By Moha Ennaji
The last three or so decades have seen a spectacular rise of what came to be called “political Islam”: a complex but real category in political and social sciences. Whether espoused or shunned, political Islam has created a genuine debate. However, the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia threw serious doubt on the viability of political Islam and calls for serious reflection on its future.
Political Islam, as an ideological movement that seeks to create social change in Muslim-majority societies on the basis of Islamic values and beliefs, has suffered a serious blow in Egypt and, as a consequence, in the region after the Islamists have lost power.
Being an Islamic revivalist movement, often characterised by moral conservatism, pedantry, and the attempt to implement Islamic values in all walks of life, political Islam started with the creation of the Muslim Brothers Movement in Egypt by Hassan Albanna in 1928. Albanna was assassinated on 12 February 1949 during King Farouk’s regime because of his extremist ideas and use of violence to take power. Since then political Islam has been developing into sects and sub-sects, some very violent with a military branch like Taliban or Al-Qaeda, others less violent or peaceful like the Turkish model.
As such, political Islam is different from fundamentalism, which seeks to return to the fundamental roots and values of Islam and apply them in personal and social life without being involved in politics.
Political Islam is likewise different from Muslim faith and spirituality, which, like other faiths (Christianity, Judaism, etc.), fosters human dignity, justice, solidarity, equality, and respect for the other. Political Islam targets social issues, hence its focus on the oppressed and underprivileged, who have lost trust in political parties in power.
To achieve these goals, political Islamists prone a façade of anti-western values and standards and often oppose all freedoms: women’s freedom, civil liberties, minorities, and freedom of expression. They are, as a matter of fact, misogynistic, anti-modernity and anti-secular.
The first successful application of political Islam was the Iranian revolution, since which Islam has been in the limelight as an essential reference point for a variety of political actions, opinions, and opposition activities. The term “political Islam” has been used by scholars and analysts in recognition of this unparalleled emergence of the Muslim religion in the secular realm of politics and to differentiate these practices from the unmarked category “Islam.”
Gradually, political Islam has been depicted as the only alleged current religion that has sought to fuse religion and politics into a single entity, using strategies such as personality cult, exclusion of non-Muslims and non-Islamists, idolatrous images of their leaders with the ultimate aim of establishing an Islamic Caliphate (Muslim state).
In the MENA region, political Islam has proved to lack a clear economic and social road map, but it is aware that any form of democracy in Muslim countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, or Morocco would end up in a mass secular uprising and the rise of social movements, as happened in Egypt subsequent to the military intervention which deposed president elect Mohamed Morsi. The latter and his cohorts appeared to overlook that the revolution against Mubarak had been led by pro-democracy forces, not the Brotherhood, which joined the uprising only when it became obvious that the old regime was on the verge of collapse.
They also could not realise that most of their electoral base stemmed from the extremely poor and socially marginalised sections of the Egyptian society, who hoped for urgent improvements in their daily lives. Nor could they see that the neighboring Arab states could hardly tolerate a form of political Islamism that was challenging their power. Instead of comprehending the changing conditions with a plausible strategy to initiate reforms and resolve the urgent problems in an inclusive and open way, Morsi and his supporters came up with a constitution based on Islamic law (Sharia) that protected his powers and made him above the law.
Likewise, in Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party in power, which was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, now faces mass protests against its rule, the latest sparked by the assassination of the prominent opposition figure Mohamed Brahmi in July 2013 , and before that the assassination of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid in February 2013. In Morocco, the Islamist ruling Justice and Development Party has proved weak and inept because it could not lead any reforms nor respond to the impatient demands of the impoverished masses for a better life. Protests have recently expressed dissatisfaction and pointed out the decline in the economy and education performance under the PJD rule.
With all these failures, can one talk about the end of political Islam? Recent developments in Egypt indicate, actually, a regression but not the end of Islamists’ long struggle to tie the power of religion to politics.
Looking back, it is clear that political Islam was nourished by Western governments during and after the cold war under the pretext of encouraging pluralism and democracy but in reality serving their immediate pragmatic needs: the abolition of communism and the protection of their interests in the MENA region. However, after the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere, and because political Islam has recently taken on international dimensions and undemocratic or violent overturns, as in the case of Syria, the US and the European Union have began revising their attitudes and strategies toward political Islamists.
These dramatic developments call for reflection. It is high time Islam and politics were separated from each other, because when they are put together they cause havoc, chaos, and terror. Religion should be fostered as a personal matter that should not be involved in the state, education, and other public institutions. Secularism, or a civil state as they call it in Egypt, is badly needed in the region as an answer to extremism, radicalism, and sectarian violence. Any attempt to undermine freedom of religion must be prevented, however. Any law or regulation that is in violation of the principle of human equality must be repealed right away, and all cases of discrimination by any individual, authority, or institution, should be annulled.
The German political scientist of Egyptian origin, Hamed Abd el Samad had predicted, before the outbreak of the Arab revolutions, the collapse of political Islam under the weight of an Islam unable to turn to modernity, and insisting that it is in the West’s interest to support the secular and democratic forces in the Muslim world, and Muslims must encourage a critical approach and a reformation (ijtihad) of Islam instead of repressing it with hate discourse.
However, it is impossible to reform Islam as long as an assessment of the Qur’an, its concepts, principles and teaching remains a taboo; this fact prevents any progress, sterilises thought, and paralyses all initiatives.
There is no magic solution to the situation of the Islamic world as long as it does not detach itself from the Sharia law which blocks minds and divides the world between Muslim and non-Muslim infidels, between Dar el Islam and Dar al harb (the Islamic countries and countries to conquer ) .
To achieve the separation of Islam and politics and strengthen sustainable development, Muslim countries should work on several fronts: democratisation, reforms of education, judiciary, and administration, consolidating women’s and minority rights, fight against corruption, poverty, illiteracy, and substandard housing, etc., hence, the need to focus efforts on economic and social issues in order to find tangible solutions to the problems at hand.
Moha Ennaji is an author, Professor of Cultural and Gender Studies, and President of the International Institute for Languages and Cultures in Fez, Morocco.