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Khayrat el-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for the forthcoming Egyptian presidential elections, met with Islamic scholars from the Islamic Legal Body for Rights and Reform (al-hay’at al-shar’iyya lil-huqûq wal-islâh) on Tuesday.

According to the Body’s founding statement, one of their principle goals is:

“The creation of an Islamically-legitimate [râshida] source of authority, which revives the function of clerics and Islamic intellectuals in the Umma (global Islamic community), to support The People who Loosen and Bind [ahl al-hall wal-‘aqd] in strengthening freedoms and ensuring reform.” (إيجاد مرجعية راشدة تُحْيِي وظيفة العلماء والحكماء في الأمة، لمعاونة أهل الحل والعقد في تدعيم الحريات وتحقيق الإصلاح.)

Now, The People who Loosen and Bind is an historical Islamic legal term for those members of a community invested with the power to ‘elect’ a caliph or imam.  It is through this group that a caliph received an oath of allegiance (bay’a) on behalf of the people.

The modern institutional equivalent of the ahl al-hall wal-‘aqd is the legislature or the Majlis al-Sh’ab in the case of Egypt.  It is noteworthy, therefore, given Khayrat el-Shater’s reluctance to speak directly to the media since the annoucement of his candidature, that he paid a visit to this group of clerics and scholars.  Particularly so, given that the Body consists of a cross-section of senior Egyptian ulema; the sort of people likely to endorse or reject his nomination from an Islamic perspective.

At the meeting, Associated France Press reports him making some controversial statements on sharia:

“…Khairat el-Shater, has pledged to press for the implementation of sharia (Islamic law) if elected [and] said implementing the sharia was “his first and final goal,” […] Shater [also] said “he would work to form a group of scholars to support parliament in achieving that goal,”

What’s interesting again is that the Arabic term used at the Body’s website, from which AFP gleaned their information, for ‘a group of scholars’ is ‘majmu’a min ahl al-hall wal-‘aqd‘ (وقد أكد الشاطر أن الشريعة كانت وستظل مشروعه وهدفه الأول والأخير، وأنه سيعمل على تكوين مجموعة من أهل الحل والعقد لمعاونة البرلمان في تحقيق هذا الهدف.).  The use of this term further underscores the importance for Islamists of tradition.

El-Shater’s mention of this ‘group of scholars’ could signal his intention to use the Islamic Legal Body for Rights and Reform.  It will also alarm many who read the Brotherhood’s Draft Party Platform several years ago and noted its reference to the creation of ‘a council of religious scholars’ with the power to veto legislation proposed by the People’s Assembly/Majlis al-Sh’ab.  Could this be the same thing?  It certainly seems so.  If el-Shater is elected, and even if he is not (and becomes PM!), it will be intriguing, not to say worrying, to see what form this ‘group of scholars’ takes.

During the course of the Arab Spring, we have noted various types of Islamist group emerging into the public sphere.  From the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood and their political party, the FJP, to the newly formed Yemeni Salafist party, the Rashad Union. Muslims of various creeds and affiliations have taken an active part in the political revolutions sweeping the MENA region.

Yet, not all of the Islamists vying for attention belong to parties or established movements.  For some, this is because of a doctrinal aversion to hizbiyya or partisanship; for others, it is simply because they are unaffiliated to any specific theological movement or Islamist grouping.  Khalil al-Anani terms them ‘informal’ Islamists:

“They are not officially affiliated with any Islamist movement. Nor are they keen to establish their own organizations. Ironically, they shunned joining any of the new Islamists parties. Moreover, whereas “formal” Islamists, for example, the MB, ad-Dawa al-Salafiyya, and ex-Jihadists, rushed to formal politics, “informal” Islamists prefer to play outside the official framework.”

Perhaps the archetypal unaffiliated or ‘informal’ Islamist is the Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.  Despite being associated with the Ikhwan, and playing a pivotal role in the initial formation of the Global Muslim Brotherhood Organisation, al-Qaradawi has established a global independent platform for his doctrine of wasatiyya or ‘moderation’ in one’s interpretation of Islam.  Through his appearances on the popular Al Jazeera show Al Sharia wal Hayat, his leadership of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, to the publication of numerous books translated into a multitude of languages, he has been able propagate his ideology to a global audience independently of the Egyptian Brotherhood.

