The Many Voices of Political Islam

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

The Many Voices of Political Islam

A big divide has emerged between liberal-minded groups and religious-based activists after Islamist parties gained parliamentary majorities in the polls in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, a divide that risks undermining the transition from authoritarianism to pluralism. The concept of secularism has negative connotations among Arabs in generals, not just Islamists Wary of the Islamists’ surge, liberals, leftists, and women’s rights groups argue that while Islamist leaders sound moderate, they harbor a conservative religious agenda—an agenda that might roll back human rights and individual freedoms. Particularly alarming to critics is the Islamists’ desire to impose their own rigid interpretation of morality in the public sphere.

Since gaining majorities in these countries’ parliaments, mainstream Islamist groups have been forced to outline their stances on a wide range of issues, especially with regards to Islamic law, personal freedoms, women and minority rights, and tourism. Liberal-minded activists assert that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Ennahda Party, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, and the Salafists exhibit illiberal tendencies and are intolerant of the rights of minorities, particularly women.

Toleration and Pluralism?

Political Islam’s worldview and evolution differ from one group and one Arab country to another. Most mainstream Islamists of the Tunisian Ennahda party and the Egyptian MB variety accept the concept of citizenship and the will of the people, as opposed to the sovereignty of God, as the foundation of legitimate authority.

Most Islamists do not talk about establishing Islamic-based governments—as stipulated by their original manifestos—and instead they call for al-dawla al-madaniya, or a civil state. Even the old guard among the Brotherhood no longer advocate building an Islamic state. They substitute “civil” for “Islamic” in an effort to avoid using the term “secular.”

The concept of secularism has negative connotations among Arabs in generals, not just Islamists, because of its historical association with colonialism and Westernization. Similarly, the theocratic model in Iran has failed to fulfill the aspirations of many Islamists, thus reinforcing the shift in discourse from “Islamic” to “civil”, though they are yet to flesh out what they mean by a “civil” state. The pledge by a leading figure in the MB, Khairat Al-Shater, to introduce sharia law if elected as president of Egypt (before he had been disqualified from the presidential race) raises serious concerns about his commitment to civil institutions and individual liberties.

Nevertheless, after their impressive performance in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, leaders of the Brotherhood’s newly-formed Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) publicly stressed their commitment to pluralism and the protection of individual rights. They made it exceptionally clear that they are willing to accommodate different and diverse people into the process of drafting a constitution.

Two senior MB members, Mohammad Morsi and Essam El-Arian, pledged to form a national unity government with other parties. Addressing assertions often made by their secular opponents, FJP leaders insist they “would hand over power if we lose” because the public mood will no longer tolerate dictatorship. El-Arian pledged that the FJP will not change the Egyptian constitution to make all legislation comply with Shari’a law.

In contrast to the Brotherhood, Ennahda in Tunisia is more consistent and unequivocal about respect for individual freedoms and its willingness to relinquish power if defeated at the ballot box. The party announced that Shari’a should not be the source for all laws, and that the new constitution should simply acknowledge that Islam is the state religion, just as the old constitution did. Islamists have a vested interest in the institutionalization of the political process

After it gained a majority in the Tunisian parliament at the end of 2011, Ennahda established a broad-based unity coalition to oversee transition to pluralism. In contrast to the Brotherhood which has fielded its own candidate for president, Ennahda supported Moncef Marzouki—a liberal human rights activist—as president as part of the power-sharing deal.Said Ferjani, a rising figure within Ennahda, noted that history will judge his generation of Islamists not on its ability to gain power but rather on what it do with that power:

“In this golden opportunity, I am not interested in control. I am interested in delivering the best charismatic system, a charismatic, democratic system. This is my dream,” concluded Ferjani.

Although there is heated bickering among Islamists and their liberal and leftist rivals over the formation of new constitutions, the constitutions will reflect a spirit of pluralism and toleration. Islamists have a vested interest in the institutionalization of the political process which will protect them against the whims of autocratic military rulers. As Ennahda’s leader Rachid Ghannnouchi put it in an interview in 2011: “Rulers benefit from violence more than their opponents do.”

Various Islamist leaders stress their commitment to building institutions and safeguarding individual freedoms and minorities, and the rule of law. Ennahda has made it clear that it will protect Tunisia’s small Jewish minority, which faces considerable pressure from small conservative elements in society. Ennahda has rejected calls from extremists (and from Israel) that Tunisian Jews should leave the country.

In Egypt, the debate on minority rights is still unfolding and revealing a less progressive stance by the BrotherhoodThe party announced that while it would not oppose Christians or women standing for president, it would support a Muslim male for the position. Far from deterred by such illiberal statements, female candidates have thrown their hats in the presidential ring, such as famous Egyptian news-anchor Bothaina Kamel.

Minorities and Morality in the Public Sphere

For many women, the main issue lies in the degree of equality they will enjoy in society in the post-authoritarian political system. On the whole, Islamists, particularly the Salafists and the MB, remain prisoners to regressive dogma concerning women. Conservative Islamists deploy scriptural interpretations selectively and haphazardly and claim that women and religious minorities cannot be fully equal before the law—and so cannot hold the office of president or even magistrate. This
anti-democratic position is contested among pragmatists and younger, progressive Islamists, and there are important variations and differences among Islamists across national borders.

In Tunisia, Ennahda officials have repeatedly pledged to promote equal opportunities in employment and education for women, as well as freedom to choose or reject traditional Islamic dress. Long before the Arab awakenings, Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader, supported affirmative action to increase women’s participation in parliament, breaking with the policies of the MB in Egypt.

