Islam in Global Politics: A Civilizational Crisis?

By Clive Kessler* - Exclusive to ACD
Thursday, February 1st, 2018 @ 7:18PM

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“Islam in Global Politics.”  How one addresses this issue depends not just on the meaning of those four words —— “Islam,” “Global” “politics,” and also “in” —— both individually and together. It also depends on how you see and approach the question that they together pose. On the attitude or approach that you adopt. Is it one of:

  • Islam and Muslims asserting themselves in, imposing themselves and their agenda upon, global politics? or of
  • Islam and Muslims within, and finding their world-historical place within, and engaging with —— respectfully engaging with —— diverse, plural and (in significant measure non-Muslim) global humankind: in and as part of a sincere effort by all to find, negotiate, establish a way, or ways, of “sharing the world”? Decently and constructively sharing the world?

These are two radically, different and contrasting attitudes and approaches.

One is egotistic, immature, narcissistic (akin to an infantile “Me! Me! Me!” tantrum); it rests upon a childish notion that sees only oneself as real, and others as merely the sociocultural backdrop, the historical context, of one’s own needs, agenda and “narrative”;

The other, alone, is mature, humane, constructive, exceeds the bounds and framework of infantile wish-fulfillment drives.

To be specific. “Islam in Global Politics”: there is today no more high-profile and urgent instance than “The Jerusalem Question.”

There are two parts to this problem —— and they are not the same.  They are related, but not one and the same thing. Both must be understood, and they must both be resolved.

The fate of humankind may depend on getting the answers right. And you will not get the answers right if you confuse the two questions, blur the difference between them, collapse the one into the other.

One is the question of Palestinian national political sovereignty and statehood: in, meaning somewhere in, in some substantial part of “Palestine.” That claim to statehood is undeniable, and there cannot and will not be peace without it.

Like many people, I take this to mean a Palestinian state alongside and living constructively with Israel: the “two-state solution.” There can be no peace without it.

The second is the future of Jerusalem. And, again, unless this question is resolved wisely and constructively, in its proper terms, there can be no peace.

There can be no peace without wise, historically informed solutions to these two questions —— and, florid rally-rhetoric notwithstanding, they are not the same question.


On the first question, the Israel/Palestine matter.

i. A forbidden state?

I see the expression “negara haram” [= a “forbidden” or “illegal” state] repeatedly used.

Some people may not like that state, Israel.  But in what sense is it haram, illegal, forbidden?  While its critics are more than happy endlessly to invoke the United Nations in their arguments, Israel was created under a decision of the UN, was admitted to and is a member-state of the UN, is a (very small) part of the international world order as a network of nation-states [as the name “United Nations” affirms and underlines].

No nation-state had any proper interest in undermining that order, all depend upon and have an interest in supporting it.

ii. A state for the Jews? A Jewish state?

But let us get to the core of the matter.

Israel is in some sense a state of and for the Jews, a “Jewish state” (though some 20 percent of its fully rights-bearing citizens are non-Jewish).

That is: it is a nation-state identified historically with the Jewish people, just as there are many nation-states that are “Islamic” republics, monarchies and the rest. States of Muslim nations.

So why is the idea of Jewish political self-determination and statehood deemed impermissible, haram?

Why, when all other peoples and nations are entitled to statehood? Why, when all other nationalisms are deemed legitimate, welcomed and internationally supported, is Jewish statehood condemned, ruled out as categorically unacceptable and illegitimate?

Why? Because the Jews, so some people hold, are not a people, not a political entity (or a “community of shared historic fate”), not, in modern times and terms, a nation.  They are something else —— and the people who say this hold that they know better who the Jews “really” are than the Jews themselves. So what Jews, many and even most Jews, may think and decide —— they insist —— is wrong, of no standing, and must be rejected.

Why, on what grounds, do they, these “know-betters” and “know-alls,” hold this view?

Well, this is a view that is held largely by Muslim nations and thinkers and activists —— and those who take their lead.

Because for Muslims, for Quranic Islam and since, “Jews” is not a political or national category.

iii.  Jews seen in Islam’s historical terms

Jews and Judaism are, for Islam and most Muslims, simply part —— a fossil or surviving relic —— of the obsolete, superseded pre-Islamic religious history of humankind:

of a deficient and defective pre-Islamic monotheism, a flawed and compromised and debased version of the subsequently provided true and complete agama tauhid [= “monotheistic faith” of the followers of Abraham].

