Deconstructing Islamist Participation

At a time when Islamist movements across the Arab world have chosen to participate in official political processes, grave concerns have arisen over the nature and repercussions of this participation and over whether the Islamists are equipped to rule should they rise to power through democratic means. Because of the diversity of Islamists” awareness of, and approach to, such issues, any analysis of these questions must steer clear of generalities (and the reproduction of generalities) stemming from ideological prejudices or founded upon selective citations of past experiences which, by definition, are insufficient to grasp the complexities and constantly unfolding developments of the present. Similarly, the reductionist view of Islamist movements as groups of ideological zealots whose rhetoric, alone, is a sufficient guide to the logic of their actions is overly simplistic. Nor is it particularly productive to dismiss the criteria used to assess previous movements in the Arab world, such as the liberal, socialist and pan-Arabist trends on the grounds that Islamist participation in the political process is too recent and infrequent to be subjected to existing paradigms in a convincing manner. The latter argument is a particular favourite among some Islamists, who maintain that it is premature or unrealistic to question their ability to manage public affairs or participate effectively in government, especially when taking the current power balances between the ruling elites and Islamists into account. These apologists are asking the electorate to invest its vote in a movement whose ways of handling the challenges ahead remain obscure, beyond currently available tools for analysis. It is a dangerous form of procrastination.

It is already possible to identify three major modes of Islamist participation in public life. The first comprises the Iraqi, Lebanese and Palestinian cases. While the Islamist parties and movements in these instances operate with relative organisational freedom in the context of political party plurality, these experiences also take place in a climate of relative chaos, whether because foreign occupation has wrought the collapse of the institutions of government and public security or because an ongoing intractable crisis of internal discord so hampers the efficacy of government as to constantly threaten the stability of the political system and encourage the prevalence of monopolistic/exclusivist tendencies which conflict with the spirit and substance of peaceful participation. Shia-Sunni and pro- and anti-resistance dichotomies aside, the Islamist movements in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine are characterised by regimental internal structures, possession of the means to exercise violence and a tendency to resort to, or to threaten to resort to, violence to resolve their political conflicts. Moreover, while acknowledging the differences in motives and the disparities in local contexts, the political ramifications of the Shia militias” penetration of the government and security agencies in Iraq are identical with Hizbullah”s utilisation of its military engagement with Israel in the summer of 2006 to generate sufficient political capital to overturn the domestic balance of power in Lebanon, and with Hamas”s recourse to its paramilitary machine to resolve its conflict with Fatah in Gaza.

We are thus presented with a fundamental question. Will the assimilation of such Islamist movements into plural politics, at a time when they have yet to develop a full commitment to peaceful participation and when such participation is perhaps only a tactic within the framework of a greater strategy, reduce or even eliminate the chances of propelling political plurality forward through a process of democratisation? Or will assimilation gradually inspire the Islamists of collapsed and failed states to demilitarise their movements and revise their means and methods in a manner that prioritises peaceful participation? Unfortunately, on the evidence of Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, the latter prospect looks unlikely even if there exists a margin of possibility that the movements change from within (through, perhaps, power struggles between hardliners and moderates) or that their respective societies eventually force them out by gradually turning away from the Islamists” current sources of mass appeal: a populist ideological rhetoric, religious affiliation, and the claim that they are the torchbearers of resistance against an occupying power or common enemy. Theoretically, at least, the only way out of this predicament resides in the coalescing of a collective will to revive the state as a thoroughly civil polity, to reinvigorate its neutrality towards the diverse components of society, and to introduce structures and mechanisms to impede religious or non-religious exclusivist forces monopolising public affairs.

