September 3, 2010
Syria’s Solidarity With Islamists Ends at Home
By KAREEM FAHIM
DAMASCUS, Syria — This country, which had sought to show solidarity with Islamist groups and allow religious figures a greater role in public life, has recently reversed course, moving forcefully to curb the influence of Muslim conservatives in its mosques, public universities and charities.
The government has asked imams for recordings of their Friday sermons and started to strictly monitor religious schools. Members of an influential Muslim women’s group have now been told to scale back activities like preaching or teaching Islamic law. And this summer, more than 1,000 teachers who wear the niqab, or the face veil, were transferred to administrative duties.
The crackdown, which began in 2008 but has gathered steam this summer, is an effort by President Bashar al-Assad to reassert Syria’s traditional secularism in the face of rising threats from radical groups in the region, Syrian officials say.
The policy amounts to a sharp reversal for Syria, which for years tolerated the rise of the conservatives. And it sets the government on the seemingly contradictory path of moving against political Islamists at home, while supporting movements like Hamas and Hezbollah abroad.
Syrian officials are adamant that the shifts stem from alarming domestic trends, and do not affect support for those groups, allies in their struggle against Israel. At the same time, they have spoken proudly about their secularizing campaign, though they have been reluctant to reveal its details. Some Syrian analysts view that as an overture to the United States and European nations, which have been courting Syria as part of a strategy to isolate Iran and curb the influence of Hamas and Hezbollah.
Human rights advocates say the policy exacerbates pressing concerns: the arbitrary imprisonment of Islamists, as well as the continued failure to allow them any political space.
Pressure on Islamic conservatives in Syria began in earnest after a powerful car bomb exploded in the Syrian capital in September 2008, killing 17 people. The government blamed the radical group Fatah al-Islam.
“The bombing was the trigger, but the pressure had been building,” said Peter Harling, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. “After a period of accommodation with the Islamic groups, the regime entered this far more proactive and repressive mode. It realizes the challenge that the Islamization of Syrian society poses.”
The government’s campaign drew wider notice this summer, when a decision to bar students wearing the niqab from registering for university classes was compared to a similar ban in France. That move seemed to underscore a reduced tolerance for strict observance by Muslims in public life. Syrian officials have put it differently, saying the niqab is “alien” to Syrian society.
The campaign carries risks for a secular government that has fought repeated, violent battles with Islamists in the past, most notably in 1982, when Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, razed the city of Hama while confronting the Muslim Brotherhood, killing tens of thousands of people. For the moment there has been no visible domestic backlash, but one cleric, who said he was dismissed without being given a reason two years ago, suggested that could change.
“The Islamists now have a strong argument that the regime is antagonizing the Muslims,” he said.
The government courted religious conservatives as Western powers moved to isolate Syria amid accusations that it was behind the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005. The government appointed a sheik instead of a member of the ruling Baathist party to head the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and allowed, for the first time, religious activities in the stadium at Damascus University.
As the country emerged from that isolation, it focused on domestic challenges, including the fear that sectarian tensions in the region could spread — a recurring fear in Syria, a country with a Sunni majority ruled by Alawites, a religious minority.
The government also focused on conservatives. “What they had nourished and empowered, they felt the need to break,” said Hassan Abbas, a Syrian researcher.
The details of the campaign have remained murky, though Syrian officials have not been afraid to publicize its aims, including in foreign media outlets. In an interview with the American talk show host Charlie Rose in May, Mr. Assad was asked to name his biggest challenge.
“How we can keep our society as secular as it is today,” he said. “The challenge is the extremism in this region.”
Mr. Assad has in the past singled out northern Lebanon as a source of that extremism.
“We didn’t forget Nahr al-Bared,” said Mohammed al-Habash, a Syrian lawmaker, referring to battles in that region three years ago between Lebanese forces and Fatah al-Islam. “We have to take this seriously.”
Beginning in 2008, the government embarked on its new course when it fired administrators at several Islamic charities, according to the former cleric, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal by the government.
The clampdown has intensified in recent months. Last spring, the Qubaisiate, an underground women’s prayer group that was growing in prominence, was barred from meeting at mosques, according to members. Earlier this summer, top officials in Damascus Governorate were fired for their religious leanings, according to Syrian analysts.
Other moves underscore the delicacy of Mr. Assad’s campaign — or perhaps send mixed signals. A planned conference on secularism earlier this year, initially approved by the government, was abruptly canceled for no reason, according to Mr. Abbas.
“Secularism is their version of being secular,” Mr. Abbas said.
Another episode can be seen as a concession to Islamists, or a sign of just how comfortable the conservatives have become. A proposed rewrite of Syria’s personal status law, which governs civil matters, leaked last year, retained provisions that made it legal for men to marry girls as young as 13 years old. Under pressure, including from women’s groups, lawmakers abandoned the draft law.
“There are limits to what they can do,” Mr. Harling, the analyst, said of the Syrian government. “They will try things out and pedal back if things go too far. It says a lot about how difficult it is — even for a regime that is deeply secular itself and whose survival is tied to the secular nature of Syrian society.”
