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NON-FICTION: The problem with ‘Islamism’

Published Feb 26, 2017 07:17am

Islamic Law and Human Rights: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt By Moataz El Fegiery Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK ISBN: 978-1443894791 340pp.

Islamism, especially the ideology as formulated by the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) in South Asia and the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world and that called for an Islamic state, has been attracting critical attention from scholars. The JI in Pakistan and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt both began political life as critics of the traditional approach to politics, stressing upon the sovereignty of God and enforcement of Sharia. In practical politics, they gradually adopted the concepts of the nation-state and democracy where they differed with traditional Islamic thought, but with reference to Islamic law they not only incorporated traditional fiqh into the concept of Sharia, but also its sectarian interpretation. The tension between sectarian and national conceptions of law posed crucial challenges to the concept of democratic rule of law, but Islamists justified it because they defined democracy as majority rule, even if it meant tyranny of the majority.

Scholars such as Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im (Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Sharia) faulted Islamists for their rejection of the secular state and found it problematic for the future of Sharia in Muslim countries. For the same reasons, but interpreting them differently, Wael Hallaq (The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament) concluded that the Islamic state based on Sharia as law is an “impossible state.” Most other academic studies also found Islamism paradoxical in its approach to the modern state. Hallaq, however, missed some very important inner developments in Muslim societies.

Humeira Iqtidar (Secularising Islamists? Jamaat-i-Islami and Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Urban Pakistan) observed that despite their vehement opposition, Islamists have been, in fact, facilitating the secularisation of Muslim societies. She argued that Islamists placed religion in the public life and forced Muslims to engage critically with it. By focusing on the state, Islamist movements accelerated the process of secularisation further. Projects to Islamise laws and knowledge could not resolve the tensions between sectarian Islam and secularising societies and added to the frustration of religious politics. These frustrations led to not only local, but also international faith-based and sectarian violence. Calls for an Islamic state eventually turned into clashes between the sects.


The ideology is detrimental to the progress of Islamic law argues a new book


The Arab Spring in 2010 was commonly regarded as a revolt against tyrannical regimes in the Arab world. Contrary to general expectations, it was Islamism that gained prominence in this revolt. Islamist parties in the Arab world adopted slogans of democracy and liberty and emerged more powerful than the others. They took it as an opportunity for establishing an Islamic state, but failed as soon as they came into power. According to Bassam Tibi (The Sharia State: Arab Spring and Democratisation), Islamists hijacked the Arab Spring with their rhetorical commitments to democratisation in order to win elections. They failed because rather than reducing, they quickened the tension between Islamic law and human rights as they imposed their conception of limited religious freedom. Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of al-Nahda, had already moved to separation between religion and state (Public Liberties in the Islamic State). Al-Nahda, which came to power after the Arab Spring in Tunisia, opted for a secular interpretation of an Islamic state. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt failed to resolve that tension. Moataz El Fegiery explores the story of this failure in his book Islamic Law and Human Rights: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

El Fegiery finds that Islamism retarded the progress of Islamic law and human rights. The Muslim Brotherhood came into political prominence during the post-Hosni Mubarak era, winning half of the seats in the 2011 elections. They formed a government with Mohamed Morsi as president in June 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed unprecedented political freedom until 2013, but Morsi was dethroned by a popular uprising that ended with military dictatorship. Examining its thinking on the relationship between Islamic law and human rights in Egypt, El Fegiery finds that the Muslim Brotherhood failed because it justified democracy in terms of a tyranny of the majority.

An Egyptian boy wears the colours of the national flag on the anniversary of the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Cairo. — AP
An Egyptian boy wears the colours of the national flag on the anniversary of the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Cairo. — AP

El Fegiery explains that Islamism is based on two assumptions: first, that Islam mandates Muslims to establish an Islamic state in which Islamic law regulates all aspects of state and society and, second, that the normative content of Sharia must comply with the methods developed by mainstream traditional Muslim jurists. The Muslim Brotherhood legitimised human rights in the traditional framework of Islamic law; it benefitted in coming to power but failed in the cultural practice of human rights.

This book offers a thorough analysis of the conceptual and theoretical issues about religion and human rights in general and studies major issues such as the supremacy of Sharia, political pluralism, freedom of opinion, minority rights, conversion and apostasy, and family law. The book concludes that management of political diversity is not possible in the Islamist framework.

El Fegiery finds the Muslim Brotherhood’s approach to human rights too theoretical to proceed within the framework of traditional Islamic law. Human rights developed historically with the evolution of international law and treaties. They adjusted universality with cultural diversity. Islamism failed to adjust with the concept of human rights because Islamists believe that the nature of Islamic law is not compatible with the idea of the nation-state. In fact, Islamic political theory has been quite pragmatic since the first four caliphs and has been adapting to changes in the Muslim body politic. Islamic law has limited the boundaries of Sharia and the doctrine of Siyasa [political science] has given more privileges to the rulers than the Islamists allow.

The Egyptian constitution recognises Islam as the religion of the state. The Muslim Brotherhood believes that Islam does not separate religion from politics, rather Islam is state. To them, the only legitimate method of interpreting Islamic law is traditional. The problem is that state law is a modern project, but not all human rights are normative in Sharia. This tension became obvious in the changed political context in the post-Mubarak era. Islamist policies to dominate and impose limitations on public liberties created mistrust in society. Freedom of religion and expression in the modern state requires pluralism. The Egyptian constitution also allowed the establishment of political parties. A focus on the unity of the Ummah in classical Islamic political theory prohibited dissent and considered it fitna and sedition. Although Islamists were divided on this issue, the political discourse by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt generated hate and violence against liberals, the left, the secular, and NGOs. Questioning their sincerity and piety, the regime declared these groups heretic and ignorant. Equal rights for non-Muslims as citizens also remained questionable. The Muslim Brotherhood evoked conflict between Islam and the West to justify restrictions on freedom.

El Fegiery finds that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had two different positions on religion and freedom of expression depending on whether they were in opposition or in power: while in opposition they operated as a pressure group that proclaimed freedom but restricted it on issues such as modesty for women and censorship of artists and intellectuals. In power, in 2012 the regime imposed further restrictions, persecuting writers and artists in blasphemy cases.

This created tension for the Muslim Brotherhood in practice. They adopted orthodox criteria and targeted those who challenged Sharia as state law, and used censure to restrict arts. Activism, informed by this unclear and ambivalent criterion, made Morsi’s regime intolerant towards intellectual pluralism and gender equality.

The book is a valuable contribution to recent critical analyses of Islamism as it is not limited to its ideology. Taking human rights and Islamic law as the context of the Islamist discourse, it has been able to observe the significant tension between idealism and activism. Activism pushed the Muslim Brotherhood to come into conflict with the Al Azhar Ulema who had been at the forefront in Tahrir Square, not to challenge but to replace its authority. The author concludes that this activism is among the factors that have obstructed Islamic law reform and the expansion of human rights. Reading this book I was reminded of similar tensions and compromises in Pakistan between Islamism and modernism on the one hand and with orthodoxy on the other, but that is beyond the scope of the present review.

The reviewer is a former chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 26th, 2017