To Engage or Not to Engage with the Establishment: That is The Question

The political and social aspirations of Muslims in Westernised settings, whether as minorities or majorities, raises the thorny question of engagement with non-Islamic governments.  Settling the question of whether or not this is possible, and what the alternatives are, is the key question Muslims must face, writes Saeed Khan.

The Muslim world continues to reel under the continuing trauma that it has experienced, especially over the past century with the institutionalization of colonialism and its myriad systems of occupation and oppression. The legacy of these impositions, from without and from within, is exacerbated by a consistent record of military intervention that has wreaked havoc on Muslim societies in dozens of countries, unleashing generational trauma and devastation. The power imbalance between Muslim and so-called ‘Western’ countries, and between Muslim communities living in the so-called ‘West’ as minorities vis-à-vis the respective dominant societies, coupled with the constant pressures on these countries and communities alike by way of geopolitical impositions and Islamophobia, has spawned considerable soul searching within the Islamicate.

The question that consumes Muslims caught in these quagmires is one of engagement: should Muslims interact with the very establishment that may be responsible for their marginalization, discrimination, securitization and even incarceration. In other words, can Muslims work with the Western(ised) establishment? If so, are there conditions and what are they? If not, why not?

Neither the Islamicate nor the ‘West’ is a monolith.  The Muslim world has undergone tremendous and often traumatic transformation, particularly over the last century, as decolonization, migration and establishment of Muslim communities in the ‘West’ have paralleled the disruptive and frequently destructive impact of Western intervention in and on Muslim countries, whether militarily, economically or politically. Treating the 1.8 billion person-strong ‘Muslim world’ as a static, uniform entity is obviously imprudent and unproductive.

At the same time, both the ‘West’ and those Muslim communities affected by it must resist the temptation and delusion of regarding the ‘West’ as being either fixed or even progressively advancing. There are incisive signs that the ‘West’ may be experiencing a decline in geopolitical power, influence and even a coherent sense of self-identity. These shifts of previously presumed pillars of stability and strength will and are impacting the way the ‘West’ conducts itself, both internationally and within its own borders. Muslims, regarded by the ‘West’ as inferior, incompatible and exploitable, within and without, become an easy target to scapegoat for the emergence of systemic flaws in the ‘Western’ project. Policies like Prevent in the UK or Combatting Violent Extremism (CVE) in the US have had profound explicit and implicit consequences on Muslim communities, by problematizing them as security threats, a sentiment internalized by many Muslims and taken as dictum by younger generations.

Whether due to ideological fallacies and contradictions or logistical deficiencies, as evidenced by the dubious and troubled management of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ‘West’ is at an inflection point as its own weaknesses and vulnerabilities are met by the rise of other countries, such as China as major actors on the world stage. With ‘Western’ power seemingly on the wane, how will that impact both the decision by Muslims to work with and the forms of engagement with their respective governments, their institutions and policy and legal processes? Is there a difference between working with Western establishments and Westernised establishments? What about alternative establishments arising e.g. China, India, Russia, etc. that may argue their credentials as non-Westernised and yet have problematic policies toward Muslims? Finally, if cooperation with the establishment is not permissible, what then are the alternatives for those Muslims seeking social justice and change?

Theological Considerations

As Muslims, the principal inquiry for any form of conduct and decision-making is whether such action is permissible, perhaps even obligatory, under Islamic precepts. The focus on the theological is normatively, and often empirically, the point of departure for if and/or how to engage with the establishment. Given the considerable impact of government policies on the Muslim communities they target directly or indirectly, there is the understandable inquiry and concern whether complicity in creating or causing harm to the community is an unacceptable, proscribed act in Islam.

Currently, there are some heated debates that span the spectrum of permissibility and extent of engagement with the establishment. Some contend that any engagement with a government or institution that has values, policies and/or outcomes that are inimical to Islamic sensibilities should be shunned altogether, as such interaction would be haraam, per se. Certainly, Quranic injunctions admonish the Ummah from taking certain groups and entities as its auliya, as there will invariably be a divergence in intentionality and objective.

Some Muslims contend that any level of engagement is an endorsement, normalization and legitimization of the government or entity with which the interaction is occurring. This becomes highly problematic if that entity is engaged in haraam action, irrespective of whether it affects Muslims solely or as part of a broader collective. For those who maintain such a perspective, even participating in the democratic process by voting or holding public office might be seen as out of bounds, Islamically.