It is the flexibility of operating outside of any formal religious or political organisation that has been a boon for this type of Islamist personality in the wake of the Arab uprisings.  Whilst politico-religious movements such as the Ikhwan and the Salafis have entered parliament, Islamists such as the Egyptian presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail, who bridges the gap between the two, have been left untarnished by any controversial pronouncements made by members of either movement, and have built allegiances that cross traditional class and economic boundaries.

It is worth noting that these types of Islamist only represent a short term threat to the political aspirations of the Brotherhood and the Salafi movement; in the long term, these independent Islamists serve to frame the terms of the political debate along Islamic lines.  They broadly share the same goals as these movements in that they wish to see greater Islamic unity, and to see a prominent role for the sharia in the legal systems of their respective countries.

Khalil al-Anani argues that, with the entrance of Islamists into the political arena during and after the Arab Spring, “we need to rethink the Islamist question in a manner that transcends the styles of praise or ridicule that typified our approach and shaped our awareness for several decades.”  In making this point he is quite right: Islamists in politics require a more considered analysis than was necessary for purely religious movements, largely excluded from the public square.  For this, we have a few historical examples of how Islamist parties have functioned in elections and (in parliament though not in government) such as the Jamaat-e Islaami in Pakistan.  Fortunately, we now also have contemporary examples from which to draw conclusions in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Kuwait.

Al-Anani makes some important observations about the changes in Islamist discourse wrought by their electioneering and, in the case of the aforementioned countries, especially Egypt, their rise to power:

1) A shift from talking exclusively about religious solutions to practical problems, to engaging with voters through the use of more pragmatic rhetoric attuned to the present conditions.  He cites the example of the MB’s political party, the Freedom and Justice party (FJP – حزب الحرية والعدالة‎ , Ḥizb Al-Ḥurriya wa Al-’Adala), adapting the slogan ‘We bring the good to Egypt’ (نحمل الخير لمصر) as an alternate to the Brotherhood’s previous one of ‘Islam is the solution’ (الإسلام هو الحال).  Some would argue that the FJP are merely there to ‘market’ Ikhwani ideology, hence the adaption or moderation of the language used.

2) A shift from talking in mosques (and at rallies), to debating in parliament.  This involves not just a change in the nature of the issues discussed, but also a shift from sermons and speeches (which are traditionally monologues) to dialogue and debate.  Both spaces also have different customs for behaviour within each of them: not only is speech subject to less restriction in parliament, but it is also has to be accountable to the general public who may watch the debates live on TV or comment on Facebook.  Whilst there are certainly taboos in mosques, there is little or no public scrutiny, except perhaps in the case of the ‘live’ Friday sermon.

3) A shift from religious to secular authority, where religious figures respected for their Islamic knowledge are subjected to careful scrutiny on entering the public sphere.  It remains to be seen how this will affect the public’s perception of and reaction to policy inspired by the Qur’an and Sunna.

4) A shift from the solidarity expressed in private to a rivalry based on each party’s success at implementing its respective policies.  In the case of Egypt, it will be interesting to note the future role that Islam will play in the revised constitution and how this will impact on the relationship between the two largest parties in parliament: the FJP and the Salafist al-Nour party.

I discovered what looks to be a fantastic resource in the making today: the American Foreign Policy Council’s World Almanac of Islamism (currently in beta development phase) is an interactive map of the world with links, eventually by country and continent, to the various Islamist parties and groupings.  In the words of the AFPC, the Almanac “is a comprehensive resource focusing on the nature of the contemporary Islamist threat in individual countries and regions, intended to provide an accurate picture of the rise or decline of radical Islamism on a national, regional and global level.”

I’ve added a link to the Almanac on the sidebar.

