Islamist Movements and the Democratic Process

This topic was also discussed with Amr Hamzawy and Scott Carpenter on Al Jazeera on March 27. 

Amr Hamzawy, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Nathan Brown, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Scott Carpenter, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, State Department

Marina Ottaway, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Marina Ottaway explained that the paper is part of a broader project that is exploring all the thinking and political strategies of all major political actors in the Middle East: Islamist parties, secular parties, and ruling parties/coalitions.

Amr Hamzawy laid out the analytical framework explaining that mainstream Islamist movements are defined in the study as those that have renounced violence and embraced participation in normal politics. Mainstream Islamists recognize the extent of their popularity and know that a pluralist rather than authoritarian setting provides the only means for their success.  Their strength derives primarily from the popularity of their religious message, their organizational capacity, and the weakness of other political actors.

Gray zone‌ of Islamist movements are areas of ambiguity in their rhetoric and thought.  Hamzawy outlined six gray zones: sharia, violence, political pluralism, civil and political rights, religious minorities, and women’s rights. Islamists are willing to accept political pluralism, for instance, but argue that it must be understood within an Islamic frame of reference, the exact meaning of which remains highly unclear. Also, Islamists movements such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood may embrace democratic reform, but remain reluctant to endorse equal rights for religious minorities on the basis of citizenship. Hamzawy attributed the persistence of Islamists’ gray zones to three factors:

(1) the dual character of Islamist movements as both political actors and religious organizations;

 (2) generational differences within Islamist movements between hardliners and reformists; and

(3) the larger social context of the Islamization process that swept much of the Arab world in the 1970s and 1980s, leading to a rise in social conservatism. Faced with increasingly conservative constituencies, Islamist movements are forced to strike a difficult balance between developing pragmatic solutions to practical political problems and attracting constituencies which are more attracted to absolutist religious labels.

Nathan Brown elaborated on the gray zones concerning sharia and political pluralism. The debate on sharia has moved beyond the question of the compatibility of Islam and democracy, but focuses on ways of combining them. Interestingly, the entry of Islamist movements into electoral politics has led some to deemphasize sharia.  Although they continue to rely extensively on religious rhetoric and symbols in their campaigns, Islamist movements have started to prioritize political reform and the rule of law in their legislative agendas. Hamas has been making consistent reference to the rule of law since its major victory in the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. Other movements have shifted from their focus on a strict implementation of Sharia to loose concepts such as requiring that all legislation fits in an Islamic marji’iyah or framework.

Islamist movements have accepted political pluralism, in practice if not in theory. Morocco is a case where this process has gone quite far. The adoption of a new family code in Morocco was first vehemently opposed by Morocco’s Islamist Justice and Development Party but later endorsed by it. The PJD argued that the law was democratically drafted and—with the PJD as a legitimate participant—drew at least partially on Islamic sources and thus should be accepted. In contrast, the extensive use of the slogan “Islam is the Solution,â€‌ by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood demonstrates the persisting ambiguities about political pluralism among some Islamist movements.

Scott Carpenter pointed out that political participation has sharpened some of the gray zones of Islamist movements. While agreeing with Hamzawy on the reasons behind the persistence of Islamists’ gray zones, Carpenter noted that debates about them are often a result of the pressure that is brought to bear on Islamist movements in electoral contexts. He argued that despite claims to the contrary, the Bush administration is not backing down on democratization. While recognizing the importance of understanding Islamists’ gray zones, Carpenter argued that it is extremely important for the United States to be clear on the type of political actors that it is willing to engage. He stressed that the United States should be careful not to engage undemocratic actors or those who continue to maintain armed wings. It should also be noted, Carpenter added, that the religious slogans used by Islamist movements fail to provide answers to pressing socio-economic and political problems in Arab countries, and therefore the true test will come when such movements are in a position to formulate their own policies.

Synopsis prepared by Dina Bishara, Junior Fellow in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project.

This topic was also discussed with Amr Hamzawy and Scott Carpenter on Al Jazeera on March 27.