Concern about Islamists masks wide differences among them
Part of the problem trying to figure out what Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood or Tunisia’s Ennahda party would do if they got into any future power structure in their countries is knowing what kind of Islamists they are. The label “Islamist” pops up frequently these days, in comments and warnings and (yes) news reports, but the term is so broad that it even covers groups that oppose each other. Just as the Muslim world is not a bloc, the Islamist world is not a bloc.
I sketched out a rough spectrum of Islamists in an analysis today entitled Concern about Islamists masks wide differences. This topic is vast and our story length limits keep the analysis down to the bare bones. But the overall point should be clear that any analysis of what these specific parties might do that ignores their diversity starts off on the wrong foot and risks ending up with the wrong conclusions.
While reading and talking to experts about Islamism these days, I either had the television on (zapping between BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera English) or listened to radio stations like BBC and NPR. When the Muslim Brotherhood came up, there were often suggestions — explicit or implicit — that it would seize power in a Leninist-style coup or whip up the masses to install a theocracy in a replay of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Experienced generals sometimes end up fighting the last war. Clever analysts can reach for the wrong historical parallel to the situation they’re tying to explain. Could it be that reflexes like these are clouding our view of what the Brotherhood and Ennahda actually are?
Our reporting from Egypt and Tunisia, often highlighted on this blog, has said both look poised to play an important role in the emerging political system. What also comes through is the feeling in the region, among many people who have seen these Islamists at work despite the restrictions on them, that the Khomeini pattern is not the one to impose. The example of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, which gave up hopes for an Islamic state in the 1990s in favour of winning broad support by democratic means, seems more likely to be the path to follow.
The experts I interviewed added several insights that couldn’t fit into the analysis. For example, Mustafa Akyol, the Hürriyet Daily News columnist in Istanbul, said AKP members generally thought of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — which clearly has a more traditionalist view of Islam and society — as being where they were ideologically about a decade or so ago. Ennahda’s more liberal Rachid Ghannouchi, by contrast, was ahead of the Turkish Islamists in the 1990s and several of his books were translated into Turkish and became popular among AKP intellectuals back then.
In washington, Professor Akbar Ahmed said Americans tended to be extremely wary of any role in politics for Islam. “Anyone with the slightest sympathy for Islam is seen suspiciously,” he said. “That creates a mental trap,” he said, leading to the conclusion that Washington must support the “modernists” who oppose these “fanatics” (Mubarak, Ben Ali, etc) “at any cost.” But the problem in the Muslim world is that these “modernists” have clung to power and failed to deliver for the people for so long that many Muslims feel they have no option but to support what Ahmed calls the “literalists.”
Noah Feldman, the Harvard law professor who has specialised among other things in Islamic law, pointed out that the Muslim Brotherhood would not have to fight for amendments to write sharia into the Egyptian constitution because it’s already there. “The Egyptian constitution as written is perfectly considtent with the Brotherhood’s ideals. It states that Islam is the source of law and that laws cannot contradict the sharia. It is an Islamist constitution — it’s just not applied in a very Islamist way,” he said. The new Iraqi and Afghan constitutions, both drawn up while U.S. troops were fighting armed Islamists there after invading in the last decade, are also both Islamic constitutions in that way.
Feldman said he expected the Muslim Brotherhood to work within the democratic system while promoting a socially conservative agenda in accordance with Muslim values. So there would be more mosque attendance, possibly more Islamically inspired legislation like better welfare for the poor. But he saw this as essentially a cultural shift somewhat akin to the change seen in Washington in 2001 when another party with strong religious links took power.
“It’s not very different from when the Bush administration came to Washington,” he said. “The culture was subtly affected by this. There were more people of evangelical and southwestern backgrounds. The president was seen going to church on Sunday and actually meaning it. These cultural differences are related to religion but it’s too simple to reduce them to religion,” he said.