Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 March 2012
Issue No. 1089
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Rethinking the Islamists

So far, Islamists are more changed by entering the public sphere than they have changed the public sphere itself, writes Khalil El-Anani*

The more the Arab Spring propels Islamists into power, the more we need to rethink the Islamist question in a manner that transcends the styles of praise or ridicule that typified our approach and shaped our awareness for several decades. Although it is premature to issue a final assessment or judgement on the state of Islamists in the post- "Arab Spring" phase, there are a number of issues that can serve as the starting point for an objective discussion on this subject. Perhaps the first is the shift from opposition to power and the inevitable changes and transformations this caused in the language and structure of the Islamists' ideological discourse and in their organisational and political structures and interactions. Here, we will limit our discussion to the dimension of discourse, with regard to which we have four preliminary observations on the nature of the changes, some of which have already taken effect and others of which are still in the process of synthesis and formation.

- The shift from the "absolute" to the "relative" (or from the sacred to the profane): Many Arab Islamists, including the neo- Salafis, have begun to move away from the discourse of "historical imperative" (or ultimate salvation, as Fahmi Gadaan put it) to the discourse of compromise and accommodation on the basis of existing circumstances, which are inherently relative and fluctuating in nature. For example, when the Nour Party entered the electoral fray, it did not promise -- in the manner of jihadist Salafis -- paradise as a reward for voting for its candidates, but rather it pledged to improve the economy, reform education and healthcare, and fight corruption. Perhaps some Nour Party candidates resorted to "religious rhetoric" in their campaigns. Nevertheless, this tendency cannot be said to have applied across the board; nor did it attain the "absolutist" level. But the most salient indication of this trend is offered by the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, which did not use its famous slogan "Islam is the solution", but instead a purely secular one (or contemporary one, in the language of modernists): "We bring good to Egypt."

The "relativisation" of the Islamists' religious discourse is not just the product of the revolutionary condition in the Arab region, which has reshaped the mass consciousness. It is also due to their awareness of the nature of the political game, which demands the application of purely rational calculations that have little to do with ideology or absolutist ideological demagogy.

Another sign of this relativism is the Islamists' shift from the language of religion to the language of politics in the public sphere. Therefore, it is not strange to find that such terms as consensus, dialogue, interests, participation and elections have taken the place of halal/haram, the calling, the religious community, religious duty, etc. Some observers maintain that the word substitutions are not indicative of a real change in the Islamists' ideological positions. Even so, that such modernist terms are being repeated so frequently in Islamist and particularly the Salafist spheres is a qualitative shift, especially in light of what some describe as the insularism of Salafist discourse.

Yet another sign of the new relativity has to do with outward appearance, or what we might term "formal/ritual relativity". As symbolic as this facet is, it nevertheless reflects how the Islamists think of themselves and their appearance before others. Many Islamists -- Salafis, in particular -- no longer restrict themselves to traditional dress (the galabiya and head covering) in public space. In fact, most Islamist MPs sport jackets and ties in parliament, and not a few of them wear elegant three-piece suits for their appearances on satellite television talk shows.

- The shift of the centre of Islamist activity from the mosque to parliament: The practical and symbolic ramifications of this shift should not be underestimated. What it tells us is that the conflict no longer centres around religious legitimacy and who has the right to speak in the name of religion, but around political legitimacy and who has the right to speak in the name of the people in the public sphere. Although many may not have picked up on this transformation, it is highly significant in many respects.

First, there is a vast difference between the "space of the mosque" and "parliamentary space". The former is an ideological mobilisation space par excellence, and it is not subject to any rules for oversight or review, whereas the second is a primarily "regulatory" space and it is subject to rules for accountability, oversight and -- sometimes -- penalisation. Therefore, what can be said from the pulpit may not be appropriate beneath the parliamentary dome. This is not a question of double standards, but rather a question of function, which is why the Muslim Brotherhood speaker of parliament, Saad Al-Katatni, could silence and reproach the Salafi MP Mamdouh Ismail for sounding the call to prayer in parliament.

Second, if "the text" is the source of power and influence in the mosque, political, legislative and regulatory action is the source of power in parliament. It is the difference between the world of "words and slogans" and the world of "deeds and results". Lastly, the audience of the mosque is not the same as that of parliament. The first looks to the authority of the sheikh or preacher; the second looks to the authority of the constitution and the law. In parliament, the promotion of the interests of the public, rather than piety, forms the basis of the criteria of right and wrong for this MP or that. Perhaps the best example of this that we have had recently occurred when the Nour Party dismissed one of its members and parliamentary MPs for lying and attempting to deceive the public, thereby damaging his image and that of the party.

- The end of the "religious" hierarchisation of public space and its impact on social and cultural authority: To a large extent, this phenomenon is related to the decline in the adulation of the leader in Arab societies, due to the end of the monopoly over knowledge and information. The Arab Spring helped to spread this phenomenon as never before by putting paid to the myth that certain persons or their ideas were above criticism. We have seen this in effect in those societies that experienced popular uprisings and revolutions and in which many religious and political leaders fell due to their ideological positions on the revolution or because their ideas were long beyond their sell-by-date. Perhaps this is one of the fruits of the Arab revolutions that lifted many taboos and dispelled the aura of sanctity that had kept numerous persons and issues above discussion.

While such a process can be frightening at times, because it rocks all the certitudes that had become such deeply ingrained compass points in society, it has had beneficial effects. Foremost among them is that it made it possible to redraw the social and political balances between public persons on the basis of knowledge, ability and skill, rather than blind trust, obedience and the tools of perpetuating ignorance. It is important to stress here that I am speaking primarily of public space, for religious space still possesses a good deal of the traditional hierarchisation. My point is that now that Islamist sheikhs and preachers have entered public space and engaged in politics, their religious vestments or legitimacy are no longer the criteria for political stature. An example is Nader Bakar, the 29-year-old spokesman for the Nour Party. In spite of his youth, he is highly regarded both within and outside of Salafist circles, and he has more than 80,000 subscribers on his Facebook page. It is also remarkable that he took it upon himself to publicise the dismissal of the errant MP, without first referring to the Nour Party's central board.

- The rivalry (not to say conflict) between Islamists themselves: While rivalry and tension within the Islamist fold is not new, it has never been so glaringly visible and public. This is only normal now that every shade of the Islamist spectrum is scrambling to expand its sphere in the public realm (in parliament, in the media, on the Internet, in civil society, etc) at the expense of the others. Some of these rivalries manifested themselves in the elections that were held recently in some Arab countries (Egypt, Tunisia, Kuwait, and perhaps Libya and Yemen soon). Moreover, what is noteworthy about these rivalries is that they no longer occur within an ideological or theological framework, but rather within one shaped by pure political interests and pragmatic considerations. For example, the Muslim Brothers and Salafis in Egypt cannot even agree on a presidential candidate to back in the forthcoming elections. Each side remains bent on supporting the candidate that it believes will promote its own political or ideological interests. Even more significantly, the conflict between the Islamists is no longer shaped by differences over the Islamisation of society and the state (which defined the bitter conflicts between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya or the Egyptian Jihad throughout the 1970s and 1980s) but rather over the establishment of a modern democratic state, at least with respect to form.

The conclusion that one draws from these preliminary observations is that the more that the Islamists engage in the public sphere, the less doctrinaire and the more realistic and rational they will become. Evidently, this is one of the effects of the lure of power.

* The writer is a researcher at School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University.

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