The Quest for Dignity in the Arab World: A Commentary on Mohammed Hashas’s “Trust State”
Nicholas Roberts 28 September 2017

Mohammed Hashas begins his fine treatise on the “trust state[1] by rhetorically asking why a reader might be interested in such a discussion, when there are “priorities” more urgent than discussions on the state. In the second decade of the twenty-first century there certainly are urgent priorities demanding our attention. Today, the fallout from the 2008 global economic meltdown continues. We are faced with one of the largest refugee crises in modern history. Natural disasters remain looming threats, despite our technological prowess. Geopolitical wrestling matches in places such as the Middle East, the South China Sea, and Eastern Europe are challenging the post-World War Two global balance of power. Each of these issues is rooted in contestations over the nature of the state, and the nation-state-based international affairs paradigm. Therefore, we might respond to Hashas’s initial query by concluding that rethinking the state is, in fact, a great priority.

As originally conceptualized by scholars such as Charles Tilly, the ‘state’ developed in Europe as an entity to organize and control social, political, military, and economic aspects of life for a group of people.[2] After the fall of Christendom, Europeans began identifying themselves according to distinct nations, and these nations formed the bases of states. With the rise of European military might ensuing colonialism, Europeans exported the nation-state model of socio-political organization. Indeed, “exported” might be too soft of a verb, for in many cases, the Europeans forced this model of political organization upon colonized peoples. Mohammed Hashas joins a dynamic chorus of Muslim intellectuals in the modern era who have sought to integrate aspects of Muslim history and tradition with the modern experience of Western intellectual hegemony. Thus, Hashas presents his concept of a trust state as belonging to “the Arab domain (al-majāl attadāwuli al-ʿarabi) and its plural tradition” (1)[3]. Yet the “trust state” is also a distinctively “modern term,” born from the necessity for the Arabs to reunite themselves with their own language and tradition while also remaining open to factors of the modern world (4).

Hashas’s conceptualization of history and global affairs is rooted in the idea of human webs of interaction. This concept was first articulated by the father-and-son-team of historians William and J.R. McNeill in The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History.[4] A web, as the McNeills put it, is any set of connections that link peoples together. These connections include rivalry and cooperation, common worship, economic and ecological exchanges, and even military competition. Thus, although Europeans and Arabs did compete throughout history in terms of proselytism, military prowess, and the politics of empire, this very competition linked the European and Arab peoples together, and there has been a steady exchange of ideas throughout the modern era. As Hashas says, in the twenty-first century the Arabs and Europeans are so intimately linked together that “they make no sense as separate entities” (5). Here Hashas is echoing both the McNeills as well as the German philosopher Norbert Elias, who wrote of “psychologization” in his book The Civilizing Process. As Elias said: “As webs of interdependence spread, more people become involved in more complex and impenetrable relationships. …This produces pressures toward greater consideration of the consequences of one’s own actions for other people on whom one is in one way or another independent.”[5]

Hashas’s conceptualization of global affairs is also influenced by the idea of the “post-West,” or, put another way, the failure of the West. The idea of the failure of the West is a major theme in many aspects of post-colonial thought and the intellectual history of many societies in the post-WWII era.[6] Hashas observes how “the West” has ceased to stand as a “unique idea” for many peoples, and that its “intellectual and political paradigm is no longer ‘the best’ or ‘the right’ in the world” (5).  An important dimension of this thinking in modern Islamic thought and post-colonial thought is that the West, in particular the United States, has lost its moral hegemony.

These arguments challenge the political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s conclusion that we have reached the “end of history,” in which human societies, by adopting liberal democracy and nation-states, have reached the ultimate evolution of political development.[7] The public intellectuals and editors of The Economist John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge wrote a book titled The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State that should be read in conversation with Hashas’s essay. In dramatic ways throughout the world, they argue, people are challenging the contention that a Western-style liberal democracy, housed inside a nation-state, embodies the best model of governance. “For all its frustrations with government,” wrote Micklethwait and Wooldridge, “the emerging world is beginning to produce some striking new ideas, eroding the West’s competitive advantage in the process.”[8] They note that in 2012-2013 when the United States government gridlocked over health care, China extended pension coverage to more than 240 million rural citizens. Staunchly authoritarian Singapore offers significantly better overall access to healthcare and opportunities for education. “At the very least,” they wrote in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, “the West no longer has a monopoly on ideas.”[9]