By contrast, many Muslims living in minority communities in the ‘West’ are of the view that engaging with the establishment is not only Islamically permissible (halal), it approaches an obligation, whether wajib or even fard. Much of the rationale for this viewpoint rests upon interpretations and assessment of the Prophetic tradition and other examples where necessity warranted such engagement, even with the acknowledgment of potential harm to the Ummah. The notion of a potential net positive impact from such engagement, coupled with a perceived categorical imperative as Muslims to endeavour to improve their locale, as passivity and disengagement being deemed as unacceptable options, drives the idea that Muslims are both ambassadors and change agents wherever they are. In addition, there is an argument made that especially for Muslims living in the ‘West,’ and noting the impact that Western policies have on Muslims worldwide, it is mandatory for Muslims in those societies to engage with the establishment, as perhaps the best and possibly only advocates for aiding their brethren in the Ummah elsewhere.

Between the two Muslims perspectives that regard engagement with the establishment as either “halal” and “haraam” is a broad range of opinion based upon a presumption of engagement being permissible, yet subject to certain criteria being met before it can occur. For Muslims living as minority communities in the so-called ‘West,’ the development and application of “minority fiqh” is an emerging and dynamic field of scholarship, as Muslims are made to adapt to the various challenges they face in scenarios where they are outside an Islamic state or societal paradigm, as well as ones that make their fiqh a reactive rather than a proactive phenomenon.

Academic Perspectives

Notwithstanding the theological exploration, what does a historical assessment teach us about the permissibility and propriety of engagement with the establishment? Recent history is replete with Western interaction with the Islamicate that can hardly be characterized as symbiotic or even mutually beneficial. More accurately, western engagement can be framed as parasitic, with both economic and social disruption and pillage the norm. Realities in power differentials have certainly led to pragmatic approaches by Muslim communities and countries alike in their efforts to mitigate the negative effects of such Western action. These have often assumed the manifestation of either the proverbial carrot or stick. Military resistance has proven to be a futile campaign, dating back at least three centuries. In its place has been a variety of interventions that have sought to assert Muslim agency and influence. These efforts offer a chronicle of the causal impact of colonialism, western imperialism and its manifold consequences, both long and short-term in legacy.

Muslims still bear the memory and scars of certain forms of cooperation and collaboration with western forces during the colonial period, either as part of a transmitted history or through the tangible and visible legacy of those decisions. Context is critical in understanding not only the impetus for such engagement but also the mechanics of colonialism and imperialism as they were imposed on Muslim societies. With the continuing processes of decolonization, there is an evolving body of scholarship that analyses and develops the theoretical constructs that explain not only western motivations and strategies, but Muslim responses to them. These studies are highly instructive in gauging why Muslims would ostensibly choose, or feel compelled, to cooperate with their oppressors and occupiers. They also provide fertile source material to examine in determining which initiatives were successful in helping the Muslim community and which had more adverse consequences than anticipated.

Military Involvements

War has been a terrible and seemingly constant lens of engagement between the ‘West’ and the Islamicate. It is a continuing trespass that has arguably intensified since the end of the colonial era. In many cases, Muslim countries and communities have been pitted against one another for support, cover and justification to intervene in western ambitions for dominance and hegemony. This was a hallmark feature of the Cold War and has intensified in the 30 years since the battle of the superpowers concluded into first a unipolar world and now a multipolar reality. Whether in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or their posture against Iran, western forces have zealously co-opted regimes either to furnish material support or do their bidding by severing Muslim unity for ephemeral benefits. At the same time, subaltern realism, the recognition of asymmetric power dynamics, and existential threats to sovereignty have forced Muslim countries into taking militarized stances against fellow Muslim regimes.

Muslim communities in the ‘West’ have similarly been co-opted to support wars against Muslim countries by fomenting and amplifying sectarian, ethnic and nationalistic differences, ones often created by the ‘West’ itself. During the 2003 Iraq War, for example, Sunni and Shia Muslims were placed on opposite sides of the debate by an American administration seeking to push its military ambitions in Iraq, a fissure that has more recently been similarly exploited and deepened due to the Syrian conflict. At the same time, the Balkan wars of the 1990s were an example of European regimes depriving Bosnians of the necessary weapons to defend themselves against Serbian brutality offset by American airstrikes against Belgrade exposed the complexity of a ‘West’ that is far from monolithic, and the prospect of Muslim engagement in leveraging internal division to benefit Muslims under distress.