Through the career of Muhammad, Islam became the new, updated, definitive and now solely authorized edition, as it were, of God’s Abrahamic project, his primary spiritual and historical agenda for humankind.

So, with the revelation to the Prophet Muhammad, Judaism ceased to have any further reason to exist; any continuing religious legitimacy.

Jews might obstinately persist, live on, but theirs is an obsolete and now unnecessary faith —— and one at the end of its (divinely authorized) human history, without any scope or hope for further, legitimate historical evolution and development.

The independent history of Judaism and the Jews ends, in this view, with the career of Muhammad: with Judaism’s supersession and subsumption by, its absorption by and incorporation within, Islam.  After that, there is and can be no subsequent independent, autonomous Jewish history outside of Islam. Jewish history, the history of the Jews, was now simply absorbed within and part of Islam: its history, its doctrines, its historical self-understanding. (*)

On this view, Jewish history —— any autonomous, independent Jewish history —— ends in 622CE. There can no longer be, for Jews and Judaism, any continuing independent history. And hence, certainly, no modern history of Jewish peoplehood, of modern Jewish national self-awareness and legitimate self-determination, nationalism, and nationhood.  And if Israel embodies or expresses such ideas, well, it is simply improper, a mistake —— a “category error” on the part of the Jews and those who give any credence to them.

iv. Jews in their history: in Judea-Israel

To start: there is a long and detailed history, recognized by international scholarship, to be grasped here.

It begins with a long, continuing and uninterrupted Jewish presence in Judea/Israel from Biblical times onwards, through the Babylonian, the Persian and Hellenic periods and, despite determined Roman efforts to clear the land of its Jews after the failed rebellions of 70 and 132 CE, into the Byzantine and Mamluk and Ottoman period until modern times.

We know, about the important Jewish presence, in notable scholarly communities, from what is called the Middle Ages onwards in places like Tiberias, Safed, Hebron and Jerusalem including during Mamluk and Ottoman times.

At the time of the Malacca Sultanate, at the time when Columbus landed in the Americas, those were significant Jewish cultural and intellectual centers —— notably in Safed for Kabbalah mysticism and also legal scholarship. The major “medieval”/early modern codification of Jewish law [the Halacha] in the Shulchan Aruch was compiled and completed in Safed by Joseph Caro [born 1488] in the first half of the next century (while Martin Luther, with his challenge to church authority, was transforming Western Christendom).

The suggestion frequently offered that there were no Jews in Palestine until the British brought them in after the Balfour Declaration under the post-World War 1 Mandate —— or until Europe, out of guilt or revulsion or misplaced compassion —— decided to offload the wretched Jews who had survived Hitler onto Palestine, displacing its own problem onto the Palestinians, is simply a “furphy”: a poorly contrived argument that will not stand.

People like to suggest that historically there were no Jews in Palestine before then. That there was no long-standing and deeply embedded Jewish presence at all in the land.

There was. And if you will not take my word for it, then take it on the authority of Islamic history itself.

One cannot at the one time say (as the OIC: Organization of the Islamic Conference has now mobilized UNESCO to declare formally) that there is no historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem, and no Jewish presence and history in Israel/Palestine, and at the same time boast, as many people so often do, that the Caliph Umar in his time, in 638CE, treated the Jews so well when he captured Jerusalem, and that Salahuddin al-Ayubi likewise treated the Jews of Jerusalem with a noble generosity of spirit when he conquered the city in 1187.

As the French say, “des deux choses, l’une!” One or the other, you cannot have it both ways.

v. A Zionist project? A Zionist state?

Jews, some say, are entitled to a history of their making, their own “narrative”; and yes, there is a deep historical connection between Jews and the land of Israel/Palestine. But a Zionist state?!  After all, Zionism is not just wrong, its evil.

So, what then is “Zionism”? What does the word mean when it is removed from the semantic, political, polemical and rhetorical context in which people in places like Malaysia encounter and come to know it?

In Malaysia, and in many Arab/Islamic countries from which it here takes its lead, the word Zionism has a specific and peculiar meaning and derivation. A contrived and misleading derivation.

The term “Zionism” here derives from and alludes to the notorious publication known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and to its key idea: that of a secret cabal seeking to impose “world control by Jews” through financial power and manipulation.

The publication itself has long been exposed as a late nineteenth-century forgery by the secret police of Tsarist Russia, as part of an attempt to protect Tsarist absolutism by generating the distraction of animosity and riots against the Jews of Russia.

Though discredited, this idea lives on and is continually sustained through renewed republication in the Arab world, in Arabic language editions —— and, with the exception of Malaysia, pretty much nowhere else. Where this happens, it must serve some “useful” purpose.

The key idea of The Protocols was taken up and publicized in the USA by the industrialist Henry Ford: in a series of newspaper articles that were republished as The International Jew.

Again, though repudiated elsewhere, The International Jew and Henry Ford’s writings are kept in print via regular republication in Malaysia, in both English and new Malay-language editions. Again, to what end? With what purpose?

Together with Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, they seem to be; they must be, best-sellers in Malaysia. You will find them prominently displayed in many bookshops. Not just odd-ball, corner political bookshops but in the large general bookshops of the nation’s major bookselling chains.

I will not comment. I simply ask you all to reflect on this peculiar phenomenon —— this disgraceful fact —— and to wonder “why so?”

Elsewhere, and generally, the term “Zionism” does not have that nasty, conspiratorial Protocols-derived meaning. It is not a “dirty word.” It is a normal word describing a well-known historical phenomenon and mundane political outlook.

What does it refer to and mean?

vi. Jewish nationality in a nationalist age.

Remember World War 1? Recall USA President Woodrow Wilson’s “14 Points”. His principled war objectives.

Wilson was convinced that the cause of the terrible conflict had been the suppressed but explosive national ambitions and aspirations of the “minority” or “subjugated” peoples that had been encapsulated within the four great pre-War multinational empires: the great world “players” that ultimately caused, and then headlong entered the war.

Four such empires entered World War 1 as major global powers —— the German/Hohenzollern, the Russian/Romanov, the Austro-Hungarian, and the Ottoman/Turkish —— and none emerged intact, survived.

All broke or were broken, apart.  In their place, there emerged a series of “successor states”: small states of now nationally sovereign peoples. The suppressed nations were to be liberated. Or so it was intended.

The underlying logic and operational procedure were clear. In the areas where a historic “people” which aspired to be a nation constituted the local majority, they might have a state of their own: as the arena, the instrument and the symbol of their (now completed, fulfilled) nationhood.

Of all these emerging, irritating “national” problems in the four old multinational empires, one presented a special, unique problem: the Jews.

The Jews were to be found in many places as a minority, but they were a majority nowhere. And, among what were peasant populations and societies living beneath a kind feudal rule under aristocratic-military domination, the Jews were “the middle people” and a people supposedly without “local cultural roots.” They lived largely as small traders and artisanal/craft businesspeople in the villages and small towns, while a more developed commercial middle-class lived in the larger cities.

In the middle, without “authentic” local roots, operating economically and socially at the points of tension between town and country, aristocrat and peasant, they were an easy, ever available target for resentment from below, often triggered and manipulated from above by the dominant military-aristocratic forces and ruling groups.

In other ways, theirs was the same story, the same situation, and predicament, like that of all the other subject peoples chafing within the old multinational empires.

Most such people claimed, as they were able, a state where they were, where they were the majority. Jews, a minority everywhere but a majority nowhere, could no. More, they were now increasingly —— in the new age of intensifying national sentiment —— made the target of the locally entrenched, emerging nations which sought to squeeze them out, even to dispossess them, often violently.

And like so many other such historic minorities —— linguistic, cultural, religious —— so too, in the late nineteenth-century world of ever advancing nationalism did the Jews (many of them) begin to redefine, reconfigure and reconceptualize themselves and their identity in national terms, as a nation.

As a nation whose ultimate ancestral homeland, since Biblical times, was in Judea/Israel; and whose historic identity was there centered, in Jerusalem, upon its sacred mountain, Mount Zion.

Hence that movement of Jewish national reaffirmation that yearned for a return to the Jewish people’s ancient Biblical homeland —— and together with it, the broad movement now redefining Jewish identity in the modern era of global nationalist politics universally cast in national terms —— was called and came to be known simply as Zionism.

No Protocols, no secret plots, no world financial manipulation or domination. No dark conspiracies. Just ordinary, mundane nationalism. No need, no grounds, to demonize.

In a world of nationalism, its emergence was hardly exceptional. So why is it alone to be deplored, denounced, and uniquely branded as “evil”?


i. Jerusalem, Zion, Bayt ulMuqaddis

This brings us to the second fateful question: the “question of Jerusalem.”

Some basic facts.

In Jerusalem, on Mount Zion, stood Solomon’s and later Herod’s temple: the Beit HaMiqdash (“the holy house,” “the sacred building”).

It was a part —— the focal part but just a part —— of “Zion” and “Jerusalem.”

In time this Hebrew designation Beit HaMiqdash was borrowed and absorbed into Arabic usage as Bayt ulMuqaddis to designate old historical Jerusalem generally: the so-called “Old City,” now “eastern Jerusalem.”

And until the late nineteenth century that was pretty much all that there was there.

And the term Bayt ulMuqaddis only ever designated that —— and no more.

It is a misnomer to use the term in an inflated, expanded sense now as a name for the entire area that surrounds the Old City.

From the 1880s, a different city began to grow up to the west of “the Old City.”

That new city, “West Jerusalem” has since shortly after the 1948 war was ended in armistice been the seat of government of Israel.  That is where its parliament and the main courts and the rest are located and have now been for almost 70 years.

The use of the term Bayt ulMuqaddis to refer to and designate —— as a synonym for —— the large modern twentieth and twenty-first-century city of Jerusalem including West Jerusalem in its totality is a “fudge”:  a distortion, a mischief-creating maneuver. It a “nomenclatural land-grab,” “territorial expansion by non-consensual terminological innovation,” by verbal trickery, even deception.

ii. A city “overendowed” with sanctity

The “Old City” (East Jerusalem) is —— and is understood to be —— a place of densely packed, overlapping, historically profound and at times contending “sanctities”: Jewish, Christian and Islamic.

These “sanctities” —— the different historical notions of Jerusalem’s special holiness, its sacred character or sanctity —— are ultimately “incommensurable.”

Meaning:  Each is what it is on its own terms, and they cannot be brought together, amalgamated, assessed and ranked against one another) on any single scale:

Not that of any one of those three faiths and faith-based civilizations; and not upon any newly devised composite, combinatory or synthetic scale.

They are all sui generis; each has its own authenticity. In its own terms. Terms which are ultimately its alone.

A clear implication follows:

These overlapping and intertwined but different and autonomous “sanctities” must be recognized; and, on the basis of that recognition of these intertwining and overlapping religious histories and “sanctities”, a way must be found to manage “the Old City”/East Jerusalem/Bayt ulMuqaddis on a shared, co-operative basis —— in everybody’s interests and with respect for the religious sensibilities of all.

This is in fact precisely what the United Nations 1947 partition proposals suggested:

That “historic Jerusalem” should be a corpus separatum: a discrete and separate entity apart from both the new states, Israel and Palestine; and that its special status should be guaranteed and upheld under international auspices.

Israel was wary of this idea (fearing that any such international regimen would evolve, and degenerate, into a malign beast —— as UNESCO itself in fact and precisely has in recent times: with its partisan, ignorant and politically inflammatory declaration that there is no Jewish history in Jerusalem, no old/ancient historical Jewish connection to and with the city and the land generally).

The Arab negotiators and politicians and leaders rejected it outright. They would settle for nothing less than the whole thing.

iii.  The present situation; how we got here

The Old City/East Jerusalem area is now largely under Israel state administration. But the religious management of the Haram ashShariff area is carried out, under agreements ultimately with the Jordanian state and royal authorities, by the Islamic Waqf.

That agreement has survived the many boisterous vicissitudes of politics.

And it is by agreement. It is important to note here that there was no “state” in the West Bank including East Jerusalem when those areas were militarily occupied by Jordan in 1947-48 [largely, be it noted, to pre-empt any possibility, as the British Mandatory Authority withdrew, an autonomous, independent Palestinian state emerging, being created, there].

That is to say: Jordan held those areas by occupation and conquest, not duly in international law.

And when the Six-Day War broke out in 1967, Israel called to tell their friend King Hussein to “stay out of it” —— since the Egyptian air force had been destroyed and the war, by the morning of the first day, was already lost.

Hussein called Nasser to ask if what Israel said was, in fact, true; Nasser said no, and gave Hussein his solemn word to that effect.

Hussein accepted Nasser’s assurance. On that basis, he attacked Jewish West Jerusalem from the eastern city. As we know, Jordan was soon defeated and “the Old City” —— including its old Jewish Quarter which the Jordanians had conquered and cleared in 1948, minus its old synagogues which had all been destroyed —— fell into Israel’s hands.

.. .. which is how we got to where we are today.

It bears noting here that, as a consequence of Jordan’s attack on Israel in 1967, Israel’s holding of East Jerusalem since then has a stronger foundation in international law than Jordan’s claimed “ownership” of the city after 1948 ever did.


