A Future History of the Islamic State

A Future History of the Islamic State

Injustice brings about the ruin of civilization. – Ibn Khaldûn

In this moment, when the contours of Arab society, and hence the heart of Islamic society, once again become “fluid,” we have a unique, strange and perhaps historic opportunity. While the age of prophecy is over, we may well be entering a new age of imagination. Perhaps these societies will unfold as a function of what they can proactively imagine and consciously shape. Or perhaps they can set aside societies shaped by cynical realpolitik and yoke power to the requirements of reason and justice, instead of deploying reason to rationalize power and protect the elite. In the spirit of these possibilities and of this unique time lies an exercise in political imagination grounded in history.

One may reflect on the trajectory of Islamic civilization from its birth with the Medina State to the contemporary nation-states-in-metamorphosis and ask: Where might they be going?


In the months after the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, Arab strongmen fled to the hills in a steady stream, dying broken men with the jeers of the people ringing in their ears. After the heady liberation of Tunisia and Egypt came a series of rather more sobering, bloody changes, from the weird sort of NATO-assisted collapse of the Gadhafi regime in Libya to the far bloodier and messier collapse of the Saleh regime in Yemen. In Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, there was no turning back from the road to reform and democratization. A watershed had been crossed. Across North Africa and the Middle East, the last blasted remains of tanks were carted away and prayers were said for the fallen. Attention turned to the living.

Newt Gingrich and Glenn Beck’s fears of the emergence of a slew of Islamic theocracies hostile to Americans turned out to be largely hot air. Where Islamist parties emerged, they were either unpopular or moderated their positions so far into the secular mainstream as to be virtually indistinguishable from Southern Democrats or Shire Tories. The Muslim Brotherhood bent over backward to demonstrate its good credentials, changing policy after policy in response to Jeremy Paxman goading them on BBC’s “Newsnight.” They evolved into being both gay-friendly and pro-choice, while occasionally railing at the government or opposition about their godless ways. This was largely understood to be a performance; a form of chest beating that was nothing more than good political theater to be broadcast across the airwaves for the entertainment of tsk tsk’ing neocons in the cornfields of Nebraska. The renamed Muslim Brotherhood replaced its old-school spokesman and his prayermark with a slick young man wearing a world-class haircut and talking in an AUC (American University in Cairo) accent. The Arabs, riding a heavy wave of freedom and Western adulation, finally discovered the spectacular truth of contemporary democratic politics, that “political weakness or stupidity are of no importance . . . image alone counts.”

The heady possibilities of the Arab Spring gave way, however, to a stifling summer.

The first signs that the honeymoon had ended came swiftly. Wikileaks published a devastating series of documents that unequivocally showed widespread corruption within the Egyptian parliament. MPs protested, citing U.S. special interest groups and U.S. campaign financing rules to explain their behavior. In Libya, swathes of industry was swiftly privatized, including the oil sector, creating a new class of Libyan billionaires. One attempted to buy the Manchester United soccer team. The oil majors blame faulty equipment they inherited from the Gadhafi regime for the largest oil spill ever seen in the Mediterranean Sea. Scores of package holiday companies went bust as dead fish and birds washed up across the coasts of Spain. Libya was widely denounced in the world’s media as a kleptocracy, on par with Russia, run by a business mafia, led by a thug. The oil majors all announced new operations in Libya and recorded staggering profits as the price of oil soared, which led to widespread food riots across the Arab world.

Yemen inherited Pakistan’s mantle as a front-line state. The beleaguered government, democratically elected in free and fair elections, continued to hew the security line first carved by Saleh. Drone strikes continued. One hit a madrasa, killing scores of children. This time a Yemeni artist retaliated. She created a documentary project around the event, where hundreds of volunteers arrived in the vicinity of the strike to document the stories of those affected. The names of the children killed were projected onto the outside walls of the U.S. Embassy, Jenny Holzer-style in neonred laser light. The projector was designed to look like a mini-drone. Interviews with outraged and weeping parents were uploaded to YouTube. The piece was called “Drone Strike.”

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continued to expand its operations across Yemen and Somalia. Western governments continued to hew to their historic line, accusing the floundering government of not doing enough to combat terrorism, while the floundering government continued to accuse everyone in sight of not giving them enough money. Analysts continued to point out that the Yemeni state had little or no absorption capacity. At Chatham House, a Yemeni minister waved a 300-page plan for addressing the food security issue and demanded that foreign donors fund it. During this period, malnutrition grew to affect 75 percent of the population. IMF stabilization policies resulted in thousands of civil servants being laid off, which in turn contributed to increasing unemployment and desperation among the population. Experts continued to predict widespread famine in Yemen, which eventually resulted in the now infamous Yemeni Famine, one of the largest famines on record.

In the meantime, increasing numbers of young people were seen on the streets with OBL T-shirts labeled “martyr.” A young woman wearing one of the T-shirts was turned away from a flight to London from Dubai. She had bought the T-shirt at a boutique and thought it was “cool.”