In 680 CE, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hoseyn and 70 associates were slaughtered by troops of the rival Umayyad caliphate. This massacre, known as the Battle of Karbala, was a decisive event in the schism between Sunni and Shi'i Muslims, and as such is remembered by Shi'ites in story, song, drama and ritual procession. In this book, Islamic historian Aghaie traces the political uses of Karbala symbolism in 19th- and 20th-century Iran, arguing that it has been a "very flexible" narrative for Iranian rulers. Some, like the Qajar regime (1796–1925), enthusiastically sponsored the story in drama and song, and found that their use of Karbala symbolism helped legitimate their rule. Others, like the more secular and Westernized Pahlavi regime (1925–1979), ignored or suppressed the story's retelling—at their peril. Although the prose is dry and formal, Aghaie is sensitive to the way that Karbala symbolism serves as a valuable lens for examining change in modern Iranian society.
Events in Pakistan as highlighted in the article below are an example of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam forcing their views on the politics of the country.
December 31, 2010
Pakistanis Rally in Support of Blasphemy Law
By SALMAN MASOOD
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A crippling strike by Islamist parties brought Pakistan to a standstill on Friday as thousands of people took to the streets, and forced businesses to close, to head off any change in the country’s blasphemy law, which rights groups say has been used to persecute minorities, especially Christians.
The law was introduced in the 1980s under the military dictatorship of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq as part of a policy of promoting Islam to unite this deeply fractious society. Many attempts to revise the law have since been thwarted by the strong opposition of religious forces, which continue to gather strength.
In fiery speeches across all major cities and towns, religious leaders warned the government on Friday against altering the law, which carries a mandatory death sentence for anyone convicted of insulting Islam.
“The president and prime minister should take the nation into confidence and assure in unequivocal terms that there will be no change in the blasphemy law under any international pressure,” Sahibzada Fazal Kareem, a religious leader and member of Parliament, said at a rally in the southern port city of Karachi, where the police fired tear gas to stop protesters from marching toward Bilawal House, one of the residences of President Asif Ali Zardari.
The governing Pakistan Peoples Party, which is struggling to keep its government coalition intact, has been conciliatory on the issue.
Syed Sumsam Ali Bokhari, the minister for information, tried to placate religious forces by assuring them that the government did not intend to amend or repeal the law. “Neither the Pakistan Peoples Party nor the government has discussed the issue to bring any amendment in the blasphemy law,” Mr. Bokhari said Thursday at a news briefing.
But such assurances failed to calm the religious parties, who issued their call on Dec. 15 for a countrywide strike.
“I call it a natural result of religious extremism that is on the rise in Pakistani society,” said Mehdi Hasan, the chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent rights group, while commenting on the strike.
“The liberal and democratic forces in the country have retreated so much that it has created an ideological vacuum that is now being filled by the religious extremists,” Dr. Hasan said.
The human rights commission has documented scores of cases in which men have been harassed for being Christian or for being members of the Ahmadi sect, a minority group within Islam, and then accused of blasphemy. The mere fact of being a Christian or an Ahmadi in Pakistan makes a person vulnerable to prosecution, the commission says. Often the mere accusation of blasphemy has led to murders, lynchings and false arrests.
The latest push to revise the law came after the case of Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of five who was sentenced to death by a municipal court, gained prominence in November. Ms. Bibi, a Christian, was accused of blasphemy after her fellow agricultural workers grew angry when she touched their water bowl, her supporters say.
After indicating that a pardon was forthcoming, government spokespeople have recently taken a more ambiguous position and now say that Mr. Zardari can extend a pardon to someone only if the prime minister recommends it. Pope Benedict XVI has appealed for Ms. Bibi to be freed unconditionally.
Rights activists, critics and several government officials, including Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province, and Sherry Rehman, a lawmaker and former information minister, have urged the government to repeal or revise the laws.
“These laws institutionalize injustice,” Ms. Rehman said. “People have to feel secure as first-class citizens of this country.”
Ms. Rehman expressed disappointment that the government had distanced itself from her proposed amendments to the law.
The general strike and protests on Friday show the power Islamists hold on the streets of Pakistan. They also contrast sharply with the campaigns by rights activists and opponents of the blasphemy laws who have vented their opposition and discontent mostly on the Internet and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Protest rallies by rights activists have been ineffective and relatively small.
Since the 1980s, conservatism and religious extremism have been on the rise in the country, analysts say. The religious right has become extremely powerful by establishing its networks across major urban centers and small towns.
“Their agitation potential is immense,” said Rasul Baksh Rais, a political analyst who teaches at Lahore University of Management Sciences in Lahore. “Their numerical strength is not enough for electoral wins but is enough to create trouble for any government in Pakistan.”
“The government is not in a position to take any drastic step against the sensitivities of the religious right, which does not want to concede any inch, even if that is meant to save innocent lives,” Mr. Rais said.
