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Islam and Politics ( 19 May 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Mixing Politics and Religion in the Middle East



By Mohammad Alrumaihi

May 17, 2014

Later this month, presidential elections will be held in Egypt. This is a new juncture not just in the modern history of Egypt but the whole Middle East. The region will not be the same after May 26-27. Although the electoral law allows for a second round, it’s widely expected that there will be only one round. The two days allocated for the voting will make or break the future politics of the region, depending on the percentage of the voters who will cast their ballot.

The title of the new chapter may be “politics and religion” — which in fact has been with us for almost the entire 20th century. General Abdul Fattah Al Sissi, the most probable candidate to be elected for the presidency in Egypt, has gone on record saying there’s “no way the Muslim Brotherhood will be rehabilitated, or allowed to participate in future politics of Egypt”. These words reflect the general mood of most Egyptians, as they tried the Muslim Brotherhood in office for short time, under former president Mohammad Mursi from 2012 to 2013. But he failed.

The public was hoping for “moral politics” from the group, but what it got was “immoral politics” — plenty of nepotism, corruption and practices that showed the group was out of touch. The Brotherhood ignored almost 50 years of modernisation in Egypt, and looked back to ideals that are not consistent with the modern age. So, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been banned from participating in any political activities in Egypt, banned in Saudi Arabia, and looked at with suspicion in most Arab countries. But the story does not end here; the mixing of religion and politics will be with us, in new forms and shapes.

The Egyptian Salafist Al Nour party has publicly supported Al Sissi for the presidency, and it took part in shaping the amended 2014 Egyptian constitution, and the road map drawn by the Egyptians liberals and the army. The Salafists claim that although the new constitution prohibits the formation of political parties on religious grounds, it does not prohibit “political parties with religious backgrounds”.

This is a very grey area indeed! The Egyptian authorities and the media, so far, have not made any objections about the Salafist movement, although it does have almost the same policies as the Muslim Brotherhood movement: to gain power and Islamise society. It looks from the outset very odd and hard to explain logically, unless one looks at it with a lot of “political opportunism”. The same attitude was taken by a number of Arab governments for decades towards Muslim Brotherhood.

So mixing politics and religion will be with us for a long time to come. This is what is happing in other counters too: Morocco, Libya, and most importantly, Turkey. And some other political groups, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza, use a religious platform for political ends.

The Salafist movements in the Arabian Peninsula are active as well, although we can note a division between them, like what is happing in Kuwait. Factions are developing “traditional Salafism”, which adheres to peaceful preaching. And then there are those that are politically active, and wish to “Islamise” the communities even by force. The latter is very active in supporting some fundamentalists groups fighting in Syria and Iraq, either by sending volunteers or money, and have wide networks in the Gulf, North Africa and Egypt. They have their educational institutes, books and pamphlets, and their leaders very active.

They collect money to support their causes. Surprisingly, they have adopted in recent years what can be called a policy of “division of labour”: they divide themselves, with one set supporting the regimes on one hand, to have more freedom of action, and other politically active set defies the regimes politely. The Egyptian Salafists are playing this role successfully, eyeing probably the upcoming parliamentary elections. They may hope to gain the upper hand their now that their rivals, the Muslim Brotherhood, are out of their path. They may claim that they are the only “representatives” of Islam, and convince the ordinary Muslim Egyptian to vote for them. Once their numbers in the assembly increase, they may start having a say in Egyptian politics.

Historically the Salafists are poor at politics, even poorer than the Muslim Brotherhood. But their manoeuvres, especially in Egypt, are noticeable. Have they gained lessons from the failures of Muslim Brothers? Have they matured? Only time will tell. But the big questions have not been answered yet: Is politics compatible with religion, or they are separate entities? Should societies deal with the two pillars separately or jointly? Again, only time will tell. But one thing is certain: when Napoleon at the end of the 18th century tried to convince the Egyptian people to submit to the invading forces, he issued a very historical statement, saying that he was embracing Islam, and wanted to defend the faith and defeat the infidels! Since then a number of politicians have adopted similar policies, using Islam to fulfil their political goals. The story is still going on, but has different shades and colours.

Mohammed Alrumaihi is a professor of Political Sociology at Kuwait University.