Monday, May 23, 2005

Saad Eddine Ibrahim on islamist parties in the arab world

Saad Eddine Ibrahim, the human rights activist and scholar from egypt, has written an interesting opinion piece due to appear in tomorrow's edition of The International Herald Tribune, where he tries to make the case that there is nothing scary about Islamic parties taking part in (and even winning) elections, provided some conditions safeguarding democratic freedoms are guaranteed. I cannot but be sympathetic to such view. Two quick comments are in order though. First, at the very beginning of his article, the author asserts that:

Based on my 30 years of empirical investigation into these parties - including my observations of fellow inmates during the 14 months I spent in an Egyptian prison - I can testify to a significant evolution on the part of political Islam. In fact, I believe we may be witnessing the emergence of Muslim parties that are truly democratic, akin to the Christian Democrats in Western Europe after World War II.

In my view, there is a big difference between abiding by democratic rules and believing in democratic values. If it is true that many political parties across the arab world are nowadays more ready (sometimes reluctantly) to get involved in the political game, to assert that these are "truly democratic" parties, without any factual evidence, to me seems to be a little of an overstatement. Second, at several occurrences, the author cites Morocco as a "bright spot" in the arab world, a country where recently implemented reforms herald the birth of a new era of democracy and human rights. As a Moroccan, I wish I could be as optimistic as the author: to me personally, the political game in Morocco is not as bright as Mr. Ibrahim seems to believe.


Jallal said...

This is, indeed, a quite interesting analysis on the way to deal with Islamic parties for setting up a genuine democratic process in the Arab world. On of the key points raised by Saad Eddine Ibrahim is this statement: “Repression has had high costs. Where Islamist groups are denied access to political space, their cause takes on an aura of mythical martyrdom, and their abstract calls for a return to Islamic principles of governance are not put to the test.”. This is what I always thought about the Islamic political paradigm. Much of Islamic parties credentials come form the abstractness of their message. The irony is that by denying them space in the political realm, the government helps the Islamic parties to gain even more aura. As the author put it, integrating Islamic parties in the democratic process will force them to put their abstract ideas into practice and will make them more familiar with the challenges of modern economy and politics. The consequences of this “face to face” are numerous and are all desirable. First, Islamic parties will become aware of the complexity of proposing a sound economic and political plan. They would finally be convinced that waving slogans merely referring to the Koran or Islam is definitely not sufficient to govern a country in the 21st century, and that instead much work and endeavor should be undertaken in the long term if any satisfactory result is to be hoped for. Moreover, this “face to face” experience will also lead mainstream people to distinguish between Islam and Islamic parties, by looking at the latter as fallible as any other party and not holding the ultimate truth and the magical solution. All these factors will deprive Islamic movements from their “sainthood” and actually will make them better political parties. Since the honeymoon will be over, they would have, indeed, to strive a lot if they want to stay alive politically speaking.
Regarding Morocco, the PJD was only third in the last elections. They are not really playing a major role as the author alluded to. It is true that they are holding a significant number of seats in the parliament, but so far they are using this asset only to be critical of the current government. I think the Moroccan situation is an appropriate place for implementing the author’s wishes. Morocco is a monarchy; the king holds the power and is the head of the army, and this is not disputable. Therefore, there is no fear that an Islamic party, once in power, would undermine the democratic process. Hence, if this party wins the majority in an upcoming election, letting it play its role as any other party will be instrumental in setting up a warm atmosphere in Moroccan politics in the upcoming decades.

Jawad said...

Very interesting article guys. It actually makes the case for some of the points I have been advancing on my blog. See, what America has yet to understand is that Islam in the Arab World, unlike Christianity in the West, is like an energy that runs throughout society. It is everywhere and that is why reports of the desecration of the Koran invited nasty responses from both the moderate and fundamentalist alike. This is something the West can not understand because they see the role of religion in society through their own lens which sees religion as a compartment that interacts with other compartments in society. That's not the case of Islam in Muslim societies. Again, it’s like an energy that runs through the veins of society.

The notion of sidelining and choking Islamic parties out of the political sphere is not only counterproductive, it's actually dangerous over the long run. Because it provides legitimacy to untested ideologues and foment popular anger and unrest. Under such circumstances, Time is on the Islamists’ side. As the author explains, hey, when they actually get out there and they are tested politically, the people realize that some are incompetent and therefore move to vote them out. But it is important to emphasize the institutional issues raised by the author. Those are extremely important not only to have but to make sure that they are strong. One must make sure that the mechanisms of feedback exist, that checks and balances take hold, and that the rule of law is supreme. Then as he said, so what if the people elect an Islamist party...That is how you get time to no longer be on their side.

Karim said...

Hi Jawad! Yes, I too think that islamist parties should be an integral part of the political scene, provided constitutional provisions are in place to guarantee that their rule (if ever people choose to elect them) does not degenerte into some kind of religious autocracy. And I totally agree that many islamists will very quickly spend any political capital they might have once in power. To successfully lead a country in today's world, religion alone is not enough: you need a clear vision of your own future - where you want to be in 30 years, and a deep understanding of the intricacies of our world. I personally find most islamist parties to be still very much immature in both areas, but, as you mentioned, the only way for us to really find out is by allowing them into the political game. This would be a win-win situation: if they succeed, it's all good for the country. If they fail, then at least they may (hopefully) become more level-headed and maybe adopt less populous and more mainstream positions on political and social issues.