Exploring the Gray Zones

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The Gray Zones

In discussions with skeptical liberals probing their commitment to democracy and human rights, mainstream Islamist movements often assert that the differences between their ideas and those of their interlocutors are minor, hinging at most on a few points. But these few points, the gray zones where the thinking of Islamists is ambiguous, are crucial ; depending on how the ambiguities are resolved, Islamists could emerge as supporters of liberal democracy or advocates of theocracy.

Islamic law

All Islamist movements call for the “application of the Islamic sharia.” Indeed, it would be difficult to qualify a movement as Islamist if its platform did not include the implementation of the sharia. Despite this emphasis on the sharia, Islamist movements still have much maneuvering room because Islamic law is not a single, well-defined legal code contained between the two covers of a book, but a complex body of rules and interpretations that spans many centuries and follows different schools.

Furthermore, the sharia is unlikely to ever be the only source of law in the Middle East. All Arab legal systems borrow heavily from non-Muslim sources for most of their laws, and their courts are generally structured on European civil-law models. Attempting to build a legal system drawn completely, or even primarily, from traditional Islamic models would be an extremely dramatic change ; indeed, according to many historians and legal scholars, such a system may never have fully existed. But few Islamist movements have staked such an ambitious position. The idea of the “application of the Islamic sharia” is perhaps the most significant gray zone in the thinking of Islamist movements.

There is little disagreement over constitutional provisions that declare Islam the state religion. Debates on whether the constitution should declare Islam to be a source of legislation or even “the chief source” of legislation can be fierce but, thus far, it does not seem to make much difference how the issue is solved. Most Arab constitutions include provisions declaring some official role for the sharia without a significant impact on the content of the law.

The demand of Islamist organizations, including the official Islamic establishment, that all lawcodes be reviewed to bring them in line with Islamic legal provisions creates a great deal of concern among non-Islamists, but such calls have not had much impact, either. Committees to Islamicize the legal order have been formed in some countries, such as Egypt and Kuwait. The formation of such committees often represents a rare point of government-Islamist collaboration, but in most countries their work has been so slow and governments so dilatory in acting on their recommendations that almost no change has taken place. Following a pattern all countries would recognize, the creation of a committee has simply served to bury the issue and defer conflict, rather than to resolve it.

Debates about so-called “laws with beards”—laws specifically addressing Islamists’ concerns—vary surprisingly from country to country. What may seem essential to Islamists in one society may seem of secondary importance in another. For instance, sale of alcohol is legal in some countries, sharply restricted in others, and banned completely in yet others. In earlier generations, there were often some arguments regarding alcohol, and there is no doubt that most Islamists find its presence noxious. Yet alcohol-related legislation has rarely emerged as a priority issue for mainstream movements in the legislative arena in recent years. Criminal penalties, though often taken to be symptomatic of a perceived harshness in Islamic law, are only very rarely major issues for public debates. While no Islamist movement can repudiate Islamic criminal law, in most countries the mainstream actors simply do not press the matter.

The issue of who has the right to legislate, and under whose authority, is perhaps a most fundamental point of divergence between Islamists and non-Islamists. In a truly strict interpretation of what implementing the sharia means, enacting laws is not to be the prerogative of freely elected parliaments deriving their authority from the voters, but that of jurisprudents interpreting the word of God—a position which is of course anathema to non-Islamists. Islamic jurists have, of course, generally recognized that governing always involves making policy for areas that, as some current Islamists phrase it, are “beneath the dignity” of the sharia. Yet while rulers are thus allowed to issue some law-like regulations, these must not be accorded the same status—nor can they violate—the provisions of the sharia.

In practice, some Islamist movements, such as those in Morocco and Egypt, have recently cast their call for Islamic law in more flexible—though quite vague—terms ; they are willing to accept that law is to be legislated through the normal parliamentary process but argue that Islamic authorities must be consulted and that the law should draw in part from an Islamic marji`iya (frame of reference or authority). Movements taking this position do not insist that law draws exclusively on Islamic sources but only argue that such sources, where available, should be incorporated into the debate. This formulation is perhaps the friendliest one to democratic politics since it does not require that any particular standard be met and allows democratic bargaining over the content of legislation, insisting only that Islamist movements be invited to join the bargaining process. This is not a view unanimously shared by all mainstream Islamists.

