollars surrounding Najib Razak, was swept out power thanks to an alliance composed by Mahathir and Ibrahim. Time spent in prison earnt Ibrahim the political kudos to remain a contender for the highest office of Malaysian politics: the prime ministership.

In the midst of a return of military rule to Egypt, dissidence has been subjected to policing driven by the ostensible agenda of national security in the face of terrorism. The coup d’état in July 2013 led to mass incarceration for many, including the ousted president Muhammad Morsi, that numbers in the tens of thousands. The political centre has attempted to single-handedly define how Egyptians ought to speak about and interact with the government. Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh has deviated from the top-down narrative that Egyptians are not quite ready for democracy. His political career of perennial dissent has seen Abul Fotouh in challenges to Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak and Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. Imprisonment has lent him the credibility to become a popular political figure who attracted support in the first round of Egypt’s first democratic presidential elections, gaining just over four million votes, and in the formation of a political party, the Strong Egypt Party. Now again, Abul Fotouh finds himself in prison after condemning the recent presidential elections and the role of the army in politics in an interview with al-Jazeera al-Mubasher on a visit to London. Changing political climes have not taken the wind out the sails of his principled stands against the domination of the statist principal.

What Kadivar, Ibrahim and Abul Fotouh share in common is not only the experience of being imprisoned due to their dissent, but the direct challenge they pose to the political centre. They are merely representatives of the trend of dissidence against the statist principal, in its colonial and post-colonial forms, among Muslims today. Tawakkol Karaman, 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate and the late Shaykh Imad Effat, who worked at the Dar al-Iftaa and protested against the post-Mubarak transitional military government, similarly experienced the trials and tribulations of standing up to the worst excesses of the unremitting domination of the statist principal. Dissidence as a practice leads to the accumulation of a great deal of political capital can be deployed with dizzying success when the opportune moment arises.