The path of centrist political Islam

by Khalil Al-Anani
29 January 2008
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Cairo - For more than three decades, fundamentalist religious organisations across the Arab world – such as the Islamic Group in Egypt, the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, and Al Qaeda – have monopolised global attention. Meanwhile, moderate currents faced – and continue to face – difficulty expressing themselves at the international level, even though they represent the mainstream essence of Islam.

Now, violent waves of extremism have waned one after the other, as is evident from the receding popularity of such organisations, the disintegration of the central command of Al Qaeda, and its transformation from a hierarchal system to a state of mind. It seems that the Arab public has meanwhile become more amenable to “centrist” political ideologies, which call for tolerance, moderation and communication with the “other”.

This comes as a result of the suffering that Arab societies have witnessed due to the prevalence of extremist violence, and a wariness towards martyrdom overtures which inflict death and destruction upon innocent civilians. However, shifting this paradigm requires that moderate political Islamic groups be allowed the opportunity to participate in the political arena.

Moving away from traditional political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, centrist Islamic activists and parties have gradually established their political presence over the past 20 years. Examples include the Nahda (Awakening) Party in Tunisia, which was established in 1981, and the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, which combines the Popular Constitutional Democratic Movement established in 1967 with members of the more religious Moroccan Reform and Renewal Movement. Other centrist parties include the Jordanian Islamic Centre Party, which was established in 2001, the Sudanese Middle Party, established in 2006, and the New Middle Party in Egypt, whose members have been struggling for the past ten years to obtain a legal license for political activity.

There are several reasons to pay serious attention to the rising phenomenon of Islamic centrist parties.

Such parties appear to exhibit an advanced level of “Islamic” political awareness that has been missing in the political arena since the emergence of the Arab nation-state over half a century ago. Such nuanced understanding of the relationship between Islam and politics has been sidelined largely by the strife between the state and extremist religious groups that have come into existence since the 1970s. These continuing clashes have hurt the chances for successful centrist Islamic political participation.

These centrist parties represent a departure from the traditional political currents of Islam – which range from the moderate all the way to the violent extremist – instead measuring their success on the basis of political efficiency. These parties have the ability to absorb the concepts of democracy and civil service, and deal with them independently of religion. Such parties believe Islam can provide a moral framework for political action by adhering to basic universal – and Islamic – values like justice, freedom, equality and citizenry. They respect, for instance, the concept of political plurality and do not oppose the emergence of secular or communist parties.

Furthermore, they realise the rights of all non-Muslim minorities. That they are labelled “Islamic” implies that they emanate from a value system, as does the liberal or social frame of reference. These parties have the ability to absorb the concepts of democracy and civil service in a manner that is consistent with the outlook of mainstream Islam without falling prey to the restrictions of some narrower interpretations.

For example, centrist parties reject any discrimination among citizens assuming public posts on the basis of gender, colour, religion or ethnicity, whereas groups like the Muslim Brotherhood place restrictions on who could attain the presidency in Egypt.

These imposed limitations for developing an effective political model have haunted political Islamic philosophy throughout the past century. Other more extremist parties are entrenched within the confines of their own religious rhetoric, unable to move beyond perceived restrictions, which inevitably leads to their political and intellectual inertness and reduces the likelihood of being successfully championed by civil society.

These parties also provide a prominent example of the nature of the relationship between the state and society. They do not, for instance, impose a specific type of governance, such as shari'a (Islamic law), but leave society to select the appropriate model. With these principles, they have succeeded in resolving the historic dilemma of how to combine religion with politics in public life that has long plagued all Islamic political currents.

Islam assumes a central position in these centrist political parties, a pre-requisite for credibility with a mainstream audience and a safeguard against those who may attack them for turning away from religion. In its genuine commitment to both the principles of Islam and cultural identity on the one hand, and to meeting the challenge of modern political life on the other, centrist Islamic politics are the only credible way forward for many countries in the Arab world.

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* Khalil Al-Anani is an Egyptian specialist in political Islamic affairs and author of The Muslim Brothers in Egypt: Old Age Struggling with Time and Political Islam: The Phenomenon and the Concept, He is also deputy editor-in-chief of International Politics Journal, Al Ahram. This article is written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 29 January 2008, www.commongroundnews.org
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