Political Islam in the Eastern Mediterranean and Beyond
Professor Uriya Shavit
The Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies
Tel Aviv University
What is political Islam and what are its characteristics?
First, it is important to emphasize that there are different definitions, some of which are so broad that they’re almost meaningless. Let me tell you how I understand political Islam. Political Islam are movements that believe that Islam must be reinstated as the all-encompassing framework of all aspects of life, including the political. And that the means to achieve this objective are through politics.
I think the best example for a political Islam movement are the Muslim Brothers, because that is basically the idea that they have championed through the years. That is basically their flagship idea: that there was a time in history, when everything in Muslim societies was regulated in accordance with Islamic norms. And then with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and even before that time in history, that ended. And the only way to remedy the misfortune of Muslim societies in our day and age is to return to those old, glorious days, where the law is the law of Allah, where the norms are the norms of Allah, and nothing but the laws of Allah, and nothing but the norms of Allah is legitimate.
Now, we have to understand that it is not as if Muslim societies today, or our Muslim societies today, are radically in contradiction with these ideas. If you read the amended Egyptian constitution of Anwar Sadat, it stated very clearly that laws must be in line with Sharia. So in that sense it’s catering to the demands of the Islamists. The problem is that from the point of view of political Islam, not a single norm, not a single code can breach the norms of Allah. If Allah said that you shouldn’t drink alcohol, then you shouldn’t drink alcohol. If Allah said “no” to abortions, then abortions are strictly prohibited. If Allah said “no” to gay marriage, or to gay sex, then obviously no one can allow something that Allah banned. And further, if Allah permitted something, if Allah made something permissible, no human being can say it is not permissible. So if Allah said that a man should be allowed to marry four wives, then human beings cannot legislate that it is illegal. Basically, the concept of the political Islam movement is that anything that Allah legitimized is legitimate, and anything that he delegitimized is illegitimate. So, to the extent that there is one law in Egypt which breaches the norms regulated by Sharia, if there is even one such law, then the country defies God. And this makes perfect sense in one way. If you accept that there is God and that Prophet Muhammad was his Final Prophet, a Messenger, and that the Quran is the Holy Book of God, then it doesn’t make sense to accept some of the laws and deviate other laws. So either you accept them as your framework, or you don’t. This is the basic philosophy of the Muslim Brothers.
Through the years the Brothers had to face the question of whether or not they engage and participate with the political system that doesn’t abide by the norms that they hold so dear. And I think it was the 1980s when they reached a decision that it is permissible for them, it is beneficiary for them, to take part in an electoral democracy, that doesn’t abide by the codes that they adhere to. Obviously, they did that already during the 1930s and the 1940s, but there was a period of loss of faith in the democratic system and it was regained during the 80s. The Muslim Brothers’ theory is that today it is, or was after the 80s, that it is permissible to take part in elections, even if the elections lead to a parliament that doesn’t exclusively and comprehensively abide by God’s laws.
But there is a bigger issue, and I think that that is the issue, that possibly needs to be addressed, or should be the focal point of attention. The Muslim Brothers’ understanding of democracy is that the origins of Western democracy can be found in Islam, and that democracy is the Western way of practicing the Islamic principle of Shura, which is mentioned in the Quran twice explicitly, and in the traditions and elsewhere in less explicit way.
The Muslim Brothers’ understanding is that when God commanded Muslims to abide by the principle of Shura, or consultation, that is the equivalent of the way Westerners practice democracy today in many ways. First and foremost, according to the Muslim Brothers, because God commanded human beings to practice Shura, leaders are only legitimate to the extent that they are elected in universal, fair and frequent elections. That their regime is transparent. That they respect the will of the people, if the people decide that they should leave office. It is also the firm belief of the Muslim Brothers that God commanded Muslims not only to abide by Shura in this narrow electoral sense, but also to practice freedom of speech, and other human freedoms. And that practicing those freedoms is not just something that Muslims can do; it is something that they must do. It is something that God commanded them to do. And in this sense the fact that Western nations, and also the fact that Israel, are more democratic, or have been more democratic for such a long time, while other states are not, is not just an offence against democracy in the simple sense. It is also an offence against Islam. Because if God commanded Muslims to live in democratic societies and they do not, then by not being democratic they are also not being good Muslims.
