By Aditya Menon
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement last week that America is “ re- engaging” with the Muslim Brotherhood ( MB) in its efforts to promote democratic change in the Arab world is probably as significant as President Obama’s speech at Cairo’s Al Azhar University in June 2009.
The Al Azhar speech did make for good symbolism — more so in the eyes of the American public—as it was delivered at the oldest and foremost seat of Islamic learning. But in Egypt, Al Azhar — though highly respected in religious matters — represents a politically pliable clergy that does the bidding of the authoritarian military regime and upholds conservative attitudes in the social sphere.
Though underplayed by the US establishment, the overtures to the MB are important from the point of view of the Arab world. This represents an acknowledgement on the part of the US that Islamist organisations are responsible political entities which have a crucial role to play in the process of democratisation in the region.
Islamist movements have come of age and this is best illustrated from the epicentres of what has come to be called the ‘Arab Spring’ — Tunisia and Egypt.
Islamist organisations like the Al Nahda in Tunisia and MB in Egypt have positioned themselves as political actors raising the banner of democratisation, governmental accountability and corruption- free governance. This is not merely a tactical move to expand their base for a larger political agenda. Rather, these movements reflect an Islamism that has moved beyond the radical ideology of figures like Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Maududi to reconciling Islam with the values of liberalism and democracy.
In fact, historically Islamism — even the radical variety — has been shaped by the challenges in different contexts rather than the allegedly inextricable Din wa Dawla (religion and politics/ state) link in Islam. For instance, the MB — considered the mother of all Islamist movements — was founded by Hassan al- Banna, a school teacher, in 1928 — when Egypt was under colonial rule. Much like the RSS in India, it aimed at a religio- nationalist revival in response to colonial occupation and competed with secular nationalism. Similarly, the theology of Maududi and Qutb in the 1950s and 1960s, which stressed the establishment of an Islamic state and Al Hakimiyyah la illah ( sovereignity of God) was in the context of newly independent states whose nature they sought to influence.
Maududi’s and more so Qutb’s politics took a militant turn, when persecuted by the ‘ secularising’ regimes of Ayub Khan in Pakistan and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt respectively. Qutb invoked 14th century Islamic scholar Ibn Taimiyyah — who had advocated rebellion against ‘ un- Islamic’ Mongol rule — to exhort people to rebel against the Egyptian state, laying the foundations for the Egyptian Jihadist movement and subsequently Al Qaeda.
The Islamists of today are operating in a completely different context — a globalised world in which liberalism has emerged as the dominant political ideology, accompanied by a larger global discourse of rights and the emergence of democracy as the perceived ideal form of government. Hence, the need to integrate Islam with democracy and liberalism.
This integration has been best expressed in the political thought of Rashid al- Ghannouchi — the leader of the Tunisian Islamist party Al Nahda ( The Renaissance) — who returned to his homeland earlier this year after spending 22 years in exile. Al Nahda has emerged as the dominant political force in the country following the overthrow of Zine el- Abidine Ben Ali earlier this year and estimates are that it commands the support of about 30 per cent of the public, putting it ahead of all its rivals by a substantial margin. According to al- Ghannouchi, “ Democracy is crucial to dealing with and reconciling different and even conflicting interests in society. Islam has a strong democratic spirit and has historically never favoured a monolithic state.” He stresses the Islamic concepts of Ijma (consensus) and Shura ( consultation) as the cornerstone for the establishment of a democracy in Tunisia.
He has been deeply critical of regimes such as Saudi Arabia and believes that a secular, democratic dispensation is, on any given day, preferable to a despotic one which claims to be Islamic.
In response to the radical Islamists opposing any form of allegiance to a state that isn’t Islamic, al- Ghannouchi cites the example of the Prophet Joseph who occupied an important office in the Pharaoh’s regime in order to serve the people in a just manner.
Though the MB is more developed than Al Nahda in terms of its organisational network, it remains ambiguous about its political programme.
While it claims that it will not radically change policies but rather “make existing policies more effective by fighting corruption”, its critics assert that the relative silence on policy issues is nothing but an effort to conceal its extremist agenda.
The party is known to have retrogressive views on religious minorities and women — even to the extent of proposing that the two sections be barred from contesting for the presidency.
But the cure to such attitudes lies not in keeping such groups away from the political sphere but rather in engaging them in the democratic process. Political entities with a religious, linguistic or cultural agenda often tend to assert their power in the social sphere when they are unable to do so in the political sphere. A more sustained involvement in the political process will lead to a moderation of positions and change in focus to issues more central to governance.
Already, differences over policies and programmes have created splinter groups within the overall MB fold— which, being a symptom of mainstream politics, is a positive sign.
Though this will prove harmful to the MB’s prospects in the September elections, it does show that Islamism — far from the monolithic ideal of the Maududi- Qutb variety — can stand for a diversity of political programmes. Abd el- Fotouh — an MB leader who has thrown his hat into the ring for September’s presidential election and has been expelled from the MB — is known to represent a reformist and moderate strand within the Islamists. For instance, he has asserted that ‘ the veil is not a religious but a cultural attire — like the Indian sari.’ Similarly, the Al Riyada splinter group of the MB is looking to occupy a centreleft space in the political spectrum and, significantly, claims to be an Islamist outfit for which the imposition of Sharia is not a central concern. It believes that Islam is the basis of Arab culture, not politics.
The youth cadre of the MB — who had played a crucial role during the demonstrations at Tahrir Square by forging informal alliances with liberal and leftwing groups — has increasingly come to assert a position independent of the parent organisation. Upset with the arbitrariness of the MB leadership — which had ordered a withdrawal from the demonstrations — sections of the youth wing have now established a new outfit called Egyptian Current.
It is of paramount importance that the political development of these outfits — and indeed the larger process of democratisation in the Arab world aren’t abruptly halted by a return to authoritarian rule.
The US must avoid repeating the mistake it committed in Algeria in 1991 — when a US backed military regime declared martial law fearing the electoral victory of the Islamist FIS, plunging the country into a protracted civil war.
Forces like Al Nahda and the various MB factions have an important role to play at this critical juncture in facilitating the process of democratisation in their respective countries, and in a larger historical context acting as agents for a deeper relationship between Islamism and Democracy.
Source: Mail Today, New Delhi