Arab Spring boosts political Islam, but which kind?
More democracy is bringing more political Islam in the countries of the Arab Spring, but Islamist statements about sharia or religion in politics are only rough indicators of what the real effect might be. The strong showing of Tunisia’s moderate Islamists in Sunday’s election and a promise by Libyan National Transitional Council leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil to uphold sharia have highlighted the bigger role Islamists will play after the fall of the autocrats who opposed them.
These Islamists must now work out how to integrate more Islam into new democratic systems. Many terms used in the debate are ambiguous and some, especially the concept of sharia, are often misunderstood by non-Muslims.
Jan Michiel Otto, a Dutch law professor who led a recent study of how 12 Muslim countries apply sharia, said political Islam covers a broad spectrum of approaches. “If sharia is introduced, you don’t know what you’ll get,” said the Leiden University professor, editor of the book Sharia Incorporated. His study indicated that, contrary to what many Western observers might think, more Islam did not always mean less liberty.
Yasin Aktay, a Turkish sociologist at Selcuk University in Konya, said Sharia itself was not a defined legal code and not limited to the harsh physical punishments seen in Saudi Arabia or Iran. “That’s a fetishised version of sharia,” he said.
Many Middle Eastern constitutions already enshrine Islam as the official religion and mention sharia as the basis of law, but also have civil and penal codes based on European models. Apart from Saudi Arabia, which has only Islamic law, Middle Eastern countries apply a complicated mix of religious and civil law. Sharia can be applied almost symbolically in one country, moderately in another and strictly in a third.