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Islam and Politics ( 25 March 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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How inclusion cools Islamist hotheads

By Saif Shahin

Asia Times Online, Mar 26, 2010


The contrasting fortunes of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movements once again illustrate how inclusion in mainstream democratic politics can soften the most hardline Islamist stances - and how repression can ensure the opposite.

Security forces have been cracking down on the Brotherhood, which remains the only viable opposition force in Egypt, over the past two months. They rounded up leaders from Cairo and Giza, as well as from the governorates of Alexandria, Asyut, Sharqiya and Gharbiya, the New York Times reported. Several well-known figures were arrested, including deputy leader Mahmoud Ezzat and Essam el-Erian, their unofficial spokesman. By mid-March, nearly 350 members were behind bars.

This is not something new for the radical outfit, which has suffered constant suppression at the hands of Egyptian rulers throughout its eight-decade history. Its founder, Hassan al-Banna, was assassinated in 1949, allegedly by monarchical agents, and chief ideologue Sayyid Qutb was executed by the socialist government of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966. The latest clampdown began after the Brotherhood's strong showing in the 2005 parliamentary elections, in which it won 20% of the seats in the lower house, the People's Assembly.

Since then, President Hosni Mubarak's regime has systematically detained its members, jailed its financiers and brought in constitutional changes to limit the democratic space available to the Brotherhood. Religious parties were banned outright in 2007. Another constitutional amendment has made it impossible for the outlawed Brotherhood's members to contest future elections under its banner - they will have to enter the fray either as individuals or from the platform of some other party.

The crackdown has worked. The Brotherhood has become increasingly isolated in recent times. More significantly, it has once again become more inward-looking. In internal polls held in December, members kicked out moderate leaders who want the Brotherhood to remain democratically engaged and replaced them with conservatives who want to stop participating in general elections and instead step up religious proselytizing.

Isolation has bred political isolationism. Abdel Munim Abu el-Futtuh, an influential reformist who speaks for parliamentary participation, lost his position in the Brotherhood's Guidance Office to anti-participation opponents. Mohammad Habib, who is known for trying to build bridges between inclusionists and isolationists, also lost his seat. Three of the four newly elected members are against participation, as are most of the re-elected members. The results have created bad blood among the leaders, with many of the losers calling the vote rigged and openly discussing splitting the outfit.

The spate of arrests over the past two months has followed the Brotherhood naming a new supreme guide, Mohammad Badie. The arrests are meant to break the back of a largely peaceful movement that was emerging as a popular threat to the Western-sponsored 30-year-old autocracy of Egypt before so-called elections take place later this year. And they seem to have succeeded in turning the Islamist organization away from the path of moderation, reform and political openness.

In the same month as the Muslim Brotherhood voted out reformers, the equally Islamist and much more violent Hezbollah in Lebanon issued its first manifesto in a quarter century - marking a clear departure from its militant past towards a more liberal, inclusive and politically engaged future.

“We want Lebanon for all Lebanese alike, and we want it unified. We reject any kind of segregation or federalism, whether explicit or disguised,” declared the new manifesto released by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. These were incongruous words coming from the firebrand leader of a radical outfit created by Shi'ite Iran with the help of the Shi'ite regime in Syria, to rally around the Shi'ites of Lebanon against Sunnis, Druze, Christians and the Israeli occupation army at the height of the 15-year civil war.

The charter goes on to talk about national unity, cooperative institutions, representative governance, women's emancipation and promoting “qualified people regardless of their religious beliefs”. What was absent from the charter was still more conspicuous. Unlike the manifesto of 1985, there was virtually no religious rhetoric, no calls to Lebanese Christians to convert to Islam, no demand to establish an Islamic state in Lebanon.

What has changed? Hezbollah circa 1985 was just a revolutionary force. But Hezbollah today is a political party that contests elections and shares power with a Western-backed regime in Beirut. Of course it maintains its military wing and refuses to disarm. Its talk of representative governance will mostly benefit the Shi'ites of Lebanon and it remains hostile to Israel. But the larger changes in agenda clearly reflect that when allowed democratic space, Hezbollah has mutated from an Islamist militia into a mature political group that accepts the compulsions of electoral politics and is willing to compromise on its religious obduracy. This was the path the Muslim Brotherhood was also taking - until it was cut short.

Hezbollah and the Brotherhood are only the most recent examples. The Palestinian movement of Hamas too seemed to be toning down its Islamist rhetoric in the wake of an election victory in 2006, to get on with the business of governance, but Western and Israeli intransigence put paid to that. Something similar happened in Algeria in the early 1990s. Turkey's Justice and Development Party, meanwhile, moved from worrying over the country's lack of Islamic character to pushing democratic and economic reforms after coming to power in 2007.

It is a well-known theory that democratic politics, by creating the need for a wider support base, draws parties away from ideological extremes towards more moderate stances. Europe's Christian Democratic parties went through this transition in the last century. India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party appears to be realizing this today. Islamist parties are no different: rather than repression, they need to be allowed democratic space to undergo this evolution.
Saif Shahin is a PhD candidate in West Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.
(Copyright 2010, Saif Shahin)