Rise of political Islam

Published November 28, 2011

ENNAHDA, the Islamic party in Tunisia, won 41 per cent of the seats of the Tunisian constitutional assembly last month, causing consternation in the West. But Ennahda will not be an exception on the Arab scene. Last Friday, the Islamic Justice and Development Party took the biggest share of the vote in Morocco and will lead the new coalition government for the first time in history.

And in Egypt's elections, the Muslim Brotherhood is predicted to become the largest party. There may be more to come. Should free and fair elections be held in Yemen, once the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh falls, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, also Islamic, will win by a significant majority. This pattern will repeat itself whenever the democratic process takes its course.

In the West, this phenomenon has led to a debate about the 'problem' of the rise of political Islam. In the Arab world, too, there has been mounting tension between Islamists and secularists, who feel anxious about Islamic groups. Many voices warn that the Arab Spring will lead to an Islamic winter, and that the Islamists, though claiming to support democracy, will soon turn against it.

In the West, stereotypical images that took root in the aftermath of 9/11 have come to the fore again. In the Arab world, a secular anti-democracy camp has emerged in both Tunisia and Egypt whose pretext for opposing democratisation is that the Islamists are likely to be the victors.

But the uproar that has accompanied the Islamists' gains is unhelpful; a calm and well-informed debate about the rise of political Islam is long overdue.

First, we must define our terms. 'Islamist' is used in the Muslim world to describe Muslims who participate in the public sphere, using Islam as a basis.

It is understood that this participation is not at odds with democracy. In the West, however, the term routinely describes those who use violence as a means and an end — thus jihadist Salafism, exemplified by Al Qaeda, is called 'Islamist' in the West, despite the fact that it rejects democratic political participation (Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, criticised Hamas when it decided to take part in the elections for the Palestinian legislative council, and has repeatedly criticised the Muslim Brotherhood for opposing the use of violence).

Reform-based Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, work within the political process. They learned a bitter lesson from their armed conflict in Syria against the regime of Hafez al-Assad in 1982, which cost the lives of more than 20,000 people and led to the incarceration or banishment of many thousands more. The Syrian experience convinced mainstream Islamic movements to avoid armed struggle and to observe 'strategic patience' instead.

Second, we must understand the history of the region. In western discourse Islamists are seen as newcomers to politics, gullible zealots who are motivated by a radical ideology and lack experience.

In fact, they have played a major role in the Arab political scene since the 1920s. Islamic movements have often been in opposition, but since the 1940s they have participated in parliamentary elections, entered alliances with secular, nationalist and socialist groups, and participated in several governments — in Sudan, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria. They have also forged alliances with non-Islamic regimes, like the Nimeiri regime in Sudan in 1977. n

A number of other events have had an impact on the collective Muslim mind, and have led to the maturity of political Islam. —The Guardian, London

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