However, Tunisia’s female activists have accused Ennahda of misleading the public and making false promises. This tension became clear after a female member of Ennahda, Souad Abdul Rahim, challenged a law that protected women who have children outside marriage and called for its abrogation. While raising concerns that Ennahda may curtail women’s rights, another member of Ennahda, Ali Al-Areed, noted that “The Party will not change laws related to inheritance and polygamy because these laws are tailored for the Tunisian society.” These statements have not allayed the fears of women and liberals. Consequently, a number of female activists have formed the October 24 Front, to defend women’s rights and freedoms through monitoring the performance of Ennahda and other parties and scrutinizing the drafting of the new constitution.

The debate on women’s rights in Tunisia has recently become more audible after a dispute over whether women should be allowed to wear the niqab (full face-covering veil) in universities. After being suppressed and silenced during the Ben Ali regime, Salafists have emerged into public spaces, favoring long beards and veils and demanding the application of Shari’a law. Fearing the loss of individual liberties, secularists challenged Salafists on the streets and in universities. In late March and early April 2012, the war of words between the supporters of the two camps turned into violent clashes. Pressed in the middle of this fierce struggle, Ennahda has been
paralyzed, unable or unwilling to act decisively and resolve the crisis.

In Egypt, the Salafists, who won 20 percent of seats in the new parliament, oppose women playing leadership roles in the work place or in the political space. Moreover, they favor regulating women’s dress and imposing Islamic standards of modesty in the public sphere.

While the so-called blue bra girl incident—in which a young protester was stripped and beaten by police—and the cases of enforced virginity tests by a military doctor suggest that certain taboos have atomized—and that women have become more outspoken since the revolution—female representation in the political arena has dwindled. The constitutional committee in Egypt (subsequently disbanded by the court) included no women. In the March 2012 parliamentary elections women won fewer than 10 of the 508 seats. As Iman Bibars, the head of the Association for Development and Enhancement of Women in Egypt, noted: “The revolution gave us a voice and we cannot hide that … But I think the product after the revolution is against women … I was shocked the fundamentalists took over and I did not foresee a male gender constitution.”

The predicament of women is no different in other countries where Islamists have made similar gains. In Jordan, the appointment of a new prime minister and a committee to review election laws and make amendments to the constitution did not fulfill a promise to include the word “gender” in Article 6 of the constitution. That article would have guaranteed the equality of all Jordanians before the law. In Kuwait, the victory of the Islamist-based opposition in parliamentary elections led to an all-male chamber. The four women who won seats in 2009 lost them all in the 2012 elections.

In addition to women’s rights, morality issues are heatedly debated in Arab countries that have experienced significant change during the Arab revolutions. In Egypt, in particular, where tourism plays an important role in the country’s economy (generating more than 12 percent of hard foreign currency), alcohol consumption, the tolerance of bikinis and mixed bathing at beaches are being reassessed. As with women’s rights, mainstream Islamists have sent mixed signals to the public about their views on morality issues.

In contrast, Mohammad Morsi, the leader of the FJP, told the public that ?his party did not plan to ban alcohol in hotels ?and at tourist resorts or prevent Egyptians from ?drinking liquor in their homes. However, other members of the Brotherhood have expressed opposing views.

What to make of the contradictory statements by Islamists on women’s rights and enforcing a particular morality in the public sphere? On the one hand, the Salafists, along with conservatives among mainstream Islamists, seek to impose a regressive interpretation of morality on society at large. On the other hand, pragmatists among Islamists are caught in the middle of a fierce debate and are undergoing a huge learning process, as they attempt to reach consensus on controversial questions that touch on their very identity.

For example, Ennahda struggles to walk a fine line between the Salafists and the secularists and to avoid alienating and estranging either camp. In contrast, the MB and the Salafists in Egypt have voiced conflicting messages about their views on morality issues in the public sphere.

Nevertheless, a clear divide has emerged between mainstream Islamists and the Salafists, a divide that will deepen and widen as Islamists come to terms with the responsibilities of governance and are forced to clarify their positions. Of all religious-based groups, Ennahda has exhibited the most progressive stance on women’s rights and the role of morality in the public sphere, even though it has refrained from publicly confronting the Salafists. Its leaders prefer to unite all Tunisians and set an example for neighboring Arab states. A woman— Siham Ben Sedrine—is leading the panel to define rights and liberties in the nation.

The Brotherhood has been slower than its Tunisian counterpart in fully embracing the equality of all citizens before the law regardless of sex, religion, and ethnicity. This nuance may be explained by the different historical experiences of Egyptian and Tunisian Islamists, as well as the influence that the old guard like Al-Badi and even Shater—who was previously seen as a  reformist—still works within the 86-year old Brotherhood.  Many young Muslim Brothers complain that the group’s old guard does not practice democracy internally even as it promises to lead the country toward pluralism.

As can be seen, mainstream Islamists are finding their voice and their way awkwardly. They are learning by trial and error. In particular, the Brotherhood has already alienated most of the political groups from the left to the right. Lacking imagination, time and again, the old guard has proved to be its own worst enemy, forcing decisions on rank-and-file and demanding absolute loyalty. Conservatives are testing the limits of their newfound power, falling into the trap of blind political ambition. Overreach might cost the Brotherhood critical public support and deepen the divide within the organization, as well as between the Muslim Brothers and secular-minded groups.

Fawaz A. Gerges is a Fellow at ISPU and Professor of Middle East politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics where he directs the Middle East Centre. His most recent book is “The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda (Oxford University Press, 2011).

This article was published by The Majalla on April 25, 2012. Read it here.