Why Middle Eastern governments must stop playing the shari'a card

Making political theater out of Islamic piety will only backfire

(Image credit: (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, File))

If you're a woman living in Raqqa, Syria, you already had enough to worry about: Your government recently lost a quarter of the country to the Islamic State. Basic resources like food, water, and electricity are scarce. U.S. air strikes in the region are on the rise.

You can now add something else: adhering to strict Islamic dress codes. Beginning last month, the local government has tasked a new, all-female sharia police unit, the al Khansaa brigade, with cracking down on civilian women who do not abide by ultra-strict versions of sharia law imposed by the Islamic State. The new restrictions require women to be fully covered and to be chaperoned by a male in public.

Now, if you're not a woman living in Raqqa, why should you still worry about al Khansaa and the networks of conflict actors that have authorized these and similar groups? Because this abuse of sharia helps to empower hyper-Islamist conflict actors, like ISIS, and legitimate such groups' exercise of power through violence. In other words, if we're not careful, the Al Khansaa brigade could make an already deteriorating situation in the Middle East much worse.

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So what's the purpose of this extremist sharia strategy for governments? Some states employ extraordinary versions of sharia to help consolidate regime power and solve political problems – to the dismay of ordinary, devout Muslims. In the past, governments have resorted to extreme shari'a to give cover to officials engaged in corruption and crime, distract from leaders who have immiserated the population or its minorities, or even those who propagate never-ending conflicts, many with an ethnic charge.

This dynamic of political influence and violence in the support of extreme sharia has been treated in the obvious Gulf cases of Saudi wahhabism and Qatarian double dealing. Now, we're seeing it at work in Syria and Iraq as ruling or competitor regimes deliberately or unwittingly support jihadists' violence — and its sharia rational — in the service of political survival.

Here's the problem: This default to extremism not only serves to empower non-state actors like ISIS, it can also backfire for governments in other ways. In Egypt, for example, former president Mohamad Morsi squandered the gift of Egyptian public trust in the heady, post-Arab Spring heydays by ejecting moderates from the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau on the very eve of taking office in 2012. He then proceeded to "Ikwanise the police," prompting police strikes across a third of Egypt's provinces. He added controversial Article 219 to the post-Arab Spring constitution of December 22, 2012 instituting a narrow and exclusive definition of shari'a that privileged extreme Sunni doctrine, despite explicit Quranic prohibitions against sectarianism and despite Egypt's own multi-ethnic, multi-religious history.

Adding insult to injury, Morsi began issuing public missives on "how to be a good Muslim" — lectures backed by deeds that were anything but merciful: condoning the teacher who cut off the hair of unveiled school girls, supporting clerics who incited Shia murders in the streets, torturing political opponents. By the time Egyptians returned en mass to the public square on June 30, 2013, Michael Wahid Hanna's observation was all but a foregone conclusion: "How to wreck a country in 369 days." Morsi not only succeeded in tarnishing Islamic law as part of that wreckage, but he offered both ideological and material support for extremist actors and their unbridled violent strategies — across the Sinai, in support of a more virulent Hamas, and in enabling links between other extremist groups.

Another example includes Brunei's self-styled Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and his recent phased implementation of a new shari'a penal code in May 2014. The new law is predictably overbroad: stipulating the death penalty for a kaleidoscope of offenses, including robbery, adultery, sodomy, extra-marital relations, and blasphemy. But Bolkiah's policy is motivated by anything but shari'a compliant behavior; it raises, instead, the specter of treachery and hypocrisy, both strictly prohibited in shari'a. If the results of Bolkiah's policies weren't so dangerous for ordinary people — particularly women and children — this type of conduct might be simply absurd. Yet, the social costs and the gendered-impacts of hastily cobbled together "penalties" are no laughing matter. They attest to another out of touch ruling elite in chronic violation of fundamental shari'a prohibitions against corruption in governance. They also make political theater out of Islamic piety.

The pious façade attached to such extreme versions of shari'a is crumbling. ISIS has pushed the political abuse of shari'a into high visibility by broadcasting its indiscriminate brutality — against religious and ethnic minorities, women and children, even rival Sunni jihadists. Even rich if debauched aristocracies have to at some point deal with bread and butter issues, which cannot, it seems, be solved only by strict shari'a law: poverty, youth bulges, coming resource scarcity.

In the meantime, how long can shari'a — with its humble beginnings and aspirations — provide fresh cover for such a brutal crew? How long can this lawless era — in which state and nonstate leaders alike invent new shari'a rules without challenge — last?

As the brave work of Karima Bennoune shows, ordinary citizens across Muslim-majority states are resisting such abuses. And yet, their governments are rarely allies in such efforts, a reality that demands attention to the actual features within Islamic law that spell out strong, inclusive and ethical norms for the conduct of the ruler, international relations, finance and conduct in conflict. Too many Muslim state governments bury these obligations; their application of genuine shari'a norms would undermine their political maneuverability and authority. Recently, Jordan has issued new mandatory guidelines for clerics to preach a moderate form of Islam — or face penalties.

Efforts underway to stop ISIS will work best if they are accompanied by countering extreme shari'a: calling out state leaders for politically playing the shari'a card, tracking the links between governments' support of extreme shari'a and their private material support for a network of conflict actors far beyond their state borders, using extreme shari'a to demonize minorities or spark sectarian conflict to consolidate their shaky regime. If the Iraqi government must be the "engine" of the global fight to defeat the Islamic State, as Secretary of State John Kerry has claimed, then new Iraqi leadership will also need to disavow extreme shari'a — in favor of the norms that actually animate their own constitution and conform to the genuine values in the Quran — in the service of inclusive governance and robust rule of law.

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