There are two core issues here, and both must be resolved if the conditions for peace are ever to be established.

They are:

Palestinian statehood, alongside and in constructive co-operation with Israel (the “two-state solution”). Without it, there can be no peace.

And the status and shared management of the Old City/East Jerusalem/the Bayt ulMuqaddis area, with all its deep historical and religious significance and plurally sacred character, achieved and recognized. Some agreed, negotiated basis for the co-operative sharing and administration of the “Old City”/East Jerusalem/Bayt ulMuqaddis with its many and richly various sacred sites (including the Temple Wall, Mount Zion, the Churches and Stations of the Cross and Via Dolorosa, and the Haram ashShariff with the Dome of Umar and al-Aqsa) must be devised and made to work.

Both must be resolved if a continuing world crisis is to be ended and peace achieved. A negotiated arrangement must be devised for “sharing Jerusalem” that recognizes its religious sanctity and deep historical significance to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam —— and to the peoples and nations born of them, from within their “faith communities.”

You don’t like that?  Then you are left with a very poor alternative. To the question: Does Islam, do Muslims, have an absolute, sole, unique and exclusive right to Jerusalem —— to decide what is to become of this triply holy city? And how it will be done?  And by whom?

If one takes that option, Muslims will have to find arguments justifying that position: arguments that not only please them but which will convince everybody else, the entire non-Muslim world.

This is a challenge that is never addressed. Instead, one hears only the assertion that there is only one state in and completely covering Israel-Palestine; that the entire area is owned exclusively and totally by Islam. There are not and cannot be two states, one Palestinian and the other Israel. Just one. Islam’s.

Answers, informed and principled and constructive answers, are needed to both questions. Anyone who does not see both issues —— the second as well as the first —— as necessary does not want peace. They may think that they do, but they don’t. They do not even know what “wanting peace” means … Which amounts to the same thing.


As for “Islam in Global Politics: A Civilizational Crisis,” I have offered this case of “The Jerusalem Question” as a case study. I began by posing the question of Islam’s and Muslim engagement with global humankind. How? On what basis?

By playing a self-absorbed and myopically focused “Islamic Politics” on a “Global Scale,” to project an intellectually un-self-critical Islam and assert its agenda as a global political project?  To make Islam the new global order, its basis?

If that is the case, then all one is talking about is, at best, Hizb utTahrir “soft-sell,” an ISIS/DA’ESH “lite.”

Or is something else possible and needed?

Respectful, constructive engagement by Muslims, as historically informed Muslims, with diverse humankind; or a continuing willful exercise in triumphalist Islamic hegemonic solipsism?

Which is it to be?

That is the challenge.

To face that challenge, Islam needs to understand itself —— not just in its own preferred, customary terms but regarding the world history of which it is a part, and which in so many ways has shaped it.

The crisis of Islamic civilization is that it does not know itself historically. That it does not wish to know itself. That (through so many of its devout adherents) it rejects and resists knowing and refuses to know itself in this essential way.

A global Islamic politics and a global order shaped by an Islam that does not know and will not understand itself is not a pleasant prospect for anybody, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to contemplate.

This is a fateful question not just for Islamic civilization. It is one for human civilization as a whole. A question of “civilization, or a terrible night-time of barbarism.”

For that —— a regimen of barbarism posing as an order of pious virtues —— is what any drive to create an all-encompassing global Islamic political order, a universal caliphate —— whether by a headlong rush, as with ISIS, or through a slow but ultimately python-like embrace, as with Hizb utTahrir —— will deliver and impose on us all.

(*)  For some further, more elaborated discussion of this point see my “The Postcolonialist Denial of Jewish Legitimacy,” Quadrant, No. 479 (vol. 55, no. 9, September 2011): 33-39; and also “On ‘supersessionism’: Abrahamic faiths in history,” New Mandala [The Australian National University], 4.ii.2015, accessible at

* CLIVE KESSLER is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Based upon research on Islam conducted in Southeast Asia since the early 1960s, he has been studying global Islam —— especially the political use of Islam as an idiom and instrument for resistance to Westernizing “modernity” —— for half a century.

* The text here is a revised and slightly expanded version of a talk given in Kuala Lumpur on 7 January 2018 under the auspices, and to the considerable consternation, of two notable Malaysian organizations: the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), an association of intellectually progressive Muslims social activists; and the G25, an organization of retired senior Malay civil servants concerned at the direction of current Malaysian developments.

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