Counter-Extremism Measures

Perhaps one of the most contentious areas of Muslim engagement with the establishment has been concerning so-called counter-extremism policies. Notwithstanding the cooperation and complicity of Muslim regimes in securitizing their populations, there is a genuine cleavage in western communities as to whether Muslims should work with governments and other entities that seek to securitize and place their Muslim communities under a state of constant and perpetual surveillance. While certainly amplified since 9/11, the problematization of Muslim communities has predated 2001. In fact, it is the latest incarnation of a system of oppression that has been deployed at communities before Muslims.

Some Muslims contend, to borrow from an oft-cited adage, that if they do not have a seat at the table, they will appear on the menu, i.e. if they do not participate in the discussions about policies that target the community, those policies, especially blanket measures like anti-terror laws, will be implemented without any community pushback or input; worse, those seats will not go vacant, but will be occupied by Islamophobes or others that may be ambivalent or insensitive to Muslim concerns. This perspective is usually countered with the argument that policies will be enacted irrespective of Muslim involvement and that the Muslim participants are cynically used as window dressing and tokenism by the powers seeking cover from criticism of detachment from Muslim communities.

The Tone of Current Debate

While the probity of engaging with the establishment may be a matter of genuine disagreement based upon the merits of likelihood of success of such engagement, the current social and political climate has caused the questioning of motives to dominate, even pre-empt debates on differences of opinion in approach and strategy. The so-called “cancel culture” that pervades much of public discourse, in person or via social media, has created a toxic environment that has consequences for individuals, organizations and movements based on perceived personal opportunism, hypocrisy, disloyalty or even treachery. Allegiance to a select group of institutional or activist acronyms has become a litmus test of being “woke” to acceptable causes, tactics and authorities within those movements; those unwilling or unable to subscribe run the risk of alienation, demonization or even adverse impact to their lives and livelihoods.

Such scrutiny extends beyond direct engagement with the establishment institutions. They may also involve association with the establishment that is two to three degrees of separation. This phenomenon of “guilt by association” is now a function of proxy relationships and interventions, and serves to further affect the community in negative ways. While there is certainly the existence of individuals and organizations within the Muslim community that profit, financially and politically, by positioning themselves as the self-appointed spokespeople of the community, the line of demarcation becomes blurred when Muslims are engaged within the establishment, as elected officials, career bureaucrats or as academics and those with expertise in relevant fields. While the underlying and highly problematic actions of Western engagement with Muslim communities and countries has daily repercussions for the well-being of hundreds of millions of Muslims, the intra-Muslim dynamics of policing engagement with the establishment has palpable and potentially destructive effects.

This December 11-12, the IHRC will host it’s annual Islamophobia conference (virtually) on “Working with the Western(ised) Establishment: Yes, No, Maybe?” This conference is organised to address the questions posed by Muslim participation in civic and political life in the so-called ‘West,’ including countries like the UK, the US, the European Union, Australia and Canada. Of course, these are regions where Muslims reside as minority communities, oftentimes as scapegoats for pre-existing social ruptures and as targets of discrimination. But these questions are not just for Muslims living in the ‘West’ as countries that are Muslim majority or have large Muslim populations bear the burden of being institutionally ‘Westernised.’ These nations, including Nigeria, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Malaysia and others, face the reality of asymmetric power dynamics with the ‘West’ as well as with those within their respective countries that are colonized and westernised from within. The scheduled panels will address the various issues that arise on the always timely question of how much engagement with the establishment of the ‘West’ and its vestigial forces is prudent, acceptable and necessary, if at all.

For Muslims, the theological, academic, communal and strategic considerations are complex and often convoluted, intertwined, and currently creating fissures within the Islamicate that are either exploited by external forces or at the least, making any sense of Muslim pluralism, let alone unity, highly elusive. A conversation that assesses all of these factors, their parameters and offering strategies moving forward is an essential intervention for Muslim communities whose agency and viability in the societies where they reside is in constant question by the establishment of and in the ‘West.’

Saeed Khan is Professor of Near East & Asian Studies & Global Studies and Director of Global Studies at Wayne State University, Detroit, USA. His most recent publications include “What’s Going on Here? US Experiences of Islamophobia between Obama and Trump“, co-authored with Saied R. Ameli for Islamic Human Rights Commission publications.