Rethinking Political Islam?



The Qatar quarrel may seem like a tempest in an Arabian teapot, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius writes. But at its heart is the question that has vexed the world for a decade: Is there a role for political Islam in the modern world? Qatar says yes. The UAE counters that Islamist agitators are the enemy of tolerance and modernity.

Encouraging moderate, modernist interpretations of Islam is considered an essential component of a strategy to countering violent extremism. But Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian turn in Turkey has further raised fears that political Islam is inherently illiberal and anti-democratic.

“It is fair now to say that democracy and its institutions in Turkey are dying by the day,” notes Ersin Şenel, an Istanbul-based political scientist. Erdoğan and his followers come from a tradition of political Islam that is often accused of seeking to impose sharia law by stealth, he writes for The Guardian:

It also seems clear that the failed coup attempt has helped Erdoğan to solidify his power and use it to push his political agenda. He is entrenching it via the institutions of Islam, notably the mosques. The directorate of religious affairs has become an apparatus of Erdoğan’s political initiatives. Of course, mosques have been the carriers of rightwing politics in Turkey throughout history, but traditionally claimed to be supra-political and unbiased.

Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations has been caricatured as a single-minded call to arms against Muslims, and certainly the argument is neither so narrow nor so simple. Yet the threat Huntington sees from the Muslim world goes far beyond terrorism or religious extremism, The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada writes:

He worries of a broader Islamic resurgence, with political Islam as only one part of “the much more extensive revival of Islamic ideas, practices, and rhetoric and the rededication to Islam by Muslim populations.” Huntington cites scholars warning of the spread of Islamic legal concepts in the West, decries the “inhospitable nature of Islamic culture” for democracy and suggests that Islam will prevail in the numbers game against Christianity.

For years, scholars hypothesized about what Islamists might do if they ever came to power. Now, they have answers: confusing ones, according to a new book, Rethinking Political Islam, edited by Shadi Hamid and William McCants:

In the Levant, ISIS established a government by brute force, implementing an extreme interpretation of Islamic law. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Tunisia’s Ennahda Party governed in coalition with two secular parties, ratified a liberal constitution, and voluntarily stepped down from power. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest Islamist movement, won power through free elections only to be ousted by a military coup. The strikingly disparate results of Islamist movements have challenged conventional wisdom on political Islam, forcing experts and Islamists to rethink some of their most basic assumptions.

While the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) started as a movement centered on resistance to what it saw as the Westernization, or de-Islamization, of Muslim culture, it soon realized that resistance was only as effective as its access to power, argues Nawaf Obaid, a Visiting Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Three core elements of the MB have kept it from being able to mature into and be accepted by the Arab public as a preferred political entity, he contends:

  • First, the MB’s primary objective was defined in its early years in educational terms: “to raise a new generation of Muslims who will understand Islam correctly.”[1] It was a return to Islam, “din wa dawla.” Islam was viewed not only as a guide to private belief and ritual but also as a comprehensive system of values and governance intrinsically different from (and superior to) the political systems of the West….
  • The second aspect of the MB that has kept it from being able to gain access to governance is the fact that the organization has frequently been unable to keep its members in step. The Brothers have split over various issues: the degree to which the organization should seek to implement sharia, the means by which that should be done, the methods proper to responding to the group’s suppression, the organization’s view on jihadist violence, and the types of candidates and positions to put forth during elections and in parliaments. This lack of ideological coherency has resulted in a sense among the Arab populace that the group is too riddled by infighting to be trusted with governance….
  • This example hints at the third innate MB feature that has prevented it from developing into a viable form of governance: its connection with and/or failure to refute connections to jihadist terror and political violence….RTWT


In Egypt, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elected president. In Tunisia, Ennahda — a party inspired by the Brotherhood — initially emerged as the most powerful post-revolutionary faction. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood played a major role in the rebellion against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, The New York Times reports:

All this frightened the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Like the Brotherhood, the Saudi and Emirati royal families adhere to variations of Sunni Islamic doctrine. But the more populist vision promoted by Brotherhood brands implicitly threatens the hereditary monarchies of the Persian Gulf region.

“The Brotherhood provides a different kind of religious legitimacy,” said Shadi Hamid, author of “Islamic Exceptionalism,” an exploration of political Islam in the 21st century. “It will remain the only long-term threat of importance to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.”

The organization is also under pressure in Jordan, although its charitable activities have made it part of everyday life and won it parliamentary seats in elections last year, reports suggest.

“From being in a position where they had a member as the president of Egypt, they’re now being pushed back heavily in Egypt and clamped down upon in other countries,” said Tim Eaton, Middle East expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, also known as Chatham House. “Generally, there was a lot of talk of 2011 ushering in Islamist governments in the Middle East — and that hasn’t come to pass.”


Sumaya Al-Ghannouchi, a Tunisian journalist and Middle East affairs expert living in France and the daughter of Rachid Al-Ghannouchi (left), the leader of the Ennahdha movement in Tunisia, published a scathing criticism of the attitude of Saudi Arabia, and Saudi clerics, to the various streams of Islam such as the Muslim Brotherhood, The Middle East Media Research Institute reports:

Saudi Arabia is an “absolutist country” whose clerics have become “some type of religious clerks” providing justification for the double standards of Saudi policy. ….Saudi Arabia had cooperated with various streams of Islam, including the Muslim Brotherhood, when doing so suited it needs – such as during the confrontation with communism, and with Nasserism. However, she noted, with the advent of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia had started to become hostile to these streams, due to their desire to integrate Islam with democracy, and their rise to power in various countries by means of democratic elections.

During previous crackdowns, Brotherhood members and their affiliates have also spent time in exile, and the location of that exile has often affected their political approach upon their return home, The Times adds:

In his early years in office, Mr. Erdogan — whose ideological roots are comparable to the Brotherhood’s — consolidated power by seeking alliances with liberals and various minorities. Yet, since the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood began to move to Turkey, Mr. Erdogan has, conversely, staved off competition by cracking down hard on his opponents, particularly after last year’s failed coup.

“Just as where you study abroad in your 20s is important, where you spend your exile is also very important,” said Monica Marks, an academic at Oxford University who researches the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots.

“They’re seeing a very majoritarian model in practice and I fear that this might be reinforcing some of their more autocratic tendencies,” said Ms. Marks. “What you’re seeing in Turkey is a regime that at least on its surface looks very powerful, using a discourse of democratic legitimacy to defend what are in many ways undemocratic policies. It’s very seductive.”

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