Islamic Revival and the Yearning for Social Justice

Is there a link between Islam and justice? Would a society following Islamic principles be a more just society? Many Muslims across the world today think so. If only Muslims thought and acted like "true Muslims" in countries where they form a majority, they say, people would act morally, economic inequalities would be ameliorated, the powerful would stop exploiting the weak, and governments would serve the public interest. Islamic knowledge and practice leads to economic and political fairness, the thinking goes.

Belief that Islam is the key to making a better world forms a basis for many Islamic revival movements across the globe today. The members of these social movements can be called "Islamists". Islamism is not synonymous with extremism or terrorism. While Islamist movements employing violence get the news headlines, the more interesting phenomenon in the Muslim world, I think, are Islamic revival movements trying to build better societies through peaceful and legal means. That would be most of them.

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Islamists believe it's not enough for Muslims to call themselves that, just because they were born with that identification. Muslims need to actively pursue their faith, consistently practice their religious duties, and deepen their knowledge about their religion. That is, Islam needs to be revived among Muslims.

Why? There appears to be a huge gap between the moral ideals of Islam and the everyday realities of Muslim-majority societies. Muslims living across the map from North Africa through Southeast Asia know how things are actually accomplished in their lives. They know how everyone in fact has to secure resources and services for one's families, whether getting admitted to a good school, landing a job, obtaining a loan, seeing a doctor, getting a license, or receiving a favorable court verdict.

How? Through pulling personal connections, appealing to power, making unofficial payments, exchanging favors, using public office for private benefit, and (sometimes) threatening violence.

So what is the de facto law of the land? Everything valuable in society is under jealous personal control. Access requires constant personal negotiation. All resources and opportunities go to the powerful; little goes to the rest. Power is always abused. There is no public good, only private interests. Business and government are about cronyism, clientalism, and corruption. And might makes right. Lived realities are a far cry from the just social order that many Muslims envision and yearn for.

Islamists regard Islam to be the divine blueprint for humanity and supreme guide for the cultivation of personal character and moral community. They are convinced that if the level of Islamic practice and knowledge increases among Muslims, then a Muslim-majority society will be more prosperous, peaceful, and just.

This is a bold claim. It argues that religion can impact not just the morality of individuals, but of collectivities like communities and entire societies. In the midst of pervasive poverty, oppression, and corruption, Islamists claim that more Islam means more social justice.

The big question is how that link actually works. Just how does more Islamic practice and knowledge among individuals translate into a better society? This is one question I am investigating in my ongoing research. At the moment, I haven't see any Islamist activist or thinker who has truly spelled out how this translation in scale is supposed to operate. The problem is a difficult one, because a society has characteristics that are more than the sum of its individuals. Virtuous persons do not necessarily make a virtuous society. A society has structural issues that also need to be addressed if it is to be called just. More on this problem in future posts.

The other question is, what is the track record? Are there clear examples of Islamic revival leading to social justice? This is also a difficult question to answer. If one looks comparatively across the globe today at how Islamists' utopian ideals are being translated into lived realities, the record is at best mixed and not conclusive.

I will leave this discussion, for now, with what one intellectual in Kyrgyzstan told me once. He said that many ordinary people struggle with all sorts of steep challenges since his nation became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991: high inflation, massive unemployment, ideological disorientation, and widespread angst. But what do they want the most? "It's justice, justice from their government, justice from those in power. Those other problems are important too. But people want justice as the number one thing." This Kyrgyz man went on to describe that this was why Islamist movements, even if they have low actual membership, have a high level of sympathy among Central Asian Muslims.

When Muslims yearn for justice and can get little, Islamist visions of a just Islamic society can be appealing indeed.