Can Muslim states demilitarize politics?

By Shahid Javed Burki
The Daily Star
Can Muslim governments free themselves from their countries’ powerful militaries and establish civilian control comparable to that found in liberal democracies? This question is now paramount in countries as disparate as Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey.

To predict how this struggle will play out, it helps to understand the region’s past. Since Islam’s founding in the 7th century, it has maintained a tradition of deep military engagement in politics and governance. Indeed, Islam’s increasing military prowess helped it to spread rapidly around the world.

The military was responsible for Islam’s implantation throughout the Middle East, as well as in Persia, Southern Europe, and the Indian sub-continent. And once a Muslim state was established in newly conquered lands, the military became integral to its governance.

The military’s incorporation into the state was most prominent in the Ottoman Empire, whose rulers created a new type of military force that drew its manpower mostly from Islamic-ruled parts of Europe. These Janissaries (Christian boys conscripted to serve in Ottoman infantry units) were either recruited from Europe or abducted from countries under Ottoman control.

Janissaries were not allowed to marry or to own property, which prevented them from developing loyalties outside of the imperial court. But, after these restrictions were removed in the 16th century, and up until their extermination in the 19th century, the Janissaries became extremely powerful in Istanbul (and even established their own dynasty in Egypt).

Military domination in Muslim countries survived right up to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. The colonial powers that filled the vacuum left by the declining empire had their own militaries, and therefore did not need local forces to govern. But when Europeans withdrew from the Muslim world in the 20th century, these forces rushed back in to wrest control of politics.

The military rose to power in Egypt, Pakistan and other Arab countries in the early and mid-20th century. In Turkey, the military proclaimed itself the guardian of the secular Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, himself a military man.

Read more:
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

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