FaithWorld

U.S. eyes Egypt Islamists as extremist fears fester

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(An Egyptian flag with a peace sign at a rally in Trafalgar Square, in central London February 12, 2011/Luke MacGregor)

U.S. officials are concerned that Islamic extremists may try to exploit Egypt’s upheaval but are not yet convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most influential Islamist opposition group, is necessarily a threat.

The toppling of President Hosni Mubarak on Friday marked the beginning of a new, uncertain era in Egypt that promises to empower Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, long viewed with deep suspicion in the West.  Al Qaeda is widely seen as weak in Egypt thanks partly to Mubarak, and his departure is raising fears in the U.S. Congress that the rise of even moderate Islamists may give radical elements more room to operate.

James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, sought to play down fears about the Muslim Brotherhood this week, saying it “has eschewed violence and has decried al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam.”

“They have pursued social ends, betterment of the political order in Egypt, et cetera,” he told lawmakers on Thursday.

Russia’s Muslim elite vows to tackle Islamist extremism

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(Russia's chief Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin in Moscow February 10, 2011/Sergei Karpukhin)

Russia’s Muslims on Thursday set up a council of experts to devise ways to tackle extremism, two weeks after a suicide bomb attack on the country’s busiest airport killed 36.  Earlier this week Islamist leader Doku Umarov said he had ordered the devastating attack on Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.

“People need to be protected from extremism and terrorism, and educated away from this,” said Ravil Gaynutdin, the chief Mufti of Russia, which is home to some 20 million Muslims, or a seventh of the population. “These experts will play a very important role towards making things better… for Muslims to be more involved in Russian society,” Gaynutdin, clad in a flowing black robe and crowned by a silk white hat, told Reuters in an interview before chairing the council’s first meeting.

Islamist rebels take aim at Russia ahead of election year

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(Doku Umarov (C) with Chechen rebels in an undated video/www.kavkazcenter.com/Reuters TV)

A suicide attack on Russia’s busiest airport shows Islamist rebel leader Doku Umarov is serious about inflicting “blood and tears” on the Russian heartland ahead of the 2012 presidential election. Umarov, a 46-year-old rebel leader who styles himself as the Emir of the Caucasus, claimed responsibility for the January 24 attack that killed 36 and said he had dozens of suicide bombers ready to unleash on Russian cities.

Russia is struggling to contain a growing Islamist insurgency along its southern flank nearly 12 years after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rose to popularity by leading Russia into a second war against Chechen separatists.

Banned Islamists say time for change in Morocco

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(A mosque in Ksar el Kebir February 5, 2008/Rafael Marchante)

The banned Islamist group Justice and Charity, believed to be Morocco’s biggest opposition force, has said “autocracy” will be swept away unless the country pursues deep democratic reform.

The group of Sufi inspiration is believed to have 200,000 members, most of whom are university students, and is active mainly in the poor districts of some cities. Banned from politics, its avowed aim is to achieve a peaceful transition to a pluralist political system inspired by Islam.

In a statement posted on its website late on Sunday, Justice and Charity said the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia left “no place today for distortions … and empty, false promises… The gap between the ruler and the ruled has widened and confidence is lost … The solution is either a deep and urgent democratic reform that ends autocracy and responds to the needs and demands of the people, or the people take the initiative and (it) erupt peacefully … to sweep autocracy away.”

British police avert clashes at Luton anti-Islamist rally

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(An English Defence League supporter with effigy of Osama Bin Laden mask during a rally in Luton, February 5, 2011/Paul Hackett)

About 1,500 far-right protesters marched through the centre of the British city of Luton Saturday to rally against “militant Islam,” requiring a heavy police presence to avert clashes with 1,000 anti-fascist demonstrators. A sixth of Luton’s population is Muslim, and past marches by the English Defence League have led to conflict with their opponents. The city centre turned into a virtual ghost town before the rally, with shops boarded up and pubs closed.

But police and community activists averted large-scale violence, making only eight arrests on a mix of assault, drugs and weapons charges. There were no serious injuries.

Tide turns in favour of Egypt’s Brotherhood in revolt

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(Essam El-Erian, spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood, at a news conference in Cairo February 6, 2011/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

The first time Essam el-Erian went to jail, he was 27. Last Sunday, he left prison for the eighth time at the age of 57. The medical doctor’s crime for each incarceration was belonging to the Muslim Botherhood, Egypt’s most influential and best-organised Islamist opposition movement and long feared by President Hosni Mubarak, Israel and the United States.

Egypt’s courts have repeatedly rebuffed the Brotherhood’s requests for recognition as a party on the grounds that the constitution bans parties based on religion.

Concern about Islamists masks wide differences among them

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(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.

Interview -Tunisian Islamists say they’re excluded, call for unity govt.

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(Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi speaks during an interview with Reuters in Tunis February 3, 2011/Louafi Larbi )

Tunisia’s Islamists have been shut out of the interim government, Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi said, calling for a cabinet that brings together all parties and for the dismantling of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s police state. Banned for over 20 years, his Ennahda (Arab for “Renaissance”) party applied this week for a license and will take part in Tunisia’s first free elections, though Ghannouchi himself has pledged not to run for any office.

“No one invited us and no one consulted us over the make-up of this government… We don’t know who made up this government, who chose these people, what their authority is, who they answer to,” Ghannouchi told Reuters in an interview. “We called for a government of national alliance comprised of opposition parties and civil society organisations such as the labour union, lawyers and rights groups, a government that… is not imposed like this.”

Can Arabs learn from Turkish model of Islam and democracy?

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(Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, December 2, 2008/Umit Bektas)

If President Hosni Mubarak bows to the clamor of the street and goes, Egyptians and other Arabs seeking to turn a page on autocratic government may look at Turkey for some clues on marrying Islam and democracy.

Relatively stable, with a vibrant economy and ruled by a conservative and pragmatic government led by former Islamists, Turkey has often been cited as a model Muslim democracy and a linchpin of Western influence in the region.

Egyptians want more Islam in politics, according to Pew poll

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(Anti-Mubarak graffiti in Cairo's Tahrir Square February 1, 2011. The Arabic writing reads "Down with Mubarak."/Yannis Behrakis )

With so much speculation about what role the Muslim Brotherhood might play in any future political system in Egypt, it’s worth looking at some opinion polling data to see what they say they think about the role of Islam in politics.  One recent poll says they want a bigger role for Islam in politics, they want democracy and they reject Islamist radicals such as Osama bin Laden.  Respondents also showed quite high levels of support for traditional Islamic punishments such as stoning for adulterers, cutting off thieves’ hands and death for apostates from Islam.

Whether and how the views mirrored in these results get turned into policy naturally depends on many factors, so this poll the Pew Research Center published in December cannot be any kind of projection of what to expect. Still, it provides at least some data on what Egyptians may want to see from a future government.