It is important to underline here that the issue of implementing sharia is so fundamental to Middle East culture that even opponents of Islamist movements rarely dare to directly criticize the call to apply Islamic law ; secularism is not a stance likely to attract much political support in the region. Instead, representatives of non-Islamist movements advocate “new thinking” or more modern interpretations of Islamic law, often calling for a revival of ijtihad, meaning the independent reasoning by religious scholars or by Muslims generally. The revival of ijtihad, they argue, is particularly urgent because of the number of new issues that arise today that cannot easily be addressed by older rulings. In turn, Islamist leaders who want to appear moderate and reasonable often claim that their own interpretations are not rigid and boast about the “new thinking” characterizing their approaches to law. Such general discussions by Islamists and non-Islamists alike do very little to clarify the issues. Islamist movements have never closed the door of ijtihad. On the contrary, since they first arose in the first half of the twentieth century they have used it freely to justify their positions. More broadly, Muslims have been awash in new thinking for several generations. The issue is not whether new interpretations are permissible but who may develop them, how they may be derived, and how far they can go. All these issues fall into a vast gray area of fundamental importance.

The use of violence

Most governments in the Arab world balk at treating Islamist movements as legitimate political actors, accusing them of harboring violent and revolutionary tendencies. The claim by moderate Islamists that they are committed to nonviolent change is often dismissed by incumbent regimes and secular opposition forces as a tactical maneuver ; Islamists, it is often claimed, want to take advantage of any democratic mechanism available in order to win power, but they are ready to turn to violence if democracy does not deliver what they want.

On one level, this charge is unfair. Most of the region’s electorally oriented major Islamist movements have never been involved in violent political activities or have repudiated them if they were. And, as they are quick to point out, Islamists are far more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of political violence, with regimes like Egypt’s and Tunisia’s unleashing their tough security forces against even moderate Islamist opponents. Secular opposition movements have generally been timid in denouncing violent and repressive measures against Islamists. In this sense, it is the large Islamic movements that would seem to need protection from state violence, not the state that needs protection from the Islamists. There are, to be sure, Islamist movements that retain armed wings for use in a domestic context. While these movements are excluded from this analysis, it should be noted that some of them (most notably Hamas and Hizbullah) claim to retain this capacity for use externally rather than internally, an issue that will be addressed below.

On a different level, however, fears that the growing success of Islamist movements may lead to violence have some justification. Incumbent governments and non-Islamist opposition movements fear not only the intentions of the mainstream movements but also the possibility that they will engender violent offshoots. Islamist social movements owe much of their success to their links to a wide variety of associations, charitable societies, neighborhood groups, and social service organizations that they do not control directly but on whom they rely to mobilize large numbers of followers. These informal, broad-based networks may also harbor radical groups, governments worry. The fears are not totally unfounded. There is strong evidence that many of the groups that came together to form Al Qaeda in the 1990s had their roots in more mainstream movements, including those that developed on Egyptian university campuses, eventually breaking with them, deriding their timidity, and turning to violence.

In the 1970s and 1980s, several regimes experimented with a bifurcated policy toward Islamists, tolerating the mainstream movements but suppressing the radical ones. The upsurge in radical movements and the aborted electoral victory of Islamists in Algeria in 1992 led most regimes to rethink that approach. Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia have all moved against mainstream Islamist movements ; Jordan, Yemen, Palestine, and Morocco have kept a wary eye on them without becoming equally repressive.

The reactions of Islamist organizations to the more repressive environment suggest that the commitment to nonviolence by the mainstream organizations is real. Whereas the radical groups have responded by becoming even more extreme in their ideas and action, mainstream groups have not turned to violence but simply try to navigate a careful course in the new environment.

