Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Islam Instrumentalized: Religion and Politics in Historical Perspective

Jean-Philippe Platteau

The blue mosque by Giuseppe Milo via Flickr

To what extent and in what sense is Islam responsible for the problems encountered by the countries in which it dominates? Foremost among such problems are high political instability and the postponement or reversal of social reforms conducive to long-term development. For example, reform of the family code and measures to improve women’s status, or modernization of school curricula and measures to minimise rote learning of religious and other texts, clearly involve high costs in terms of growth opportunities foregone. The argument in my book seeks to explain the simultaneous presence of these two problems. It rests on two propositions.

First, I disagree with the essentialist view heralded by the “clash of civilizations” thesis, according to which Islam is a major obstacle to modern development because it has always been associated with a merging of religion and the state, or a fusion between the spiritual and political spheres of life. This thesis does not withstand a careful examination of history. From the very beginning, as soon as after the death of the Prophet, the political regime in the lands of Islam took on the shape that it has essentially retained until today, namely that of authoritarian or even despotic regimes dominated by the military and to which religious clerics tended to be submissive. In other words, politics always had the upper hand and Islam did not succeed in suppressing fierce struggles for absolute power generally framed in tribal terms. Religion appeared more as a means used to legitimate access to political power than as a genuine ideology guiding the rulers’ behaviour.

Second, I believe that Islam possesses a special feature in the form of a highly decentralised structure. Unlike Christianity, it does not have a vertical chain of command with a chief at its head. A basic principle of Islam is that believers have a direct link to God and must behave according to the recognized sources of law. Yet, precise and coherent instructions contained in these sources are few and erstwhile customs of the place where the faithful live have frequently served to complement the religious law. The outcome of this situation is that when they attempt to co-opt or corrupt the men of religion, political sovereigns are unable to negotiate with a single commanding figure, who will guarantee compliance of the believers and thereby provide legitimacy for their despotic regime. They must strive to seduce as many clerics as possible and, in times of turmoil or when the ruler’s policies are particularly oppressive, unfair and despotic, they will not prevent a portion of the clerics from turning into political opponents and leaders of insurrectionary movements. A deep polarization of religion between official clerics who support the regime and self-appointed clerics who oppose it then occurs and, since both the former and the latter refer to Islam’s message to reinforce their credentials, a religious bidding war breaks out. Every debate in the society becomes framed in the language of religion, and politics becomes highly unstable.

An international context in which Muslim-dominated countries are or feel to be unfairly treated and are or feel to be lagging behind in terms of power and status, only serves to inflame the situation by encouraging the adoption of radical ideologies of the puritan type. The central message of these ideologies is the following: it is only because Muslims have ceased to follow the strictures of their faith that they have been defeated by the civilization of the West. The only remedy is therefore to return to the faith in the strictest manner.


About The Author

Jean-Philippe Platteau

Jean-Philippe Platteau is Professor of Economics at Université de Namur, Belgium. He has devoted his research career to studying the role of institutions in economic development a...

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