One historically Western idea that is being challenged is secularism. The old style of thinking that divided public and private life with religious and spiritual matters in a confined sphere of its own is no longer entirely applicable – if it ever was. Many of the most decisive displays of mixing religion and politics come from the ostensibly “secular” United States.[10] As Hashas points out, the Arabs have drawn upon the cumulative tradition of Islam to influence public discourse (9). Many Muslim intellectuals have begun arguing that it is possible to be both secular and religious. Hashas’s “trust state” is both secular and religious, as he says, “because Islam is secular.”

Here Hashas is alluding to a spectrum of debates on the nature of religion in a Muslim public sphere. On one side of the spectrum is the classically-trained scholar Yousuf al-Qaradawi. For Qaradawi, religion, as an institutionalized set of practices organized around a creedal entity, is only one part of what Islam is. “Many think that all that is Islamic is also religious,” he observed. “But the fact is that Islam is broader and larger than the word ‘religion,’” he concluded. He further notes that religion/faith (din) is only one of the five components of the maqasid ash-shariah.[11] Coming from a different part of the spectrum, scholar Neslihan Cevik has coined the term “Muslimism,” as a new “-ism” or thought style that falls between secularism and Islamism. As she puts it, Muslimism “engages aspects of modern life, while submitting that life to a sacred, moral order.”[12] Similarly, historian of Islam John O. Voll has coined the term “seculigious” to describe persons who adhere to certain secular principles, but also believe in the importance of using religion to influence public life.[13]

Hashas’s “trust state” links well with what the Tunisian intellectual Rachid Ghannouchi has argued for in the past. Hashas’s theoretical state protects religion from the abuses of the state, and protects the state and its citizens’ lives by drawing upon divinely inspired ethical and moral principles. It is therefore possible for the “trust state” to be both secular and religious. Writing in a different time and a different context, before the phrase had been hijacked by extremists, Ghannouchi referred to his particular theoretical conception of a state as an “Islamic state”, and wrote that this state would be both religious and secular. “An Islamic state is not a religious state,” he declared, because a religious state would denote a normative, state-enforced conceptualization of religion, rather than allowing the free and unobstructed practice of Islam by Muslims. “In our context,” he added, “the problem is one of liberating religion and keeping the latter in the societal realm, open to all Muslims to read the Quran and understand it in the manner that they deem appropriate.”[14]

Hashas thus joins a distinguished chorus of Muslim intellectuals who are at the forefront of important changes regarding the nature and role of religion in public life. Hashas’s essay on the “trust state” encourages us to think beyond the confines of old labels and thought styles.[15] One group of scholars of religion refer to this style of thinking as “politically active religion,” and note that this thought style “encroaches on the supposed relationship between religion and secularism, thus challenging our thinking about the public role of religion.” Perhaps more importantly, however, scholars like Hashas force those of us who study religion and politics to “query our operative notions of secularism.”[16]

Another very significant idea in Hashas’s essay is the sins of secularism. Religion, as Hashas points out, is often understood as “a sign of pre-modernity, irrationality, incivility, conservatism, and regress” (2). Yet it was the secular “Euro-modernity” which “tried to maim world-history” (11). It is possible to view the Second World War, for example, which killed more than sixty-million people, or three percent of the world’s population, as a direct consequence of secular modernity. Fascism is an inherently modern, secular ideology. So is Nazism – and the systematic, scientific, and industrialized extermination of European Jewry can be understood as perhaps the most modern aspect of secular modernism. By highlighting the sins of secularism, Hashas is once again encouraging us to rethink long-held narratives and concepts. Hashas is not alone here. In making this argument Hashas is echoing the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Agamben’s series of books dealing with the concept of homo sacer attempt to understand violence and totalitarianism in the modern world. Inherent in the modernist outlook is that people will continually become healthier and wealthier, and live in states governed by freedom and justice for all. Totalitarianism and state-based violence is thus a state of exception, but Agamben flips this idea on its head and argues that totalitarian state violence is actually the epitome of modernism. He uses Nazi concentration camps to drive home his point: “The camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule.”[17] America’s Patriot Act and the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay exemplifies Agamben’s state of exception. It is not merely theory.