The commitment to nonviolence by mainstream Islamist movements ceases abruptly, however, when it comes to the issue of Israel and of Palestinian rights. Virtually all Islamist organizations—and some non-Islamist ones as well—believe that violence against Israel constitutes legitimate resistance, rather than terrorism. For that reason, two political organizations that believe in the importance of participation in normal electoral politics, Hamas in Palestine and Hizbollah in Lebanon, maintain armed groups and have no intention of dismantling them. Their position is widely accepted in the region. Indeed, organizations that consistently disavow violence within their own political systems condone a wide range of actions against Israeli targets (and more recently against American targets in Iraq) as legitimate resistance. Some have gone as far as condoning violence against civilians, not just attacks against military targets.

Efforts to balance commitment to nonviolence with the recognition that Palestinians have the
right to resist have led some organizations to considerable ambiguity. The example of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood illustrates both how much mainstream movements have committed to nonviolence yet how difficult it still is for them to apply the idea to the Israeli issue. Half a century ago, the Muslim Brotherhood did not hesitate to undertake armed action against Israel and against British troops in the Suez Canal zone. In recent years, the Brotherhood has only offered verbal and sometimes financial support for Palestinian groups. In a recent interview, the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide even stated that the movement would respect Egypt’s international agreements, implicitly recognizing the peace treaty with Israel. But in the same period, another leading official of the organization spoke of the need to prepare for jihad with the “enemy in the east”—Israel.

It is clear that the movements take advantage of the fact they do not hold political power to craft positions that simultaneously draw on popular sentiments against Israel without advocating paths that strike their audiences as potentially disastrous or wholly irresponsible. The sympathy of the movements for the Palestinian cause is clearly deeply felt and cast in largely religious terms, but it is far less clear what steps Islamists in power would actually take.

The positions of Hamas and Hizbollah are extreme manifestations of the same ambiguity. Neither group threatens to use violence to gain power domestically ; for that, they turn to the ballot box. Both, however, claim the right to resist an external enemy—Israel. And their positions are often broadly popular and not simply supported by their core constituencies.

The issue of Israel and Palestine is likely to keep Islamist groups in the gray zone on the issue
of violence for the foreseeable future. It is exceedingly difficult for organizations seeking popular support in a region where pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli sentiments run high to renounce violence in all circumstances, implicitly asserting that Palestinians do not have the right to resist occupation. But as long as mainstream Islamist groups continue to carve out exceptions concerning the use of violence or, worse, maintain armed wings, the sincerity of their commitment to political means will continue to be called into question. The electoral victory of Hamas greatly raises the salience of this issue. While all mainstream movements would very much like to see a successful Hamas-based government, they are unlikely in the short run to call publicly for more than tactical modifications in Hamas’s opposition to a two-state solution.

Political Pluralism

Although Islamist parties have participated peacefully in many elections and always respected their outcome, they are still accused of being inherently opposed to political pluralism. Islamist parties now compete in Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Palestine, and even Algeria, where new Islamist organizations have registered after the civil war, although the parties that almost won in 1991 are still outlawed. Such parties have also competed in elections in the Sudan during every period of democracy the country has experienced, and an Islamist party rules now, although as a result of a military coup, not of democracy. Candidates openly affiliated with Islamist organizations have also participated in elections in Egypt, Bahrain, and, at the municipal level, Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Arab governments systematically invoke the nightmare of bearded fanatics misusing the ballot box to capture the state and do away with democracy. Many non-Islamists share this view. These suspicions
are reinforced by the ambiguities in the position of Islamist movements.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Islamists prided themselves for upholding a model of politics and society different from the Western one. They distrusted liberal democracy because it emphasized the rights of individuals rather than the welfare of the umma, the community. And when Islamists started participating in pluralist electoral politics, as in Jordan, Kuwait, and Egypt, they viewed participation as an instrument to gain power and thus help the community find its way back to the true spirit of Islam. In this period, marked by successive waves of populist Islamist mobilization against secular movements and liberal intellectuals, many Islamists rejected the legitimacy of secular forces or tolerated their presence resentfully. Inevitably, Islamist organizations were in turn considered illegitimate by incumbent governments and liberal organizations and suffered considerable political losses as a result. In many countries, Islamist organizations were barred from participating in normal politics.

