Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 December 2006
Issue No. 824
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Khalil El-Anani

Third generation political Islam

In the Arab world there exists a range of centrist Islamist parties that have harmonised democratic aspirations with the moral foundations of Islam, writes Khalil El-Anani*

"Centrist" Islamist parties have yet to receive anywhere near the same share of attention that has been devoted to militant Islamist trends, such as radical fundamentalist and jihadist movements. The scant attention Islamist centrism has received since the mid- 1970s has rarely gone beyond discussion of religious/doctrinal aspects and individual exponents. Assessment of its general socio- political impact is missing.

Yet over the past two decades, Islamist centrism has tangibly grown across the Arab world. We have, for example, the Tunisian Nahda (Revival) Party, founded in 1981; the Justice and Development Party (JDP) in Morocco whose membership consists largely of a blend of members of the Popular Constitutional and Democratic Movement, founded in 1967, and of the Moroccan Reform and Renovation Movement; Jordan's Islamic Centre Party, founded in 2001; and, in Egypt, the New Centre Party whose members have been struggling for 10 years now to obtain official approval for their party, though without success.

Moreover, this trend has introduced changes of such a magnitude into the contemporary Islamist ideological map that it is possible to identify it as the "third postulate" in the nearly century-long life of political Islam (the first two being represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, and the breakaway radical and militant Islamist trends that rose to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s).

Several concrete factors compel us to devote study time to this phenomenon, in the hope that this will contribute to legitimising its experience, promoting its political presence and producing a possible resolution to the church and state problematic that has long occupied a large and influential space in the realm of Arab epistemological debate.

First, the Islamist centrist parties can boast a subtle and sophisticated "Islamic" political awareness, which has been sorely lacking in the Arab political arena since the emergence of the modern state a century and a half ago. Or, if it existed, it was grossly distorted in the course of the vicious confrontation between the state and radical fundamentalist movements that raged for nearly three decades towards the end of the last century and that raised considerable scepticism over the possibility of a civil Islamist experience ever being able to evolve.

Second, these parties defy being placed on that customary spectrum of "moderate" to "extreme", normally used to categorise Islamist groups. They offer new criteria for categorisation -- notably political competence, or the ability to grasp the concepts of democracy and civil action and to interact with them in a way that keeps "religion" at arm's length from political practice. The centrist Islamist parties, like moderate ones such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have a religious frame of reference that governs their outlook towards themselves and others, but rather than dominating their practice of politics to the extent that politics becomes a springboard for proselytising, religion is a "civilisational incubator" that can accommodate political, ideological and religious differences within a single nation.

It is in this spirit that these parties have formulated a unique and sophisticated vision on the relationship between state and society. Their propositions on legal custodianship, women's rights and citizenship, in particular, indicate that they have come a long way towards resolving the historical dichotomy that has long plagued all trends of political Islam, including "moderate" ones.

Fourth, these parties have a "modernist" project for Arab societies and it appears better poised to succeed where modernist projects advanced by secularist, Arab nationalist and other ideological schools have failed over the past five decades. Thus they appear to have resolved a dilemma that has taxed Islamist thought over the past century; the relationship between Islam and modernity and the subsidiary question of cultural identity and its relationship with others.

Finally, these parties enjoy a high degree of intellectual flexibility, enabling them to develop their ideas and mechanisms for interacting with society. Perpetual fluidity gives them the ability to deal freshly and innovatively with current issues, in contrast with other Islamist trends that have recoiled behind scriptural literalism and whose consequent political and intellectual rigidity has reduced the likelihood of their assimilation into civil life.

In a very strong sense, therefore, it is possible to view Islamist centrist parties as an extension of the Arab awakening movement pioneered in the late 19th and early 20th century by the likes of Al-Tahtawi, Al-Tunsi, Al-Afghani, Mohammed Abduh and Rashid Rida and that had been interrupted in the 1930s by radicalism in its various Marxist, secularist, Arab nationalist and Islamist currents.

It is not odd, therefore, that the notion of the "universality" of Islam, as a civilisational framework, should acquire such a central position in the platform of these parties. Indeed, it is this very notion that has freed them from having to reconcile by force the demands of self-identity and cultural specificity and the challenges of globalisation and modernisation, because it embraces "the common humanity of man," as is stated in the platform of Egypt's Wasat (Centrist) Party.

Despite this approach, with the exception of the Moroccan JDP, which has gained increasing ground since its parliamentary victories of 2002, the Islamist centrist parties are weak and marginalised. It can not be overstated how urgent it is to legitimise and lend them support, not only because most have managed to decipher the codes of Islamist civic action, the meaning of which has eluded other Islamist movements, but also because they represent the true line of defence against the systematic assault that the West has been waging against Islamic values and culture.

The Egyptian New Wasat (Centre) Party's decade-long struggle to obtain a permit allowing it to pursue its political activities is proof of the immense obstacles that the Islamist centrist parties must contend with in order to take root as an alternative to extremist Islamist trends, on the one hand, and to "moderates" that are still fuzzy and confused over the nature and values of real democracy.

Since 1996, the founders of the Wasat Party -- most of who had come from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood -- have waged an uphill battle to legitimise their party in accordance with the provisions of the Political Party Law. Yet even during the many years that its leaders have been submitting paperwork and haunting the corridors of courts, the party has continued to develop its ideas and to expand its base to include prominent intellectual and political figures, such as the celebrated thinker Abdelwahab Elmessiri.

In addition, the party clearly located itself within the theoretical framework of the new reform parties, describing itself as a "civil political party with an Islamist background whose membership is open to all Egyptian citizens (Muslims and non-Muslims alike)." The preamble to the party's charter further states that it operates in accordance with a political programme "whose theoretical underpinnings are framed by civilians in accordance with the rules of civil polity, rather than by ulema (Muslim theologians) on the Iranian model or by clergymen on the model of the Western church-dominated state of the Middle Ages."

Also, over the past 10 years, the party's founders have succeeded in developing bridges of trust with a broad range of political groupings and in gaining a reputation as an "unblemished" party whose dedication to the project of a civil state is above question. In addition, its charter and political platform have won the admiration of individuals from across the political and ideological spectrum. Nor is it a wonder that the New Wasat has been lauded as the first Islamist movement to advocate a truly civil programme which emanates from religious foundations that, nonetheless, do not impede the fulfilment of the provisions of full citizenship. The party, for example, sees no theoretical impediment to the access of women or Copts to all positions of government, including the presidency.

The Political Parties Commission -- the body charged with offering an opinion on the New Wasat Party's charter -- commended the party for presenting a new, distinct and comprehensive vision. Yet the government remains reluctant to recognise the party. This reluctance can only stem from a culture of suspicion and scepticism towards everything Islamist, even if, as is the case with the New Wasat, Islamist represents no more than the moral outlook governing a civil political enterprise. It is a culture that betrays pitiful ignorance with regard to the degree of political maturity such Islamist movements as the New Wasat Party have attained.

Because of the ongoing negativism towards the Islamist centrist parties, an important segment of society is being kept from lending its skills and ingenuity to the advancement of the general wellbeing of society. This is all the more regretful because this segment, in particular, can play a crucial role in defending the civilisational aims of Islam and of Islamic culture in its existential contest with "the other."

* The writer is a political analyst with Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya magazine published by Al-Ahram.

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