In sharp contrast to these instances, the second mode of Islamist engagement in public life adopts peaceful participation as its one and only strategic option. Here there is no alternative to the preservation of the available spheres and mechanisms of political plurality and to gradually solidifying and expanding the pluralistic system through the formulation of a consensus with ruling elites and liberal and leftist opposition groups over the future of the democratisation process. The campaign motto “Working with others comes first” typifies the attitude of these Islamists who are prominent in Morocco, Algeria, Kuwait and Bahrain, and who have reconstituted themselves in political party structures (such as the Moroccan Justice and Development Party and the Algerian Society for Peace Movement) or quasi-political party structures (such as the Islamic Constitutional Movement in Kuwait and the Islamic Concord Society, a Shia party in Bahrain) of a clearly non-militaristic stamp. Whereas the Society for Peace Movement and the Islamic Constitutional Movement form small parts of the governments of Algeria and Kuwait, the Justice and Development Party and the Concord Society form part of the loyal opposition in Morocco and Bahrain. More significantly, some of these movements — notably the Justice and Development Party and the Constitutional Movement — have succeeded in formulating a functional separation between Islamist proselytising activities and politics, thereby transforming themselves into political organisations guided by an Islamist code but that are run by professional politicians and the activities of which steer clear of the rhetoric and activities of a proselytising movement. This cannot be said of the Bahraini Concord Society, in which the blend of proselytising and politics is perhaps a natural consequence of the overlap between the party”s leadership and the Shia hierarchy in Bahrain.

In spite of qualitative differences between these movements the “participation-comes-first” Islamists share several fundamental characteristics. Above all, they honour the legitimacy of the nation state to which they belong, and they respect that state”s governing institutions, the principle of equality among all citizens, and the pluralistic, competitive nature of political life. This attitude, which they have generally adopted as much in spirit as in form, has led to the decline in exclusionist rhetoric, whether directed towards the ruling elite or to the liberal and leftist opposition, and to a gradual shift away from ideological diatribes and categorical judgments, and towards the formulation of practical political platforms and constructive attempts to influence public policy, whether as minor partners in government or as members of the opposition.

The Islamists” experience in Morocco, Algeria, Kuwait and Bahrain testifies to the existence of a direct relationship between the stability of the available realm for political participation as a result of the decline in the government”s recourse to the security pretext to exclude or repress them and a relatively rapid rise in their resolve to respect and play by the rules of the game and to reach consensual agreements over the conduct of public affairs in a non-confrontationist manner. Nevertheless, these Islamists still face a number of tests of their intent. On the one hand, they have yet to demonstrate their unconditional commitment to the mechanisms of a pluralistic form of government, even if those mechanisms produce policies that do not conform with their religious beliefs. On the other, they must continue to convince their constituencies of the efficacy of peaceful participation at a time when exclusivist religious forces are positioning themselves for the failure of the peaceful option so as to push their own alternatives and when authoritarian ruling elites have yet to shed their suspicions of the Islamists and have yet to accustom themselves to the consensual approach.

The third mode is epitomised by the cases of Egypt, Sudan, Jordan and Yemen. In spite of the considerable differences between them, Islamist movements in these countries have persisted in the face of a volatile political space and the fragility of their relationship with the ruling elites. If, in Egypt and Jordan, the Muslim Brothers have been given some room to participate in pluralistic mechanisms, in legislative elections, in professional syndicates and other areas of civil society, the sword of the security forces is constantly hanging over their heads. On the other hand, the Islamist movement in Sudan and the Reform Party in Yemen throw into relief the danger of non-democratic accommodations Islamists have struck with ruling elites and the impact of such paramilitary-technocratic alliances on political life and on the internal dynamics of the Islamists themselves.

Perhaps we might call these Islamists who take part until they notify us otherwise. They may have adopted a strategy of peaceful participation, but it is no more than a strategy. In view of the perpetual fluctuation of their role in the political life of Egypt and Jordan or the swings in their positions from partners in authoritarian governments to antagonists, in the case of Yemen and to a certain extent Sudan, their leaders and followers continue to hover in the abstract heights of ideology, social narratives and mega policy (the role of religion, Islamic Law, the individual, the group and the Muslim nation) while ignoring the need to evolve a culture that values consensus-making and constructive mechanisms for influencing public policy. Perhaps the only way to inspire these half-hearted participants in the political process to commit themselves fully is to gradually open the way for them to make a stable contribution to public life.

Unless we fully appreciate the differences between the three modes of Islamist political participation we will never be able to put our fingers on those qualities and circumstances that will allow us to deal realistically with the Islamist phenomenon and the challenges it poses to society.

* The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC.