Arab Spring boosts political Islam, but which kind?

October 25, 2011

(Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda movement celebrate outside Ennahda's headquarters in Tunis October 25, 2011/Zohra Bensemra)

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.

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Islam can be compatible with Democracy, provided that the Islamic parties in question do not follow the Qur’an too closely.

Perhaps the only example in the Islamic world that transitioned from a sultanese (oligarchic) government to one that approximated Western democracies is Turkey. During and following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century, a group of young adults sought to transform Turkish society by opening its culture to Western values and traditions. It began with the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 and resulted in the formation of a new government and constitution in 1923. Those who led the way in this cultural transformation have since been called the Young Turks. They were progressive, modernist, and opposed to the status quo.

And, as a reaction to the Young Turks, the Muslim Brotherhood came into existence in Egypt in 1928. It is quite doubtful if the Young Turks would have been successful in the early twentieth century if a fully orbed and well financed Muslim Brotherhood was already in existence in Turkey to oppose them. The appeal to the Qur’an as a divinely inspired document which promises the blessings and cursings from Allah on all who either obey or disobey him is a compelling message—especially to the uneducated masses. And, most importantly, the Qur’an stands opposed to the notion of democracy. From cover to cover, the Qur’an demands that a nation be organized under the premise of a theocracy—with caliphs serving as the vicegerants (see Q 2:30; 6:165; 7:69, 74, 142; 35:39; and 38:39).

Because the Young Turks had no such organization as the Muslim Brotherhood to challenge their efforts at westernization, they succeeded in transforming the fledgling Ottoman Empire into a democratic nation that they called Turkey. Can a modern-day version of the Young Turks in Tunisia, Libya, or Egypt elicit similar results? Of course, only time will tell—but the likelihood is quite low.

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