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The crisis of political Islam, Part (3): Reform, violence

Jun 19, 2016

Dr. Azmi Bishara

479-(1).jpgNo signs of the historical crisis of political Islam are more telling than the emergence of the Islamic State group on the one hand; and the failure of the Islamists in power on the other.
The Islamic State group has managed to combine the tactics of the Taliban movement, expanding on the ground while mimicking the structure of a state, with those of al-Qaeda, mobilising globally for jihad. IS mainly wagered on turning the grievances of the oppressed into an all-out sectarian hatred, while using unprecedented modes of violence.
On the other hand, the Islamist experiences in governing have mostly been a failure, from Sudan's history to Egypt's more recent past. The experience of Islamist rule in Iran was repulsive and alienating in its sectarian mobilisation, as Iran became a target for Islamic counter-mobilisation in the Arab countries, particularly in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Recent years have shown that the slogan "Islam is the solution" was only meant to cover up the fact that Islamists had no real political programme. This much became evident when Islamist movements took power or administered regions they seized as militias.
Recently, 700 Syrians were killed in clashes between Jaish al-Islam and Failaq al-Rahman, at a time when Aleppo was being barbarically bombarded by regime forces and Russian planes. In other words, when the Syrian people were appealing to the world to stop the bombardment of Aleppo, Islamist forces that subscribe to slogans of Political Islamism, under bombardment, were fighting brutally among themselves to decide who controls which razed quarter or destroyed building.

Some Islamist forces - since the establishment of the Al-Wasat Party in Egypt and the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, and throughout the evolution of the Tunisian Ennahdha movement - understood that political action against tyranny, or for the goal of governing society as an elected movement, requires settling some issues related to political programmes.

These include issues such as equal citizenship, democracy, and social justice, in a way that goes beyond their mantra of "Islam is the solution". This slogan, which aimed at politically mobilising a conservative society and embarrassing non-Islamists, became only a way to reassert the identity of Islamist groups, but it is no solution.

As Abdelfattah Mourou once said, this slogan was akin to a doctor telling a patient "medicine is the solution", instead of diagnosing and treating the ailment.

It is not enough, in this context, to claim that Islamist movements are Islamic because they adopt Islamic ethics. For all political actors, ethical motives are pre-supposed. This claim may be a good description of the function of religion in politics as an ethical motive, but it cannot serve as a manifesto.

On the other hand, there are situations where partisan interests could lead to unethical actions. But in the case of Islamist movements, this implies a risk where religion, as something sacred above ethical values, could be used as justification for overriding accepted ethical values rather than a source of ethics.

Therefore, Islamic values as the ethical guideline of Islamist parties could clash with political religiosity. Indeed, the question here is: what kind of values should these be?

In my opinion, the moral values and social milieu shape their understanding of Islam, and therefore, the kind of ethics they infer therefrom. Thus, people with different formational culture read Islam and its values differently.

Politics can turn religion into something that justifies immoral acts, just like with absolute secular ideologies, which argue that morality is relative and acts can be justified according to the interests of a a given class, party, or cause. Even crimes such as genocide are "justified" in this manner in the service of the cause, because what is sacred is beyond good and evil.

The above is the first crisis that faced reformists. If their motive is moral, then why is politicised religion needed? Why not instead have a humanist value-based understanding of religion, emphasising justice, equality, freedom, and the right to life? These can be adopted by any devout person without abandoning their religious beliefs and compromising on their piousness.

The second source of the crisis is the need to resolve some issues. In the first part of this series, we addressed the issue of conflating politics and the sacred in general terms.

However, there are specific terms that those involved in politics have to grapple with, in order to develop policies based on specialised professional bases that do not benefit much from the input of clerics. These may not conflict with a spiritual understanding of Islam, but could clash with the axioms of Islamism, in relation to issues like the state, the rule of Sharia, civil liberties and so on.

This requires a daily redefinition of political Islam to the extent that would it better to forgo the notion altogether, and instead adopt a different platform - a leftist, right-wing, liberal, or conservative one for example, consensual or majoritarian - and preferably to find other options that do not follow these labels, but focus on how best to rationally run states based on democracy, social justice, equal citizenship, and a modern forward-looking Arab and Islamic culture and identity.

Naturally, these general values and principles are not sufficient by themselves and the challenge lies in how to translate them into programmes, platforms and decisions in political action.

Going down the path of reform in opposition or in power, alone or in partnership with others, means eventually clashing with the definitions and axioms of political Islam.

Inevitably, one of the following options has to be chosen.

The conflict must be settled in favour of a completely civil and democratic choice that affirms Islamic cultural identity, akin to the Christian-democratic parties in Europe, but perhaps with more emphasis on social justice compared with these centre-right parties.

The other choice is self-imposed isolation, rigidity, and aversion to societal and political evolution and development. This entails adopting a cautious and conservative posture as embodied in the tradition exemplified by the Muslim Brotherhood and its splinter factions; or deserting the methods of the Brotherhood, rejecting the process of gradual evolution in general and turning to violence against state and society.

In the next article, we address this final option, and all the predicaments it poses​.

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