The Brexit debate is one of those once in a generation debates that belies the traditional boundaries of the national discourse. When Nigel Farage and George Galloway can appear on one side, while Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn can appear on the other side you know the issue isn’t simple. When corporations are split, when the media is split, when every single person in society seems to have a different perspective, you know the issue transcends ordinary day-to-day politics.
So how should we as Muslims look at this? There are different views of course, but here are some observations.
If Muslims choose to look at this issue in a way that has no link to their religious faith, they will look at it in no different way, than the rest of society. Are the advantages of being part of a supra national entity with the benefits that ensue, worth more than the advantages of going it alone. This is no different from the calculus of being part of any supra national institution whether it be the UN, the WTO or NATO. It was the same debate that we had when Scotland was debating independence from the UK, were the benefits (economic, political and institutional) that are ensured from Westminster worth more to the Scottish people than the freedom to make their own laws in Edinburgh. Fundamentally it is about sovereignty, do you believe in absolute sovereignty or relative sovereignty? The proponents of relative sovereignty believe that being part of a bigger entity comes with a trade off where some sovereignty is given up for major tangible benefits, benefits a smaller state could not get on its own. Those who espouse absolute sovereignty believe that the trade offs are minuscule compared to the loss of sovereignty given and would prefer all major decisions are made within nation states.
From an Islamic perspective the debate has some interesting aspects, notwithstanding that the core immediate issue is irrelevant.
The reason the core issue is irrelevant is that for real people, neither of the two options will help their cause in the long term. Whether it is the EU elites in Brussels or the British elite in Westminster, their outlook is the same. Their priorities are aimed towards the wealthy not the disabled, the rich not the poor, multinationals not small businesses. Elites within nation states are as much out of touch as the bureaucrats are in Brussels. They confine themselves to their capital cities and operate in a cocoon of their own; occasionally venturing out to see their constituents in pre arranged photo opportunities. An unelected bureaucracy runs the EU, but the politicians in nation states aren’t any more popular than their European counterparts (even those who didn’t have offshore investments in Panama). In western states, there is a legitimacy gap where people believe the system is rigged, that politicians are on the payroll of special interests and that sovereignty for the ordinary person is a tale from Greek mythology.
So on the core issue of remain or exit, the issue is moot. However let’s imagine a more hypothetical discussion on what kind of entity is more appropriate at this juncture. Is it a nation state or a supra national entity where common values transcend into common laws and common institutions.
The Islamic perspective clearly illustrates that a supra national entity is the preference. Yet some believe that to be unrealistic. They say it’s impossible to have one state for the entire Ummah. Yet if 1.4 billion Chinese can live in one Chinese State, and 1.3 billion Indians can live in one Indian State, then why can’t 1.6 billion Muslims live in one Islamic State? On a whole set of issues, having a large state rather than 50 mini states is the future. On issues such as poverty, or the environment, or investment, today’s 17th century Westphalian nation state model needs to be put in the garbage can of history.
However some cite the failure of the EU as a counter argument. Yet a brief history clearly illustrates that the EU wasn’t designed to be a coherent supra national entity to begin with. Britain wasn’t a founder member of the original EU and was repeatedly rebuffed by the French President who suspected that Britain’s agenda was not in keeping with the principles of the organisation. The French who were at the heart of the project wanted a strong Europe to keep the Americans out, the Germans in and the British down. However the contradictions of the EU today are too numerous to mention. Economic union without political union, free market without a common currency, and foreign policy without military enforcement are just some of the glaring contradictions we see today. The EU having showed Portugal and Ireland mass austerity, then threw Greece to the bankruptcy courts and raided its pension funds so as to service future debt interest payments. After nearly six decades, the EU is growing stale, disunited and more xenophobic in its old age. Rather than putting on meaningless summits, the EU needs to be retired gracefully and put in a history museum for the sake of posterity.
Islam’s perspective is different, it believes in a supra national entity that is rooted in divine values and balances a centralised ruling system with fully decentralised administration. It puts people ahead of profits and combines political union with economic union. It allows free movement of all people not just free movement of capital. It has a unified currency based on a gold and silver standard not fiat money controlled by unelected central bankers. It has a common foreign policy rooted in values of justice and humanitarianism not based on colonialism and economic exploitation. The benefits of a unified entity are mind boggling in terms of energy resources, of labour and financial capital. A supra national entity which controlled 70% of oil reserves, had a military of 5 million soldiers and controlled key waterways would be a force to contend with. Imagine if the wealth of the Gulf was combined with the labour force of South Asia. No wonder the west wants to divide us, whether it was Sykes-Picot in the early part of the 20thcentury, whether it was East Timor in the latter part of the 20th century or whether it was South Sudan five years ago, divide and rule has been the West’s mantra.
Science, architecture and trade blossomed under a supra national entity in the past and can do so once again. It was Tony Blair of all people who said this about Islam’s vision of a supra national entity. “The Koran is inclusive. It extols science and knowledge and abhors superstition. It is practical and far ahead of its time in attitudes toward marriage, women, and governance. Under its guidance, the spread of Islam and its dominance over previously Christian or pagan lands were breathtaking. Over centuries, Islam founded an empire and led the world in discovery, art, and culture. The standard-bearers of tolerance in the early Middle Ages were far more likely to be found in Muslim lands than in Christian ones.”
Both the UK and the EU will continue to struggle as long as the debate is over who rules rather than by what.