So far so good, it seems it is a very clear and coherent theory of democracy. And let me explain where I think the problem lies. The reference for all of this, what legitimizes all these ideas from the Muslim Brothers’ point of view, is their understanding of God’s commands. That is, democracy is something that has to be practiced, leaders must be elected, freedom of speech must be respected, because this is what God ordered. Democracy is part of Islam. Therefore, from the Muslim Brothers’ point of view it also makes perfect sense that you can legislate in a Muslim democracy only on those issues, on which God did not legislate. And here is why this makes sense. It makes sense, because if we accept that the premise of democracy, that the source of democracy’s legitimacy is God’s commands, if we accept that, then it doesn’t make sense to disobey God’s command on other issues. Therefore, according to the Muslim Brothers, the democratically elected parliament in a Muslim country cannot legitimize the drinking of alcohol. The democratically elected parliament in a Muslim country that abides by the principle of Shura, cannot legitimize, for example, abortions. It cannot illegalize marrying four wives. So democracy is good so long as God’s laws are abided by. That is the basic principle of the Muslim Brothers. This is their theory of democracy, which is just as in the West, except that in the Muslim democracy, in a Muslim Brothers’ democracy you cannot legislate against God’s commands.
If you tell a Muslim Brother that this theory is not very democratic, he will tell you, or she will tell you if she is a Muslim Sister, or he will tell you if he is a Muslim Brother, that it is not fair to argue that their theory is non-democratic. And they will present the following argument, which I have to say is a very appealing argument. They will say, “In a Western democracy parliaments also cannot legislate on anything as they deem fit”. For example, it is possible in the United States, which, most people will argue, is a democracy, it possible there, that the Congress, both Houses of Congress, approves through legislation, through a very broad margin a piece of legislation, which later the Supreme Court, which is basically nine justices, will decide with the 5:4 majority that that piece of legislation is unconstitutional, and everyone will accept that these are the rules of the game. The Congress legislated, and everyone was happy there, but the Supreme Court found that this act of legislation is unconstitutional, and that’s the end of that. So a Muslim Brother will say, “Where is the difference, theoretically speaking, between an Egyptian Parliament, where it is established that the Quran is the constitution, or let’s say broadly, that the Quran and the traditions, any of God’s decrees, and the Prophet’s decrees are the constitution, Sharia is the premise for all legislation, and if Parliament legislates in a way that the Supreme Court of Egypt, or some other panel, will find is unconstitutional, that it negates, it counters the Quran, then the law will be declared unconstitutional, and that will be the end of that. What is wrong with this theory?” They say, “Where is the difference between such a system and the American system?” And I have to say this is something I elaborated quite a bit on in my book “Scientific and Political Freedom in Islam” in a more systematic fashion. But I have to say, just in the context of our conversation there is a lot of sense in this theory, and this way of presenting things by the Muslim Brothers makes perfect sense, save one crucial issue.
And here is that one crucial issue. Obviously, those justices in the United States, who decide that something is constitutional or not, they are indirectly elected by the people, because it’s the President who decides who the justices will be – he is elected by the electors, and the electors are elected by the people. So in the end those justices represent the popular will. What do the Muslim Brothers have in mind in their hypothetical state is the panel that will decide whether a piece of legislation is compatible with the Quran or whether it is not. What will that be? I’ve been reading Muslim Brothers’ literature from the 1930s to the early 2000s that dealt with the issues that we’re discussing: the issue of who should have the authority to decide whether certain legislation is compatible with the Quran or not. And it’s very interesting, and I hardly think it’s a coincidence, that the Brothers have neglect to fully answer that question. They’ve neglect to fully answer that question, because if they say that those justices, that legal panel that will have the full authority, should be indirectly or directly elected by the people, then they describe a democracy, not a liberal democracy, but nevertheless a democracy. But in a situation whereby this panel will be comprised of religious scholars, of Ulema, who will be elected by other religious scholars, the name for such a regime is not a democracy; the name for a regime of that kind is a theocracy.
I’m not splitting hairs here, this is actually a crucial issue. The reason why the Brothers are avoiding answering it, is that they want to be able to play on both fields. That is to have an appeal with people who are very eager to see Egypt as a theocracy, but also to have an appeal with people who want the more Islamic Egypt, but nevertheless a democratic one. That is, basically, they wanted to appeal both to those, who wish Egypt to be some variation of Iran, and those who want it to be some variation of conservative European countries.
I was very eager to see them once and for all in power in Egypt, because they figured, that once they are in power, they would have to answer the question, and then they would realize, and the Egyptian public would realize, that you have to make a choice. You have to make a choice between a theocracy and a democracy, you cannot have both. And I have to say it is rather interesting that when they passed the constitution in Egypt, their span in power was very short, but they did manage to pass the constitution, and it was very interesting that even in that constitution they managed to avoid answering that question. They left it open for the future.
But why did we have millions of Egyptians marching on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere? We had millions of Egyptians, including liberals, who marched there, because they were quite convinced that given the chance, that if they are enough time in power, then what the Muslim Brothers would do is lead Egypt towards the path of becoming a theocracy. And I have to say, Egyptian liberals faced a rather uncomfortable dilemma. They had to choose between a military regime, because everyone, I think, realized that el-Sisi would end up with the establishment of a military regime, so they had to choose between establishing a military regime, former authoritarian regime that they knew well, that was the evil they knew, or accepting the gradual encroachment of theocratic norms on Egyptian society.
