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Islamists and governance: challenges and opportunities

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, Islam has been largely absent from political activity in the Muslim world. The decline of the Ottomans coincided with the fragmentation of the region by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and this continued until very recently, with religion being eroded from day-to-day affairs, especially politics.

As secularism grew, Islam receded into the background, prompting the emergence of numerous Islamic reform movements. An Islamic awakening occurred in the late 1970s which today occupies a key role in cultural life.


This was acknowledged by political and cultural elites, as well as powers in the West; culture in the nation states arena was headed by an Islamic agenda with vocabulary based on religious identity and sanctity. Nevertheless, the same elites continued to prevent Islam and its symbols from approaching the political arena, except in a narrow sense to provide a purely decorative political opposition to national regimes.

The advent of the Arab Spring opened a window of opportunity for the Islamic phenomenon to leap from culture to politics, a move denied previously by political tyranny. The representatives of Islamic groups have shown that they are capable of taking power through the ballot box. They now have an opportunity to put their Islamic approach to the test through their programmes on the ground. At the same time, they face enormous challenges and threats.

Emerging challenges

At the moment, Islamists are facing internal and external challenges:

1. Internal challenges

  • The economy:
    One of the biggest challenges is the deteriorating economic situation represented by wide-ranging poverty and the disruption of development projects and other such economic obstacles. When the voters cast their votes and elected the Islamists, they were hoping to see quick, very tangible improvements. This requires the Islamists to have a comprehensive economic vision which addresses the current economic situation in the short term and the development economy in the medium and long terms.
  • The legal system and safeguarding freedoms:
    The Arab Spring was a reaction to the appalling lack of human rights in the region. The Islamists need to use the tools of democracy instead of the tools of repression to maintain social order and cohesion. The legal system needs to protect freedoms, guarantee equal opportunities for all within society, and create a safe environment which will attract foreign investment.
  • Managing partnership:
    With increased freedom and a rejection of political exclusion, a policy of individualism and isolation will not succeed, no matter what the political clout of the Islamists is. Islamist leaders have to work in partnership to achieve their goals. Likewise, other groups will have to work with the Islamists to pursue a common national agenda.
  • Changing the stereotypes:
    The regimes sought to deflect the Arab revolutions by tarnishing the image of the Islamists and demonising their proposals. As a result of the intensity of this rhetoric, substantial numbers of people now have a distorted image of the Islamists and their intentions. The Islamists have to challenge and change this stereotype.
  • Putting theory into practice:
    Through years of cultural activities, Islamists have been successful in convincing many about their value system on a theoretical level. Now they have the opportunity, and the challenge, of putting theory into practice.
  • Promoting unity:
    The old divisions between Islamists and nationalists have to be overcome, and a new national unity developed which embraces all within society. The unifying qualities of faith-based approaches must challenge the secularists’ claim that religion promotes sectarianism in a multi-ethnic state.

2. External challenges

  • Balance between domestic and foreign policy:
    Because the Arab revolutions arose in response to domestic difficulties, it is to be expected that internal affairs will be a priority for Islamic governments. However, this must not be at the expense of foreign policy capable of dealing with external threats and challenges.
  • Confronting Israel:
    It is necessary to develop a consensus on the strategy for confronting Israel and replacing the rather confusing rhetoric which appeared post-revolutions.
  • Clear vision for foreign relations:
    Islamists need to have a clear strategic vision to confront the West, which is seeking to “control the changes” in the region to preserve Western interests. The Islamists’ strategy should be based on regional coordination and cooperation which prevents the new governments from being diverted away from their main aims and objectives. There also has to be a unified strategic vision for relations with surrounding countries such as Turkey and Iran, and across Asia.
  • Caution over treaties:
    There should be caution in discussing existing treaties and interests, especially concerning the West and Israel. Being seen to be too keen could sow the seeds of suspicion in the minds of the electorate who have voted the Islamists into power to prompt real change.
  • Balance between Islamic and civic agendas:
    The Islamists must strike a balance between the discourse on identity and the civic agenda, remembering the moral essence of their election as a basis for civil society and national affairs.
  • Reducing Western hegemony:
    As Washington may try to use the Islamic forces to challenge major international players such as China and Russia, any moves in this direction should be based on a coherent strategy aimed at gradually reducing and dismantling Western domination over the region. Dialogue should be promoted with the emerging nations of the world on the basis of mutual interests, not subordination and dependency.

Available opportunities

Just as there are many challenges, so too are there opportunities:

  • The Islamists have the opportunity to demonstrate the practicality of Islam as a political model which has more to offer than slogans.
  • A new, more positive image can be promoted through dialogue on the international stage.
  • The field is open to integration and cooperation to overcome the national and physical barriers created by Sykes-Picot which have contributed to regional stagnation.
  • Emerging powers may agree to a strategy aimed at building relationships with world powers on the basis of equality and mutual interests, with the aim of regaining the geo-strategic status of the Middle East-North Africa region, especially but not exclusively in decision-making at a global level.
  • The instruments of tyranny can be dismantled, including links between regional and Western “security” services, promoting a culture of freedom and releasing the collective energy of the masses to develop a comprehensive renaissance nationally and regionally.
  • The Islamists can test political and economic theories in real life and empower them by creating visible and viable realities. They can build the whole state based on Islamic references.

The right to such opportunities

The Islamist parties have won the right to put their programmes to the test, but they have to be given the time to mature politically before outsiders start to pass judgement. This does not mean an end to partnership and cooperation, but a rejection of arrogant interventions and the imposition of alternative visions and ideologies. It is noticeable already that some people are asking Islamists to change their ideologies in order to become “equal”. Let the Islamists have their ideologies and visions and let them have the opportunity as others have had before them.

While it is true that the people chose Islamists for their relationship to their own identity, and because of their role in challenging tyranny and resisting the occupier, this alone is not sufficient for them to expect to stay in power indefinitely. The Islamist governments have to maintain the confidence of the people with a practical realisation of their political project which has a positive effect on ordinary life. Dignity and bread on the table go hand in hand. Although the people are wise enough to understand that some issues will take time to improve, the Islamists cannot take this for granted. They do, however, need to be able to govern without sedition and other distractions. Islamist politicians and the people they represent were patient during the years of oppression and tyranny. They now need to demonstrate that patience in the face of attempts by Western powers to dominate their domestic issues.

Source: Al Jazeera

*The author is a Jordanian writer. This article was translated from the Arabic which appeared on Al Jazeera net 2/4/2012

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

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