Ms. Rehman, the former information minister, said the secular, democratic forces need not be deterred by the show of force by Islamists. “Eventually, I think we have to keep at it with the help of the civil society and media; their street power is disproportional,” she said, referring to religious parties. “The mainstream political parties need to push back and resist the religious extremists who hijack issues through street power.”
However, analysts said the huge show of force by religious parties, and even the attention local news media outlets gave them on Friday, would only embolden the religious elements in the country. The dynamic is such that “the government may not be able to make any changes in the blasphemy laws in the coming years,” Mr. Rais predicted.
February 9, 2011
What the Muslim Brothers Want
By ESSAM EL-ERRIAN
THE Egyptian people have spoken, and we have spoken emphatically. In two weeks of peaceful demonstrations we have persistently demanded liberation and democracy. It was groups of brave, sincere Egyptians who initiated this moment of historical opportunity on Jan. 25, and the Muslim Brotherhood is committed to joining the national effort toward reform and progress.
In more than eight decades of activism, the Muslim Brotherhood has consistently promoted an agenda of gradual reform. Our principles, clearly stated since the inception of the movement in 1928, affirm an unequivocal position against violence. For the past 30 years we have posed, peacefully, the greatest challenge to the ruling National Democratic Party of Hosni Mubarak, while advocating for the disenfranchised classes in resistance to an oppressive regime.
We have repeatedly tried to engage with the political system, yet these efforts have been largely rejected based on the assertion that the Muslim Brotherhood is a banned organization, and has been since 1954. It is seldom mentioned, however, that the Egyptian Administrative Court in June 1992 stated that there was no legal basis for the group’s dissolution.
In the wake of the people’s revolt, we have accepted invitations to participate in talks on a peaceful transition. Along with other representatives of the opposition, we recently took part in exploratory meetings with Vice President Omar Suleiman. In these talks, we made clear that we will not compromise or co-opt the public’s agenda. We come with no special agenda of our own — our agenda is that of the Egyptian people, which has been asserted since the beginning of this uprising.
We aim to achieve reform and rights for all: not just for the Muslim Brotherhood, not just for Muslims, but for all Egyptians. We do not intend to take a dominant role in the forthcoming political transition. We are not putting forward a candidate for the presidential elections scheduled for September.
While we express our openness to dialogue, we also re-assert the public’s demands, which must be met before any serious negotiations leading to a new government. The Mubarak regime has yet to show serious commitment to meeting these demands or to moving toward substantive, guaranteed change.
As our nation heads toward liberty, however, we disagree with the claims that the only options in Egypt are a purely secular, liberal democracy or an authoritarian theocracy. Secular liberal democracy of the American and European variety, with its firm rejection of religion in public life, is not the exclusive model for a legitimate democracy.
In Egypt, religion continues to be an important part of our culture and heritage. Moving forward, we envision the establishment of a democratic, civil state that draws on universal measures of freedom and justice, which are central Islamic values. We embrace democracy not as a foreign concept that must be reconciled with tradition, but as a set of principles and objectives that are inherently compatible with and reinforce Islamic tenets.
The tyranny of autocratic rule must give way to immediate reform: the demonstration of a serious commitment to change, the granting of freedoms to all and the transition toward democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood stands firmly behind the demands of the Egyptian people as a whole.
Steady, gradual reform must begin now, and it must begin on the terms that have been called for by millions of Egyptians over the past weeks. Change does not happen overnight, but the call for change did — and it will lead us to a new beginning rooted in justice and progress.
Essam El-Errian is a member of the guidance council of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
February 20, 2011
Next Question for Tunisia: The Role of Islam in Politics
By THOMAS FULLER
TUNIS — The Tunisian revolution that overthrew decades of authoritarian rule has entered a delicate new phase in recent days over the role of Islam in politics. Tensions mounted here last week when military helicopters and security forces were called in to carry out an unusual mission: protecting the city’s brothels from a mob of zealots.
Police officers dispersed a group of rock-throwing protesters who streamed into a warren of alleyways lined with legally sanctioned bordellos shouting, “God is great!” and “No to brothels in a Muslim country!”
Five weeks after protesters forced out the country’s dictator, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians are locked in a fierce and noisy debate about how far, or even whether, Islamism should be infused into the new government.
About 98 percent of the population of 10 million is Muslim, but Tunisia’s liberal social policies and Western lifestyle shatter stereotypes of the Arab world. Abortion is legal, polygamy is banned and women commonly wear bikinis on the country’s Mediterranean beaches. Wine is openly sold in supermarkets and imbibed at bars across the country.
Women’s groups say they are concerned that in the cacophonous aftermath of the revolution, conservative forces could tug the country away from its strict tradition of secularism.
“Nothing is irreversible,” said Khadija Cherif, a former head of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, a feminist organization. “We don’t want to let down our guard.”
Ms. Cherif was one of thousands of Tunisians who marched through Tunis, the capital, on Saturday demanding the separation of mosque and state in one of the largest demonstrations since the overthrow of Mr. Ben Ali.
Protesters held up signs saying, “Politics ruins religion and religion ruins politics.”
