Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The “Arab Spring” countries: Religious and civil debates - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
Select Page

In the winter of 1992, Cairo’s International Book Fair held a famous debate entitled “Egypt between a religious and civil state”. It was attended by sheikhs of Islamic movements such as Muhammad al-Ghazali and Ma’mun al-Hudaybi, as well as critics of the Islamist phenomenon such as Muhammad Ahmad Khalaf Allah and Farag Foda. The second Gulf War (1990-1991) had just ended, and popular sentiments had been inflamed after the Islamists led noisy demonstrations against the U.S. intervention in the war.

When news of the debate was announced, thousands gathered to attend. Despite attempts to regulate the discussion from the late Dr. Samir Sarhan, who was in charge, his voice was lost amidst the religious proclamations and chants of “God is Great”, from those in support of the sheikhs against their pro-secular counterparts.

What caught my attention most in this debate were the words of al-Hudaybi, who said that “the Muslim Brotherhood is completely against a religious state, we call for a civil state”. Farag Foda denounced al-Hudaybi’s statement, but [al-Hudaybi] returned later to clarify himself, saying that the civil state to which he referred to must be committed to the provisions of “Islamic Sharia law”. (The complete text of the major debate, Khaled Mohsen, 1992)

A quick reading of the debate leaves you feeling that the debate between the pro-religious and the pro-civil society supporters within political Islam in the Arab region remains at a standstill. Before the phenomenon of popular uprisings that swept a number of Arab capitals, how would we interpret the position of political Islam? There are three opinions with regards to this current phase, which can be summarized as following:

Firstly, the popular uprisings, even though they occurred on Fridays, religious supplications were chanted, and prayers were held inside the protest squares, bear no relation to political Islamic movements. Rather they are driven by the popular mobility of the youth, incorporating all intellectual currents and backgrounds. The demonstrators raised their voices demanding “freedom of expression”, “democracy” and the application of “human rights”. Therefore, we are facing revolutions without ideological foundations, primarily demanding regime change and not the application of Islamic Sharia law.

Those of the second opinion, and among them are some seasoned Islamists; believe that the Arab uprisings would not have succeeded were it not for the involvement of the Islamists – whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists – and that this intervention had provided the popular impetus for the uprising in the streets. Some even go so far as to say that the Islamists played a key role in fostering the resilience of the uprisings, as without the Muslim Brotherhood going to Tahrir Square, the April 6 Youth Movement would not have been able to stand on their own on the evening of 25 January. Likewise, were it not for (former) followers of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group [LIFG] taking up arms against Gaddafi in Benghazi on the eve of 17 February, the Tripoli forces would have crushed the popular uprising. Even in Yemen, the youth of the Reform Party (a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate) played the primary role in organizing and coordinating demonstrations in Tagheer Square.

However, a third opinion argues that political Islamist movements and groups have themselves suffered from the earthquake that struck the ruling political regimes in the region, and we are now dealing with the emergence of a new Islamist discourse – a (post Islamist) policy focusing on political work and activity based more on shared interests than ideological commitment. In other words, this new discourse believes that the best way for the Islamist movement to succeed is by carrying out social and political action that is beneficial to the citizens, rather than forcibly imposing Islamic Sharia law or (ideological) Islamist solutions on the people.

In this context, the New York Times published an article entitled “Activists in Arab World Vie to Define Islamic State” (29 September), in which journalists Anthony Shadid and David D. Kirkpatrick reported that there are widespread debates taking place amongst young Islamists about the need to renew their social discourse, and the way in which political Islamists act, in order to establish themselves on civil and democratic foundations, citing the example of the Justice and Development party in Turkey. The article quoted a number of figures who stressed that a transition is coming, or rather this is becoming a necessity, with regards to young Islamists moving away from the traditional thinking of their leaders, and instead exploring a conciliatory (less ideological) model focusing on economic and social aspects, practicing politics in accordance with the conditions and rules of democracy, relying on their efficiency rather than Islamic Dawa rhetoric.

Are we facing a new (post Islamist) political Islam, or a non-ideological phase of the “Arab Spring”? To begin with, “post Islamism” is not a new idea. Previously researchers, most notably Olivier Roy (1990) and Asef Bayat (1996), wrote about the phenomenon of youth divisions within the body of traditional Islamist groups and parties, and the emergence of a (modern) Islamist discourse yearning to establish an environment for concepts such as the civil state, democracy, human rights and so on. The Welfare Party in Turkey in the 1990s, the Al-Wasat Party in Egypt, or the Al-Nahda in Tunisia, are all examples of this phenomenon, namely “post Islamism”. However, after two decades of such parties and personalities being involved in parliamentary political activity, we have not seen a genuine development in popular Islamist literature or practice, in terms of the Islamist movement’s politics and legislation. This was until the exception that is the Turkish Justice and Development Party, which openly declared its acceptance of a secular state, yet does not seem different from the traditional Islamist parties, except on the surface. The constitutional system, the army, and the secular and political heritage of Turkey have combined to form am arrangement which has so far served as a guarantee for the Islamists not to breach the equation of secularism and governance in Turkey.

If you want proof that the traditional Islamists have not changed much – despite their expansion of fatwas pertaining to personal status and behavior – then consider their extreme sensitivity towards the topic of a secular state. When Erdogan directed advice in this regard to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Islamists came out to claim that this represented interference in Egypt’s internal affairs. In Egypt, Erdogan had said: “A secular state does not mean that the people are atheists, it means respect for all religions and each individual has the freedom to practice his own religion”. In Tunisia, Erdogan reaffirmed that “on the subject of secularism, this is not secularism in the Anglo Saxon or Western sense, a person is not secular, the state is secular”.

There is no doubt that the Turkish example is an exception. Turkey’s Islamists (the post Islamists) have not affected– at least so far – the mainstream Islamist movements. Evidence of this can be found in the derogatory or unwelcoming remarks from the Islamists themselves with regards to the Turkish advice. It is suffice here to consider the statement of Rashid Al-Ghannushi, leader of the Tunisian al-Nahda Party, which can be considered one of the more progressive Islamist parties – compared with its Middle Eastern counterparts. In response to Erdogan’s remarks, al-Ghannushi said “he is describing issues specific to Turkey, as he (Erdogan) is trying to reconcile between his assertion that he is an Islamist, and his governing a secular state. I do not think that Tunisian or Egyptian citizens would be concerned with this reconciliation, because their states – Egypt or Tunisia – define themselves as Islamic states.” (The Majalla, 3 October)

Here I do not want to belittle the existence of “post-Islamist” discourse in Arab and Muslim societies, but it is necessary to realize that this is not a new phenomenon. It was there before, but only amongst the elite, within the broader and more encompassing Islamist movement. The writings of Tariq Ramadan and Rashid Al-Ghannushi, and the fatwas of individuals such as Hassan al-Turabi, perhaps went beyond the boundaries of traditional Islamist literature, but they did not replace traditional Islamist discourse. Furthermore, Islamist discourse also witnessed the emergence of writings heralding the “Islamist Left” in the 1970s, “Nationalist Islamism” in the 1980s, “Democratic Islamism” in the 1990s, and even “Jihadist Islamism” in the era of the “war on terror”. Nevertheless, the broader Islamist trend continued to adhere to traditional Islamist literature such as the works of the Muslim Brotherhood. Will we see a new change with the Arab uprisings? Needless to say, the current phase of popular uprisings is still ongoing, and those countries hit by “revolutionary fever” have yet to free themselves from the instability that surrounds them. It may take years until researchers can test how the Arab protests impacted upon the thinking of Islamist groups, and their future political behavior.

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

More Posts