Foreign Policy Blogs

The Politics of Political Islam

I don’t know who deserves the attribution as far as the coining is concerned, I only know—like the terms Islamism, sharia, and jihad — so-called political Islam is a loaded term that stirs storms of controversy. Despite that baggage, it is the prevalent concept that defines all political parties and movements with Islamic references. This wholesale attitude, needless to say, puts the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, the Renaissance Party in Tunisia and militant groups such as al-Shabaab and al-Qaida in one box.

Political Islam is endangered by the sandwiching effect of two negative forces; one that dysfunctionally wears it as a divinely contracted puritanical moral agency forced upon people, and another that stereotypes it as an imminent danger bent on destroying modernity, if not humanity.

Against that backdrop, in the West — as in many parts of the Muslim world—political Islam is hardly granted fair access or representation in the market place of ideas where merits and demerits of concepts of governance and state-building are evaluated through fair public discourse. It is treated as a radioactive ideology that deserves nothing more than an IdeoHazard or a radiation protection symbol attached to it without further explanation or discussion.
What would the reaction or the outrage be like if media groups started to refer the ideology that founded the “Jewish State of Israel” as Political Judaism, or the one that inspires Tibetan monks to torch themselves in protestation as Political Buddhism?

The post-revolution drama being played out in the political theaters of Egypt and Tunisia is not only likely to spread throughout the region, but throughout the entire Muslim world. Though the issue of contention is myopically described as a duel between secularists and Islamists, the real issue—though not in full fruition—is whether or not extreme secularism and extreme Islamism can co-exist.

Extremism comes in many shades. Contrary to the common perception, not all of them are violent. In an article that I authored several years ago entitled Islam in the Age of Extremism, I described extremism as “…any attitude, action or reaction that leads to the absolute deviation from the norms that make human coexistence possible. It is the malfunction or the breaking of the valve that calibrates our emotions, intellect, decency, bigotry, greed, and self-righteousness.”

The False dichotomy

While any attempt to reconcile the Shabaab-ic or Talibanic moral rigidity with pluralism and modernity might be an exercise in futility, reconciling these values with those of the aforementioned parties is not only possible but is underway. Turkey is already a successful model. Of course that is not to say that they would not experience political hiccups every now and then.

It is no secret that in certain circles, Islam, hyphenated or not, is the green menace that replaced the red one (communist bloc), and that political Islam is an impediment to globalization — economically, culturally, and geopolitically. And some self-styled Muslim leaders routinely spew rhetoric of intolerance and political exclusivism that give credence to certain stereotyping and discredit Muslim visionaries who offer strategies of coexistence and unity.

Addressing thousands of the Renaissance Party’s supporters during the recent political tension that put pro and con Tunisians back on the streets, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the Tunisian Islamic thinker and the party’s intellectual leader asked the crowed this question: “Do they (opposition) have the right to change the government?” The thundering response from the crowd was: “No!” Correcting the crowd, he swiftly responded by saying: “Yes, they can. But (quoting from the Quran) they must enter the houses from their doors.” The legitimate democratic process that he was encouraging his followers and oppositions to respect is the very same violated legitimacy that the Anti-Coup movement holding sit-ins and demonstrations throughout Egypt has been demanding.

To Experience Is To Learn

However painful, every human experience offers an opportunity to mature. The military coup and the subsequent negative and positive events provide especially the Muslim Brotherhood ample material to learn from and improve upon. Those who were killed, injured, and imprisoned came for a cause that was much bigger than the overthrown President, Muhammad Morsi.

They came to support a universal value and belief that there is no one who is divinely appointed to fill a seat and that anyone who wants to assume authority over people must come through a social contract that is framed by negotiated consensus and not by the barrel of guns or the backs of tanks.

With their seven weeks of day and night (high risk) sit-ins and demonstrations, the Anti-Coup Movement has sent a clear message that it crossed the Rubicon of fear. Leaders of the movement have been organizing peaceful and creative events in the localities of their civil disobedience that attracted supporters far beyond the Muslim Brotherhood.

While they haven’t yet reached their objective of reversing the coup, the momentum is clearly in their favor. No military matches in might against unarmed citizens willing to risk all that the ordinary people perceive indispensable.

Can Political Islam be Democratic?

The yin and yang of Islam are: Ibadat (worship) and Mu’amalat (human interaction). The former deals with how the human-beings maintain spiritual devotion to The Creator (God) and in this sphere there is very limited flexibility. No Muslim scholar, Imam, could reduce the daily obligatory prayers intended to glorify, thank and sing the praises of God from five to, say, two. There is no room for negotiation there unless one is sick, traveling, etc. Even then each might be prayed differently or is its length reduced but not the number of the prayers.

The latter, on the other hand, deals with human relations. As such, Islam lends it ample space for negotiations without which trust, unity and coexistence could be not built. That is why the great majority of Muslim scholars would find no problem with the concept of democracy, though many would argue these democratic systems must consider the values system of each polity while protecting the rights of the minorities. The founding of a pluralistic State by social contract was modelled by Prophet Muhammad some fifteen centuries ago by instituting the Constitution of Medina

The Egyptian Coup Experience

The thing that visibly tipped the scale and made the anti-coup demonstrations and sit-ins fashionable was when the Egyptian Ultras that played a major role in the revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak decided to leave the football (soccer) arenas and join the Muslim Brotherhood. With them came a portion of the liberals and the Copts who almost unanimously supported the military coup.

The most powerful message of unity came from the non-Islamist youth who came to support the sit-ins and demonstrations against the coup. After he finished motivating the crowd from the stage, he concluded with these remarks: This is a message to the Muslim Brotherhood “I beg of you to review your system anew. Consider the current crisis a message from our Lord to you since He, The Most Glorious and Most High, said, ‘And whatever affliction befalls you, it is on account of what your hands have earned’ This is the Quran [42:30], not my own opinion. So, seize this opportunity.”

To my fellow Muslims, the challenges facing the world today need feasible strategies that promote mutual interest, not just a slogan that Islam would solve all the problems. Such slogans ring hollow to not only non-Muslims, but Muslims who are neither there at that emotive highest nor have seen positive production of such sloganeers.

Islamists in general, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, must learn to resist the zero-sum temptation that often comes with power politics. Though, ironically, the coup architects who were blaming them of monopoly of power are on a frenzy of re-Mobarakizing Egyptian institutions

If the main objective remains to cultivate an environment conducive for tolerant pluralism, freedom of religion, thought, commerce and equal protection before the law, political Islam could succeed. But if that potentiality continues to motivate the paranoia-driven (domestic and foreign) powers to suppress or deny access, violent extremism is the likely outcome.



Abukar Arman

Abukar Arman is a former diplomat, serving as Somalia's Special Envoy to the US. As a widely published analyst, he focuses on foreign policy, Islam, the Horn of Africa, extremism, and other topics.
Twitter: @Abukar_Arman
or reach him via e-mail: [email protected]