During the 1990s, Islamists started to re-evaluate their position in order to avoid further government repression and to take advantage of the growing demand for reform in many countries. Mainstream movements not only accepted that secular forces were legitimate political actors but started viewing them as potential allies in a battle for democratic reform Islamists would lead. Many organizations chose to set aside their differences with the secular groups on issues of ideological and policy choices, focusing instead on the shared objective of challenging the authoritarian grip of incumbent governments. As part of their new stance, Islamist organizations have embraced the new terminology of democratic politics. Transparent elections, rotation of power, and political freedoms have all become integral parts of Islamist vocabulary. Islamists also adopted some liberal human rights vocabulary, perhaps a natural development for groups subjected to harsh state repression. Indeed, they often criticized secular opposition forces not for their liberal principles but for hypocritical silence when Islamists’ rights were violated.

At the same time, Islamist movements started developing sophisticated strategies to increase their credibility and appease fears of their intentions. Conscious of the vicious circle of violence perpetrated by security forces and radical Islamists precipitated by the threatened Islamists’ victory in the 1991 Algerian elections, the strongest movements have deliberately curbed the scope of their political participation to limit their electoral success and avoid scaring governments into adopting repressive measures. The Moroccan PJD and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood decided to field candidates in fewer than 30 percent of districts in their respective countries’ most recent legislative elections, thus limiting the extent of their possible success. Suspicion of these movements by the respective governments, secular parties, and international actors has not disappeared, but it is not as high as it would be had they shown less restraint. “Participation, not domination” seems to be the motto of Islamists taking part in electoral politics.

Nevertheless, two issues raise questions about the Islamists’ commitment to pluralism : the constant references by even the most liberal among them to the Islamic marji`iya and their seeming reluctance to embrace tolerance for all viewpoints. In discussing their political views, Islamists invariably profess to share the same values as liberals on everything, from women’s participation to diplomatic relations with Israel, as long as everything is handled “within the framework of Islamic principles” and “in accordance with the true interests of the community.” This raises important questions. Would Islamist movements be willing to abide by democratically reached decisions if they did not fit within the proper Islamic marji`iya ? Would the leaders be willing to stand up to their more ideological followers and defend the legitimacy of views other than their own ? Are they willing to accept that while Islam is one solution—the best even—it is not the only solution ?

These questions would acquire enormous importance if Islamists participated in government or acquired enough power to influence policy decisions, as has happened in Palestine and may very well happen in Morocco with the next parliamentary elections. There are some encouraging signs of growing Islamist acceptance of non-Islamist solutions but also some discouraging signs of intolerance. On the positive side, the PJD participated in the negotiations for the new Moroccan Family Code of 2003 and accepted its provisions, although they do not bear a clearly Islamist stamp. The party’s leadership defended its position by arguing that the code had been adopted through a democratic process and had to be respected, thus extending the concept of Islamic marji`iya to encompass all decisions reached democratically (although the PJD also argues that for the same reason liberal parties should accept criminal laws that sentence people to amputation of limbs or stoning, if such laws were democratically enacted). The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, however, still takes a much narrower approach. Its electoral slogan “Islam is the Solution” did not suggest tolerance of other views, causing consternation among secular forces, particularly among Copts. The Brotherhood tried to minimize the damage after the elections by inviting other groups to participate in a dialogue, but the invitation failed to dispel doubts and generate confidence. Dialogue has started taking place, but at a very leisurely pace.

It is unlikely that Islamist organizations will succeed in removing doubts about the limits of their tolerance as long as they have both a political and a religious agenda. At present, they can be tolerant and conciliatory in their political capacity yet still preach the absolute truth and rightness of Islam. Christian democratic parties in Europe have demonstrated that it is possible for parties that subscribe to a particular creed to distance themselves from religious dogma sufficiently to gain credibility as genuinely democratic parties. Even the most liberal Islamist parties have not reached that point at this time. As a result, the belief persists that if Islamists were to win power by the democratic means they advocate as political organizations, they would impose on their country the solutions they preach as religious organizations.

