Islamic political parties: Secularists or opportunists?

Mohamed Salih, Special to Addis Standard

Three distinct notions of politicized Islam dominate the landscape of the Islamic World. The first is political Islam, which underpins the conceptual edifice, ethos, norms and messages as well as meanings of Islam as a political ideology. The second is Islamic political parties that represent the institutional manifestation, the vehicle or an instrument through which political Islam expresses itself. Here political Islam exhibits the institutional and practical manifestation of diverse strands of political parties which can be radical or moderate. And third, Islamic political parties which are extremist or radical Jihadist in nature such as ISIS (operating in Syria and Iraq), Al Shabab (Somalia and Kenya), Al-Qaeda (in the Islamic Maghreb (AGIM) and the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iraq) and Boko Haram, in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

In the backdrop of the above mentioned three elements of the relationship between Islam and politics, Islamic political parties in general can be defined as political organizations through which devout Muslims around the world channel their commonly shared values, beliefs and ideas of governing and ordering Muslim priorities.

Similar and dissimilar
Like secular political parties, Islamic political parties are often created with the main objective of wrestling power or act as instruments of collective action within a given society. However they are different from secular political parties in that, they are the creation of Islamic elites who primarily want to control the government in order to put into practice a distinctly Islamist ideology and an Islamist political program. Moreover, Islamic political parties are different from secular political parties, including, for example, confessional Christian or Jewish political parties. The latter recognize Roman law as a source of legislation, while Islamic political parties either opt entirely for Islamic sources of law or partially attempt to apply Sharia in personal matters. They espouse to create a society that adheres to or, is at least influenced by Islamic teachings and values derived from the sources of Islamic legislation or law (literally Sharia i.e. the Quran and the sayings of Prophet Muhammad). This is so because in Islam there is neither distinction between ethics and law nor distinction among the social, economic, political and religious functions of Islamic political parties beyond the political activities in which they engage.

Common denominator
A common denominator among political parties that call themselves Islamic, whether radical or moderate, is that their adherence professes an Islamic identity with a conscious and deliberate objective of advancing an Islamic way of life as well as serving the interests of the Muslim umma (community of believers).

However, as much as advancing an Islamic way of life is the major common denominator among these Islamic political parties there are major differences between those which are largely moderate and militant Islamic political parties. The major one is their position vis-à-vis hudud (amputation of limbs for theft beyond certain value or flogging and stoning of women who commit adultery). These practices are not condoned by moderate Islamic political parties. Militant Islamic political parties also run a parallel political structure of non-elected, but influential council called the Consultative Council (maglis al-shura), an affront to secular democratic values and has the power to trump the decisions of an elected government.
Islamic and democratic?

To be sure, Islamic political parties constitute the most tangible institutional manifestation of diverse schools of political Islam, ranging from the most militant to the moderate. They advocate diverse and at times contradictory ideological orientations and responses to major concerns in the contemporary Islamic world with regard to social justice, human rights and the position of women and minorities.

The iconic question that has faced Islamic Political parties and their opponents is whether they can be both Islamic and democratic considering two intervening doctrines which underpin the tension between Islam and democracy. Religion propagate believes and values of divine nature and in the case of Islam often gives the last word in resolving fundamental social, political and economic problems to a sense of “divinity”. If politics is that of compromise, in a fundamental Islamic sense, the divine word is final and therefore there is no room for compromise.

The tension between secularism and Islamic political parties has its origin in a political doctrine opposed to religion and essentialists such as the belief in racial differences and male superiority, among other attributes.

From a more centralist political Islam viewpoint maintaining a balance between Islamic political parties’ ideological bent and secularism is not impossible but rather difficult. But they are dialectically opposites. For radical Islamic Political parties it is impossible to reconcile secularism – for example for some the suspension of some of the cruel aspects of Sharia such as the inequality between men and woman in family law (women inherit half of the share of their brother and are subject to hudud is unthinkable), while others replace competitive democratic norms with a non-elected maglis al-shura with higher authority than the elected members. More often than not moderate Islamic political parties which follow relatively secular ideological values have been under pressure from the most radical sections in Muslim organizations to implement elements of Islamic values and sets of practices. The Sudan Muslim Brotherhood or rather the National Islamic Front (its name being changed into the National Congress Party) organized and supported the military coup of June 1989 which propelled General Omar Hassan al-Bashir to power. The Islamist’s military coup was a reaction to an attempt by secular political parties to repeal the Islamic Sharia laws introduced in 1983.

Under pressure too

On the other hand radical Islamic political parties are also under constant pressure from moderate Muslims around the world. For example, the Muslim brotherhood which formed the first democratically elected government after the collapse of the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt began to tamper with the Constitutions. This tampering with the constitution prompted the secular elements in the Egyptian society to openly support the military takeover and have subsequently voted for General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who became the de facto elected military President of Egypt. Similarly, in Tunisia, Ennahda Islamist-dominated Government was forced through public pressure to establish an interim arrangement to oversee the Constitutional reform process, because the secular elements in Tunisia have no trust in its neutrality. Ennahda Islamist party was even accused of tolerating the Jihadist organizations which roamed the Tunisian-Algerian border. Nida Tunis (Tunis Calls), a secular anti-Islamist platform, won the 2014 elections by 85 of the 217 seats and re-established the secular political order in Tunisia. Unfortunately, the Jihadist groups tolerated by Ennahda have been implicated in the 18 March 2015 bombing of a museum frequented by Western tourists in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, which killed more than 20 people. And the Algerian pre-emptive military coup of 1990 was understood as an attempt by the army to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS, French acronym) from winning the elections and transform Algeria to an Islamic State.

Secularists or opportunists?
Case after case the emergence of Islamic political parties around the world has added complexity to the iconic question on whether these political parties can be trusted to be both Islamic and democratic at the same time. The ultimate question, therefore, is: are moderate Islamic political parties secularists or opportunists? In my opinion secularism and Islamism are contradictory in many terms. Secularism is a political doctrine hostile to religion; it opposes religion and believes religion will seize to exist if there is no region for it to confront. On the other hand, Islam is an integrated way of life in which religion, politics, ethics and the law are inseparable. It is the antithesis of secularism in all its manifestations (liberal, social democratic or socialist). For political parties to be both Islamic and democratic, they have to give up much of what make them a strand of political Islam, whether radical or moderate. In my view this will remain impossible and a political suicide that no Islamic political party can afford to entertain.


Ed’s Note: Mohamed Salih is Professor of Politics of Development at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Hague Campus.

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