To Perpetuate their Dictatorships, Arab Rulers resort to the Islamic Creed / Elie Elhad

The compatibility between Islam and democracy has been a controversial topic. While empirical studies since 2000 confirm the prevailing notion that Muslim majority states offer fewer political rights than non-Muslim countries, the question as to why such a phenomenon exists remains unsatisfactorily answered. One key element is how the interpretation of Islam itself has been so effectively used by Arab regimes to indoctrinate subjects into believing that blind obedience to their absolute rule is a form of Islamic piety. This article will also argue that Islam, combined with the security forces and the poverty of the masses render the majority of Arabs politically quietist.


The Koran often provides Muslims with contradictory inspirations on subjects of political or social relevance. On Muslim relations with Christians and Jews, for example, a moderate Muslim would focus on peaceful and tolerant verses such as 29:46: “Do not argue with the People of the Book [Christians and Jews] unless in a fair way.” Similar injunctions are found in, among others, 2:62, 2:136, 2:256, and the second part of 5:82, though the first part of the passage is more belligerent. A moderate would point out that Islam reveres Christian and Jewish prophets and messengers and that the Koran dedicates Chapter 14 with its 52 verses to Abraham and Chapter 12 with its 111 verses to Joseph. To Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Koran dedicates Chapter 19 with its 98 verses. The Koran refers to Islam in 2:135 as the “Religion of Abraham.”

At the same time, Islamists also find support for their arguments in the Koran, choosing intolerant verses, such as 5:78: “Curses were pronounced on those among the children of Israel who rejected faith, by the tongue of David and of Jesus….” Intolerance is also found in, for example, 2:65, 2:120, 5:51, 5:60, and the first part of 5:82. In addition, some key writings support rebellion against the ruler, though these clearly are not emphasized by the regimes if the government is not or is insufficiently pious. Even more verses mandate fighting non-Muslims. In 2:191, 2:193, 8:60, 9:5, and 9:29, violence against non-Muslims is ordered. In 9:29: “Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which has been forbidden by God and his Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of truth, even if they are of the People of the Book, until they pay the protective tax (jizya) with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”

A key to the Islamist and jihadist positions is the justification for rebellion in principal Islamic texts, such as: “Whoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart.”[1]

Violent verses, combined with verses exalting the eternal bliss awaiting the martyrs in paradise, like 2:82, 18:31, 44:52, 44:53, 44:54, and 61:12, inspire suicide bombers and those who indoctrinate them. The combination of the Islamist, jihadist, and martyr-inducing enables charismatic Islamist politicians to claim the high religious ground, accuse others of heresy, and energize their followers to commit acts of violence.

Since September 11, 2001, Muslim clerics, scholars, and state officials have invested considerable resources in polishing Islam’s image in the West, including fatwas (religious edicts)[2] and condemnations[3] against the destruction of innocent lives, letters to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders urging greater understanding between Islam and Christianity,[4] as well as conferences to condemn terrorism[5] and promote dialogue on religion and culture.[6] Such events, however, will remain apologists’ public relations efforts until research into the historicity of the Koran and the Sunna (body of Islamic law) is allowed freely in Muslim--particularly Arab--countries and the intolerant and violent verses are pacified.

Most important, is the battle over how to interpret Islam and its texts. While Islamists versus nationalists or conservative traditionalists compose one element in this struggle, the dice are loaded against moderates and reformers, since regimes oppose them as much as they do the Islamists.

The problem is that almost all Arab kings or presidents benefit from a dominant interpretation of Islam commanding Muslims to obey the Muslim ruler blindly, just as Islamists profit from interpretations that are easily used to justify their ideas and actions.


In 4:59, the Koran orders: “Obey God and obey God’s messenger and obey those of authority among you.” This verse contributes to the culture of obedience to hierarchical authority in Arab societies--the male over the female, the father over the wife (or wives) and children, the teacher over the student, the employer over the employee, the ruler over the ruled, the ulama (religious scholars) over the faithful, and so forth, with every authoritarian party in each group augmenting the influence of the others.

