All (Muslim) Politics Is Local

How Context Shapes Islam in Power

The maxim Islam din wa-dawla (Islam is religion and state) is often said to describe a distinguishing mark of Islam -- the suggestion being that Islam is a religion with a political mission at its core. Both those who repeat the mantra with approving fervor and those who worry about it assert its essential truth and suggest that all Muslims must make it a part of their worldview. Some go so far as to claim that this axiom calls for a particular form of state structure or political behavior.

And yet, of course, the statement is nothing more than a political slogan -- an artifact of its time, its meaning contingent on the setting in which it is used, like any other rallying cry. This quality does not make the slogan any less meaningful for the Muslims who subscribe to it; what it does is highlight the fact that this saying reflects a preoccupation with state power in the modern world. The Muslims who adhere to it, no less than those who do not and no less than non-Muslims, are both the products and the makers of that world. This point is worth stating since much of the present debate about the role of Islam in world politics tends to downplay the political or, at least, display a one-dimensional understanding of what drives political ambition. The political behavior of Islamists, and sometimes that of all Muslims, is often treated as an exotic peculiarity that defies normal analysis and can only be explained as an extension of their faith.

Whatever one's reference point, however, the sometimes sordid business of politics has a gravitational pull that brings lofty ideals and grand sentiments down to earth with a thump. To play the game of politics is to grapple with the practicalities of power. This requires making sense of why people act as they do and when they do: why they respond to certain calls to action -- nationalist, Islamist, whatever -- and why they think their political activities are appropriate, ethically as well as practically, to the ends they imagine worthy of achievement.

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