Is Political Islam the Wrong Model for Arab World?

Article Summary
Talal Salman asks if political Islam is the right governance model for Arab countries emerging from decades of oppression.

Despotic regimes have managed to destroy at least four Arab countries in record time: Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Meanwhile, other countries face threats from internal strife and religious projects that are likely to thrive in the nations across the Arab world where political discourse has all but disappeared.

Political Islam has made its way to the center of every discussion or debate as if it were the present and the future of all Arab nations. This is especially true as the sense of nationalism — which constitutes the political framework of the concept of Arabism that connects the various peoples between the Atlantic and the Gulf — has begun to gradually lose ground.

Indeed, political Islam has come to power in more than one Arab country. Islamists are working according to a clear and precise governance model regardless of how they attained power or the damage inflicted in the process, including on those people who "elected" them in rejecting despotic regimes toppled by the "square revolution."

The truth of the matter is that political Islam has never constituted a governance model. It is a unifying divine message that addresses all people, guiding the faithful on the path of the Creator and Truth, preserving human dignity and rights. Political Islam protects the right of opinion, the right to work and the people's rights and duties in societies.

There has never been a "party" for political Islam, except for the purpose of political investment in religion. It would be absurd to assume that 1.3 billion Muslims around the world are part of this "universal" party and to consider the Quran a model for governance that must be applied at all times and in all places.

In due time, political Islam began to propose various interpretations for governance, as rulers governing in its name chose what suited them best from the principles of religion in order to monopolize power without regard to the essence of faith and the basic principles that protect people's dignity and their right to choose.

Religion has often been used as a means to overthrow dictatorship and domination and block attempts to conspire with foreign powers. However, Western colonists have used religious slogans and families with male elders throughout the history of Dawah in order to pass unacceptable policies. The West managed to divide into colonies and protectorates the "states" of Islam that had inherited the Ottoman Empire — the last state ruling under the Islamic banner. Furthermore, the West sought to establish Israel — the Jewish state — in the heart of the Arab nation in cahoots with many well-respected, high-up ecclesiastics.

Today, most Arabs are spiraling backward at an alarming rate. They are destroying the states that have been oppressing people for decades, but only to replace them with nations built on unprecedented religious projects that can only thrive by annihilating communities.

It is as if there were a race between the forcefully born Islamic regimes and the tyrannical regimes, be it those that have been toppled or those that are falling apart and rushing toward the most expedient destruction of communities and states. These states are capable of causing such destruction by using “modern” slogans to mock democracy, justice and independent decision making or by calling for religious rule now that the missionary era has ended and the world has shrunk to where citizens almost everywhere are able to find out what is happening across the globe.

While tyrannical regimes succeeded in destroying Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria, today other countries are threatened with internal division, hunger and internal subversion.

Sudan has already been destroyed — under the banner of Islam — while Tunisia is racing Egypt in taking expedited steps toward disaster.

According to Islamists, political Islam is the only way to salvation, progress and building a new, “civilized” society. What has been revealed so far about such projects, however, has done nothing to raise hopes for success. To the contrary, it spreads fear for the present and future rather than providing assurance.

Adherents of political Islam present their ideology as if it were a magic solution long ago confiscated by the authorities or something they had kept hidden, waiting for the moment they could use it to overthrow the authorities, so as to then move forward along the path to building a new society with faith.

In politics, the religious slogan is multifaceted. It is not a partisan political program, nor is it an approach to governance at any given place or time. There are variations, even contradictions, between forms of supposed Islamic rule in Arab and Asian countries.

We in the Arab region are witnessing conflicting preachers who possibly view others as infidels and people carrying banners with the names of caliphs, the prophet’s companions, mujahidin and locations of Islamic victories. However, beyond the initial formulations of certain Islamic principles or teachings, which are inevitably unpolitical, no party has presented a political program or a vision in keeping with the times.

They are not content with the status quo, but the future to them lies with sharia law, which consists of rites, according to those who profess it.

The main risk with the slogans of political Islam is that they quickly devolve into a way to divide communities and classify Muslims. Classification occurs initially between observing believers and those who are negligent in performing their religious duties (for example, wearing the hijab, fasting, having contact with non-Muslims).

