There is Nothing Inevitable About Dictatorships in Muslim States | Opinion

Earlier this month, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt as an autocrat for three decades, appeared as a witness against imprisoned former Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, who was Egypt's first freely elected leader. Besides being former Egyptian presidents, they had something else in common: their religious supporters both considered revolting against them to be a forbidden form of "khuruj 'ala al-hakim" – "withdrawing from the ruler." This wasn't just an idle sentiment; it was expressed by Ali Gomaa', the-then Mufti of Egypt whose words I heard when in Cairo during the revolutionary uprising of 2011. "Khuruj 'ala al-shar'iyya haram, haram, haram" – 'exiting' from [political] legitimacy is religiously forbidden, forbidden, forbidden."

It wouldn't be the last time I would hear this pre-modern concept of traditional Islamic law instrumentalised into contemporary political discourse. Almost a decade on since I watched the beginnings of the Arab uprisings, I still see the concept parlayed into political discourse across the regionin ways that seem to often betray a lack of context, consistency, and historicity. But in ways that are certainly helpful in promoting environments where autocracy can thrive – and, ironically, where Islamic scholarship itself, is put into jeopardy.

Supporters of Arab autocratic regimes of Mubarak and others that faced the Arab uprisings were not the only ones to use this tool. I heard religious defenders of the Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt that followed the military regime of 2011-2012 use precisely the same argument against civilian protesters in 2012—that opposition or dissent against the 'rightful' leader was religiously forbidden. And less than a year later, the same religious leaders that opposed the protests against Mubarak on religious grounds were claiming that the protests—and much worse—against the Muslim Brotherhood were just fine.

Proponents of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood and the anti-Muslim Brotherhood camps will each have their justifications—of debatable consistency—as to why their deployment of the "khuruj" argument applies, and why their opponents' arguments do not qualify. But beyond all that, there's a critical question to be asked: can that medieval argument of "khuruj" ever be accurately utilised to justify modern autocracy by any party, and any backlash against dissent, by any amount of force? Or is there something rather mismatched here – and if so, what are the repercussions of that?

That's a discussion that perhaps religious scholars need to explore with a lot more depth than they have hitherto—absent from discussions of partisanship, and far away from expressing support for different governments, whether in Abu Dhabi or Doha, Cairo or Ankara, Riyadh or Tehran.

But irrespective of that scholastic discussion, it is undeniable that the world has changed a great deal since the concept had widespread currency among Muslims and was applied to pre-modern modes of government. Whether Muslim religious establishments have collectively realised this or not, the modern autocratic 'president' holds far more power—if only due to technology alone—than the medieval sultan. And far more destructive than that is that civil society in today's world is far weaker—especially in the modern Arab world—than it was in pre-modern Muslim societies.

That's not a good thing—not in the slightest—and just those two elements ought to give all religious scholars pause, before they assume medieval discussions around the duties and powers of the political elite have precise applicability in the modern age. Pre-modern Muslim communities were governed by far more libertarian systems—systems that were underpinned by social institutions, rather than the crippling and coercive powers of the modern state.

That deep contrast is especially true in the Arab world, which hardly emerged unscathed by the trauma of colonialism. On the contrary, much—if not all—of the region has since been shaped by a new trauma in post-colonial states. That trauma is what results in much of the autocracy that we now take for granted.

This genus of autocracy isn't an intrinsic norm of the region: it is the result of a great deal of conditioning. The modern autocrat or dictator in Syria owes far more to the system of colonialism that immediately preceded it, than it does to intrinsic Arab or Muslim systems of governance from past centuries.

Take the modern—and extremely restrictive—laws surrounding protest in many Arab states. Those laws aren't the result of Islamic law—in Egypt, for example, they are rooted in British colonial administration legislation, dating back to 1914. That law was instituted at the instigation of British occupation forces—to stop Egyptians protesting against the British.

It isn't that Islamic traditions enjoin endless anarchy—quite the contrary. But there is a lot of space between perpetual disorder and perpetual autocracy—space that was systematically reduced in favour of autocracy by the colonial era, and then perpetuated in post-colonial states.

Indeed, the system of autocracy and dictatorship faces a deep contradiction with the internal logic of the Islamic tradition of scholasticism. Islamic religious authoritativeness depends in large part on the equivalent of academic peer review among scholars, and then upon the popularity of scholars among the wider population. How can such 'peer review' take place without a corresponding atmosphere of intellectual freedom and accountability?

The short answer—it can't, especially when the modern state is married to an underlying system of such widespread control and regulation. Either parallel intellectual spaces will emerge, away from the prying eyes and control of state authorities—or, intellectual spaces won't really emerge at all. In either case, the creativity that flows from the engagement and discussion in a society that doesn't characterize dissent as a existential threat to the state will be absent.

This, at a time when modernity has brought about so many challenges—including the increasing tendency of society to call power to account. In such an era, Muslim communities need more—not less—accountability, and a freer public arena to discuss and debate. If Muslim religious scholars today seek to revive and rejuvenate religious discourse, they urgently need environments of creative and open enquiry. The ethics of the Islamic tradition cannot exist otherwise.

But autocrats are loathe to imagine any such environments – and that is the underpinning of the counter-revolutionary waves endemic throughout much of the wider region today. At the same time, such waves are ultimately self-defeating. Half a century ago, John F. Kennedy proclaimed that "those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." That doesn't mean violent revolution is necessarily morally preferable – it just means that it becomes far more likely an outcome. Autocrats would do well to remember that.

Dr H.A. Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the author of "A Revolution Undone: Egypt's Road Beyond Revolt" and "Muslims of Europe: the 'Other' Europeans." @hahellyer

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​