For the past three decades, the Arab world has been abuzz with the discourse of political Islam. The Islamists have produced a new popular and combative religion. They have developed a religious culture that meets both their contemporary religious needs and their various political ambitions. Iran has made Shiite ideology a part of the national culture and turned it into a justification for independence from Western domination. Turkish Islam has formulated a project that awakens the middle class to the notion of justice and solidifies the nation’s identity, which had been lost between East and West.
Political Islam in the Arab world has been more objective and localized. In Lebanon, political Islam takes the form of the Shiite resistance to Israel. In Palestine, the resisting Islamists are Sunni. In the north African countries, a modernizing Islam seeks to build a state that is balanced with the West; a West that appropriated the will of the region’s peoples through its local agents and gave power and privilege to the political and economic elites. In Egypt, the Islamists clashed with the consequences of modernity and liberalism, which robbed the people of a decent living and exacerbated the obscene displays of wealth and suppressed freedom. It also placed Egypt’s history and dignity in the hands of the West and Israel.
Political Islam is the antithesis of the historical legacy of Muslims. It cannot restore the caliphate, the sultanate or the great empires of the past. It is an Islam that tends to conform with liberal modernity while still making use of primitive bullying tactics, as in the case of the Salafist trend. Until now, the Islamists are no more than conflicting populist currents. They have no coherent or practical answers for the people who rebelled against authoritarian regimes for the sake of freedom, dignity, bread, employment and the rejection of an imported “democracy” that was forced upon their culture.
It goes without saying that the rise of political Islam is one of the symptoms of the historical gap between the current cultures and the socially and politically backward regimes. It is a reaction to a genuine feeling of humiliation and vulnerability that stems from various forms of domination by the West and its local agents.
In Lebanon, the Shiites had mainly just a sectarian solidarity and not a religious one. Until recently, the Shiites were a liberal sect that absorbed all civil political trends. Then they turned to religious radicalism by solidifying their combined social, political and military resistances and joining the ambiguous nationalist/religious Iranian project. Imam Musa Sadr only wanted Shiism to be recognized as a legitimate Islamic sect, but the Iranian revolution established it as a state ideology. So in a way it became a “Sunni state,” a political tradition that placed interpreting Islamic Sharia in the hands of the Islamic government. That Iranian religious and material authority turned Shiite political Islam in Lebanon into a closed ideological structure. In turn, the Shiites turned to a religious solidarity based on a religious interpretation of history.
The Sunnis in Lebanon have been one of the most urban communities, and they were entrusted with the care of Muslims’ interests. Dar al-Fatwa (the Sunni Muslim authority, headed by the Mufti of Lebanon) was to lead all the Muslims in the republic. The Sunnis embraced the Shiites, the Druze and the Alawites and admitted them into the political club. The Sunnis helped the latter’s ambitions to participate and cooperate under Arabism’s umbrella, which covers all of political Islam. Neither the Druze nor the Alawites had religious solidarity. They are small branches of a large and comprehensive culture, but they fell back on their religious culture to deal with their crisis of legitimacy they were having with the main religion, Sunni Islam. With every political crisis, they sought to develop their own suppressed culture. However, they only succeeded in using vague and abstract religious ideas to strengthen their solidarity in the face of broad Islamic fundamentalist trends.
Lebanese Sunni Salafism was under the care and cooperation of the region’s influential centers, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Salafist ideology is inconsistent with political activism against the ruler and tends to be more suited toward proselytizing work. However, the emerging Gulf leadership decided to use the Salafist trend for a political project. Thus, Salafism was transformed into a reserve force throughout the region, and the Salafists were made to participate in politics and even military activities, from Afghanistan to all the Arab countries.
The Salafists have never been a political party like the Muslim Brotherhood. Today they are grouped under the leadership of the Gulf for one objective: defending the Islamic nation and the Sunnis against the threat of Iranian Shiites and their allies in the region.
Due to the fact that the Salafists do not have an effective political history or experience in political confrontations — they have only recently issued a fatwa that legitimizes participation in politics and elections — they represent an emerging threat to their political environment. Salafists want the state to be an instrument for the strict application of their ideas, traditions and culture. This is what is currently happening in Tunisia and Egypt.
The detailed overview of political Islam above shows that there are many reasons why it will continue to rise. Political Islam is not a contrived phenomenon that came in the context of the Arab world’s existential crisis or in the political storm that accompanies the transition from autocracy to a form of democracy. However, the various Islamist movements will only be a passing and transitional historical phenomenon until the definition of the state in the Arab world is crystallized among the internal, regional and international parties. Ideology will not be the only factor that determines the nature of the political regimes or the regional order after this transitional phase is over.
It is not yet certain that the Islamists will control all the power in Egypt. After the parliament was dissolved, there was major discord between the Islamists and the military establishment. Several measures taken against them, especially by the constitutional court. It is too early to conclude that the Islamists will be able to impose their agenda on Egypt under the banners of the Islamic state or the rule of law.
The rising political Islam will not be able to eliminate political pluralism, nor will it be able to ignore the Egyptian people’s demands and needs. The Islamists will have to look for political compromises and solutions in the framework of national unity in order to avoid the trap of authoritarianism over the state and society, which would cause them to lose all legitimacy as an alternative model of governance. The Islamists’ experience in power is still brief. Will they renounce democracy and thus lose their legitimacy, or will they embrace democracy and turn themselves into a political force that is capable of development and positive, non-ideological political work? If the Islamists reach the top executive post in Egypt, we will soon have the answers to this question.