Islamists Empowered: Back to the Future

With the fall of Hosni Mubarak, victory in legislative elections and the presidential vote, and now the approval via referendum of a new constitution, Islamists have begun the work of putting their renaissance project into practice.

Unlike Salafism, which dreams of a recreation of the pre-colonial moment, political Islam has aimed more to repatch together the Islamic state but in an unambiguously modern, post-colonial context. The Brotherhood does not aim to return clerics to man a reestablished classical Sharia court system, rather it seeks to distribute the dominion of Sharia via parliament, legislation and an advisory role for clerics via Al-Azhar. Laymen play a key role in the process of Islamicization that they would not have had before the irruption of Western hegemony and modernity – something alien, for example, to Wahhabi Salafism which simply recognizes the sovereign powers of the temporal ruler in return for the clerics’ advisory role in policy and control of courts, mosques, education and their own coercive force (‘the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice’).

This is a historical moment that the Brotherhood has been waiting for decades for. The opposition to their schemes has surprised them in its size and tenacity, but they have their eye on the next parliamentary vote, probably in April, to contain it and consolidate their position domestically and internationally. Whether they succeed or not, and whether they are forced to slow down the Islamist project or not, it’s worth considering how they are and other Islamists imagine accomodation with what they consider to be an opposition of secular elites: The Islamists are prepared to grant secularists their space, but only in the form of largesse from an Islamist centre, which sees itself as the protector of authentic Egyptian-Arab-Islamic culture, the necessary, unquestionable heart of the modern state.

Islamist thinking favours the idea of cordoned spaces where relaxation of Islamic norms may be permitted. This is how Saudi Arabia is trying to navigate the conflict between liberals and the religious establishment and meet the expectations and pressures of modernization, through creating ‘liberal enclaves’ such as the King Abdullah Economic City and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), where men and women would not suffer segregation, women may unveil and drive cars, and either sex may visit public cinema houses. Egyptian Islamists may view themselves as ‘conceding’ secular zones such as Sharm al-Sheikh, Cairo districts such as Zamalek and downtown, while consolidating their regulation of social norms everywhere else.

Fear of the Brotherhood and its calques is clearly high in the Gulf, and there is anger and incomprehension in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular over Qatar’s role in promoting the Brotherhood connection throughout the Arab world. In the Saudi case, the position of Brotherhood sympathizers offers fascinating possibilities since they include a larger proportion of clerics than elsewhere (e.g. Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, Nasser al-Omar), and ‘laymen’ – the leaders of the Brotherhood from Hassan al-Banna to Mohammed Badi’ – have rather a secondary role. Though at an organizational level the existence of a Saudi Brotherhood is a moot point, it has become evident through observation of comments on Twitter, sermons and articles since January 2011 that a Brotherhood-esque movement exists in Saudi Arabia. It is a successor to the movement of so-called ‘Sahwa’ clerics of the 1980s and 90s (in which al-Odah in particular was prominent).

Now, a defining feature of Sunni Islam has been the role of advisor to temporal rulers that the class of ulama, or religious scholars, has taken in the classical Islamic model established in the Abbasid era. Perhaps inspired, ironically, by the example of Shi’ite ulama taking the sovereign reins of state into their hands in Iran, Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia play around the boundaries of the relationship between king and the priestly class, throwing up possibilities of the cleric claiming more of a direct role in the running of the state itself: what would be a crucial shift in the historical development of Sunni Islam. In the era of the uprisings, we are seeing shifts in the post-colonial Islamic movements – and understandings of the role of Islam in the modern state and the meaning of the “Islamic state” itself – happening before our eyes (starting with Salafis in Egypt entering politics).

Within the Gulf, ‘Brotherhoodism’ has a notably pronounced antipathy towards Iran, in deference to state-backed Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Salafism elsewhere in the Gulf and rulers’ fear of a return to Iranian hegemony, and the threat that could pose to their grip on power. In Bahrain, the ruling family has encouraged al-Minbar party as a bulwark against Shi’ite contestation of its position. Within the peninsula, Qatar has been able to support and encourage a Brotherhood calque in one territory: Yemen, where the Islah party has been a net gainer of the Arab uprisings and claimed the lion’s share of cabinet positions in the post-Ali Abdullah Saleh government.

Morocco is a less-discussed but no less fascinating case. There are in fact two key Islamist movements in play: the PJD party which won elections in 2011 and was allowed to form a cabinet by a reluctant monarchy, and the al-Adl wal-Ihsan movement which has traditionally shunned politics but remains by far the largest force on the streets and with influence among the masses. However, Qatar, the Brotherhood and clerics such as Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi do not have links with al-Adl wal-Ishan for ideological reasons: they view the group as too steeped in North African Sufi traditions. The Moroccan monarchy/state has developed closer ties with the Gulf governments including Qatar over the past year, but is monitoring PJD and Qatari ties very closely. At the same time, there are indications that al-Adl wal-Ihsan is poised to make the historic shift towards joining the political game though establishing a party and setting aside its anti-monarchy republican agenda – a move that would create important challenges for the brotherhood of Qatar-backed Arab Islamist movements, as well as the monarchy and PJD.

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