Sunna traditions amplify the Koran. The answer as to how a Muslim should react to a ruler who does not follow the true guidance that Muhammad is reported to have said, according to Sahih Muslim, the hadith (sayings or deeds of Muhammad) collection of Muslim Bin al-Hajjaj (d. 875): “He who obeys me obeys God; he who disobeys me, disobeys God. He who obeys the ruler, obeys me; he who disobeys the ruler, disobeys me.”[7] Such wording or its equivalent occurs two dozen times in Sahih Muslim. The hadith collections of Abi Da’ud (d. 888) and Ibn Maja (d. 886) quote Muhammad as imploring Muslims to hear and obey their Muslim ruler, even if he were an Ethiopian slave.[8] Al-Bukhari (d. 870) quotes similar wording.[9]

It should be noted that in the medieval battle between more liberal and more restrictive theologians, the fact that the latter tended to support obedience to existing regimes gave the rulers a strong incentive to support the more “hardline” interpreters who gained the victory. The consequences for these societies were devastating, blocking their progress and ensuring they underwent no equivalent of the Western Enlightenment, which succeeded due to the fact that the battle there ended with the victory of the more liberal theologians.

Though today used by Islamists seeking to overthrow the incumbent government, at the time, the victorious strict-constructionists greatly benefited the rulers. For example, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) taught that any ruler was better than chaos, no matter what the origin of his power.[10] Badr al-Din Bin Jama’a (1241-1333) promoted the view that the ruler is the shadow of God on the Earth; that he can either be chosen or can impose himself by his own power, and in either case, he must be obeyed; that if he is deposed by another, the other must equally be obeyed; and that “we are with whoever conquers”.[11]

Taki al-Din Bin Taymiyya (1263-1328) believed that the essence of government was the power of coercion and that the ruler could demand obedience from his subjects, for even an unjust ruler was better than strife and dissolution of society.[12]

Notwithstanding that the opinions of these scholars were a product of the political turmoil of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Arab rulers today invoke these opinions all the same. Ironically, Islamists favor the same theologians but stress that obedience is due only to a properly pious government, that is, an Islamist rather than a traditionalist or nationalist one.

The Arab peoples’ embrace of Islam is tight. Arabs feel that they are the guardians of an Arabic religion. The Koran describes the Arabs as the “best race evolved to mankind” (3:110). Muhammad, his Companions, the Koran, and the Muslim holy places are located in Arabic-speaking areas. Political frustrations at home and from abroad since the mid-twentieth century have also drawn most Arabs closer to Islam.

Finally, the belief in predestination, a core belief in the Islamic creed, attributes all good and bad to the will of God. Bad rulers are accepted as if they were ordained by God’s will.

Given Islam’s continuing power and popular enthusiasm for it, Arab kings and presidents would want to nurture the Islamic fabric of their societies, build a psychological defense against rebellion, and declare Western democracy as alien to Islamic teaching.[13] In recent years, they have had to deal with the danger posed by the fact that this strategy could strengthen their Islamist rivals, but this has brought only minor adjustments to the overall approach of exalting Islam as a basis for these societies and as a perceived source of political stability.

Consequently, Islam is enshrined as the religion of the state in the constitution of every Arab kingdom and republic. The sole exceptions are Djibouti, which is silent on state religion, and Syria, which makes Islam the religion of the president, though it has generally promoted Islamic piety, especially since just after 2000. In Saudi Arabia, the Koran and the Sunna are the constitution. In other Arab countries, Islam is either a major or the main source of legislation.

Up until around the 1980s, when it became a tool of Islamist opposition movements, Islam--along with internal security forces, privileges for selected groups, poverty, illiteracy, and ill health of the masses--rendered the majority of the Arab people politically quietist. This explains why, for example, no regime has been overthrown in any Arab state since 1970 except for those in Sudan and Yemen.

In contrast, the Iranian monarchy, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union collapsed, while many other countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have seen coups, revolutions, the peaceful transfer of power, or more than one of these types of change.

When the presidents of Egypt and Yemen allowed contested presidential elections on September 7, 2005, and September 20, 2006, respectively, the former incumbent gained a fifth term with 88.6 percent of the votes cast--hardly different from his four previous referendums--and the latter won a 77.2 percent majority after 28 years of absolute rule. Even if the regimes had falsified a big proportion of the election ballots, there was still impressive support for the incumbents, as well as no upheaval when the results were announced.

Again, in contrast, in Islamist Iran, when the 2009 election results were manipulated by the regime, massive unrest resulted, a factor showing that Islam alone is not responsible for political passivity, or at least that when traditionalist Islamic interpretations are disrupted and the religion politicised, a very different situation can arise.

The above is not intended to imply, however, that Arabic-speaking states are free of domestic opponents. Small liberal-minded and large Islamist groups are present in every country. One reason why the Islamists are many times more successful than the liberals is...



*Elie Elhadj, born in Syria, is a veteran international banker. He was Chief Executive Officer of Arab National Bank in Saudi Arabia during most of the 1990s. After retiring, he received his Ph.D. from London University's School of Oriental and African Studies.


(GLORIA) Center

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