Do Islamists need a way out?

Do Islamists need a way out?

In July 2008 I attended an international workshop on ‘Politics and Islam’ in Islamabad that was organized by Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington based U. S. Think Tank. Diaa Rashwan, Director of Al Ahram Center for Political Strategic Studies Egypt attended the event.

We had a good discussion on the political situation in Egypt and the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in the sideline of the workshop. Diaa then informed me that Brotherhood is planning to float a new political party. The debate was then going on "whether this prospective party will be a means for the Muslim Brotherhood to carry out its public and political work, or if it will replace the Brotherhood entirely" [Diaa Rashwan, Political Islamists Movements: The Case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in Islam and Politics: Renewal and Resistance in the Muslim World, Stimson Regional Voices, Henry L. Stimson Center Washington, 2009, pp 3-16]. Now in the backdrop of the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak, Brotherhood has floated a new political party – Freedom and Justice Party.

The Muslim Brotherhood would however continue to operate as the parent organization. What is the lesson Islamists in Bangladesh can draw from the Egyptian experience is a very pertinent question now hitting the mind of the political observers here. In Bangladesh the mainstream Islamist, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, analysts say, has lost much of its creditability for opposing the liberation war of the country in 1971.

Whether this analysis is right or wrong, the fact remains that the secular forces here have been quite successful to discredit Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami in the public eyes and have also been successful to poison the minds of the new generation of people against it. That being the scenario, many analysts consider Jamaat-e-Islami as a "spent force" [Abid Ullah Jan, Moderate Islam: A Product of American Extremism, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, jointly published by Association of Muslim Social Scientists and International Institute of Islamic Thought, Herndon, V.A., U. S. A., Vol. 22, No. 3, Summer 2005, p 35]. It has hardly any future.

In this backdrop, a workshop was held in Dhaka in July 2009. It was participated by all former Presidents of Islami Chhattra Shibir, the student wing of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, three Assistant Secretary Generals of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, quite a few well-known lawyers, several retired government officials, eminent educationists and some other Islamist intellectuals [Weekly Budhbar, 7 October 2009]. The main theme of the paper presented in PowerPoint was to float a new political party in the model of Turkish Justice and Development Party, otherwise known as A. K. Party with the avowed objectives of promoting public welfare, good governance, safeguarding the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country, besides protecting the nation’s economic interest, particularly safeguarding gas and other mineral resources.

Some people as back as April 1998 also had written to the top leadership of Jamaat to float a new party with liberal and democratic aims and objectives committed to establishing social justice, peace, stability and bringing prosperity to the nation. The workshop paper of July 2009 also recommended that the proposed party must distance itself from the demand of a theological state and strict compliance of shariah in public life.

The recommendation of not bringing shariah into politics came in the light of the recently carried out ijtihad or search on the application of shariah which says: "Negus, the Emperor of Abyssinia, who embraced Islam but did not rule as per shariah as that would have threatened his Kingdom. … From this it becomes clear that Muslims can rule without implementing shariah if the circumstances are not in their favor or the people are not ready for such reform or the situation is not healthy enough or conducive for such a transformation or change" [Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, The Participation of Islamists in Non-Islamic Government in Azzam Tamimi ed. Power-Sharing Islam, Liberty for Muslims World Publications, London, U. K., 1993, pp 57-58. Also see Prof. Dr. Yusuf al Qaradawi, Islamic Awakening Between Rejection and Extremism, I. I. I. T., Virginia, U. S. A., 1991, pp 137-138. Further see Shah Abdul Halim, Concept of Sovereignty and Other Issues,].

An Nahadah Party ideologue Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, in the backdrop of the recent change in Tunisia, has returned to the country from long exile in the United Kingdom and has declared that An Nahadah will not bring shariah into politics Meanwhile Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, Senior Assistant Secretary General of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami who is now in prison facing the charge of war crimes for alleged involvement in human rights violation during the liberation war has circulated a political discourse dated 26 November 2010 to a select group of top Jamaat leaders as to what strategy need to be adopted in the country’s changed political environment.

Its copy has been leaked to the press. Reformists within Jamaat have however widely circulated photocopies of this political advice among the Jamaat activists, followers and sympathizers and it is now in everybody’s possession. Kamaruzzaman in his political discourse has also advised Jamaat to form a new political platform with new policy and strategy outlines [Daily Kalerkantho, 28 February 2011]. In his paper Kamaruzzaman has given the outline of the proposed party.

He suggested that Jamaat leaders against whom charges of war crimes hang should not be in any way linked with the new party. But many others believe this is perhaps not enough. Since the agenda of the Islamists should be the progress and advancement of Islam in society, the new party should be manned and headed by people from post-liberation generation, those who are born after 1971, against whom there cannot be any charge of war crimes or stigma of collaboration with the Pakistan army. The proposed party should even scrupulously avoid associating the family members or close relatives of pre-liberation Jamaat leaders in the new party. There should not be any illusion about this. No mental obsession should also be there though it may be painful.

