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Preliminary observations on the rise of Islamic movements

January 24, 2014 at 5:59 am

Given the involvement and degree of relative success of the Islamic movements perhaps we should be referring to the “Islamic Spring”, not the “Arab” version. It is worth considering some general observations about this phenomenon with regards to the rise of Islamic movements across the Arab world.

The first notable point is that the movements and groups are not homogeneous as some would like us to believe. They are varied, just like other civil society organisations and political parties. Egypt has (for now) its Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood; the Salafi Al-Nour Party; the Middle Party; Strong Egypt Party; the Sufi Movement (two branches); various other Salafi groups; and so-called “Jihadist” and “Takfiri” groups. All of these cover the Sunni and Shia wings of Islam.

Such variety is normal within the Muslim community. Where the difficulties arise is when each one thinks that it alone has the truth and answers to all problems, and then goes so far as to denounce other Muslims and Islamic groups. The secular and leftist parties have similar problems, although they are convinced that only faith-based parties have such issues. In any case, faith-based parties have just as much right as secular parties to be involved in the political arena, especially in a country where faith plays such a major role in society.

It is interesting that secularist opprobrium appears to be reserved for the Islamic parties such as Al-Nahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which have had electoral success. Even countries in the West overlook the fact that other countries have had religious political parties for a number of years, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon (which controls the government) and various parties in Iraq. They are doctrinal and armed, and generally follow an Iranian agenda but they do not face the sort of criticism that the “Islamists” across the Middle East do.

Sunni parties tend not to be sectarian in nature due to an absence of sectarian politics in the Sunni world; in fact, people who would quite readily call themselves Sunni Muslims often form the core membership of political parties of all hues. They consider that they are in favour of moderation and consensus politics. This is reflected by the demonstrators in Egypt and Tunisia who are predominantly Sunni but not exclusively Islamist in make-up. Furthermore, it is this Sunni collective which has exhibited support for Hezbollah’s resistance to Israeli occupation over the years; in short, it has the hallmarks of non-sectarianism wrapped around an ideology based on patriotism rather than faith.

Nevertheless, the Islamic parties find it difficult to cooperate and operate without fraternal disputes. In Egypt, the Brotherhood is pitted against Al-Nour to such an extent that the Salafis stood alongside the coup leaders to oust President Morsi. In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party, with 103 seats in parliament, faces competition from the Authenticity and Modernity Party which has 48 seats. Similar conflicts exist in Tunisia, Libya, Jordan and Syria.

The issue here is not related to the benefits felt by secular groups from such differences between the Islamic parties; it is more complicated than that. Arguments lead towards calls for Islamic groups to “modernise” and be “civilised”, as happened to parties in Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The paradox is that conflict between Islamic and secular groups can lead to the former becoming more strict, whereas disputes between Islamic groups often lead to the emergence of new, more flexible Islamic groups which have a broader vision of their role in the world and their politics.

Islamic political parties seek power as well as try to invite people to the faith (Da’wa); indeed, they often use Da’wa as a bridge to power. In all cases, though, nobody is or should be above criticism because they are run by ordinary human beings, who make mistakes and operate within the limits of their own knowledge and understanding. In this they are no different to any other political parties.

One major concern is that there appears to be a problem in what the Islamic movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, actually understand by “democracy” and how it is realised. The coup in Egypt, however, suggests that this is a problem shared by opposition secular, leftist and liberal groups.

Moreover, the problem of the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be more difficult than the others as can be seen by its attempts to match party doctrine with Islam as a religion, as well as in the way that it portrays itself as the one and only example for Islam and Muslims. It promotes opposition to the movement as opposition to Islam and Muslims, and conflates Islamic Law with legitimacy, which compromises the truth about its representation of the meaning and goals of democracy; this is seen as more than a means to gain political influence.

Despite all of the issues and teething problems, the fact is that the Arab Spring has opened the door for the restoration of the status of the Islamic movement, whose influence, role and popularity cannot be ignored. It is natural, therefore, for the democratic approach to be kept in place as it is the only way to guarantee stability and create a new national consensus. Involving the Islamic parties in the democratic political process will ensure that they operate transparently and subject themselves to scrutiny by the democratic institutions of the state. They have to be accountable to the people, just as other parties have to be accountable; all should realise that.

The process confirms that Islamic parties have to concern themselves with day-to-day affairs and understand that there is no difference between the conflicts over power, dominance and interests, between what’s Islamic or non-Islamic, leftist or rightist; that is what politics is all about. In a democratic system, such experiences and responses are mandatory when we seek to guide how we live in this world. The Islamic parties need to mature in order to accept this reality.

It also confirms that it would be entirely wrong, and definitely un-democratic to exclude Islamic parties from the political arena, as some on the left and within secular groups would like. Such a move actually contradicts democratic norms and inhibits the development of a genuinely democratic space in public life.

There is no doubt that there are good reasons to fear some of the Islamic movements, as they act as guardians of the faith and seek to hold a monopoly on the truth. In turn, this leads to intolerance and attempts to impose one’s thoughts and ideas on society, as has been seen in Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iran.

However, isn’t this exactly how leftist and secular parties develop and what they seek to do once they gain power? Aren’t those other groups vying for power also trying to do the same thing as everyone else, religious and non-religious alike? Closed minds and ideologies afflict all parties, not just those on the religious front.

This should be borne in mind by those who seek to exclude particular parties from politics. Do it to them today and who is to say what will happen to you tomorrow? Pushing people and their parties away from the centre pushes them towards the fringe, which is where extremism breeds and grows. That is something that we should avoid.

As long as a party is non-violent, it should be encouraged to participate in the democratic process. This includes the Muslim Brotherhood, which has eschewed violence for many years now. In a pluralistic society political representation should reflect the diversity of views and opinions and beliefs present across all sectors. The bottom line has to be an acceptance of coexistence, difference and competition in a state in which all citizens are regarded and treated as free and equal. This alone can change society by enriching life for everyone.

Translated from the Arabic text which appeared on Al Jazeera net on 27 August, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.