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Muslims and the modern state: What's the big problem?

Muslims have shown clearly that democracy is compatible not just with Islam but also with the idea of using state power to make a better world

The biggest political news from the Muslim world remains the self-declared Caliphate based in parts of Syria and Iraq. This presents itself as the restoration of a very ancient form of government. Once again, it seems, Muslims are looking to the past, not the future.

But actually the self-declared Caliphate, whose de facto capital is in Al-Raqqah in Syria, has little to do with the more famous Caliphates of Damascus, Baghdad and Istanbul. It is really a small, centralised state with a homogenous population of Arabic-speaking Sunnis, and this is a very modern type of state.

Modern states are centralised states. Pre-modern states like the classic Caliphates had powerful centres, but they were not centralised. The Caliph shared power with members of his own family, provincial governors, tribal sheikhs, heads of guilds, and even the heads of some notable families. The Caliph spoke Arabic (or Ottoman Turkish), but most of his subjects spoke something else. Politics was a process of balancing and negotiation between independently powerful groups.

Modern states are not like that. In modern states, central state structures are far more powerful than any non-state structure. This can be used as a test of whether a state is modern or not. According to this test, 93 per cent of the world's Muslims live in modern states. There are still some pre-modern Muslim states, some very poor, and some very rich. But they are unusual, and only 7 per cent of the world's Muslims live in them.

Because central state structures are very powerful in modern states, modern political thought has produced three important ideas and related practices.

First is the idea of limiting the power of the state. The best known way of doing this is through democracy, but there are other ways of doing it. Among these are the rule of law, and its close relative, constitutionalism. Democracy is the norm in much of the world, but alternative methods of limiting the power of the central state are successfully used in much of East Asia.

Second is the idea of neutralising the power of the state by making state and people one, by making sure that the culture of the state matches that of its citizens. In practice, language is usually taken as the most obvious indicator of culture. This idea is the basis of nationalism, one of the most potent forces in the modern world, and of the nation-state, which within only a few generations has replaced the multi-national empire as the global norm.

Third is the idea of using the power of the state to make a better world. Here the best known example is Marxist-Leninism, but a more successful example is the social welfare systems found in Scandinavia.

All three of these great ideas are found in the Muslim world.

There is a widespread impression that democracy and Islam do not mix, but careful analysis shows that this is not actually true. Democracy can be defined in many ways, but one pragmatic test of whether a state is a democracy or not is to look at how the current leader first became leader. If he or she inherited the position from his father or took it after a successful military coup, then the state in question is not a genuine democracy, however many "elections" may be arranged. If he or she acquired the position as a result of an election without anything like a military coup intervening, then the state in question may be classed as a democracy. Not necessarily a perfect democracy, but a democracy nonetheless.

At present, 10 major Muslim states more or less pass this pragmatic test, containing between them 56 per cent of the world's Muslim population living in Muslim states (rather than living as a minority in a predominantly non-Muslim state such as India or China). Democracy, then, is not the universal experience of Muslims everywhere, but more Muslims in Muslim states live in democratic states than in any other type of state.

Nationalism has also had a tremendous impact on Muslims. Twenty per cent of the world's Muslim population lives in just two states, Pakistan and Bangladesh, that owe their existence to the idea that the culture of the state should match that of its citizens. In Europe in an earlier period, language and religion had generally coincided, but in South Asia they did not, and a choice had to be made. It was religion that was chosen.

Elsewhere, 73 per cent of the world's Muslim population lives in states that were at some point part of European multi-national empires, the collapse of which owes much to the universal acceptance of the principle of national self-determination. Nationalism, then, has had a tremendous impact on the lives of Muslims.

The idea of using the power of the modern state to make a better world is the basis of the classic idea of the Islamic state. There are many ways of defining the Islamic state, and in one sense any state with a Muslim majority is an Islamic state, as its culture inevitably reflects Islam, and as the sharia has some authority over its citizens, for example in determining how and when they pray the salat, or how and when they fast.

One pragmatic way of defining a "really" Islamic state would be as a state where the sharia has authority over the state itself, not just over individual citizens. This definition excludes Pakistan, because even though Pakistan calls itself an Islamic republic and reflects some Islamic norms in its laws, there is no institutional mechanism for the sharia to exercise any control over the Pakistani state.

On the basis of this definition, it appears that only 7 per cent of the world's Muslims live in just three "really" Islamic states: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and (perhaps) the Caliphate of Al-Raqqah. The Islamic state, then, is not part of the experience of the vast majority of Muslims.

The biggest political news from the Muslim world remains the Caliphate of Al-Raqqah, but this is a big story because it is dramatic, not because it is in any way typical.

What is typical among Muslims is not the Islamic state or the pre-modern state - though both exist - but democracy and nationalism. Muslims have also shown clearly that democracy is compatible not just with Islam but also with the idea of using the power of the state to make a better, more Islamic, world. The Islamic version of hard-core Marxist-Leninist revolution is to be found in Al-Raqqah, but the Islamic version of social democracy is to be found in many more places. Every Muslim-majority democracy has at least one political party that defines itself in Islamist terms and participates normally in the normal political process.

The perception that Muslims are looking to the past, then, is wrong, as is the perception that Islamism is the big problem for Muslims, and that democracy and Islam do not mix. Lack of democracy and the lack of a modern state do bring very real problems for some Muslims, but they are not problems for most Muslims.

The big problem for Muslims today is actually still nationalism, as it was in 1948. Twenty per cent of Muslims live in large non-Muslim states with a significant Muslim minority, and in every one of these there is a region where Muslims are a local majority. In all but one of these regions there is currently some sort of conflict. And in almost every Muslim state with a large confessional minority, whether Sunni or Shia, there is now conflict. That is the most serious political problem that faces Muslims today.

- Mark Sedgwick is Professor in the Department of Culture and Society at Aarhus University, Denmark. Previously, he was Associate Professor at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. His publications include Making European Muslims: Religious Socialisation Among Young Muslims in Scandinavia and Western Europe (2014), Muhammad Abduh (2009), Sufism: Saints and Sons (2005), and Sufism: The Essentials (2000). This article is drawn from a longer paper given in a seminar as part of the Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC) Dialogues series.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: An election official helps apply ink onto the finger of a voter at a polling station in Kuta on Indonesia's resort island of Bali on December 9, 2015. Indonesia is the biggest Muslim majority democracy in the world.