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05 October 2014

The social contract debate in Muslim Countries

CAN the prevalent political unrest and discontent in Muslim societies be regarded as a desire for change? In other words, are Muslim societies in search of new social contracts?

The militant struggle is all about a complete repla­cement of existing social contracts with an Islamic code of life. Both non-violent radicals and traditional religio-political forces are pursuing varying agendas ranging from Islamisation of their respective societies to reformation of and adjustments in constitutions in line with their perceived Islamic ideals.

Interestingly, these Islamist forces are not satisfied with the systems of democracy, controlled democracy or monarchies in their respective countries. Does the problem really lie with Muslim societies’ social contracts with their states, or is it the outcome of other pressures Muslim societies are subjected to?

Various religious agendas are competing with the state’s social contract with its people.
While identifying the underlying unrest in underdeveloped or developing societies, academicians usually factor in pressures of rapid globalisation and a sense of increasing aspirations among people. It may be true in case of diaspora communities. Others underscore structural social, religious and political narratives and behaviours of these societies, which they believe are not compatible with the pace of changes taking place in the world. No doubt global changes affect our daily lives, positively or negatively.

The emergence of a new middle class is another aspect of the debate. Middle classes want political empowerment in their respective societies. Governance issues and increasing non-functionality of traditional delivery systems in Muslim countries is another factor. These and other factors of growing resentment among Muslim societies with their respective states and constitutions have combined with a dearth of scholarship.

Another important question is, should these factors — structural, internal or global — raise the need for subversion of existing social contracts or constitutions?

A social contract ensures harmonious socio-economic and political balance in a society and provides a framework for the formation of a government and laws and their enforcement. The Arab Spring has not been successful in many countries in terms of the formation of new social contracts.

Failure to develop consensus among all segments of society on a new social contract has pushed Egypt again into an authoritarian regime. Tunisia provides an important example of drafting a new social contract, where unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamist Ennahda Movement did not insist on enshrining Sharia in the constitution and forged an alliance with secular parties.

Yemen is experiencing a different challenge in the formation of a new social contract, which is giving rise to questions of tribal and geographical representations in the constitution. Indonesia and Pakistan are among the Muslim nations where the constitutional reform process is intact and keeps ethnic communities together and tied to the state.

Even Muslim clergy in these countries is in favour of a continuity of the incumbent constitutional and democratic processes. A recent moot of leading religious scholars in Islamabad noted that Pakistan’s Constitution is a national-level social contract and in the light of Islamic teachings every Pakistani is bound to abide by it. Scholars also asserted that national-level disputes and conflicts, which are shared by all and not linked to particular religious sects or communities, should be settled on the basis of majority opinion. A minority cannot be granted the right to impose its opinion on the majority.

Although religious scholars do not regard democracy as a complete, ideal form of government, most of them believe it can be useful and effective for ensuring peaceful coexistence and pluralism in society. Interestingly, some religious scholars argue that even if rulers impose excessive taxes and force people to pay without legal justification for this, it is better for people to defend themselves by adopting peaceful ways than by revolting against the state.

The militants have different opinions and want to impose their version of the Islamic state through the use of force. The Constitution provides shields against militant, religious, anarchist, ultra-nationalist or ethnic ambitions that might seek to create imbalances in society.

The problem arises when political forces start believing in the extra-constitutional solution of issues, which ultimately encourages militants and ambitious radicals and strengthens anti-constitutional and anti-democratic narratives. Especially in the context of countries such as Pakistan, which has a long history of military interventions and domination of political institutions by the military, such narratives provide support to the militants.

The extra-constitutional power struggle within elites and powerful institutions creates confusion about the basic concept of a social contract. The extremists are the beneficiaries of such confusion and they use it for expanding their support bases across the country.

A review of the militants’ arguments reveals that they advocate an alternative system on the basis of loopholes in existing power structures. Asmatullah Muawiya, leader of a major Punjabi Taliban faction who recently renounced terrorism, had joined Al Qaeda and the Taliban on similar grounds. Muawiya had written letters to the media before the 2013 general elections and raised questions about the democratic system, which, he felt, was not providing relief to the common man. One of the reasons behind his renunciation of violence in Pakistan, is the ongoing debate among religious scholars on issues like violent struggles, the Constitution, democracy and Islam, which has created an intellectual challenge for the militants.

Usually, when political actors fail to gain their share in power, they directly attack the Constitution and suggest extra-constitutional measures to fix problems, which fundamentally are not linked with the Constitution. At the same time, powerful institutions, which is the military in Pakistan though the judiciary has tried to assert itself of late, sabotage the social contract. This subversion turns the power balance in their favour but in the longer run causes structural problems. This discourse in many Muslim countries is a primary factor behind their decline.

Muslim countries, especially Pakistan, cannot afford the subversion of their respective constitutions as the social imbalances and rise of violent and non-violent radicalism can completely transform the situation, which the radicals have shown they can achieve without paying a high price.
By Muhammad Amir Rana, dawn.com
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2014