This isn’t exactly news, but it’s good, nonetheless, to have the Government spell it out in black and white.  From Hansard:

Mr Offord: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent reports he has received of potential links between the UK offices of the Muslim Brotherhood and (a) Hamas, (b) Islamic Jihad and (c) other organisations. [24575]

Alistair Burt: We are aware of reports which suggest that there are significant historic linkages between the Muslim Brotherhood, its overseas affiliates and Hamas. Historically the Brotherhood has presented Hamas as a legitimate resistance movement for the Palestinian people.  The Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) are the Brotherhood’s representative in the UKMAB in the UK publically rejects violence and state that they work for wider Muslim integration into British society.

The Muslim Association of Britain rejects violence?  Oh, that Muslim Association of Britain.

H/T Dave Rich

According to the head of Iran’s Guardian Council, Ayatollah Jannati

“Denying the guardianship of the supreme leader [Ayatollah Khamenei] is the same as denying God.”

The BBC cite ‘analysts’ who claim that this is yet another attempt by Iran’s Supreme Leader to cow dissent by equating it with apostasy; a ‘crime’ which can carry the death penalty in Iran.

Pew have published some new research on Muslim opinions towards the Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah and, amongst other things, views on the role of Islam in public life.  The report makes for interesting, and worrying, reading as you can imagine:

Extremist groups Hamas and Hezbollah continue to receive mixed ratings from Muslim publics. However, opinions of al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, are consistently negative; only in Nigeria do Muslims offer views that are, on balance, positive toward al Qaeda and bin Laden.

It is Pew’s job to produce objective, non-partisan research, but this opening paragraph to their commentary understates what to me are some startling figures.  Firstly, we often hear about the public’s ‘mixed reaction’ to various policy initiatives, or even their ambivalence.  In some instances this might even be a controversial issue (such as lingering support for capital punishment).  In this instance, however, we’re talking about a large body of people who support genocidal terrorist organisations: according to Pew, some 38 million Nigerians express support for Hamas and al-Qa’idah, and some 35 million the Shi’ite Islamists of Hezbollah (this in spite of the fact that Nigerian Muslims are overwhelmingly Sunni).  In Egypt, some 36 million people look upon Hamas favourably, whilst 14.5 million Egyptians champion al-Qa’idah.  In avowedly secular Turkey, some 3 million, 3.8 million and 7 million Turks endorse the policies of al-Qa’idah, Hezbollah and Hamas respectively; this, in a country in the advanced stages of gaining accession to the European Union.  But perhaps the most disturbing data in the survey comes from Indonesia.  With a population approaching 250 million, Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world with some 209 million Indonesians professing faith in Islam (according to the last census) or 86% of the population.  Of this 209 million, according to Pew, 23% approve of al-Qa’idah (48 million); 39% Hamas (81.5 million); and 43% Hezbollah (90 million).

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Looking at the results of two previous surveys (see Mixed Views of Hamas and Hezbollah in Largely Muslim Nations and Muslim Views of Hamas Mixed) on Muslim attitudes to Islamism, we notice a general trend of growing support, with exceptions:

  • support for Hamas has doubled in Lebanon, nearly doubled in Indonesia and Turkey, and increased by over a third in Nigeria since 2007;
  • support for Islamism in Egypt has fallen, with declining support particularly marked for Hezbollah;
  • support for Hezbollah has increased significantly in Jordan and by 50% in Lebanon since 2009

The survey also finds that Muslims are overwhelmingly in favour of Islam’s role in their countries’ politics.  Furthermore, although the Turkish public are ambivalent towards the role Islam, of the 69% who say  religion plays a large role, 45% see it as good a thing.

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Regarding democracy, majorities in most of the Muslim publics surveyed say that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, though it is unclear from the survey exactly what form of democracy.  This view is especially widespread in Lebanon and in Turkey, the most Westernised countries in the Middle East with the exception of Israel.  In these two states at least three-quarters of Muslims (81% and 76%, respectively) express a preference for democratic governance.  Support for democracy is less common in Pakistan, but a plurality (42%) of Muslims in that country prefer democracy to other types of government; 15% of Pakistani Muslims say that, in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable, and 21% say that, for someone like them, the kind of government their country has does not matter.

To view or download the full report in .pdf, click here.

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