Why does every ruler in the Muslim world feel the urge to present himself/herself ‘strong’? The answer lies in the fact that most lack legitimacy and therefore must project the image of power to appear strong.
The strongman syndrome seems to plague the Muslim world much more than any other region. Every tin pot dictator and clown — that is what every ruler in the Muslim world is (note, we did not use the word leader!) — wants to show that he (and in rare cases, she) is strong, capable, and indispensable. Without him/her at the helm, the sky would fall. As the evil genius Henry Kissinger once quipped, “the graveyard is full of indispensable people.”
Let us take a closer look at the problem. There are 57 Muslim nation-states in the world today. Kings, amirs, presidents, prime ministers and military strongmen rule these nation-states. With the sole exception of Islamic Iran, not one Muslim nation-state has a legitimate ruler or system. Here is why.
The nation-state structure is completely alien to the political culture and universalist values of Islam. The colonial powers imposed this and its related concept, nationalism, on the Muslim world. Barely a century ago, Muslims used to travel freely without passports or visas. They needed no permission from anyone to traverse vast territories. The physical boundaries that divide the Muslim world were drawn arbitrarily by the colonial powers to serve their interests.
Allah (swt) refers to the Muslims as one Ummah in the Qur’an. Islam recognizes the reality of people of different backgrounds, languages, color etc, but the noble Book says these are meant to sensitize us to Allah’s (swt) diverse creations and to recognize each other (49:13). In Islam, taqwa (consciousness of Allah’s power presence), not social, political or economic status, is what determines an individual’s position before Allah (swt).
All rulers in the Muslim world, barring Islamic Iran’s, are subservient to imperialist and Zionist powers. This is a negation of Islam since there is only one power and authority —Allah (swt). He has no partners or equals. Those Muslims who bow before other powers or authority are guilty of shirk, the gravest sin in Islam.
How did Muslims end up in this sorry state? Throughout his life, the noble Messenger (pbuh) struggled against the ‘asabiyah (clan solidarity) prevalent in Arabia. His message was clear and uncompromising: there is only One God — Allah (swt) — and all men and women are equal. No one has the right to oppress others. True, there will always be some who are stronger or richer than others but these differences cannot be used to exploit others. Islam recognizes power differentiation but it regulates the use of it and forbids abuse.
After the noble Messenger (pbuh) left this earthly abode, his successors, called khulafah (or imams), continued to implement the system and values that he had established. Muslims would do well to recognize that even though many people had entered the fold of Islam at the time of the Prophet (pbuh), not everyone was sincere. That is why the Qur’an draws our attention to the munafiqs who existed even at the time of the Prophet (pbuh). Pretending to be Muslims, they planned for an opportune moment to strike and grab power.
This is precisely what happened when the khilafah was subverted into mulukiyah (hereditary kingship). While the overwhelming majority of Muslims opposed this dangerous development and some even openly challenged it, paying with their lives, a body of opinion emerged to swallow this bitter pill hoping for better times. This was a serious mistake. ‘Asabiyah took over and the concept of strongmen emerged — shawkah (glory) and quwwah (power) became acceptable in Islamic terminology. The sword wielders held sway and opponents were ruthlessly suppressed.
If the Muslim world is plagued by “strongmen” today, this has historical precedence. The major difference between then and now is that past rulers, despite being illegitimate, were not subservient to the power of kufr. Today’s rulers are anything but independent or free. Every king and amir has been planted by the colonialists — British and French — and is maintained in power today through imperialist and Zionist support. Given that the systems in place in the Muslim world are also imposed by colonial powers, no ruler can claim legitimacy.
From the Islamic point of view, legitimacy comes from Allah (swt) by following His commands and precepts. This is not conditional on acceptance by the majority. Many Prophets (a) delivered their message but few people followed them and thus their programs could not be implemented in society. It is at the implementation stage that people’s acceptance comes into play.
So why do Muslim rulers need to appear “strong”? Subservience to taghut has to be camouflaged. By making an appearance of being strong, even if it means killing a large number of their people, is a time-tested formula. Is it surprising that Muslim rulers have murdered more of their own people than those of the enemy? Iraq, “Saudi” Arabia, Egypt and a host of others offer ready examples.
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT).