Political Islam After the Arab Spring: Between Jihad and Democracy?



Around 1,000 Indonesians, led by hardline Islamist groups, protested outside parliament on Tuesday as lawmakers approved a presidential decree banning civil organizations deemed to go against the country’s secular state ideology, Reuters reports:

Indonesian parliament. Credit: Jakarta Globe

Tuesday’s approval puts into law a policy President Joko Widodo set in a decree in July. The policy was aimed at containing hardline groups who have cast a shadow over the long-standing reputation for religious tolerance in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation….In late 2016 and early this year, groups such as Hizb-ut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which call for Islamic law to be imposed in Indonesia, led mass street rallies attacking Jakarta’s governor, a Christian, whom they accused of insulting Islam.

“We have seen mass organizations that are against the Pancasila (state ideology) and have created social conflict,” said Arya Bima, a lawmaker in favour of the policy. “This law doesn’t impede freedom of organization or assembly, it strengthens it.”

One of the many qualities of Rethinking Political Islam, a thoughtful and useful collection of essays assembled by Shadi Hamid [above, in conversation with Leon Wieseltier] and William McCants, is how it sharpens the debate over political Islam by identifying “mainstream Islamists” – Islamist parties “that operate within the confines of institutional politics and are willing to work within existing state structures, even ostensibly secular ones,” notes Olivier Roy, Joint Chair of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute and the author of Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State.

Analyses of political Islam in these places tend to fall into two categories, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

  • The first might be called “the contextualist view,” which holds that the policies and practices of Islamist movements are driven less by ideology than by events and sees such groups as reactive and adaptive. … Contextualists believe that Islamist groups seek to adapt to circumstances and country-specific norms (for example, by recognizing the monarchies in Jordan and Morocco). The groups’ main goal is to survive as coherent organizations and political actors. And their use of religious rhetoric is often little more than “Muslim-speak” (in the words of the French political scientist François Burgat)—a way to express a unique identity and articulate grievances, especially against the West. 
  • The second school of thought might be called “the essentialist view.” It holds that Islamists are fundamentally ideological and that any concessions they make to secularist principles or institutions are purely tactical: their participation in electoral politics hardly precludes them from calling for violent jihad, as well. According to this view, the true Islamist conception of democracy is “one man, one vote, one time.” In other words, Islamists see the ballot box as little more than a path to power; once there, they would replace democracy with theocracy. A corollary to this argument is the idea—extolled by critics of Islamism but also some of its adherents—that Islamic theology recognizes no separation between religion and politics, and therefore an authentic Islamist cannot renounce his ideological agenda in favor of a more pragmatic or democratic approach.

“The danger,” Roy adds, “is that if mainstream Islamists purchase inclusion in the secular state at the price of separating their political goals from their religious and social ones (as in Tunisia), or suffer exclusion from the state owing to their own overreach and a repressive backlash against it (as in Egypt), young Muslims seeking “authentic” religious and political identities might look elsewhere. And the jihadists will be waiting for them.”

But Pakistan’s experience suggests that efforts to bring extremists into mainstream politics don’t necessarily end well, notes Muhammad Daim Fazil, a lecturer at the University of Gujrat, Pakistan, and a former Visiting Fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington D.C.

“In the wake of previous bitter experiences, allowing hardcore Islamic organizations to establish political wings in Pakistan raises questions about the state’s seriousness toward curbing militancy under the 20-point National Action Plan (NAP),” he writes for The Diplomat. “NAP surfaced in the wake of the deadly attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in 2014, where 132 children and nine teachers were brutally killed. At least four clauses of the NAP (5, 7, 11 & 15) are exclusively related to the threats emanating from religious extremism; however, none of them has been implemented in true spirit.”

Although it may seem that the Muslim Brotherhood has weakened since the onset of the “Arab Winter,” organizations with their origins in the Brotherhood still have access to power in countries as diverse as Somalia, Bahrain, Morocco, and Yemen, and might regain power in other countries as well, note analysts Stig Jarle Hansen, Mohamed Husein Gaas and Ida Bary. Most Brotherhood-affiliated movements are committed to some form of democracy, unlike many of their rivals in the Middle East, they write in The Muslim Brotherhood Movement in the Arab Winter, a paper for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

It is notable that successful Brotherhood-affiliated movements now seem committed democracy; indeed, most are. However, two different approaches to democracy exist within the Brotherhood, the authors write:

The first is a consensus-based approach, where the Brotherhood in question sacrifices some influence in the short term to create trust with other political groups. The second is a “winner takes all” approach, where the Brotherhood uses democratic victories to achieve domination, a model that is democratically legitimate, but unwise. The latter approach cannot ensure peace in phases of political transition. By contrast, a consensus-based approach seems to guarantee the Brotherhood access to power and influence over time. Promoting such an approach should perhaps be a major target for those interacting with the Brotherhood.

“Western democracies’ lack of support for ousted democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood actors has complicated the consensus-based approach, however. One thing is for certain: the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideologies will remain a significant political force,” they conclude. RTWT

The Scoop on the Arab Street: New Polls on Taboo Topics

Daily news about the Iran deal, terrorist plots, Hamas gambits, or intra-Arab feuds often leaves observers wondering how any of this is playing on “the Arab street” — which, even under autocratic governments, can sometimes make or break Middle East policy, The Washington Institute notes. To offer unique hard data and insights about this factor, the institute will host a Policy Forum with David Pollock, Michele Dunne, and Ali Shihabi:

Dr. Pollock, the Institute’s Kaufman Fellow and director of Project Fikra, will reveal the results of his new polls on hot issues in eight countries: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Most of these findings are unprecedented and unpublished, with counterintuitive implications that are highly policy relevant. He will be joined by two other leading experts in the field: Dr. Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace [and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group] and Ali Shihabi, executive director of the Arabia Foundation in Washington. 12:30 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, October 24, 2017. Watch a live webcast as three Middle East scholars explore how to measure public opinion in the sometimes fractious, sometimes autocratic, Arab states in the Middle East.

The tiny Gulf state of Qatar remains a key source of support for Islamist and jihadist groups, and regional efforts to curb its influence merits support, according to speakers at yesterday’s Hudson Institute conference on Countering Violent Extremism: Qatar, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The U.A.E., Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had a well-thought-through plan . . . if you cut off funding, you could really have a chance to eradicate” funding for terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, one speaker said.

Yet, other observers note, the UAE, for example, represents all the same problems attributed to Qatar.

Former CIA director Leon Panetta cited efforts to work together with Qatar on counterterrorism and blocking financing of terrorist groups, The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder adds.

“They say they want to do the right thing. I think the issue is now to make sure what they say is what they do, and that means making sure that they are enforcing efforts to limit their support,” Panetta said.

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