This is followed by a reassessment of Islam as practiced by Muslims: Are the Sunnis alone the only true Muslims, or are the Shiites Muslims as well? This is without even considering the other sects and differences between the Shafi'i, Maliki, Hanbali, and Hanafi schools of Islam.

Is the Hanbali school, the current model of governance in some Arab countries, the right approach? Can any model of governance established by imams or other religious leaders be considered a point of reference for new political experiments, whether in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya, where the Maliki school prevails with bits of the Ibadi and Shafi’i trends.

Many advocates and intellectuals have made independent judgments and have written on political thought. Some of the proposed arguments and ideas are, naturally, still being debated. However, the question remains — Is what has been written a suitable model for governance? Were these thinkers aware that Arab societies have suffered from a dangerous distortion of values ​​and beliefs as a result of their long colonial period, which created nations that previously did not exist and then planted at their heart an entity hostile to Arabs in general and to Palestinian Muslims and Christians in particular?

Intellectuals during the age of nationalism as well as advocates of Arabism and the unity of destiny wrote about the way they perceived the nation and state. These ideas emerged as platforms for establishing a state based on these rules, which were not respected for long by the military. For this reason, Arabs failed to sustain a model of a modern state capable of protecting its unity and guaranteeing general freedoms to its people, making the choice between national security and freedom of thought and between the obligations of building a strong state and citizens’ rights to justice and a decent life in their homeland.

Paradoxically, the regimes destroyed individual communities, not just countries. They made the countries they ruled for ages worse than when they took power in terms of economies, social climate, and ability to protect the homeland.

Taking Egypt as an example, one can see in recent decades obvious declines at all levels, such as in the economy, education, the security sector and military, industry, agriculture and arts and culture in general.

I remember Dr. Ahmed Zewail, during a visit to As-Safir in Beirut, sharing his impressive scientific achievements with us. We felt remorse, however, when he said that upon returning to Egypt he had visited Alexandria University, from which he had graduated in 1969, and had found that it had declined in quality since his time there more than 30 years ago.

The masses took to the squares to bring down the tyranny that destroyed their homeland.

The masses know very well that tyrannical regimes were successful in sabotaging their communities, exhausting the countries that they ruled and making them too weak to confront their enemies or to gain allies without damaging concessions to national dignity.

Moreover, this wave of Islamists coming to power in more than one Arab country holds them accountable for the potential dismantlement of societies whether they govern alone or with weak partners.

Egypt doesn't consist only of groups of Islamists, Muslim Brotherhood members, Salafists and Sufis; the millions of Copts do not constitute a foreign occupying constituency.

Furthermore, Tunisia doesn't exist in the first century AD. Libya has gone through a period of spiritual disconnectedness in which Muammar Gadhafi decided that the Islamic calendar should start with the death of the Prophet rather than his migration, a heresy in its own right.

It is true that the majority of the Syrian people are Sunnis, but there are millions of Christians, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis. 

The Iraqi people includes Shiites, Sunnis and numerous minorities, most notably Kurds. However, there are also Christians,  Sabians [Mandaeans], Yazidis, Assyrians, Circassians, Turkmen, Persians and Armenians.

In Yemen, there are multiple Islamic schools, including the Shafi'i and Zaidi.

The overwhelming majority in Saudi Arabia are Sunnis, with a minority of Shiites. The opposite is true in Bahrain.

The threat of strife surrounds all of the Levant.

Any political mistake committed by the Brotherhood regime in Egypt could have disastrous implications in other Arab countries, including those already with a prevailing doctrinal school. Communities are fragile as a result of the long reign of different tyrannical models in which religious slogans are commonly used.

The Egyptian regime’s responsibility to stabilize the Arab world is historical and important. It is critical in quelling strife, and strife cannot be overcome simply through the rule of any single party, even if that party holds a majority. How then can a party succeed in such an endeavor without a majority?

This article was translated by Naria Tanoukhi, Sahar Ghoussoub and Joelle Khoury.

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