They were also mourning the killing on Friday of a Polish priest by unknown attackers. That assault was also condemned by the country’s main Muslim political movement, Ennahdha, or Renaissance, which was banned under Mr. Ben Ali’s dictatorship but is now regrouping.
In interviews in the Tunisian news media, Ennahdha’s leaders have taken pains to praise tolerance and moderation, comparing themselves to the Islamic parties that govern Turkey and Malaysia.
“We know we have an essentially fragile economy that is very open toward the outside world, to the point of being totally dependent on it,” Hamadi Jebali, the party’s secretary general, said in an interview with the Tunisian magazine Réalités. “We have no interest whatsoever in throwing everything away today or tomorrow.”
The party, which is allied with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, says it opposes the imposition of Islamic law in Tunisia.
But some Tunisians say they remain unconvinced.
Raja Mansour, a bank employee in Tunis, said it was too early to tell how the Islamist movement would evolve.
“We don’t know if they are a real threat or not,” she said. “But the best defense is to attack.” By this she meant that secularists should assert themselves, she said.
Ennahdha is one of the few organized movements in a highly fractured political landscape. The caretaker government that has managed the country since Mr. Ben Ali was ousted is fragile and weak, with no clear leadership emerging from the revolution.
The unanimity of the protest movement against Mr. Ben Ali in January, the uprising that set off demonstrations across the Arab world, has since evolved into numerous daily protests by competing groups, a development that many Tunisians find unsettling.
“Freedom is a great, great adventure, but it’s not without risks,” said Fathi Ben Haj Yathia, an author and former political prisoner. “There are many unknowns.”
One of the largest demonstrations since Mr. Ben Ali fled took place on Sunday in Tunis, where several thousand protesters marched to the prime minister’s office to demand the caretaker government’s resignation. They accused it of having links to Mr. Ben Ali’s government.
Tunisians are debating the future of their country on the streets. Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the broad thoroughfare in central Tunis named after the country’s first president, resembles a Roman forum on weekends, packed with people of all ages excitedly discussing politics.
The freewheeling and somewhat chaotic atmosphere across the country has been accompanied by a breakdown in security that has been particularly unsettling for women. With the extensive security apparatus of the old government decimated, leaving the police force in disarray, many women now say they are afraid to walk outside alone at night.
Achouri Thouraya, a 29-year-old graphic artist, says she has mixed feelings toward the revolution.
She shared in the joy of the overthrow of what she described as Mr. Ben Ali’s kleptocratic government. But she also says she believes that the government’s crackdown on any Muslim groups it considered extremist, a draconian police program that included monitoring those who prayed regularly, helped protect the rights of women.
“We had the freedom to live our lives like women in Europe,” she said.
But now Ms. Thouraya said she was a “little scared.”
She added, “We don’t know who will be president and what attitudes he will have toward women.”
Mounir Troudi, a jazz musician, disagrees. He has no love for the former Ben Ali government, but said he believed that Tunisia would remain a land of beer and bikinis.
“This is a maritime country,” Mr. Troudi said. “We are sailors, and we’ve always been open to the outside world. I have confidence in the Tunisian people. It’s not a country of fanatics.”
April 1, 2011
In Egypt’s Democracy, Room for Islam
By ALI GOMAA
LAST month, Egyptians approved a referendum on constitutional amendments that will pave the way for free elections. The vote was a milestone in Egypt’s emerging democracy after a revolution that swept away decades of authoritarian rule. But it also highlighted an issue that Egyptians will grapple with as they consolidate their democracy: the role of religion in political life.
The vote was preceded by the widespread use of religious slogans by supporters and opponents of the amendments, a debate over the place of religion in Egypt’s future Constitution and a resurgence in political activity by Islamist groups. Egypt is a deeply religious society, and it is inevitable that Islam will have a place in our democratic political order. This, however, should not be a cause for alarm for Egyptians, or for the West.
Egypt’s religious tradition is anchored in a moderate, tolerant view of Islam. We believe that Islamic law guarantees freedom of conscience and expression (within the bounds of common decency) and equal rights for women. And as head of Egypt’s agency of Islamic jurisprudence, I can assure you that the religious establishment is committed to the belief that government must be based on popular sovereignty.
While religion cannot be completely separated from politics, we can ensure that it is not abused for political gain.
Much of the debate around the referendum focused on Article 2 of the Constitution — which, in 1971, established Islam as the religion of the state and, a few years later, the principles of Islamic law as the basis of legislation — even though the article was not up for a vote. But many religious groups feared that if the referendum failed, Egypt would eventually end up with an entirely new Constitution with no such article.
On the other side, secularists feared that Article 2, if left unchanged, could become the foundation for an Islamist state that discriminates against Coptic Christians and other religious minorities.
But acknowledgment of a nation’s religious heritage is an issue of national identity, and need not interfere with the civil nature of its political processes. There is no contradiction between Article 2 and Article 7 of Egypt’s interim Constitution, which guarantees equal citizenship before the law regardless of religion, race or creed. After all, Denmark, England and Norway have state churches, and Islam is the national religion of politically secular countries like Tunisia and Jordan. The rights of Egypt’s Christians to absolute equality, including their right to seek election to the presidency, is sacrosanct.
