The Crisis of Political Islam (V): What is left?

The Crisis of Political Islam (V): What is left?
5 min read
21 Jun, 2016
Comment: Islamist movements are at a cross roads, and the way forward is to agree on the principles of the democratic system and abide by them, writes Azmi Bishara.
Tunisia's Ennahda is seen as an example of an Islamist movement upholding democratic principles [AFP]

Islamist movements today are coming under violent attack and persecution campaigns by a broad regional coalition.

This coalition has benefited from the failure of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood experiment in power (including undermining the results of election by counter democracy forces) and the emergence of the Islamic State group to push its agenda.

The assault on Islamism is deliberately conflating the diverse and often conflicting experiences of Islamists.

The regional coalition cracking down on Islamists is also taking advantage of the deep divisions of the oppositions that existed before the Arab uprisings, as well as the yearning of the masses for stability in light of the ongoing strife in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

It is difficult to say how political Islam will evolve in light of this onslaught. The conservative forces in the Muslim Brotherhood have a long history of traditional thinking to resort to, and are thus the least susceptible to evolution.

For their part, the forces of reform within the Muslim Brotherhood, because they are the most dynamic and most responsive to events, are prone to become divided into several factions.

One faction could pursue self-criticism and develop the Islamist platform, to accept and abide by democratic principles and become a civil party, and even break away with the Muslim Brotherhood past.

Another could react to developments by going in the opposite direction, censuring the Muslim Brotherhood for their "leniency" with their opponents, their complacency, and their reliance on elections, and pushing towards adopting violence in response to the violence of the counter-revolutionary coalition.

This may help explain how parts of youthful forces affiliated once to the reformists adopted the path of violence after the violent counter-revolutions in a number of Arab countries.

Change comes from the intersection of lessons learned from past experience with the need for answers for current challenges.

Just as some might seek democratic principles, others might reject democracy categorically as a ruse that had before deceived the Islamist movement. And we have no way to tell what they will conclude in the future once the path of violence, too, hits a dead end.

Change comes from the intersection of lessons learned from past experience with the need for answers for current challenges.

The main task for the forces fighting against tyranny today, be they Islamists or otherwise, is to agree on the principles of the democratic system and abide by them.

This way, change would be linked to a credible and agreed upon democratic alternative, not chaos or another form of tyranny. However, this requires changes to be made by Islamists and others, to agree on the following:

1. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation state.

2. Full and equal citizenship before the law regulates the relationship between the individual and the state, not religion, sect, tribe, ethnicity, or gender.

3. Election, representation, checks and balances, and well-defined powers.

4. Keeping the state neutral when it comes to the religious beliefs of individuals and their private life.

5. The system of government guarantees multi-party pluralism for factions that accept democratic principles and agree to the peaceful transfer of power accordingly. The system of the government includes government and opposition.

6. The judiciary is independent from the executive branch, the security services, and political parties.

7. A professional standing army that commands conscription and reservist units where applicable or needed. The army and security services do not interfere in politics.

8. No paramilitary forces of any kind should be established.

9. Respecting collective rights and the principle of self-administration for ethnic communities, and enshrining this in law.

10. Agreeing on proportional representation across the entire country as one district in parliament, and regional non-partisan representation in an elected senate that represents all components of Arab societies.

11. There must be local elected municipal authorities for local administration of municipal affairs.

This is the basis, in my opinion, of any future democratic camp that could comprise Islamists and non-Islamists in the Arab countries.

This is the basis, in my opinion, of any future democratic camp that could comprise Islamists and non-Islamists in the Arab countries.

I have enumerated its foundations after profound reflection on some of the most prominent issues facing democratic transition in the major Arab countries, with a view to preserve the unity of these countries and their peoples, in a framework of citizenship, while also preserving their diversity.

Yet these points could be further debated and refined. In the end however, the issue is not just about Islamist forces alone.

The challenges we tackled also concern the forces that seek to build systems of government that go beyond the phase of tyranny and chaos ravaging Arab countries.

Here, an Islamist may ask: What will set apart the Islamist movements then? This question may also be raised by democratic Arab nationalists, leftists, and liberals about their own movements and what sets them apart.

But the answer lies in their hands. All matters not included by the principles agreed upon and that do not conflict with them, is their own business. There is a lot that they can differ on, on how to run the state, and on economic and social policies as well as foreign policies.

It would be unacceptable that all that distinguishes a political camp would contradict democratic principles, so that an agreement on the latter would invalidate this camp or exclude it.

In other words, the movements that consider themselves Islamist will find policies and platforms that distinguish them from others after agreeing on these democratic principles.

For example, Islamists could emphasise issues of Arab-Islamic identity and heritage. They could defend the role of religion in education. They could reject certain modes of Westernisation and globalisation.

They could be more conservative on family issues, and more keen on solidarity with vulnerable segments in societies and on specialrelations with countries with Muslim majorities.

All I know is that the complex issues that are on the table will force any political camp to discover what sets it apart under a democratic system, or there would no longer be a raison d'etre for it.

This is one of many options that ensue from the crisis of this camp. But it is a historical crisis, and historical decisions must be made to overcome it.

Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian intellectual, academic and writer.

This article is part five of a five-part series on political Islam. Catch up with part one, Problems of terminology, part two, Islamism and politics, part three, Reform, violence, and part four, The violent path - and watch out for the next instalment by following us on Twitter: @the_newarab.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.