Civil and Political rights

Islamist parties that seek power through the political process are ardent advocates of civil and political rights and liberties, insisting on freedom of speech, religion, and association—within the Islamic marji`iya, of course. To many liberals, this has the threatening ring of Orwellian new-speak. Most Arab liberals are willing to accept a degree of restriction to civil and political liberties to prevent open criticism of Islam and sacred symbols. They worry, however, that under an Islamist regime restrictions would become extensive rather than minimalist, not only preventing unrestrained attacks on the religion rejected by the overwhelming majority of people in the region, but also barring any interpretation of Islam other than the one favored by a particular group.

A major problem concerning the Islamists’ attitude toward civil and political liberties is the tendency among Islamists to subordinate the rights of individuals to the good of the community. The tendency is manifested in several ways. At the philosophical level, Islamists have trouble accepting the unfettered freedom of individuals to choose for themselves because they believe that the community has a common interest that overrides that of individuals. Islamists concede that there can be disagreement about what the interest of the community is but find it difficult to accept that every individual is entitled to his separate version of the good. Fear of dividing the community also leads Islamists to reject partisanship, at least in principle.

In practice, however, Islamist movements that have entered the political arena have already accepted partisanship and pluralism, making their philosophical stand moot. But problems still arise over civil and political rights. There are sometimes strong incentives for Islamist movements to launch strong attacks on certain forms of expression. Islamist movements often clash with liberals on issues of religious freedom when that becomes an effective tactic for mobilizing supporters or isolating opponents. In some societies, such as in Kuwait, Islamist leaders have often criticized individual intellectuals or officials who have endorsed a practice deemed non-Islamic. The aim is often not simply to defend a society against a perceived evil but to outflank their political adversaries by forcing a controversy on an issue—such as a risqué television program or a seemingly scandalous book—where they are likely to garner public sympathy. This is the sort of maneuver that should be very familiar to those who live in democratic societies, but it can be deployed to illiberal ends.

Doubts about the Islamists’ true commitment to respect civil and political rights and liberties are particularly intense concerning women’s rights and the rights of religious minorities.

The rights of Women

The issue of women’s rights and women’s equality is extremely contentious, dividing Islamists and non-Islamists. Islamists are accused of intending to deprive women of civil and political rights ; remove women from public life ; treat them as minors, forever under the tutelage of a male family member ; and impose restrictive dress. For their part, Islamists proclaim their respect for women and their commitment to women’s rights within the Islamic marji`iya. They claim that it is their opponents who seek to impose their views on the entire society, intruding in the intimate sphere of women’s rights and personal status, harassing men and women wearing dress deemed Islamic, and blocking their access to public institutions such as schools, universities, and polling places. Nevertheless, even in this contentious area Islamists and non-Islamists are beginning to forge compromises in some countries.

In general, debates over women’s rights rarely focus on issues of political participation. By and large Islamist parties have not fought hard to keep women from exercising their political rights. Social customs and male prejudice, to be sure, still keep most women away from public life. As a result, women’s presence in high-level government posts and parliaments is extremely limited and usually the result of deliberate affirmative action initiatives. But almost all Arab countries that hold some kind of elections extend the franchise to women as well. And several assign a quota of parliamentary seats to women. Outside of the Arabian Peninsula, these steps are not very controversial. Inside the Arabian Peninsula, there is often strong opposition to women’s suffrage, but there are also signs of change. In Kuwait, where Islamist parties fought a hard struggle against the vote for women, even blocking the government’s efforts to extend the franchise at one point, Islamists accepted their defeat in a 2005 parliamentary vote.

Disagreement between Islamists and non-Islamists is intense when it comes to women’s civil rights and in particular to personal status issues—marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and the right of women to transmit citizenship to their children. In all countries of the region, such issues are ultimately based on religious law, usually as codified and approved by parliaments but sometimes adjudicated directly by judges interpreting religious texts and the writings of Islamic jurists. Especially in countries where the state has not legislated a specific formulation of Islamic law, intense debates occur over what parts of the Islamic legal tradition are to be implemented and applied. Nevertheless, there are very few advocates of a completely secular approach to family matters. Thus the contest over women’s rights and personal status almost always focuses on the appropriate interpretation and application of Islamic law in areas like divorce rights, child custody and support, and enforcement of the mahr, a financial payment made or pledged by a groom to his bride.

