How to reverse the extremist tide


Something great is afoot in Tunisia. Last weekend, the once-Islamist Ennahda party officially declared that it will separate its religious activities from its political ones, notes Maajid Nawaz, co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, the London-based anti-extremism think tank. Ennahda, Tunisia’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood, just approved an internal reform that acknowledged the primacy of secular democracy over Islamist theocracy, he writes for the Daily Beast:

Amid all the dictatorships and destruction, the turmoil and turbulence, the extremism and extermination, finally some good news from the bitter politics of the Arab world. Such is the dearth of political progress from the wider Middle East today that only a fool would not seek to exploit the opportunity such an pronouncement presents. ….Ahead of last weekend’s party congress that formalized this change, Ennahda’s founder and leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who once supported enforcing an interpretation of Islam as law, told the French daily Le Monde that “political Islam” no longer had a place in the Middle East.

“We want religious activity to be completely independent from political activity,” Ghannouchi said. “This is good for politicians because they would no longer be accused of manipulating religion for political means and good for religion because it would not be held hostage to politics… We are leaving political Islam and entering democratic Islam. We are Muslim democrats who are no longer claim to represent political Islam.”

The separation of political work in public from religious preaching and other spiritual functions is especially significant because Ennahda has proven to be perhaps the most effective Islamist political organization in the modern Arab World, says analyst Rami G. Khouri:

The important thing in Ennahda, no longer allowing its leaders to hold leadership positions in civil society organizations while also being active in religious organizations or preaching in mosques, is what this will reveal about the party’s ability to function purely as a political organization, in a competitive electoral environment. The citizens know and often share its religious views, and they appreciate the decades of hardships the party endured under repressive former governments. But they will vote or not vote for it only on the basis of whether they feel the party can deliver what citizens want: jobs, less corruption, more personal freedoms, efficient public services, and other things that citizens and voters all over the world want.

Ennahda party has ditched the Islamist label in part to distance itself from jihadist groups who wear the same badge. Among other substantive changes, the party has prohibited its leaders from serving religious organisations at the same time, and eased restrictions to its membership criteria, The Financial Times adds:

These measures may not entirely reflect a separation of mosque and party. They do however imply a recognition that Islamism is neither an effective ideology for governing nor for sustaining power. Like the AKP before it, Nahda hopes that the softening of its religious aspirations will enable it to gather support beyond its traditionally conservative constituency.

Ejected from power, and coming to terms with the ideological shock of having been rejected by the ummah, or Muslim community (ideologically this should not have happened, for God promises victory to the “true” believers) Ennahda began a process of deep introspection, adds Nawaz, who is also the founder of Khudi, a Pakistan based social movement campaigning to entrench democratic culture among the nation’s youth:

It was this process that Ghannouchi commented on during last weekend’s annual party congress: “We are a party that never stopped evolving… from an ideological movement engaged in the struggle for identity—when identity was under threat—to a comprehensive protest movement against an authoritarian regime, to a national democratic party devoted to reform.”

“The more we understand religion and the better able we are as a result to be able to engage religious actors, the more effective our diplomacy will be in advancing the interests and values of our people,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently, as he announced a new approach to religion in U.S. foreign policy making, including the establishment of a permanent Office of Religion and Global Affairs within the State Department.

Yet, its eventual distinctiveness and success depends on the extent that U.S foreign policy makers are willing to engage with non-orthodox religious actors and move beyond the nebulous substantive focus of this new policy, argues analyst A.Kadir Yildirim:

1) Fragmented Religious Authority: This new approach requires engagement with leaders and representatives of faith communities who typically are well-informed and wield religious authority. These individuals provide the most direct and immediate access to a religious tradition, channel insight into religious doctrines, and potentially help identify problems in policy issues as it relates to U.S. foreign policy. Yet, the Middle East in particular, and the Muslim world more broadly, experienced a major fragmentation in the nature of religious authority within the last century. …There is no well-defined religious institutional structure and authority throughout the Middle East, perhaps with the exception of Iran. …

2) The Dominance of Islamists: Perhaps the most daunting challenge to the new policy is Islamists. While it is easy to classify Islamists merely as political actors, which they certainly are, they often exist as hybrid organizations. They act as political parties or have organically-tied political branches; they also operate as religious groups that preach, educate, lead prayers, and provide health care and other kinds of social services. They have their own men of religion and imams. Crucially, this Islamic activism forms the bedrock of Islamist claims to legitimacy and religious authority; they provide an alternative and, by their own claims, a more authentic Islam to the ones typically offered by state institutions of religion in association with the traditional ulama. Yet, Islamists have historically been ignored in U.S. foreign policy making; indeed this aversion is so great that, as Amaney Jamal explains, the authoritarian outlook of the Middle East partially owes its existence to this aversion. …

3) Existing Policies and Religion in Foreign Policy: Recently, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd analyzed counter violent extremism (CVE) programs in the U.S. These programs are gaining ground domestically especially among college students and have been around for many years as an instrument of foreign policy. They typically aim to tackle “bad” religion and nurture “religious moderation”, most recently in the Muslim world: “Government-led programs and projects intended to support moderate religion and to suppress violent religion are flourishing. These efforts encompass advocacy for religious freedom, interfaith dialogue, and legal protections for religious rights. Increasingly, they also include CVE.” RTWT

Recent polling by Gallup and Pew indicates that most Muslims support democracy and do not see a contradiction between values such as democracy and freedom of expression, and their own religious principles, according to Professor John Esposito, co-author of the book Islam and Democracy after the Arab Spring.

“The revolution in Tunisia, which was driven by young and secular people and not Islamists, confirms this, as well as the participation of moderate Islamist party Ennahda in the Tunisian government,” he told a meeting at the European Endowment for Democracy (left), where he was joined by Peter Mandaville, Senior Advisor in the US Secretary of State’s Office of Religion & Global Affairs, and moderator Peter Sondergaard, EED’s Director of Programs.

“In Egypt on the other hand, the situation is different,” he added. “After the revolution against the autocratic Mubarak regime, the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Morsi aimed at transforming the country into a more Islamic state and did not aim at building compromises across the Egyptian society and with the different groups.”

There will remain challenges in Tunisia, notes Nawaz:

Of all countries globally, Tunisia has sent the highest number of foreign fighters to join ISIS. But this is why it is so important to seek a way out of the civilizational disaster that is Islamism.

As I suggested in my dialogue with the atheist thinker Sam Harris, the process of Islamic reform begins by a cessation of monopoly claims to truth, giving rise to democracy, which in turn leads to pluralism, necessitating secularism, which can eventually give rise to liberalism. RTWT

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