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Democratization and Islamists - Auto-Reform
One of the most striking developments in Arab politics over the past few years is the evolution of mainstream Islamist opposition groups into enthusiastic participants in – and supporters of – the democratic political process. Many Islamist leaders have even begun to define democratic procedures as the modern implementation of shura, the Islamic principle of consultation, in a sharp break from
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Thursday, June 15,2006 00:00
by Carrie Wickham, Emroy University

One of the most striking developments in Arab politics over the past few years is the evolution of mainstream Islamist opposition groups into enthusiastic participants in – and supporters of – the democratic political process. Many Islamist leaders have even begun to define democratic procedures as the modern implementation of shura, the Islamic principle of consultation, in a sharp break from earlier statements depicting calls for democracy as an assault on Islam, and despite the stigma historically attached to democracy as a secular political system rooted in the West.

Moreover, in recent years, Islamist leaders have distinguished themselves as some of the region’s most vigorous and outspoken proponents of democratic reform in the Arab world, calling for broader freedoms of expression and assembly, a strengthening of judicial independence, higher standards of public accountability and oversight of government leaders, and respect for the rule of law. Indeed, when asked to define their highest priorities, the leaders in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Wasat Party, Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, and Kuwait’s Islamic Constitutional Movement who I interviewed in 2004 and 2005 echoed the same refrain – “our number one objective is the expansion of public freedoms (itlaq al-huriyyat al-‘amma).

How are we to make sense of the new precedence of freedom and democracy in mainstream Islamist opposition discourse? To answer this question, let me first attempt to situate recent developments in their proper historical context.

The leading non-violent Islamist opposition groups in Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait share a common heritage. All of them are part of the wider movement of Islamic revivalism which dates back to the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, and which has long advocated the establishment of an Islamic order, or nizam islami, based on the application of Islamic law, or Shari’a. And indeed, for all of the groups in question here, the establishment of a political order based on Shari’a remains the ultimate objective. What has changed is that some Islamist leaders have begun to openly call for a revision of the historical Shari’a – that is, the corpus of traditional Islamic legal rulings inherited from the past – and embrace new interpretations of Islam which, to varying degrees, privilege ideas of democracy, pluralism and citizenship rights within a religious framework. That is, Islamist leaders have begun to redefine what Shari’a rule would mean in practice in modern times, and to redefine the strategies most suited to achieving it.

In my new research project, I refer to this internal process of self-conscious re-definition of Islamist goals and strategies as “Islamist Auto-Reform”. As I hope to demonstrate in a moment, such a focus can help us make sense of recent changes and avoid two analytic pitfalls – that of exaggerating the democratic evolution of Islamist groups on the one hand, and of dismissing any changes as mere window-dressing on the other.

The central mission of the new book I have begun to write is to address an important but difficult set of questions. To what extent is the democratic evolution of Islamist rhetoric and behavior a strategic response to changing political opportunities and constraints, and to what extent does it reflect a deeper change in Islamist actors’ core values and beliefs? And if, in fact, a “normative shift” has occurred, what sort of empirical evidence would confirm it; what are its scope and limits; and what are the conditions which trigger it and sustain it over time?

In the literature of comparative politics, the democratic evolution of anti-system parties in the West is typically explained as a response to strategic incentives for change. In the work of Adam Przeworski, for example, the leaders of revolutionary socialist parties are characterized as rational actors who modified their agendas and accommodated themselves to the give-and-take of democratic politics in order to expand their support base and facilitate their rise to power via the ballot box. Recent changes in Islamist opposition group rhetoric and behavior are likewise driven in part by strategic considerations. For example, the leaders of mainstream Islamist opposition groups are outspoken advocates of free competitive elections in large part because they know that, with a mass base that is much larger and better organized than that of any rival opposition group, they would be the first to benefit from a genuine democratic opening, at least in the short term. In making this claim I am not suggesting that Islamist support of democratic procedures is insincere, but rather that it largely accords with their own group interests.

The more cautious and uneven evolution of Islamist discourse toward support of a wider latitude for intellectual and political pluralism, and a more inclusive concept of citizenship rights, also bears the imprint of a strategic logic. The back-peddling of Islamist groups from prior calls for the strict enforcement of Shari’a rule, and the corresponding softening in their positions on such sensitive issues as the civil and political rights of women and religious minorities, can be construed as designed in part to bolster their democratic credentials and reduce their vulnerability to criticism from secular forces in the regime and opposition. Likewise, such changes have arguably facilitated the establishment of alliances between Islamist and secular opposition groups in opposition to the authoritarian practices of incumbent regimes and in favor of democratic reform. In his defense of the Muslim Brotherhood’s joint protests and formal alliances with secular groups in Egypt, Muhammad Habib, Second Deputy to the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide explained to me last summer that joined together, the opposition can exert more pressure on the regime than any group can manage alone. As he put it in a published interview, “We are sure that the process of reform and change cannot be done by one group alone, even if it’s the Muslim Brotherhood. The situation requires the efforts of everyone, and the demands should come from all of us.” Strategic considerations can also be observed in the Brotherhood’s adoption of a self-limiting style of participation in the public sphere. For example, in the “National Alliance for Reform and Change’, al-tahaluf al-watani min ajl al-islah w al-tagheer, the new cross-partisan alliance it helped forge last June, the Brotherhood deliberately limited its representation to 25% of the seats on the steering committee, arguably to deflect the suspicion that it seeks to dominate any alliance that it is a part of. Along the same lines, in recent elections for parliament and professional associations, the Brotherhood has chosen to contest some, but not all the seats, not only as a means to target its resources and energies efficiently but also to prevent a sweeping victory which could alarm its opponents in the regime and the secular opposition and thus provide a pretext for new restrictions on its activities in the future.