Similarly, long-suppressed Islamist groups can no longer be excluded from political life. All Egyptians have the right to participate in the creation of a new Egypt, provided that they respect the basic tenets of religious freedom and the equality of all citizens. To protect our democracy, we must be vigilant against any party whose platform or political rhetoric threatens to incite sectarianism, a prohibition that is enshrined in law and in the Constitution.
Islamists must understand that, in a country with such diverse movements as the Muslim Brotherhood; the Wasat party, which offers a progressive interpretation of Islam; and the conservative Salafi movements, no one group speaks for Islam.
At the same time, we should not be afraid that such groups in politics will do away with our newfound freedoms. Indeed, democracy will put Islamist movements to the test; they must now put forward programs and a political message that appeal to the Egyptian mainstream. Any drift toward radicalism will not only run contrary to the law, but will also guarantee their political marginalization.
Having overthrown the heavy hand of authoritarianism, Egyptians will not accept its return under the guise of religion. Islam will have a place in Egypt’s democracy. But it will be as a pillar of freedom and tolerance, never as a means of oppression.
Shi'a Islam: From Religion to Revolution (Princeton Series on the Middle East) [Paperback]
From Library Journal
Halm (history, Univ. of Tubingen) attempts here to lessen the reader's confusion about the bewildering events in the Middle East. His work has three parts: the first, "The House of Sorrow?The Twelve Imams," recounts the history and doctrine of Shi'a, the "party" of Ali ibn Ali Tahib and his 11 heirs, regarded as the true imams and only legitimate successors to the prophet Muhammed. Part 2, "The Deluge of Weeping?Flagellant Procession and Passion Play," describes distinctive Shi'ite rituals that display grief and penitence over the martyrdoms of the successive imams. Most valuable in terms of modern history is the third part, "The Government of the Expert?Islam of the Mullahs," which discusses the forming of the Shi'ite hierarchy of mullahs and ayatollahs and how they came to religious and political power. Two minor criticisms of an otherwise excellent source: the hardcover is rather pricey, and the brief bibliography will not satisfy serious scholars. Recommended for academic libraries.?James F. DeRoche, Alexandria, Va.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
June 23, 2011 10:56 pm
Top Sunni body calls for democratic Egypt
By Heba Saleh in Cairo
Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based religious institution regarded as the highest authority in Sunni Islam, has issued an unprecedented document spelling out a bold vision for the future of Egypt as a “democratic, constitutional and modern state”.
Drafted by Ahmed al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, along with a group of Egyptian intellectuals who include Christians – also a first – the document says Egypt should hold elections, respect basic rights, adhere to its international covenants and guarantee “full protection and total respect” to places of worship belonging to other religions.
The institution, whose views resonate across the Sunni Islamic world, has thrown its weight and prestige behind a modern vision of the state “ruled by law and law alone”.
Al-Azhar’s intervention comes as Egyptians find themselves mired in an intense debate about the country’s future following the revolution which ousted the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the former president.
Islamists and liberals have been pulling in different directions with each group seeking to expand its political influence and to fashion the future state in its image. Although intended as a statement on “the future of Egypt”, its propositions are likely to have an impact on other Muslim countries where the relationship between state and religion is in question.
“This is the first comprehensive declaration about specific matters that are the subject of dispute,” said Gamal al-Ghitani, a novelist who took part in forging the document. “Al-Azhar is siding with modernity and rejecting the concept of the theocratic state. This is something like a bill of basic rights which speaks to Muslims everywhere.”
To “regain its original intellectual role, and global influence”, al-Azhar also makes a bid for independence from the Egyptian state in the same document. Fettered by government control for more than half a century, the institution is seeking a return to an old system under which the Grand Imam was elected by senior religious scholars, and not appointed by the president.
Significantly the Azhar document does not call for the application of sharia law, but says that laws would be based on “the principles of Islamic law” – widely interpreted as the universal values of freedom, justice and equality.
It also insists that legislation is the job of elected representatives, an apparent response to more extreme voices who claim that democracy is incompatible with Islam, and say that legislating through an elected assembly is sinful because it replaces God’s law with people’s law.
Alongside, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood – expected to do well in the next election – a vocal Salafi current has emerged in the turmoil of Egypt’s transition. It espouses an ultraconservative interpretation of religion similar to that of Saudi Arabia.
A heated and highly polarised debate has raged in recent weeks raising fears of a deepening fracture in society between those who would like to see the country go in a more Islamist direction, and others who fear a slide towards the imposition of a strict form of Islamic rule.
Mahmoud Azab, the spokesman of al-Azhar, said his institution aimed at reassuring the Egyptian public using language it understood.
“Egyptians are afraid they would come under the rule of an autocratic theocracy,” he said. “Domestic and international fears are justified because of some of the calls we are now hearing. But we are telling people our religion does not include rule by a theocratic state.”
The document also addresses the fears of the Coptic Christian minority – an estimated 10 per cent of the population – that in the future they could become second class citizens.