It might appear to some as regression or a step back from Islamic call and guidance but it will ultimately pave the way for a stride and forward march creating a new environment where Islamic politics may make new leap forward. The proposed party should be totally democratic in architecture. Centralize authority must be discarded in the new party.

The weakness of the Islamist movement is that although it believes in human equality in principle but it has failed to translate such equality in real life practice in the state and the society as a whole. Malaysian scholar Dr. Chandra Muzaffar rightly pointed out: "If one looks at the contemporary situation, one could argue that contemporary Islamic movements have by and large, with a few exceptions such as the An Nahdah Party of Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, inherited this notion of equality and political, economic, social, and gender relations from the history … It is a notion of equality which has been embodied in the fiqh tradition, the Islamic tradition of jurisprudence, which must be distinguished for the purpose of analysis from the divinely rooted shariah.

It is this fiqh tradition, which has formed the basis of Islamic movement’s approach to this fundamental question of equality in society. What Islamic movements have done the most notable amongst them being the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islami, is to say that they have accepted equality as an important principle at the general level. However, when it comes to translating that principle into specifics you will find that there are many inequalities and that they accept the inequality as divinely sanctioned. … For example, in the realm of politics the fiqh oriented approach of contemporary Islamic movements is to say that you need a powerful ruler, a ruler who would centralize authority and thus be able to establish the norms and principles of an Islamic polity.

That this in itself an act of inequality is something that does not occur to them. You will find that within these Islamic movements there is very little support for the idea of people’s participation and empowering the individuals. Rather there exists this notion of a strong leader at the apex of society" [Shah Abdul Halim, Islamic Movement: An Overview,]. The leadership structure of the proposed party should be built like a pyramid – bottom-up approach from grassroots to the center, instead of top-bottom approach, where the leader at the apex nominates rest of the leadership having the veto power to overrule the decision of consultative committee and executive committee.

In keeping with the true spirit and tradition of democracy, the new party would allow its members the unbridled freedom and opportunity to elect leadership and in no way restrict the exercise of the freedom to choose leadership by limiting their option by way of creating a panel of leadership, which only reflects the senior leader’s lack of trust, faith and confidence on the ability of general members in exercising voting rights judiciously, from which top leaders are to be elected by the members.

The proposed party should adopt the system of electing leadership at every tier and the current belief and mindset of the Islamists that placing oneself to contest for leadership is contrary to the teachings of Islam must be given-up. History bears testimony that Prophet Yusuf (peace and blessings be upon him) asked Pharaoh to give him the ministerial responsibility of the government to administer the food management to ameliorate the suffering of the people.

It means that if the Islamist leadership has any expertise, they are duty bound even today to offer their services for the common good, public wellbeing and social welfare and refusing to offer or give such service shall be tantamount to zulm or oppression. Prophet Yusuf therefore did not hesitate to ask for ministerial responsibility to administer the food management and participate in the administration of Pharaoh to save people from starvation.

The same principle should hold good and valid even now. What has happened to Prophet Yusuf can repeat to Muslims today. Muslims are permitted to ask for leadership position and join government to fulfill the greater interest of the Muslim community, the ummah and prevent evils and wrongdoings. Failure to do so will lead to undermining the overall interest of the Muslim community, the ummah and allowing the evils to spread and dominate the society. Muslims offer dua or prayers to God to give them leadership over the believers, muttaqina imama. So asking position for leadership cannot be termed as un-Islamic [Shah Abdul Halim, Power Sharing in Islam,].

The new party leadership must abide by the decisions of the shura or consultative committee. The decisions of the consultative committee must be binding on the leader(s) at apex. King Abdul Aziz became a caliph, the fifth rightly guided caliph of Islam, by accepting the binding provision of the shura. After the state of Medina was established and the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), now head of the state, was then ordained by God: Consult them (the Companions) in the (community) affair(s), and when you have reached a decision, then place your trust in God (and implement it) [Al Quran 3: 159]. "Al-Tabari characterizes consultation as one of the fundamental principles of the shariah (azaim al-ahkam), which are essential to the substance and identity of Islamic government. Ibn Taymiyyah held a similar view, observing that God, Most High, commanded the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to consult the community, despite the fact that he was the recipient of divine revelation.

The Quranic command is therefore all the more emphatic with regard to the subsequent generations of Muslims who no longer have the Prophet among them, and no longer have access to direct revelation. Muhammad Abduh has also held that in this verse, consultation is not just a recommendation, but an obligatory command addressed primarily to the head of the state to ensure that it is properly implemented in the government affairs" [Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Freedom of Expression in Islam, Part Two, Chapter IV Consultation (Shura), Ilmiah Publishers Sdn Bhd, Kuala Lumpur, 1998, pp 40-44].

It is thus evident that shura or consultation is obligatory for the leadership of the political party as they are directly involved with the process of governance of the state. The strength of the shura lies in the fact that consultation brings people closer together, and it provides them with an opportunity to share ideas and voice their views on matters of common concerns. In this way, shura prevents disunity and division among the people. But consultation can only be meaningful and effective when the participants enjoy total freedom to express their views. It would be totally in vain, and would make no sense to say that in Islam the government and for that matter political party is bound by the principle of consultation, and yet should have the liberty to deny the members of the shura the freedom to express an opinion.

