‘Zealous democrats’? Call to redefine political Islam


egypt-mb-pargeterThe definition of ‘political Islam’ should be narrowed to recognize that many Islamic political movements share democratic values, according to a report by an influential committee of British MPs. The phrase ‘political Islam’ is vague; has no universally-accepted meaning, and includes a very wide variety of groups, says the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee

According to the report – ‘Political Islam’, and the Muslim Brotherhood Review – acceptable ‘political Islam’ should be defined as:

  1. i) Participation in, and preservation of, democracy. Support for democratic culture, including a commitment to give up power after an election defeat.
  2. ii) An interpretation of faith that protects the rights, freedoms, and social policies that are broadly congruent with UK values.

iii) Non-violence, as a fundamental and unambiguous commitment.

There is one form of Islamism that embraces “democratic principles and liberal values”, and another form of Islamism that instead holds “intolerant, extremist views”, the report notes.

“We consider it inappropriate to place these two types of Islamism within the same, single category and – if the FCO wishes to encourage Islamist groups towards democracy, non-violence, and a flexible interpretation of their faith – then we recommend that it devises a vocabulary that doesn’t group these types together,” the committee adds.

There was speculation that the report was held back because Middle Eastern allies crucial in the fight against the Islamic State (aka ISIL, ISIS or Daesh) would be displeased with the conclusion, The Telegraph adds.

islamists-lowy‘What Islamists do to democracy. What democracy might do to Islamists’

How Islamists adapt to democratic politics and how in turn electoral or democratic participation has shaped the evolution of their ideology, policies and activism is the subject of Zealous Democrats, a new paper from the Lowy Institute.

A review of the three case studies – the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Prosperous Justice Party in Indonesia and Turkey’s Justice and Development Party – suggests six fairly consistent shifts in Islamist ideology and activism that appear to become more manifest as one moves from non-democratic to democratic contexts, the authors write:

From shari’a state to shari’a values: In the cases considered here democratic normalisation sees a shift from a pursuit of shari’a (the sine qua non of Islamist activism) that requires new institutions (an Islamic state or system), to a focus on shari’a as a set of values or principles that the movement seeks to enact through existing political processes….

From Islamic governance to ‘good governance’: All three case studies illustrate a gradual secularisation of Islamist policy agendas. This is not to say that Islamists abandon their religious agendas or adopt policies demonstrably incompatible with their Islamic principles. Consistency with their interpretation of Islam remains important. But Islamists in these contexts also become engaged in, and are forced to respond to, a much wider range of issues upon which ‘Islam’ says very little. …This shift serves a substantive purpose in terms of an effort by Islamists to find rational policy responses to real problems but it serves a political purpose as well, in terms of attracting new supporters.

From moral message to the morality of the messengers: Accompanying the preceding shifts is a further shift in the way these movements or parties are perceived in electoral or more fully democratic contexts. Specifically, the point of differentiation becomes less their ideological and moral message, and more the perceived morality or appeal of the movement or party’s representatives.

Greater membership diversity: Such shifts in the ideas and activism of Islamist movements both facilitate and reflect changes in the membership of these movements and parties. As socio-religious movements, Islamists usually restrict their membership to people fitting particular criteria ….. As political parties in democratic contexts the imperative is to broaden the base of membership, in particular to attract political talent from all quarters. The result, however, is a tension and even a change in the identity of the movement as its membership changes, although this is likely to be very gradual.

master-plan-isisRegeneration: The democratic pretences of mainstream Islamist movements are often undermined by their lack of internal democracy. Against this, however, political activism has often provided a chance for new generations within these movements to come to the fore, in some respects bypassing the internal hierarchy. This has certainly been the case with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, although ultimately the imperatives of operating as a semi-secret movement under varying degrees of pressure from the state have reinforced the importance of internal discipline at the cost of debate and dynamism. The cases of the PKS and the AKP, by contrast, demonstrate how the availability of more democratic political space allows greater opportunity for the emergence of younger, more open-minded, worldly and technically adept activists.

Oscillation rather than moderation: Superficially, a review of the three case studies supports the idea that greater democracy moderates Islamist movements. Yet it is probably more judicious to talk of oscillation rather than moderation. That is, in more open political contexts there seems a much greater chance of ideological dynamism or oscillation in two respects:

  • first, a tension between more purist and more pragmatic wings over the overall ideological direction of the movement becomes stronger; and
  • second, within the framework of this tension, each side of the movement will score ‘victories’ on particular issues or policy questions, such that on some issues the party will appear closer to its principles, and on others it will appear more pragmatic.

In other words, Islamist parties, like most, if not all, parties in democratic contexts, would not so much moderate (or become more extreme, for that matter) as become susceptible to greater internal tensions over ideology and policy that are not readily resolved, but constantly oscillate as different factions of the party seek to influence positions and outcomes.

ArabFall200x302This paper does not, however, argue that the foregoing shifts are the inevitable consequence of democratic participation by any Islamist movement in any political context, the authors add:

In particular: the a priori adoption of participatory, nonviolent and non-confrontational strategies by the Islamist movements in question (at least domestically), that distinguishes them from the extremists like al-Qaeda, but also militant organisations such as Hizballah and Hamas that practise both participatory politics and violence; the existence of strong competition from other parties or movements, Islamist and non-Islamist; the role of countervailing forces and institutions; the legitimacy of these forces and institutions; and finally the existence of real opportunities for Islamists to practice democratic politics and to give real significance to their internal debates, and hence to evolve in a democratic direction.


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