Further, the adoption of more flexible positions on sensitive issues has arguably enhanced the visibility and prestige of certain Islamist leaders in international circles, widening opportunities for funding, media coverage and career advancement. And, over time, the public identification of such leaders with more flexible positions has made them harder to retract without high reputational costs.

Finally, the experience of running for – and winning - -elected leadership positions in parliament and professional associations has subjected Islamist leaders to new pressures for accountability to wider constituencies which include those skeptical of – if not downright hostile to – their partisan goals. It is thus no coincidence that in Egypt and Jordan, the middle-generation leaders who spearheaded the Brotherhood’s entry into the arena of competitive politics have demonstrated the most pragmatism, flexibility and willingness to compromise, whether with regime leaders, rival opposition groups, or dialogue partners in the West.

In sum, in the liberalized authoritarian environments of Arab states like Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait, there is a clear strategic dimension to recent changes in Islamist opposition group rhetoric and behavior. As the largest, best organized and most popular bloc in the opposition, and, for that reason – compared with secular opposition groups – as the main targets of state repression, Islamist leaders know they would be the first to benefit from a relaxation of regime controls over the sphere of electoral politics and a curtailment in the regime’s extra-constitutional powers to restrict and punish dissent. Yet precisely because of their organizational and mobilizational advantages, Islamist groups are under pressure to adjust their rhetoric and behavior in ways that will help them deflect the suspicion that they seek to exploit the democratic process to monopolize power and impose their partisan agenda on society at large. That is, the strategic environment within which Islamist groups operate helps explain why their leaders have taken such pains to demonstrate, both through words and actions, that their objective is simply to gain acceptance as legitimate actors in the political system, rather than to upend and radically transform the political system itself. Yet if external pressures create incentives for pragmatic Islamist leaders to downplay, postpone or moderate their long-term “anti-system” goals, they are simultaneously constrained by ideological purists within their own organizations not to deviate too fast or too far from the movement’s historic“revivalist” mission to achieve a comprehensive Islamic transformation of society and state. Such competing pressures help explain the vagueness, ambiguity and internal contradictions which often characterize such groups’ positions on a range of key issues, from the rights of women to relations with the West.

If my research exposed the strategic dimensions of Islamist auto-reform, it also indicated that a strategic account of movement change only takes us so far. The strategic interactions of Islamist leaders with regime officials and rival opposition groups in various arenas of public life over the past twenty years or so have yielded an accumulation of experience which has also led to a qualitative change in their core values and beliefs. In particular, such interactions have triggered a process of “complex learning” in which not just the means but also and more fundamentally the ends of the Islamic movement are being questioned and revised.

The scope and content of such learning varies for Islamist leaders in different country settings and in different groups, and even for individuals leaders situated in the same group.
Nevertheless, we see the emergence of a critical mass of middle-generation leaders in the main Islamist political organizations of each country who have begun to challenge elements of the revivalist agenda based on traditional Shari’a rulings inherited from the past. Informed by the “new Islamist discourse” or al-khitab al-islami al-jadid of such leading religious authorities as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi; independent Islamist intellectuals; and progressive voices from within the ranks of the revivalist movement itself, such middle-generation leaders have embraced what they describe as a “Wasati” or centrist approach to Islam which confirms the salience of the Islamic heritage as the ultimate source of guidance for matters of modern social and political reform on the one hand, while calling for the revision of traditional Islamic rulings and orientations through ijtihad on the other. Although this “revisionist” current varies in its specific hues and emphases, its general impact is reflected in the opening up of new internal debates within the mainstream organizations of revivalist Islam on a range of critical issues, including the civil and political rights of women, the applicability of huddud punishments, and the proper limits of intellectual and political pluralism in a modern Islamic state. Though the specific issues open to debate vary from one country and organization to the next, some general trends can be observed.