A new, second generation of Arab protests were organized by the leaders of the Arab Spring, now billed “Winter of Arab Discontent.” Unlike the protests of the Arab Spring, these protests were violent, both by accident and design. Protests were focused on the corruption of the newly democratic state and its failure to provide basic services to citizens. Such gross failures led to widespread “service delivery” protests across the Arab world. During one protest, Egyptian television broadcast live an Egyptian military unit shooting dead a protester. People rioted. The military that did not shoot at protesters in Tahrir Square demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak faced attacks across Egypt. Military bases were overrun by hundreds of thousands of protesters. More than a million people turned out in Tahrir Square to voice their anger and protest peacefully. But nobody listened. Egypt was now a liberal democracy.

Protesters during the Winter of Arab Discontent somewhat paradoxically cited Ronald Reagan as their patron saint. Reagan memorabilia enjoyed a weird resurgence of popularity across the Arab world.

Throughout all this, the adhan continued to float over Cairo five times a day.


In the years after the Winter of Arab Discontent, unemployment rose exponentially. One hundred million young Arabs came of age. A flickering realization dawned across the Arab world at the richness of this human capital. Unemployment was not a crisis but an opportunity. This realization burst into a full-blown fire as cultural activity, entrepreneurial start-ups and political innovation in the region exploded.

This explosion was coupled with revived political thinking on the role of the State. Decades of State repression left an indelible mark on the political imagination of an entire generation of Arab thinkers. The prevailing spirit argued that that leviathan had to be tamed, yoked and made to serve the people. Never again would the State be the prime vehicle for massive and widespread repression and never again would the State be allowed to sign a concordat of oppression with the West.

Islamist political parties bent on capturing the State as a vehicle for the implementation of their agendas soon found themselves marginalized. Their adherence to the repressive, colonial State was perceived as outmoded and a form of modern idolatry. Several Arab states placed caps on the amounts of money that political parties were allowed to spend on contesting elections. Public spending was accompanied by vigorous public debate. Accountable efficiency emerged as the prime virtue of governments.

Arabs and Diaspora Muslims abandoned their formerly apologist discourse. Positions originally formulated in the hope of securing emancipation and recognition such as attempts to earnestly explain the original genius of the Islamic mind, or why Islam is compatible with modernity, were largely forgotten. The reign of comprador intellectuals speaking for Islam in the West came to an end.

States adopted mobility, or nomadism, as the right of every citizen, echoing both the Bedouin roots of the Arabs and another age of Islam. This nomadic sensibility was given new life and travel as a form of education was valorized in part due to the championing of a few wealthy sheikhs. After several newly endowed Chairs being set up, doctorates began to be awarded for dissertations based on trips of more than four years. Travel for the consumption of difference or tourism was largely discouraged, whereas travel for a change of consciousness was encouraged. Young Arabs were generously funded and sent on learning journeys to the unlikeliest of locations, from Udaipur to Shanghai to Harare.

Electoral turnout declined even as a culture of political debate flourished. This is how elections took on the pomp and ceremony accorded to royalty in Europe, largely ceremonial, as the equivalent of republicans called periodically for the abolishment of such a historic abomination. Islamic ideas found public expression through a furious battle of ideas evident on campuses, in mosques, in community centers and in the dialectic of politics. Global trends toward “superurbanization” famously gave rise to several new metropolitan super-regions, reviving political models based on city-states. Abu Dubai finally became a reality.

Even as the majlis reclaimed its old meaning, new channels of communication were forged between the ruling elites and the people in metropolitan contexts. Feedback and critique flowed through these quasipublic “undemocratic backchannels” and social media, not through mass media or parliament where adab formed the culture of the day.

It’s from these developments that a fragile new balance of power emerged. Robust civil society institutions, including a resurgent and independent Fuwaqa, an independent media free from market forces for finance, and a young, politically active citizenry acted as the principle check to executive power.

Meanwhile, during this period, the Qataris quietly took on the modest goal of redefining the faltering structure of international aid. They turned the notion of international aid on its head by offering microgrants to anyone who asked for them, capping the grants at $5,000. A series of gates provided access to successively larger grants, with the only stipulation being that the grantee submit a one-page report explaining what they did with the money. They gave away a billion dollars.

In turn, the Emiratis displayed the spirit of the age through their transformation of labor camps into a new breed of community college. Laborers with families were invited to the Emirates on fixed-term, six-year work visas. Housed in expensive new LEED-certified campuses, their children were guaranteed a world-class education in primary, secondary and tertiary levels. The laborers themselves were given options to take night classes in addition to their grueling work schedules. They were also provided a free flight home and a month of paid leave every summer.

The Sana’a GCC Summit produced a startling series of cross-Gulf collaboration measures. These included a radical softening of border controls across the Arab world, a common financial regulatory framework that included a Tobin-Tax style agreement spanning the Gulf and Iran, and the formation of a pan-Arab defense force. Governments pledged to implement an “open government” policy, where a GCC-wide freedom-of-information act came into force and all government material was published online.

