Posts Tagged ‘Islamism’

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.


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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.

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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.

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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).


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.


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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Soner Cagaptay, who is always worth reading on all things Turkish, has an article today at the Washington Institute speculating on Turkey’s future direction.  His thesis is basically that Turkey continues to flatter to decieve under the Islamist AKP: whilst the country entered EU accession negotiations under the party back in 2005, seeking EU membership was merely a pretext for sanitising the party’s Islamist brand of politics.  By contrast, some see the AKP’s commitment to Islamism as ‘one of values and identity rather than Islamic law’ pointing to the recent constitutional referendum victory that has moved Turkey away from intervention by the so-called ‘guardians of secularism’, the armed forces, but towards a judiciary likely to be more amenable to the AKP government.  Whatever your view, those with an interest in Islamic politics and the future direction of political parties and quasi-political organisations with Islam as their guiding principle will be watching the machinations of the AKP over the next few years with interest.

Elsewhere, although his passing was not remarked by this blog, I feel that now would be a suitable time to draw readers’ attention to this study by Martin Kramer on Grand Ayatollah Husayn Fadlallah.

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Some of us forget that Islamism, in particular the political strain, has been with us for a very long time.  Lord Cromer for instance, second, perhaps, only to Lord Curzon, as the archetypal Imperial colonial administrator-in-chief, had some prescient and insightful things to say about the then emerging phenomenon over a century ago.  His words will resonate with supporters of liberal democracy everywhere:

Panislamism almost necessarily connotes a recrudescence of racial and religious animosity. Many of its adherents are, I do not doubt, inspired by genuine religious fervour. Others, again, whether from indifference verging on agnosticism, or from political and opportunist motives, or – as I trust may sometimes be the case – from having really assimilated modern ideas on the subject of religious toleration, would be willing, were such a course possible, to separate the political from the religious, and even possibly from the racial, issues. If such are their wishes and intentions, I entertain very little doubt that they will find them impossible of execution. Unless they can convince the Moslem masses of their militant Islamism, they will fail to arrest their attention or to attract their sympathy. Appeals, either overt or covert, to racial and religious passions are thus a necessity of their existence in order to ensure the furtherance of their political programme.


Panislamism almost necessarily connotes an attempt to regenerate Islam on Islamic lines – in other words, to revivify and stereotype in the twentieth century the principles laid down more than a thousand years ago for the guidance of a primitive society. Those principles involve a recognition of slavery, laws regulating the relations of the sexes which clash with modern ideas, and, which is perhaps more important than all, that crystallisation of the civil, criminal, and canonical law into one immutable whole, which has so largely contributed to arrest the progress of those countries whose populations have embraced the Moslem faith.

It is for these reasons, independent of any political considerations, that all who are interested in the work of Egyptian reform are constrained to condemn Panislamism. More than this, the utmost care has to be exercised lest any natural and very legitimate sympathy for genuine Nationalism may not be unconsciously attracted towards a movement which is, in reality, highly retrograde and deserving of but scant sympathy. It is at times not easy to recognise the Panislamic figure under the Nationalist cloak.

See http://www.scribd.com/doc/38558264/Lord-Cromer-on-Pan-Islamism

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A few comments on Marc Lynch’s review of Paul Berman’s The Flight of the Intellectuals in this July’s issue of Foreign Affairs.

Berman’s book attempts to highlight the growing sense of unease experienced by Western intellectuals at what can best be described as Islamism’s non-violent strains, heretofore largely ignored in favour of concentrating on the immediate threat from violent Islamist groups such as al-Qa’idah.

Lynch is rather charitable towards Berman, whose shoddy research and preconceived animus towards the enigmatic Tariq Ramadan at times hinder what is otherwise an important contribution to scholarship.

Elsewhere, Lynch himself makes some uncharacteristically tendentious and unproven assertions of his own, particularly in his depictions of political Islamist organisations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood:

“What to make of the popularity and electoral prowess of Islamist movements across the Muslim world? It is impossible to support democracy without being prepared to defend the rights of Islamist movements to participate in and win elections.”

From Kuwait to Morocco, and from Baghdad to Jakarta, political parties and movements with an Islamist agenda have seen their support fall away in election after election.  Only in the tiny strip of land known as the Gaza Strip have Islamists seized the reins of power via the ballot box; and then, faced with a desperately poor, disproportionately young electorate, Hamas have only been able to maintain authority with the use of tactics reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany.

Furthermore, Lynch would have us believe that true democrats, when faced with Islamists who have embraced the letter (e.g. the electoral process), but not the spirit of liberal democracy, should support their malevolent aspirations even if it should mean withdrawing support for the universal respect of human rights.  This is patently absurd and smacks of the worst kind of moral and cultural relativism.

I agree with Lynch that Berman’s breathless pursuit of Ramadan, particularly his ‘interrogation’ of him at a seminar in which Ramadan was asked to denounce views falsely attributed to his grandfather that had been largely concocted by Berman, has blinkered his quest to unravel the ‘real’ Islamic intellectual beneath .the polemic.  Whilst his criticism of Berman is valid, Lynch continues to attribute liberal pronouncements to Ramadan which Ramadan has not made; on Islamic inheritance law, for example:

“For example, when Salafi opponents have confronted him [Ramadan] with Koranic verses dictating that women receive only half the inheritance of men, Ramadan has argued that these passages should be reinterpreted given the modern changes in family structure and the fact that many women today raise children alone.”

Although Ramadan did state that this passage in the Qur’an should be reinterpreted for the modern context in which Muslim women often find themselves, in the same interview, he was unequivocal about whether this same injunction should be consigned to the history books as anachronistic:

“It is not possible to remove these clear-cut verses from the Koran…”

This suggests, much like Ramadan’s much vaunted support for a ‘moratorium on stoning’ that, should the ideal conditions return (a future to which much of the wider Islamic renaissance movement is working towards), the literal interpretation of this passage would be possible and, indeed, necessary.

And in the very same interview with Qantara.de, when asked explicitly whether women should have the right to lead prayers, Ramadan evades the question; preferring instead to couch his answer in terms of religious authority.

Lynch also creates a false dichotomy when he places Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.  It’s true that the majority of those who would self-identify with Salafism would reject what they consider as the narrow partisan agenda of the Ikhwan; but this does not make these currents polar opposites.  Indeed, within Salafism itself there are various schools of thought ranging from a total rejection of secular politics to an enthusiastic embrace of the structures and institutions of a secular democracy.  It would be much more accurate to characterise both movements as manifestations of the wider Islamic renaissance.  Most importantly of all, both movements subscribe to renewal as opposed to reform, meaning that they share the same broad aims even if their tactics differ and sometimes appear to conflict.

Much of what Lynch writes on political Islamists is informed by his own primary research and, in particular, his knowledge of Arabic.  Unfortunately, he is mistaken in his assumption that non-violent Islamism speaks for the majority of Muslims, particularly in North Africa, the Levant and parts of South East Asia.  Islamists do not, generally, respect the notion of universal human rights, preferring instead to accuse Western nations of violating them whilst simultaneously advocating their complete rejection by the Muslim populace as contradicting the tenets of Islam.  If Islamism really represented the Muslim mainstream, why then have its adherents failed so abysmally at the ballot box?

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