Antiquity Rising: Political Islam And The New Battle Grounds Of Religion Vs. Secularism

Religion and Politics in a Changing International Order

The balance between the role of religion in the construction of political authority has plagued not only contemporary society, but through the dawn of development in ancient society. The ideological doctrines of international relations and religion are irrevocably intertwined as competing entities and have historically been in competition in the projection of their version of moral truth as indicative of the measure of power.

Reflection upon secular political ideologies and theological dogmas allows for the comprehension of the moral boundaries of each. When we think of international relations we usually don’t see our knowledge being guided by divine persuasion. But upon further inspection, how we value our moral imperative is based upon our social/cultural context. One can say universal norms dictated as moral truths, such as how we view murder, can be derived from both centuries old religious doctrines and secular rationality. But in reality, modernist approaches would mostly deny that there is any commonality with religion concerning the way they deduce moral frameworks.

Rationalists (secularists) would indicate that religious doctrine is based on outdated and conflicting principles for comprehending the problems of today, whether economic or political, and thus does not act as a suitable reference point for mollifying our anarchic world. Conversely, religion can make the argument that rationalists are disengaged with a proper moral compass because of their constant renovation of the nature of the human being in relation to the material world around him or her. Thus, not having a concrete (T)ruth from a higher order would make any moral claim they stand on easily corruptible by human desires.

The growing trend toward secularization within the Western world helped define the philosophical impetus towards developing an understanding of participatory politics and democratic principles. The binding nature of Absolutism in Europe, in which the political power of royals was inherited by a direct decree from God, was beginning to look ever more archaic and primitive as Enlightenment principles began to develop in the 1700s. This allowed people to ponder the true role of religious doctrine in providing a narrative to summarize the context of their lives. Since this time, the floundering nature and authority of religion has deepened the impact of new age secular insurgence on old age doctrines of religious texts. We currently see this with the battle between Islam and modernity; the dawn of secular ideologies has caused Islam to have a theological resurgence as it struggles to define itself in a post-colonial world.

Today’s conflict between the resurgence of religion and secularism as prime indication of one’s identity/cultural character further escalates the tension with international relations theories. As both compete to become the correct dogma of power relations, there is a deepening divide on how to formulate governing polities, repair economic schisms, and materialize consensus concerning acts of war.

The bustling world of ideologies offers multiple dialectics on how to discern the reality of our ever-fluid political landscape. Religion has a long history in influencing the proclivities of state behavior and has helped to shape the nature of how we view moral relativism in relation to politics. Throughout the centuries, religious doctrines have been noted as providing the necessary philosophical outlook for institutionalizing law and order. It was only after the 30 Years’ War in Europe that we began to see the formation of the secularization of politics due to the highly sectarian nature of the battle. The Treaty of Westphalia provided a framework for the construction of the nation-state as an inviolable entity comprised of peoples with a collective identity. This new idea of the power of the sovereign provided the rulers of Europe the freedom to define their spirit by the essence of territorial integrity. This allowed various religious doctrines of the time the opportunity to modernize under the guise of the indissoluble collective: the nation-state.

Secular nationalism under the umbrella of the nation-state has proven to be a success in certain parts of the world where there is a strong ethnic, historical, and principle based identity. In other parts of the world submission to the state counters a deep-seated understanding of God as sole protector. Alignment with an invisible entity such as a state has not proven to be beneficial or practical for people who view their religion as a communal entity regardless of where their brethren live in accordance to national political borders, as the discordant Muslim World has shown throughout its historical development.

Towards a New Power Paradigm: Political Islam and International Relations

The Post-WW1 colonial construction of artificial states across the greater Middle East has been destroyed. It will take a number of years, most likely a decade or so, before we are able to see the true effects of the breakdown of the old order and the emergence of new political boundary lines and governance systems.

In this current battle there is a raging fight in how new states can be formed and who will hold power. The battles of today’s Middle East may be a fight for the balance of power through different (and quickly altering) alliance axes (i.e. Iran, Syria, Iraq, and tentative Turkey vs. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf monarchies) but they are overwhelming dominated by the intricacies of the fight for ideological prominence. The role religion, in this case Islamist theological doctrine, will play in both the public and private lives of people, has always been the primordial question regarding how the people’s of the Middle East build a sustainable socio-political order.

Political Islam has a long history and various branches within both the Sunni and Shia doctrines. Political Islam is still developing within itself as it similarly competes with modern-Western oriented doctrines like secular nationalism that regulates religion to the cultural/private sphere and where government is not to impose religion on the definition of the state.

The Arab-Muslim world is currently in a battle against secular nationalism as it grapples between how Political Islam fits into new societal structures that will be build once the current civil wars wither into the redevelopment stage. But it will be religion vs. secular identity that will be one of the defining ideological battles in the international relations of the modern era.

Islam was not a part of the European experiment in reforming the role of religion in a secular state. Therefore, Islam currently has to battle not just a post-modern understanding of religion but modernity itself. The implications of Islam for contemporary world affairs are situated in the struggle of Political Islam/Islamist thought to define an Islamic democracy, the growing division between Western/secular values and traditional Muslim culture, and the violent schism between Islamic fundamentalism and Progressive Islam.

Currently in Middle East politics there is an ongoing effort within Islamist thought to re-define the scope of democracy. Islamism prescribes a particular blend of religiosity to state institutions and seeks to rebrand these institutions as a formidable force in the implementation of Shari’ah law. Islamism is a modern ideological venture within the Islamic community to formulate a response to the pervasive nature of foreign political philosophies and practices. There exist grave distinctions between the goals of Radical/Fundamentalist Islam and that of Islamism. Fundamentalist Islam is usually practiced by those who have a literalist understanding of the Qur’an and does not necessarily advocate political aspirations.

The growing mistrust and misunderstanding of the nature of Islam lead many to presume an inherently violent and/or fundamentalist nature within its followers. This allows for an imbalance in the procedural and doctrinal ventures Islam needs to make in order to experiment with democracy. Does democracy need to adapt to Islam or Islam to democracy?

As Islam attempts to build parallel religious structures to modern governing, the concept of the nation-state system in the Middle East will go through a revolutionary change. There will still be states, possibly the birth of new nations, but new borderlines will be drawn. What the shape the emerging new states will take will depend not only on who wins the physical battles, but the ever-potent theological battle between Islamism (of all sects) vs. Secularism. Thus, the relationship between religion and international relations is based upon an endless clash of rhetoric and doctrine that prelude to the various instinctive ways people derive the moral basis for power structures.

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