Concern about Islamists masks wide differences among them

February 4, 2011
holding up korans

(Hamas supporters hold up copies of the Koran at a protest in Gaza City December 26, 2010/Mohammed Salem)

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.

MB posters

(Electoral posters of candidates of the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Alexandria on November 27, 2010 for the 2010 parliamentary electionS/ Goran Tomasevic)

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.


(Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan tells members of parliament from his ruling AK Party that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should listen to the demands of his people, in Ankara February 1, 2011/Stringer)

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.


(President George W. Bush speaks to the First Baptist Church of Glenarden with Pastor John K. Jenkins Sr. in Landover, Maryland, January 20,2003/William Philpott)

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.


Follow FaithWorld on Twitter at RTRFaithWorld

rss buttonSubscribe to all posts via RSS

One comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

6th Feb 2011

Islam and Democracy in Egypt-
Egypt is not the real Islamic state that it wants to be since the fall of the monarchy in 1952,
despite having the oldest University(Jami’ah al-Azhar’) in the history of Islam
or the greatest Sphinx or Pyramids,etc,
Hosni Mubarak acendency to the presidency was not achieved via democratic means,
there was no real general election to say the least,
all past Presidents came from the military top brass,
from Naguib, Gamal,Anwar to Hosni M. himself,
to exemplify his outstanding ‘achievements’ in his sunrise moment,
Hosni shut down the Internet to blind the people of the world,
Hosni pleaded with the ‘Council of Wise Men’ to stay on,
Hosni manipulated his National Democratic Party to appease the hungry souls,
the fact is glaringly vindicative : Hosni continue to make more blunders,
which confirms the fact that there has been no real democracy in the land of the Pharoahs(Fir’aun’)
and Egypt is certaintly no Islamic state(‘Daulat Islamiyyah’) since Constantinople;

Egypt’s Domestic and Foreign Affairs-
Egypt made headlines when it initiated the Arab-Israel Wars to the joy of the Arab world,
it led the Arab bloc to demand justice to the Palestinian cause,
Israel could have lost the war if not for US support;
but the 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel did not bring any peace to Egypt
nor to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere;
the US$1.3 billion annual aid to the Egyptian military is not for free,
Egypt must fulfil all US wishes to control the Mid-East
contrary to the wishes of the people of Egypt and the Arab bloc/OIC;
the new President of Egypt must take serious notice of this satanic anomaly
and the subtle underpinning of Israeli’s tentacles into Egyptian affairs;
Egypt must re-assess it’s role within the Arab world matrix either as a leader of the Arab world/Islamic voice,
or a tool of US intelligence and ‘sandiwara\';

US as Ally or Enemy within Egypt & the Mid-East Matrix-
President-elect B.Obama must seriously review past US foreign affairs/policies and
cleaned up the mess created by the the two former Presidents(George Bush & Co.),
He must not repeat the laughable blunders of Geaorge Bush & Co. to the detriment of US interest
and the interest of the Arab/muslim world at large,
Israel must be reined in to comply with international law and norms of good neighbourhood;

POst Hosni and the Beginning of ‘Tahrir’ in Egypt-
As thousands of Egyptians gathered at Tahrir Square in Cairo,
demanding a need to right the wrongs of 30 years of Hosni’s famed mis-administration,
the new leadership of Egypt must be one who represent the spirit of Egypt,
one who is able to act without fear and favour,
one who can follow the footstep of the Prophet Muhammad, M. Ghandi, Mother Teresa,etc
and not the footsteps of the mummified Pharoahs.

Jeong Chun phuoc
and an advocate in Strategic Environmentand and Taxation Intelligence(SETI)
He can be reached at
*The comment expressed above by the writer is in his personal capacity and
they do not neccessarily represent the view of his Institution, Research Centre or any NGOs etc despite his
official attachment to the same*

PART I, 3rd Feb 2011)

Posted by JEONG | Report as abusive

[…] Read More: Concern about Islamists masks wide differences among them (Reuters) […]

Posted by ‘Islamist’ Not A Blanket Term | Report as abusive