And they finally did choose the evil that they knew, and that is what we have seen in Egypt over the last four-five years. The evil that the Egyptian liberals new. A non-democratic regime led by a strongman that nevertheless is strong enough to fend off the Islamist threat.
A very crucial question is, “Is it possible to have a democracy with strong political Islam movement as part of that democracy?” The answer to that question is, “Yes”. But under one condition: that that political Islam movement does not enjoy a majority. Because if it enjoyed the majority, it will ultimately lead the country to a theocratic regime. If it doesn’t, it may just have an effect on leading the country to be more conservative, more Islamic, more religious, but not in the way, that doesn’t allow popular vote to express itself, and doesn’t allow regime change.
We spoke a lot about Egypt, but Tunisia, the events that took place in Tunisia ever since the Arab Spring, they prove that political Islam can have different faces and can function differently in democratic systems, so long as one thing is maintained. And that one thing is their acceptance of a non-Sharia abiding regime.
Political Islam can take part in liberal democracy as long as it doesn’t win an absolute majority. You have political movements in Israel whose dream would be to see here a regime, a society that is governed by the laws of God, by the rabbinical law. And they take active part in Israeli politics. The difference is that they don’t comprise more than 15-20% of the Israeli Parliament. You have in Indonesia political parties, the largest Muslim country in the world, you have political parties that are Islamic, that even preach variations of political Islam, but they haven’t been able to win an absolute majority. And that has also been the case in Tunisia. Political Islam movements want one thing, ultimately, in the end. That one thing shouldn’t make it impossible for them to participate in politics so long as they don’t get that one thing that they actually want.
Is Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership an Islamist regime?
Turkey is a very interesting example. What a lot of people do not know is that Erdogan managed to assert his control over Turkish politics only after he went that extra mile that other Islamists at the time were not willing to take. Erdogan basically renounced all the demands for the Sharia-led government and the Sharia-led society. And he was as clear cut and unequivocal in renouncing those old concepts that Erbakan and other Turkish Islamists preached for and that was how it was possible for him to take power in Turkey. A lot of people ask, “So where does Erdogan really want Turkey to go?” Giving full authority, facing no opposition from the public, from the judiciary, will he still abide by his commitment to a different face of Islamism? He says he would. But knowing that this is Erdogan and how capricious he is, that is not necessarily going to be the case. Nevertheless, there is a great disparity between the political views the ideology of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers and that of the Turkish Islamists. And knowing that since 2016 the Tunisian Islamists have also gone that extra mile that Erdogan has gone through already in the late 1990s and now they are not preaching, they’re not insisting on the Sharia-led society.
What is the role of political Islam in Europe?
That is a whole new topic and I will only say two things. It’s very difficult and not very analytically constructive to discuss European Islam as a whole. European Muslims are so diverse and there is so much that brings them apart, aside of the basic beliefs in God and his final Prophet, that it is not possible really to discuss them as one coherent political group, not even on a national basis. Not even if we discuss British Muslims, or German Muslims. There is so much disunity to make such an analysis credible. It is true that among first, second and third generations of European Muslims there are individuals who find integration more difficult. We also need to be cautious that it is not obvious what we mean when we say “integration”. I think that we see very little Islamic politics in Europe. Maybe that will change in twenty years, or thirty years, or forty years. But at the moment those Europeans of Muslim faith who do well in politics are actually secular, or if not secular, then at best traditionalists. You have very little Islamic influence in European parliaments, in European politics. I would speculate that could change, but right now Islamic politics is almost redundant in the broader map of European politics.
What is the future of democracy in the Eastern Mediterranean?
Some of the states are vibrant democracies, some are challenged democracies, and some are not democratic at all. Of all these, the greatest shame is Egypt, because they had a unique historical opportunity to change the face of their society, to drastically and dramatically transform it. The Arab Spring brought such a wonderful opportunity and Egyptian society could not find in itself the forces of revival and the forests of renewal. It is extremely unfortunate considering what Egypt can contribute to the region and to the world. My guess is that, just by very crude and even cold-calculated analysis, my guess is that that Egypt’s worst days are still ahead of it. Because I don’t think it makes much sense to think that the Muslim Brothers and Islamists at large have said the last word. A movement that comprises some half of the Egyptian population didn’t just disappear. And the moment will come, maybe when el-Sisi is weakened, maybe when he’s gone, maybe for another reason, but the moment will come that these forces will resurface. And when they resurface, I tell you one thing is going to be different. They’re not going to buy the idea that they can achieve anything through electoral processes. They bought this idea and now they are disillusioned. Now they understand that the only way to make change is using violence, applying force. And, therefore, I repeat my rather gray and grim statement that I fear that Egypt’s worst days are still ahead of it.