It says: “The exploitation of religion and its use to create division, conflict and enmity between citizens should be criminalised. Inciting religious discrimination or sectarian and chauvinistic tendencies should be considered a crime against the nation.”
Rashad Bayoumi, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood told the Financial Times the document was “exemplary”.
September 29, 2011
Activists in Arab World Vie to Define Islamic State
By ANTHONY SHADID and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO — By force of this year’s Arab revolts and revolutions, activists marching under the banner of Islam are on the verge of a reckoning decades in the making: the prospect of achieving decisive power across the region has unleashed an unprecedented debate over the character of the emerging political orders they are helping to build.
Few question the coming electoral success of religious activists, but as they emerge from the shadows of a long, sometimes bloody struggle with authoritarian and ostensibly secular governments, they are confronting newly urgent questions about how to apply Islamic precepts to more open societies with very concrete needs.
In Turkey and Tunisia, culturally conservative parties founded on Islamic principles are rejecting the name “Islamist” to stake out what they see as a more democratic and tolerant vision.
In Egypt, a similar impulse has begun to fracture the Muslim Brotherhood as a growing number of politicians and parties argue for a model inspired by Turkey, where a party with roots in political Islam has thrived in a once-adamantly secular system. Some contend that the absolute monarchy of puritanical Saudi Arabia in fact violates Islamic law.
A backlash has ensued, as well, as traditionalists have flirted with timeworn Islamist ideas like imposing interest-free banking and obligatory religious taxes and censoring irreligious discourse.
The debates are deep enough that many in the region believe that the most important struggles may no longer occur between Islamists and secularists, but rather among the Islamists themselves, pitting the more puritanical against the more liberal.
“That’s the struggle of the future,” said Azzam Tamimi, a scholar and the author of a biography of a Tunisian Islamist, Rachid Ghannouchi, whose party, Ennahda, is expected to dominate elections next month to choose an assembly to draft a constitution. “The real struggle of the future will be about who is capable of fulfilling the desires of a devout public. It’s going to be about who is Islamist and who is more Islamist, rather than about the secularists and the Islamists.”
The moment is as dramatic as any in recent decades in the Arab world, as autocracies crumble and suddenly vibrant parties begin building a new order, starting with elections in Tunisia in October, then Egypt in November. Though the region has witnessed examples of ventures by Islamists into politics, elections in Egypt and Tunisia, attempts in Libya to build a state almost from scratch and the shaping of an alternative to Syria’s dictatorship are their most forceful entry yet into the region’s still embryonic body politic.
“It is a turning point,” said Emad Shahin, a scholar on Islamic law and politics at the University of Notre Dame who was in Cairo.
At the center of the debates is a new breed of politician who has risen from an Islamist milieu but accepts an essentially secular state, a current that some scholars have already taken to identifying as “post Islamist.” Its foremost exemplars are Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in Turkey, whose intellectuals speak of a shared experience and a common heritage with some of the younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and with the Ennahda Party in Tunisia. Like Turkey, Tunisia faced decades of a state-enforced secularism that never completely reconciled itself with a conservative population.
“They feel at home with each other,” said Cengiz Candar, an Arabic-speaking Turkish columnist. “It’s similar terms of reference, and they can easily communicate with them.”
Mr. Ghannouchi, the Tunisian Islamist, has suggested a common ambition, proposing what some say Mr. Erdogan’s party has managed to achieve: a prosperous, democratic Muslim state, led by a party that is deeply religious but operates within a system that is supposed to protect liberties. (That is the notion, at least — Mr. Erdogan’s critics accuse him of a pronounced streak of authoritarianism.)
“If the Islamic spectrum goes from Bin Laden to Erdogan, which of them is Islam?” Mr. Ghannouchi asked in a recent debate with a secular critic. “Why are we put in the same place as a model that is far from our thought, like the Taliban or the Saudi model, while there are other successful Islamic models that are close to us, like the Turkish, the Malaysian and the Indonesian models, models that combine Islam and modernity?”
The notion of an Arab post-Islamism is not confined to Tunisia. In Libya, Ali Sallabi, the most important Islamist political leader, cites Mr. Ghannouchi as a major influence. Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader who is running for president in Egypt, has joined several new breakaway political parties in arguing that the state should avoid interpreting or enforcing Islamic law, regulating religious taxes or barring a person from running for president based on gender or religion.
A party formed by three leaders of the Brotherhood’s youth wing says that while Egypt shares a common Arab and Islamic culture with the region, its emerging political system should ensure protections of individual freedoms as robust as the West’s. In an interview, one of them, Islam Lotfy, argued that the strictly religious kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where the Koran is ostensibly the constitution, was less Islamist than Turkey. “It is not Islamist; it is dictatorship,” said Mr. Lotfy, who was recently expelled from the Brotherhood for starting the new party.
Egypt’s Center Party, a group that struggled for 16 years to win a license from the ousted government, may go furthest here in elaborating the notion of post-Islamism. Its founder, Abul-Ela Madi, has long sought to mediate between religious and liberal forces, even coming up with a set of shared principles last month. Like the Ennahda Party in Tunisia, he disavows the term “Islamist,” and like other progressive Islamic activists, he describes his group as Egypt’s closest equivalent of Mr. Erdogan’s party.
“We’re neither secular nor Islamist,” he said. “We’re in between.”
It is often heard in Turkey that the country’s political system, until recently dominated by the military, moderated Islamic currents there. Mr. Lotfy said he hoped that Egyptian Islamists would undergo a similar, election-driven evolution, though activists themselves cautioned against drawing too close a comparison. “They went to the streets and they learned that the public was not just worried about the hijab” — the veil — “but about corruption,” he said. “If every woman in Turkey wore the hijab, it would not be a great country. It takes economic development.”
Compared with the situation in Turkey, the stakes of the debates may be even higher in the Arab world, where divided and weak liberal currents pale before the organization and popularity of Islamic activists.
In Syria, debates still rage among activists over whether a civil or Islamic state should follow the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, if he falls. The emergence in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria of Salafists, the most inflexible currents in political Islam, is one of the most striking political developments in those societies. (“The Koran is our constitution,” goes one of their sayings.)
And the most powerful current in Egypt, still represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, has stubbornly resisted some of the changes in discourse.
When Mr. Erdogan expressed hope for “a secular state in Egypt,” meaning, he explained, a state equidistant from all faiths, Brotherhood leaders immediately lashed out, saying that Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey offered no model for either Egypt or its Islamists.
A Brotherhood spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, accused Turkey of violating Islamic law by failing to criminalize adultery. “In the secularist system, this is accepted, and the laws protect the adulterer,” he said, “But in the Shariah law this is a crime.”
As recently as 2007, a prototype Brotherhood platform sought to bar women or Christians from serving as Egypt’s president and called for a panel of religious scholars to advise on the compliance of any legislation with Islamic law. The group has never disavowed the document. Its rhetoric of Islam’s long tolerance of minorities often sounds condescending to Egypt’s Christian minority, which wants to be afforded equal citizenship, not special protections. The Brotherhood’s new party has called for a special surtax on Muslims to enforce charitable giving.
Indeed, Mr. Tamimi, the scholar, argued that some mainstream groups like the Brotherhood, were feeling the tug of their increasingly assertive conservative constituencies, which still relentlessly call for censorship and interest-free banking.
“Is democracy the voice of the majority?” asked Mohammed Nadi, a 26-year-old student at a recent Salafist protest in Cairo. “We as Islamists are the majority. Why do they want to impose on us the views of the minorities — the liberals and the secularists? That’s all I want to know.”
Anthony Shadid reported from Cairo, and Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli, Libya. Heba Afify contributed reporting from Cairo.
November 2, 2011
The Overblown Islamist Threat
By MARWAN MUASHER
Tunisia’s election last month, in which the Islamist party Ennahda claimed more than 40 percent of the seats in the national assembly, reinforced the conventional wisdom that Islamists will be the biggest beneficiaries of the Arab Spring.
Held down for years by autocratic regimes, so the argument goes, Islamists will be able to exploit their popularity in new elections and ultimately gain control. This raises fears among secular leaders in the region and in Western capitals.
The West wants to pretend that Islamist parties don’t really exist. This won’t work. Political Islam will not go away because the West ignores it; Islamist parties will, however, become more moderate if they are included in government.
Islamists are unlikely to take over new governments in the Arab world, and seeking to prevent Islamist parties from participating in governance would actually be counterproductive for several reasons.
First, Islamists are not stupid. Arab countries face daunting challenges and whoever governs them will need to tackle tremendous political and economic problems. Islamists don’t want to be blamed for the mess. In Tunisia, Ennahda has made it clear that it’s uninterested in ruling the country alone.
Second, Islamists are not as popular as Western pundits and policy makers think. Political Islam benefited from closed authoritarian systems throughout the Arab world because there was no alternative; they were the only viable political opposition. Although Islamists in Egypt and Jordan enjoy no more than 15 to 20 percent of the popular vote, they are seen to have much wider influence on the street.
Regimes couldn’t totally crack down on Islamists given the power of the mosques, so people unhappy with the status quo tended to cast protest votes in favor of Islamist parties. Now there are other options and new political parties will take some of the opposition votes away from Islamists.
Third, the vast majority of protesters are not seeking to replace autocratic regimes with religious theocracies. Arabs — especially the young people and secular liberals who poured into the streets earlier this year — are not going to be satisfied with hard-line ideological regimes. Islam as a solution is not enough for them; people want jobs and better lives and will demand results.
Moderate Arab countries like Jordan have included Islamists in governments in the past. When Islamists were brought into the Jordanian government in 1990, they tried to introduce segregation between fathers and their daughters at school events. This backfired and citizens simply refused to go along with it. Jordan’s Islamists quickly backed down and dropped the demand. Political inclusion, it turned out, had a moderating effect on Islamists.
Islamists have proved to be no better or worse than any other party in government. The best way to deal with Islamist parties, therefore, is to include them in government and hold them accountable.
