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.