First, the emergence of new voices signals a fragmentation of religious authority, to the point that there are now often multiple and conflicting interpretations of the Shari’a position on a given issue. Recognizing the impossibility of a Shari’a-based consensus on these points, leaders in favor of different policy positions have begun to frame their arguments in terms of maslaha, the public interest or the public good. For example, in Kuwait, debates about the extension of political rights to women within the Islamic Constitutional Movement have focused not on what the Shari’a permits, since this is now disputed, but rather on whether such rights can be exercised in a way that does not threaten the moral fabric of Kuwaiti society. Similarly, in Jordan, the IAF’s opposition to recent legislative bills designed to increase the penalties for honor crimes and expand women’s rights in divorce were framed not as a defense of the Shari’a, but rather as a defense of the family as the core unit of society and as a means to resist the invasion of alien cultural values from the West.

In another move away from insistence on the application of specific Shari’a rulings inherited from the past, we find a growing emphasis on more general and abstract notions such as al-marj’aiyya al-islamiyya, or the Islamic frame of reference and thawabet al-umma, the fixed or enduring values of the Muslim community, as the higher standards delimiting acceptable speech and behavior and the proper content of existing laws. Finally, in a departure from prior support for the imposition of Shari’a as a divine mandate irrespective of citizens’ preferences, we see a growing emphasis on popular sovereignty (i.e. the idea that al-umma masdar al-sulatat) and on the elected representative institutions of the umma as the proper bodies for adjudicating between different interpretations of Islam and for converting religious opinions into positive laws.

The key point here is that such internal debates about the broader objectives to which Islamic reform should be directed are not driven by considerations of short-term tactical advantage. A purely strategic account which reduces such deliberations, and the competing ideological beliefs and commitments which inform them, to a set of cost-benefit calculations by rational actors strains the empirical evidence beyond recognition.

How much revision of the agenda of revivalist Islam is underway, both in terms of the scope of issues open to debate and the impact of revisionist thinking on the official policy positions of Islamic opposition groups, varies considerably within and across the countries under study here. The scope and limits of this normative shift, and its underlying causes and dynamics, both for specific Islamist groups and in general, will be explored in depth in my new book. In the interest of time, let me conclude with two final observations. First, I found that certain types of institutions, and certain trajectories of participation within them, were more likely to trigger a normative shift in Islamist goals than others. In particular, whether or not “learning” progressed beyond strategic adaptation to encompass value-change hinged on the incentives and opportunities for Islamist leaders to break out of the insular networks of movement politics and engaged in sustained dialogue and cooperation with other groups. That is, it hinged on 1) the existence of “safe spaces” for cross-partisan interaction sufficiently insulated from external political pressures; and 2) the quality of these interactions; that is, whether they moved beyond bargaining or ‘horse-trading’ to involve intensive deliberation on core principles, including efforts at persuasion and consensus-building across partisan lines. Hence in order to investigate possible sources of learning, we must examine not just the level, but the quality and type, of the interactions between Islamist groups and other political forces over time. Second, the opportunities, dynamics and impact of learning are shaped by factors internal to Islamist organizations as well. Islamist opposition groups differ from each other in terms of their ideological starting points; the strength of hard-liner versus reformist factions within them; the nature of their internal decision-making structures and procedures; and the social profile of their mass base. All of these internal characteristics shape how Islamist leaders interact with other forces in the wider political environment and what they learn from these interactions; in addition, they determine whether the climate of the group is more or less receptive to progressive interpretations of Islam. Hence, for example, the ex-Brotherhood and ex-IAF leaders now active in the Egyptian and Jordanian Wasat parties are less beholden to the conservative old-guard of the revivalist movement, and thus freer to innovate, both in the domains of ideology and practice, than their counterparts in the mother-organizations from which they have sprung. According to the same logic, but with different results, Kuwaiti Islamist leaders note that the conservative Bedouin element of the ICM’s constituency places a constraint on their capacity to adopt revisionist positions on such issues as women’s rights, even when they are in agreement with such positions themselves.

To sum up, let me return to the question with which I began. What explains the new emphasis on democracy and freedom in the rhetoric and practice of mainstream Islamist opposition groups? I have argued that this evolution represents part of a wider process of internal, self-directed change or Islamist auto-reform. I have highlighted the strategic dimension of this evolution, but also forcefully challenged a purely strategic account which reduces internal debates within the Islamic movement to considerations of individual and group advantage. As an alternative, I proposed that we examine how and why certain types of strategic interaction generate “complex learning” causing some Islamist leaders to internalize new values and beliefs about the proper goals to which Islamist reform should be directed. I then suggested that we consider how the internal balance of power and organizational dynamics of Islamist groups shape the receptivity of their leadership to new ideas, and mediate the extent to which individual-level learning becomes generalized to the group as a whole. I hope these remarks were helpful and I look forward to your comments and questions.


(*) Carrie Rosefsky Wickham is an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Her e-mail address is: [email protected] .

The above paper was presented during Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy Annual Conference
May 4-5, 2006

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