It may not be out of context to mention here that Dr. Rezaul Karim, President of Islami Chhattra Shibir, working for the coterie of a section of former Islami Chhattra Sihbir Presidents who consider them more wise and judicious over the collective consultation, refused to accept the decision of the shura in 2009 to nominate Shishir Muhammad Munir as the Secretary General of the student organization. It sparked crisis and caused resignation of 20 out of 34 executive committee members. Islami Chhattra Shibir must exercise unbridle freedom and independence as an organization and in no way be subservient to advice from any other person or organization.

It must not involve people outside its own organization to mediate or resolve its problems rather must strictly follow its own constitutional provisions in resolving disputes, if ever it arises. Past experience has shown that mediators become partisan. Islami Chhattra Shibir in no way and must not become an organization of sycophant or what Muhammad Kamaruzzaman said: Islami Chhattra Shibir must come out of the fold of ‘lejurbritti’ or sycophancy of any political organization. In the new party women members should be an integral part of the shura. This will help male members of the shura to have perceptions and views of women on important gender issues along with other national and international subjects to reach a fair, judicious and balanced decision.

If women shura or consultative committee is separate, the fact remains that their voice is not heard at the particular moment of taking vital decisions. In the past it has been seen that women parliamentarians and male parliamentarians of the Islamist party are sitting in the same room although the male and female shura members are sitting in separate rooms. These practices are self-contradictory having no logic. Sometimes women are suppressed and their voice is not heard. This is neither Islamic nor democratic.

Elections to form committees and choose leadership of the proposed party at all levels must be on the basis of open discussion, secret ballots and open counting. Counting party election results openly and then declaring the scoring will not create division within the party as some argue; rather this will restore confidence in the rank and file of the new party. This would also meet the requirement of the national Election Commission. It would also break the hands of vicious circles who often manipulate the election results of the party as they do not consider shura binding.

It is alleged that such manipulation did occur at different tiers of the student organization. It is also alleged that during party elections, election commissioner had even rigged and manipulated the results of apex body in the recent past. The workshop held in July 2009 suggested that the proposed party should not be cadre based. The past experience has shown that cadre system develops privileged-class and a bar on the entry of newcomers to turn it into a mass organization. The leadership should be developed step by step from the grassroots. The cadre system would have no place at any level in the democratic setup of the new party.

The present reporting system on personal conduct which a member has to maintain, according to some insiders, has also proved mischievous and it must be discontinued in the proposed political party. The system of whole-timer should also be discarded in the proposed party. Experience has shown that whole-timers, being totally dependent on the salary of the party, lose freedom and confidence to think independently being afraid of losing favor from the hierarchy where innovation and creativity constitute the lifeline of any organization committed to work for reform and renaissance. Whole-timers are found more interested in protecting their self-interest rather than working to push the right cause and chart out a pragmatic way as it may antagonize the party establishment.

The new party should be prepared to accept women in the leadership including the leadership positions at the apex. The Islamists are not yet ready to accept and embrace women in the leadership, which is another example of inequality between men and women. Those who object to assigning political positions to women forget that in today’s world rulers are only parts of a wider political establishment making the government. Indeed government itself is one of a group of as many institutions that shares out among them the power and authority of the state, which were the domain and used to be exercised by a single ruler in the past, regardless of the title he assumed.

During the earlier days of Islam the kholafa-e-rashadeen used to combine in them a whole range of comprehensive and broad authority, over the whole Muslim world which no ruler is expected to exercise now or in foreseeable future, including leading prayers, commanding armies, exercising absolute ijtihad in fiqh besides exercising powers as the supreme judge. These are being performed now by many people at different levels.

There is a strict bifurcation and separation of powers. From the point of view of her competence, a woman may be now assigned some of these powers, including the post of the head of the state, because none of these powers, including that of head of the state, constitutes the overall authority over the community [For a detailed discussion as to whether women leadership is allowed in Islam or not see Shah Abdul Halim, Can Woman Become Head of the State or Government,]. The proposed party should have at least one woman Vice President and one woman Assistant Secretary General. The post of the President and the Secretary General should also remain open to contest by women. The Islamist in Bangladesh must take lessons from others. In Iran, which is no doubt an Islamic state, woman has been elected to the post of Vice President.

The new party as a matter of policy should adopt easy options when Islam offers different alternatives in resolving problems. It would always remain open to examine variable choices while deciding policy matters. Some Islamists overemphasize the importance of covering face by woman. A number of Islamist organizations have failed to make difference between local culture and Islamic culture, which is one of the reasons for the backwardness of the Muslims. Covering face of woman is a local culture and has nothing to do with Islam.

Those who insist on using total veil by the women are really working to create bottleneck in the progress of Islamic society rather than promoting its advancement [This position of not covering face by women is also shared by Dr. Ahmad Totonji. See Shah Abdul Halim, Totonji on the Backwardness of the Muslim Ummah.]. (To be continued) (This article is the political thinking of a cultural activist. The author is a researcher and Chairman of Bangladesh Center for Islam and Pluralism.)