In Tunisia, Ennahda has already said that it will respect personal rights and that the veil is a woman’s choice. Ennahda understands that it can’t ignore the secular part of the electorate. If the party wants to be as successful in Tunisia’s next election after a new constitution has been written, it knows it needs to present moderate views.
Over the next few years, other parties will have a chance to develop in Tunisia and Islamists are likely to get a lower percentage of the vote next time around. They will start winning votes in relation to their actual strength on the ground. While they may be part of leading coalitions in various countries, they are unlikely to gain power outright in any country.
In order to ensure peaceful political competition between Islamists and other political parties, the new Arab democracies need to enshrine two principles in their new constitutions: pluralism and a peaceful political landscape that is free of armed groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Pluralism would ensure that neither Islamists nor anyone else could come to power and then deny the right of political organization to others. And peaceful transfers of power are essential for any stable democracy.
Countries in transition have no choice but to open up the political system. Excluding and marginalizing Islamists out of fear will only strengthen their appeal.
Marwan Muasher, the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan, is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 3, 2011
An earlier version of this op-ed misidentified the author’s former position in Jordan. He was a deputy prime minister, not a deputy president.
FOR years, foreign policy discussions have focused on the question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy. But this is becoming passé. In Tunisia and Egypt, Islamists, who were long perceived as opponents of the democratic system, are now promoting and joyfully participating in it. Even the ultra-Orthodox Salafis now have deputies sitting in the Egyptian Parliament, thanks to the ballots that they, until very recently, denounced as heresy.
For those concerned about extremism in the Middle East, this is good news. It was the exclusion and suppression of Islamists by secular tyrants that originally bred extremism. (Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s leading ideologue, was a veteran of Hosni Mubarak’s torture chambers.) Islamists will become only more moderate when they are not oppressed, and only more pragmatic as they face the responsibility of governing.
But there is another reason for concern: What if elected Islamist parties impose laws that curb individual freedoms — like banning alcohol or executing converts — all with popular support? What if democracy does not serve liberty?
This question is seldom asked in the West, where democracy is often seen as synonymous with liberalism. However, as Fareed Zakaria warned in his 2003 book “The Future of Freedom,” there are illiberal democracies, too, where the majority’s power isn’t checked by constitutional liberalism, and the rights and freedoms of all citizens are not secured. This is a risk for the post-Arab Spring countries, and even for post-Kemalist Turkey. The real debate, therefore, is whether Islam is compatible with liberalism.
The main bone of contention is whether Islamic injunctions are legal or moral categories. When Muslims say Islam commands daily prayers or bans alcohol, are they talking about public obligations that will be enforced by the state or personal ones that will be judged by God?
For those who believe the former, Saudi Arabia might look like the ideal state. Its religious police ensure that every Saudi observes every rule that is deemed Islamic: women are forced to cover themselves, men are forced to frequent the mosque, and everyone is barred from anything considered sinful. Yet members of the Saudi elite are also famous for trips abroad, where they hit wild nightclubs to commit the sins they can’t at home. And while this is their civil right, it raises the question of whether Saudi Arabia’s intense piety is hypocritical.
By contrast, rather than imposing Islamic practices, the ultra-secular Turkish Republic has for decades aggressively discouraged them, going so far as to ban head scarves. Yet Turkish society has remained resolutely religious, thanks to family, tradition, community and religious leaders. Hence in today’s Turkey, where one has the freedom to choose between the bar and the mosque, many choose the latter — based on their own consciences, not the dictates of the state.
Yet even in Turkey, where democracy is rapidly being consolidated under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as A.K.P., there are reasons to worry that illiberal democracy could emerge. For Turkey still suffers from a paranoid nationalism that abhors minority rights, a heavy-handed judiciary designed to protect the state rather than its citizens, and an intolerant political culture that regards any criticism as an attack and sees provocative ideas as criminal.
These obstacles to liberal democracy are unrelated to religion though; they are the legacy of years of secular but authoritarian politics. But the A.K.P., which has been in power for almost a decade and has introduced important liberal reforms, has lately let its progressivism wane. The party has absorbed some of the traditional illiberalism of the establishment in Ankara, the capital, that it now fully dominates. It has not been too Islamic; it is just proving to be too Turkish.
As the A.K.P.’s rule empowers Turkey’s religiously conservative majority, it is imperative that the new elite liberalize the political system, rather than simply co-opt it for their own advantage. And as new questions about religion and public life emerge — Should schools promote Islam? Should alcohol sales be restricted? Should the state instruct private TV channels to uphold “moral values”? — the government must protect civil liberties, including the “freedom to sin,” and constrain those who seek to use state power to impose their values on others.
If Turkey succeeds in that liberal experiment, and drafts its new constitution-in-the-making accordingly, it can set a promising example for Islamist-led governments in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. All of these countries desperately need not only procedural democracy, but also liberalism. And there is an Islamic rationale for it as well: Imposed religiosity leads to hypocrisy. Those who hope to nurture genuine religiosity should first establish liberty.
Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist, is the author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.”
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