Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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Accommodating political Islam

By Omayma Abdel-Latif

An encounter between secularists and Islamists at the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies last week did not go smoothly. The gathering was intended to open a rational dialogue, but antagonism on both sides all but dashed any hope of quickly surmounting the current political impasse.

At the outset, Salah Eissa, a prominent leftist intellectual and chief editor of the weekly newspaper, Al-Qahira, demanded that Islamists settle their own problems before attempting to engage others in dialogue. "You are the reason for all our problems with the government. You are the reason for the suppression we are facing and the continuation of emergency laws," Eissa angrily told the Islamists taking part in the panel.

For many secularists, Eissa expressed their own sense of frustration. "Islamists cannot even contemplate a broader horizon of political action, unless they refrain from mixing religion with politics." El-Sayed Yassin, former head of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, warned. "The real problem is that they do not have a project. If you ask them about their political project, or economic project or cultural project, you get no answer," Yassin said. He rejected the Islamists' claim that the principle of shura (consultation between the ruler and his assistants) should be equated with democracy.

"The terms of reference for the shura system are divine, whereas the democratic system is man-made. There is no talk about the delegation of authority or the supremacy of law [in the shura system]. These are hallmarks of liberal political thought. Islamists have no political agenda or project which is compatible with the principles of the modern state," Yassin told the gathering.

Yassin was not alone in his concern regarding the Islamists' lack of political vision. Mohamed El-Sayed Said, deputy head of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, argued that this lack of a well-formed agenda is the principal shortcoming of Islamist political thought. "For them, the rational solution to any problem is found in the sacred text," he said. Such an approach, Said contended, can only lead to what he described as "moral violence." He was especially critical of their use of takfir (to declare someone an infidel) against all those who don't share the Islamist perspective. Said also urged Islamists to reconsider their positions on women, minorities and human rights.

In support of Said's remarks, Salah Eissa directly challenged the proponents of political Islam to reconcile their philosophy with the core democratic notion of intellectual freedom. He further challenged them to explain who exactly has the right to legislate under their system and what would be their terms of reference. Eissa argued that the ambiguous discourse of political Islam, when put to the test of reality, is undermined by its own self-contradictions.

In response, Adel Hussein, secretary-general of the Islamist-oriented Labour Party (whose activities are now frozen), lashed out at "those secularists who are not following developments in the political thought of Islamist movements." He cited the example of Iran where major political change is taking place within its Islamic system.

Essam El-Eryan, a prominent member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and former secretary-general of the Doctors' Syndicate, made no attempt to refute the secularists' arguments. Instead, he stressed the need for mutual understanding. El-Eryan stated that such an understanding would mean "accepting the other as he is, without attempting to indoctrinate him."

His plea, however, was viewed by the secularists as obfuscation. Yet, El-Eryan refused to take the bait. He attempted to bridge the divide by conceding that within the ranks of the Islamist trend there are indeed "narrow-minded groups." However, El-Eryan reminded the secularists that "there is no unified political Islamist trend. There are all shades and colours. Only actual practice will determine whether the extremists or moderates will emerge victorious."

One of the more thorny issues the gathering addressed was how to accommodate an Islamist political party within the existing political structure. This debate comes at a critical time. Egypt is in the midst of preparations for the November parliamentary elections. Islamists will be fielding candidates. The law, however, prohibits the establishment of political parties based explicitly upon religious foundations. As a result, two attempts by former Muslim Brotherhood members to establish a party called Al-Wassat were denied. Furthermore, a third attempt by Mamdouh Ismail, a former member of the Jihad group, to establish a party by the name of Al-Shari'a also ended in failure.

From the secularist point of view, Said argued that a purely religious party would ultimately lead to a religious state and that Egypt would not tolerate this type of totalitarianism. Similarly, Yassin argued that the fatwa (religious ruling) mechanism, which is at the core of the religious state, cannot function as the basis of a modern state. "We have seen in many Islamic countries that these fatwas are manipulated to serve the purpose of the rulers. Those who call for a religious party are advocating a religious state and this poses a major threat to political pluralism and democracy," Yassin maintained.

Yet surprisingly, the Islamists taking part in the discussion agreed with the secularists that religiously based parties are not politically viable. El-Eryan and Hussein both went on record rejecting the notion of a political Islamist party. Hussein said, "The fact that there is an Islamist party means that it will speak in the name of Islam while the other political parties will be branded as un-Islamist. This will lead to a religious state. We don't seek to establish a religious state."

This unanimous rejection of the viability of an Islamist party thus raised the question of how to accommodate the Islamists in any future political arrangement. Said suggested that a long-term process is needed. He contended that there are no quick solutions. According to Said, the political Islamist movements should gradually be transformed into non-religious political movements. "They will become, more or less, like the Christian parties of Western Europe. Political Islamist movements should move away from a Utopian religious frame of action towards pragmatic politics," Said contended.

Relates stories:
The limits of tolerance- 25 Nov. - 1 Dec. 1999
The application is the message- 14 - 20 October 1999



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