Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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'Playing by the rules'

By Omayma Abdel-Latif

Mohamed El-Sayed Said
Mohamed El-Sayed Said is deputy director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies

How do you assess the Islamist discourse on civil society?

There is the view that vehemently resists any institutionalised control by religion over human life. It argues that such dominance fosters absolutist tendencies, destroys intellectual life and promotes intolerance and anti-democratic forms of social and political control. But one observes that some current writings on Islamic thought focus on tolerance and civility, minority rights (Huquq Al-Aqalliyat) and confidence and security (Ta'min). Islamist discourse has acquired a pragmatic dimension by integrating such notions as pluralism and civil society.

However, an implicit distinction between the civil and the political in the Islamist paradigm has yet to be made. This is in contradiction with the weight given to the political in the actual sacred text, since only five per cent of the whole Qur'an, in terms of the number of verses, places emphasis on the political. Most of the text is rather concerned with civil action. In politics, there was nothing particularly Islamic to be adopted by the society of Muslims except the idea of Shura (consultation) and obedience to those in a position to command (Oulu Al-Amr).

So one can safely say that there is no Islamic political system as such. In other words, Islam does not provide a clear mechanism or procedures for selecting a particular political system. It doesn't provide procedure for selecting the ruler, holding him accountable, or even removing him in an orderly manner. Therefore, when political protest groups adopted a religious lingo, we were confronted with two positions. One attributes to Islam a certain political world-view. Islam has been forced into political matters.

This utilitarian functioning of Islam in politics has done a major disservice to it as a religion and inflicted harm upon Muslims as a human group. The concepts of Shura and obedience to the ruler do not offer a good basis for a political system.

The second position is adhered to by a minority, who believe that Islam has nothing to do with the political system at all and that the believers should regulate their political affairs freely, taking their right to belief into consideration.

If such notions as pluralism and democracy are embodied in the current discourse, does that herald a radical change in the Islamists' vision of civil affairs?

In a way, it represents a remarkable step. For example, the model based on the notion of Shura has been embodied in the Brotherhood's previous literature. This model was based on an authoritarian notion of a just ruler in whom temporal and spiritual authority was invested. Such dictatorship was to be diluted by the notion of Shura, which is an extremely ambiguous category. The Brotherhood's new interpretation, however, bears little resemblance to the traditional literature. This radical change in discourse can be traced through two statements. One is concerned with the status of women and religious minorities, while the second deals with the political system.

The supreme guide and prominent Brotherhood figures accept democracy, though when it comes to detailing a political programme, they limit their frame of reference to the Shari'a. Thus, a problem still exists, but their stand is far more progressive than the traditional interpretation of Shura. So if the Brotherhood and other Islamists accept the notion of democracy; their acceptance remains limited by the framework of Shari'a. Nevertheless, this satisfies me, and by practicing politics on the ground, they will realise that democracy must be increased. They will seek to introduce an Islamic pragmatism that renders these Islamic concepts of civil society implementable in modern times. For example, Al-Wasat represents a promising beginning in terms of the articulation of an Islamist view. Such attempts show that realism and flexibility should be among the important features of the Islamists' methodology.

As for the other Islamist groups, like Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya or Al-Jihad, I don't think they are preoccupied with the civil at all. It is absent from their actions and discourse because their belief that sovereignty is God's negates both the political and the civil. There is no role whatsoever for society in establishing laws because divine sovereignty, according to them, does not provide for responsible representative government. They demand that the text be implemented literally. The category that is called society or the nation is an empty space. People have no existence or no value in the thought of these groups, which are preoccupied with the implementation of a rigid version of the Shari'a. This, of course, raises many questions about their stand on women and religious minorities.

In terms of civil society, the Gama'a wanted to create an authority parallel to that of the state. They wanted to create a 'counter-society' for the believers, according to their very narrow definition of faith which leads to either a jahili or kafir society constructed in opposition to a society of believers. But their role was marginal and trivial as compared to that of the Brotherhood, which has an extensive social network.

What are the weak points in the Islamist discourse?

The crux of the matter is that, when it comes to civil society, the text should be viewed within a spatio-temporal framework and concrete historical conditions.

The Islamists, even the modernists, flatly reject the reinterpretation of the text. The rule that forbids Ijtihad (independent analysis) on matters that have been decided by the sacred text should be revised. This poses a fundamental problem when dealing with civil society issues from an Islamist perspective.

Their position on the eternal character of the text is confusing and idealistic, making it totally irrelevant for practical implementation in modern times.

The Islamists have been accused of transforming the professional syndicates into arenas for conflict with the state. Is this valid?

Many feel that the Brotherhood's exclusion from the political process has led them to treat professional syndicates as platforms from which to exercise their political influence, and to adopt the perspective that the syndicates are places for mobilisation and anti-state propaganda.

While such criticism should not be taken lightly, I still believe that one should not underestimate the role played by a group of secularists who oppose democracy and who played a prominent role in justifying state intervention to control the syndicates. In their fight against the Brotherhood, the Nasserists, nationalists and left-wing activists in general used every possible weapon, and went to extremes in accusing the Muslim Brothers of corruption and malpractice.

They were ready to destroy the syndicate if that got rid of the Brotherhood. They did not take democratic rule into consideration, but instead legitimised the state's intervention in syndicate affairs and the voting process.

The Brotherhood may have been mistaken, but then all the political forces have been too, except perhaps the Tagammu. The state has also made a grave mistake in this respect by showing its readiness to limit the freedoms given the syndicates simply in order to crush the Brotherhood.

But would you agree that the state was only moving to control the spaces it had vacated in civil society for other social forces?

There is a fundamental weakness in the structure of the Egyptian state: it prefers a managerial role to a political one. It could have always run for elections through the National Democratic Party (NDP) or formed a front led by NDP-supported figures. There is no reason why it did not enter the professional syndicate elections, participating only in the person of the syndicate chairman.

I believe the state could have confronted the Brotherhood in elections and even achieved victory. I don't think the Brotherhood's real influence would have been more than 10 per cent. The thing is, they are able to mobilise this 10 per cent, whereas the other political forces, including the state, are either unable to mobilise individuals or unwilling to engage in such an effort.

The state is not used to working in politics as a competing partner; it is accustomed to hegemonic rule.

Do you see a way out of the current impasse?

I think the Islamists, who are now a major component of civil society, must demonstrate that they are able and willing to play by the rules of a civil society. If they accept the pluralistic nature of the process and the different 'other', they will be an integral part of the civil society. There is nothing intrinsically Islamic that conflicts with the codes of civil society.

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