“Corrupt understanding of scientific humanism,” writes Hashas, “has done more damage in the twentieth century than all religious conflicts together have committed in human history” (7). Corrupt governance, in the form of the secular despotisms that characterized most of modern Middle Eastern history, is of primary concern for Hashas. Hashas presents his “trust social contract” as a consequence of the Arab Spring, which he declares is “not dead” (7). Hashas is certainly correct that the Arab Spring that began in 2011 in Tunis is still very much alive, but we can also place his “trust social contract” in a longer narrative of Arab Springs in modern Middle Eastern history.[18] Already in 1879, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was writing on the need for dignity, or trust, in government relations between the ruler and ruled. Afghani began his essay, al-Hukumah al-Istibdadiyah” (Despotic Government) without mincing words: “Many reasons prevent an Easterner from discussing republican government. The first is the long time which the people of the East have spent under the arbitrary rule of despots who…have treated their subjects arrogantly and robbed them of their rights.”[19] The idea of trust was at the center of Afghani’s critique of despotism. Afghani, as with Hashas, viewed governance broadly as falling within the realm of ethics. And trust is an important dimension of any ethical model. “The leading men of this kind of government [despotism],” Afghani declared, “are comparable to the vile luxury-lovers who unjustly and unlawfully enslave people born free.”[20]

A similar line of thought can be found in the works of the Syrian intellectual Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (d. 1902). For Kawakibi, despotism was antithetical to Islamic teachings. Kawakibi argued that the most urgent teachings of Islam were ethical and moral matters, and governance must fall within an ethical understanding of what is best for human societies. Kawakibi cited the Prophet Muhammad, who reminded his followers that “The moral command (nasiha) is the fulcrum of salvation (religion).”[21] Hashas’s conceptualization of a “trusteeship paradigm” (al-unmūthaj al-i’timānī) continues Kawakibi’s incisive line of thinking. Politics and governance is as much about the ethical pursuit of good as it is about the rational pursuit of order. As Hashas puts it: “Trust, which is an ethical principle that starts as ‘good intent’ and follows as ‘good act,’ does not claim to subdue nature thoroughly by reason; nature is like mother-to-man and cannot nor should it be subdued, but [rather] harmoniously lived with for human internal growth and cooperation with the rest of humanity” (12-13).

Hashas’s broad understanding of the nature of “trust” in contemporary socio-political issues is especially important. To say that the world today is fractured along sectarian and party lines would be an understatement. In Muslim societies, sectarianism and intra-Islamophobia has reached a point perhaps never before seen in Muslim history. For Hashas, a state based upon the idea of trust “moves away from practical rationality for self-fulfillment (the basis of the capitalist world system)” and instead moves toward “a rationality that is more open to altruism, the human soul, and non-material values that bring inner peace to it” (26).

One of the most important implications of Hashas’s analysis here is how we conceptualize shariʻa. In pre-modern Muslim history, shariʻa was not understood as a codified body of law, nor was it understood as a coherent unit of analysis. Instead, shariʻa was an abstract ethical ideal for individuals and communities to strive toward in organizing their personal and collective lives. Discussions of shariʻa typically took place in the context of the arts, literature, poetry, and philosophy. Hashas draws upon the Moroccan scholar Taha Abderrahmane in calling for a return to the ethical aspects of Muslim heritage and philosophy. Hashas encourages all of us to think in terms of shariʻa morals and ethics instead of shariʻa law. In this way, Hashas is urging us not to think of limits – of what human beings can not do – but rather to think in terms of possibilities, or to think of the unthought.[22]

Those of us who study Islamic thought and Muslim societies need Hashas to do more on this project. It is of the utmost importance, and as a person who crisscrosses the superficial labels of Eastern and Western in his own personal life and in his thinking, Hashas is the perfect person to more fully explicate the idea of the trust state. Trust is certainly an important dimension of this new thought style, but he might consider broadening it to a “state of dignity.” Any thinking on the state or politics in Muslim societies today (and, of course, in any society throughout the world) must do more to focus on human dignity (karamat al-insan). A trust state, or a state of dignity, must guarantee the rights and roles of women in political affairs. It is not easy to provide hard facts to use as evidence when talking about philosophical aspects of the state, such as the pursuit of the moral and the role of religious tradition in contemporary political matters. But this must be absolutely clear: The completely equal participation of women in the public sphere is a prerequisite for a flourishing state and society. A trust state or state of dignity must guarantee and incentivize women’s rights, and the rights of all citizens as equal members of the state regardless of gender, religion, or ethnicity.