Mainstream Islamist movements are beginning to move away from dogmatic positions concerning personal status laws as long as they are involved in their formulation. The Moroccan PJD, as we pointed out earlier, participated in the discussions of Morocco’s new personal status law in 2003 and worked to convince its followers that the new law was democratically enacted and thus had to be accepted even if it was not based on a strict interpretation of the sharia. Secularists are also making concessions.InEgypt,advocates of women’s rights have made a concerted effort to show the reforms they advocate are rooted in the Islamic legal tradition. They have also been willing to make some concessions on issues particularly objectionable to Islamists, thereby building a measure of consensus or at least of grudging tolerance in Islamist movements’ platforms.

The experience of Egypt and Morocco thus suggests that there is a new flexibility on the part of Islamists in opposition movements or in the religious establishment close to the government on women’s issues. Examples of such flexibility in other countries are harder to find, however, largely because few have undertaken extensive reform of family status laws. Until the new flexibility of Islamists on the issue of women’s civil rights can be tested more extensively, this will remain a gray area of great concern.

Religious minorities

Given the religious homogeneity of most Arab countries, the issue of the rights of non-Muslim minorities tends to receive less attention in the region that it does in the United States. Mainstream Islamist movements believe, in theory, that Christians and followers of other monotheist religions such as Judaism should be free to organize their own affairs on issues of worship and personal status, but, in practice, this is not an issue to which they give much attention. Even in highly heterogeneous settings, such as in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, Islamists either recognize equal rights for different religious communities, as Hizbollah does in Lebanon, or devote almost no attention to the subject in the context of broader conflicts. Egypt is the major exception ; in recent years, both the Muslim Brotherhood and its moderate offshoot, the Wasat Party, have intensely debated their
positions toward Egypt’s native Christian minority, the Copts.

On the abstract level, the two movements regard Copts as citizens entitled to equal civil and political rights and agree that there are parts of the sharia that cannot be imposed on non-Muslims. However, the two organizations differ fundamentally on other issues concerning religious minorities. The Wasat Party, which defines itself as a civil party with an Islamic marji`iya, opens its membership to all Egyptian citizens regardless of their religion. In fact, a few Coptic intellectual figures have already joined the party. The Brotherhood, however, sees itself as a religious movement and thus excludes non-Muslims from its ranks. Similarly, the Wasat platform calls for no limits on Copts’ civil and political rights, but the Brotherhood platform specifies that the head of state must be a Muslim. Furthermore, the Wasat Party acknowledges that Copts have been marginalized in Egyptian politics and calls for affirmative action, including imposing quotas in the legislative and the executive branches. The Muslim Brotherhood views such provisions with suspicion.

We have focused here on the position of Islamist movements vis-à-vis non-Muslim minorities, using the Wasat Party and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as examples because recent parliamentary elections there have forced these groups to take a stand on their position vis-à-vis religious minorities, so more information is available. The real battle in many other countries, however, will not be fought not on the rights of Christian minorities, which are often small and composed mainly of foreigners, but on the rights of Islamic minorities, particularly Shia in Sunni dominated countries or, more rarely, Sunnis in Shia dominated ones. In countries where the Muslim population is divided among followers of various sects, Islamist movements will face particularly difficult challenges.

The issue of religious minorities will only be resolved if Islamist movements accept the principle of universal citizenship without discrimination on the basis of creed or any other attribute. So long as Islamist movements retain their dual political-religious identity, acceptance of full equality of all groups is impossible. Religious movements cannot be open to adherents of all faiths, but democratic movements must be open to all citizens. The Islamist organizations that have gone farthest in accepting equal rights for religious minorities are, not surprisingly, purely political organizations, such as the Moroccan PJD and the Egyptian Wasat Party. Without such evolution, the position of Islamist parties regarding religious minorities is bound to remain highly ambiguous.

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