Most surprising still was the pledge that GCC members will embrace, invest in and privilege international law. This meant subjecting themselves to and seeking resolution to disagreements through the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. GCC foreign and aid policy was rewritten to prioritize relationships with countries that did the same. A subsequent statement declared that Israel will be taken to the international courts for crimes against humanity and that governments were encouraged to detain anyone with cases pending at The Hague, be they Israeli or Palestinian, American or Chinese.


Despite the fears and projections of the West, Muslims, like all people, have the right to determine their own futures. Part of this means living in environments that are supportive and conducive of our faith.

In the decades since the collapse of the Caliphate, this right has been steadily and systemically denied to Muslims as a whole. The principal vehicle for this denial has been and is the modern-nation state. The fate of Muslims as a community is now tied into the machinations, limitations and realpolitik of what it means to be a nation-state today. As long as Muslims continue to believe, as the Islamists do, that State capture is the answer, Muslims will continue to be disenfranchised as a whole. The caliphate is not a nation-state, it is a contract, an agreement between the people, Muslims and non-Muslims, and their leaders, as was the Medina State.

With the collapse of the Caliphate in 1924 and the years since, the contract between the Ummah and its leaders finally broke down. In place of a contract between leaders and their people came a contract between the emerging leaders of the Muslim world and the nation-states of the West. This concordat was shaped and evolved into a contract for services between extractive, rentier states and increasingly resource-starved and fearful Western nations. This concordat lies at the heart of the crisis of authority in contemporary Islam and explains why support for the Arab Spring from the West was strategically slow.

The trouble today is that the West is unsure about its position. It is likely to try shore up the old concordat wherever possible and abandon it only when forced to choose. If, however, the West became cognizant of the deeper opportunity here, that is, the re-establishment of Islamic authority, then it would be possible to forge an alignment of negotiating interests. What then is the bigger win for the West?

The bigger win is forging a new contract between the leaders of the Arab (and eventually wider Muslim) world and the Ummah.

In countries where regime change has occurred, an honest negotiation must be supported by backing all parties to become stronger. Doing so will mean an easier and fairer negotiation. In countries where battle rages, everything must be done to declare an end to hostilities swiftly one way or another because nothing will be negotiated while bullets are flying and people dying. In countries with only murmurings of revolution, a negotiation has to be prioritized and encouraged because not doing so puts us on a perhaps inevitable road to conflict and bloodshed.

As the concordat between regimes in the Arab world and the West shifts, there must be an internalization of the fact that the West owes a huge debt to the Arab people. The time to make good on that debt is now. While we cannot realistically expect an abandonment of self-interest, we can definitely hope for and work toward a form of enlightened self-interest.

As we enter in such negotiations, both formally and informally, we must recognize however, that authority does not solely spring from a contract for services or tutelary positions. Authority also arises from two other sources: knowledge and what can be called presence or charismatic leadership.

Take the example of the Prophet in the early days of his mission. When he invited people to join him, he held no tutelary position. People did not listen to him because he held a position of authority or because of a contract for services. His source of knowledge was revelation, a source not recognized as legitimate by the Quraysh and the powers of the day (and incidentally not a source recognized as legitimate by secular states, the powers of our day). Instead they pondered his message and allowed it to enter their hearts because he was Al-Amin, trustworthy, because of who he was, because of the nature of his presence.

The point is that all authority does not spring from the loins of the State or, for that matter, the institutions that constitute our status quo. Rather, state power can only be balanced if Muslims are able to draw authority from sources other than a contract for services with the State or institutions that are in turn dependent on the State. It is the transcendent nature of ilm, specifically of transmitted knowledge, and the presence of believers that gives the sociopolitical community of Muslims what Karen Armstrong calls “intimations of the divine.” As we enter into a set of negotiations abut the nature of Arab societies, their relative success or failure will be a function of how well we as individuals and as a community can draw on sources of authority built on ilm and presence.

The scenarios presented here are written in the hope that we can begin to imagine something more than a materialist business- as-usual, a trajectory that has proven socially, environmentally and politically disastrous for the West. Let us recognize that we have the opportunity to draw on our civilizational iconoclasm to confront current challenges. Let us aspire at the very least to bigger, better and bolder mistakes instead of repeating those currently in fashion. Let us dream our own dreams. Let us not forget where we have come from and where we are going.

Finally, let us remember that the state, according to Nietzsche, was “the coldest of cold monsters.” He offered us this tragic warning, “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss also stares into you. Let those who fight monsters beware of not becoming monsters.” §

Zaid Hassan helped found Reos Partners in 2007 where he serves as Managing Partner of the Oxford office. Reos Partners is an international organisation dedicated to supporting and building capacity for innovative collective action in complex social systems, which also has offices in Cambridge (MA), Johannesburg, Melbourne, Sao Paulo and San Francisco.

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