This is not a philosophical or ethical argument – although the ethical argument for gender equality can certainly be made. Rather, there are hard facts and overwhelming evidence proving that gender equality in the public sphere is directly related to the strength of a state and its economy and society. As preeminent scholar Ebrahim Moosa has repeatedly argued, one of the most significant problems in Muslim societies today is a “deficit of dignity.”[23] Hashas’s brilliant and important conceptualization of a trust state is a new beginning for thinking about difficult topics such as human dignity, and the participation of women and minorities in contemporary political life.

[1] Mohammed Hashas, “A Treatise on Trust State for a New Arab World: Overcoming Dichotomous Thought,” Part I and II, 15-18 July 2016, at:;

[2] See, for example, Charles Tilly, ed., The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975).

[3] All in-text number citations refer to Hashas’s treatise.

[4] J.R. McNeill and William H. McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003).

[5] Norbert Elias, Norbert Elias on Civilization, Power, and Knowledge, eds. S. Mennell and J. Goudsblom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 18.

[6] See John O. Voll, “Islamic Renewal and the ‘failure of the West,’” in Decolonization: Perspectives from Now and Then, ed. Prasenjit Duara (New York: Routledge, 2003), 199-217.

[7] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest (Summer 1989); The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

[8] John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State (New York: Penguin Press, 2014), 17.

[9] John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, “Can China Best the West at Statecraft?” The Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2014, accessed June 17, 2017,

[10] See Nicholas P. Roberts, “Belying the Human Web: Western Prescriptions of Islam and the Danger of a Single Story,” in Islam and International Relations: Politics and Paradigms, eds. Deina Abdelkader, Nassef Manabilang Adiong, and Raffaele Mauriello (New York: Routledge, forthcoming fall 2017).

[11] Yousuf al-Qaradawi, Min fiqh al-dawla fi al-Islam (Cairo: Dar al-Sharouk, 2001), 57-58.

[12] Neslihan Cevik, Muslimism in Turkey and Beyond: Religion in the Modern World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 201.

[13] John O. Voll, “Contemporary Muslim Thinkers and Modern/Post-Modern Governance,” Lecture for KU Leuven Gulen Chair for Intercultural Studies, February 12, 2015, accessed June 17, 2017,

[14] Rachid Ghannouchi, “Secularism and Relation Between Religion and State from the Perspective of the Nahda Party,” Lecture, Washington DC: March 2, 2012. Available at:

[15] I borrow the phrase thought style from Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, ed. Thaddeus J. Trenn and Robert K. Merton, trans. Fred Bradley and Thaddeus J. Trenn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

[16] Roberts, “Belying the Human Web,” quoting Craig Calhoun, M. Juergensmeyer and J. VanAntwerpen, eds., Rethinking Secularism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6.

[17] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), §3, 7.2. See also Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[18] See Marwan Muasher, The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); Adeed Dawisha, The Second Arab Awakening: Revolution, Democracy, and the Islamist Challenge from Tunis to Damascus (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013); Joel Beinin and Frederic Vairel, eds., Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa, 2nd ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).

[19] L.M. Kenny, “Al-Afghani on Types of Despotic Government,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 86, no. 1, 1996, 20-21; Nicholas P. Roberts, Political Islam and the Invention of Tradition (Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing), 50.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ebrahim Moosa, “Political Theology in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring: Returning to the Ethical,” in The African Renaissance and the Afro-Arab Spring: A Season of Rebirth?, eds. Charles Villa-Vincencio, Erik Doxtader, and Ebrahim Moosa (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press), 112.

[22] I borrow this phrase from Mohammed Arkoun, The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought (London: Saqi Books, 2002).

[23] See, for example, a khutba Professor Moosa gave on August 5, 2016, titled “The Jihad for Dignity,” available at See also his blog at

Photo Credit Marwan Naamani / AFP



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