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Islam and Arab Political Change

Authors: Ebrahim Moosa, Professor of Religion and Islamic Studies, Duke University, and Toni Johnson
July 20, 2011

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Pro-democracy protests in the Middle East have raised questions about what role political Islam will play in new governments in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as others that might emerge from the continued unrest. Ebrahim Moosa, professor of religion and Islamic studies at Duke University, says that while Islam will likely be a factor in emergent governments, people will be cautious about allowing too much of a blurring between political and religious boundaries. "People are chastened and sobered by experiences elsewhere," Moosa says, noting what he calls the failures of the Islamic states of Iran and Sudan. Moosa says that while Turkey's government under the AKP (Justice Party) is being seen as a model, it is unclear how that will translate into specific national contexts. He also says that the United States is still operating under a credibility deficit in the region and has not used its vast knowledge resources on Islam effectively.

One question that has come out of the Middle East protests is whether political Islam is waxing or waning. What are your thoughts?

We don't know. The early indicators are that political Islam is a factor, but is not dominating the scene. Political Islam groups, like the Renaissance Party in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, are by all accounts possibly the most prepared. They have been the most repressed, they have strong networks and organizations, and they have ideological cohesion.

All the other groups might be less cohesive and less ideologically organized, hence they might not be as ready for elections as the Brotherhood. [These] groups also are taking the temperature and the pulse of the region, and they've recognized that the [earlier versions of] political Islam is not going to work: It hasn't worked well in Iran; there were experiments in Jordan; [it has been an] absolute failure in Sudan.

There's talk in these countries about looking to the Turkish model, or at least the ruling AKP's version. Is Turkey becoming more Islamist under AKP, and how can Turkey be a model for Arab countries if it's itself in flux as far as the relationship between religion and the state?

[Turkey's] AKP has basically turned itself into a political party that espouses Islamic values in its political persona. ... Religion will come into the public space, but with a number of filters.

The Turkish experiment of the Justice Party, the AKP party, is a work in progress. And we don't know where that ship is going to stop. What [the party] has to work under are the constraints of a Turkish constitution that has all kinds of precautions against the public exhibition of religion. AKP has basically turned itself into a political party that espouses Islamic values in its political persona. So it's not advocating theocracy, but it has internalized Islamic ethics. To that extent, it is a model that is synchronistic with a certain model of secular governance. Religion will come into the public space, but with a number of filters.

Of course, many people in the Arab Middle East are impressed by the Turkish model and saying, "Wow, why don't we go that way?" The reason they are looking at [Turkey] is because they are seeing a large Muslim country having Islamic values and prosperity. There is no theocracy; there's maybe a soft kind of public religion in Turkey. Rashid Ghannouchi of the Renaissance Party in Tunisia basically says that he's modeling himself on Turkey. The Muslim Brotherhood has also named their party the Justice Party. So Turkey is the flavor of the month.

[But] we should not overestimate Turkish influence, because Tunisia and Egypt are very different places. For instance, Turkey does not have Article 2, as the Egyptian constitution has, which says sharia is a source of the law. So it's very unclear how the Islamic model is going to play out in the Egyptian context.

What support will there be for keeping Islam in the social, rather than the public, arena?

It is an interesting argument, religion being in the social sphere rather than the political sphere. In other words, people don't feel obliged to have a religious mandate on which legislation will be built. So that legislation would be on the basis of transaction, negotiation, agreement, what is in the best interest of Egypt, or Tunisia, or whatever country. This doctrine of best interest is a very important element in moral philosophy. What we are going to see is moral vocabulary that is going to be increasingly Islamized in places like Egypt and so on. There will hotheads and moderates. They will have to duke this one out.

In countries such as Bahrain, there's a large divide between Sunni and Shia sects. Some are worried about an "Iraq Syndrome," where you have this sort of power flip between the sects. How much trouble could this bring?

The Bahraini government has lost a golden opportunity to work with the momentum of freedom. They have prosperity in Bahrain; Bahrain is small, manageable. If they wanted, they could have had a constitutional monarchy with freedoms, giving the majority Shiites, who have been excluded from many sectors of the economy and from power, a greater role.

I was in Saudi Arabia talking to members of Saudi Arabia's business and professional elite as well as its governing elite in January, and the only thing people could talk about is the Shia threat, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is also Shia. And I asked them, "How long are you going to play this card of sectarian division?" Because people outside the region can say, "These Arabs can't get their act together." Unfortunately, some of the more puritan activists and puritan tendencies in Saudi Arabia have spilled over into Bahrain and have created this war between Sunni and Shiite, and blood has been shed. How that's going to resolve is not clear. And of course, each one is now evoking Saudi Arabia as a defender of Sunnism, and Iran as the defender of Shiism.

From what I've seen of young people in the region, they're not going to see too much value in playing out these ancient hatreds [when] they know that there are other, bigger threats against their way of life, their values, the way that they can be stable and prosper. Instead of sectarianism, these kinds of theological differences should be celebrated as theological pluralism--which becomes the foundation for political pluralism and political diversity.

What space do you think there is for smaller religious minorities, like Jews, Christians, and Copts?

It depends where we're talking about. In much more complex, bigger countries--such as Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen--there have been established patterns of minorities being tolerated. Of course, many of the Jews have left, or were forced out from places like Iraq and Yemen. There are a few Jews in places like Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt.

The more nouveau-riche Gulf states don't have very complex histories of diversity. In those statelets, there is very little space for tolerance. They can't even get the Sunni-Shiite thing right. Any kind of concessions to Christians, Ahmadiyya [a sect of Islam considered to be blasphemous by some Muslims], or Buddhists will be very hard-earned and can only happen through some kind of political compact, or companies or immigrants in that area insisting that they must have some space, [or] from outside countries putting on pressure for the recognition of diversity.

The absence of religious diversity is bad for Islam. It's bad for Muslims if they don't know who other people are in the world. If they don't have Jewish and Christian and Buddhist neighbors, there is a predisposition for Muslims to become cocky and believe that they have the only truth. And they become absolutist, and dangerous.

In what way does the debate over the role of religion help and hurt these political movements?

Instead of sectarianism, differences should be celebrated as theological pluralism--which becomes the foundation for political pluralism and political diversity.

In Latin America's history--or where I come from, South Africa's history--Christianity was a tool for liberation, something called liberation theology. A Catholic theology combined with certain kinds of Marxism became a narrative for why people need to overthrow tyrannies, dictatorships, and racist governments. People in the Middle East have the religiosity of Islam, but not everyone is theocratically or dogmatically religious enough to make it into a political system. They've seen Iran's terrible experience, where you have a religious dictatorship that has sucked the air out of Iran's aspirations of being a free country. People are chastened and sobered by experiences elsewhere; Sudan was a colossal failure in terms of being an Islamic state, at great damage to its own national integrity.

People are going to be cautious with religion--[but] there are people who are going to throw religious fire bombs into the public square. One hopes that people are not intimidated by that and will talk back to people who throw these [rhetorical] incendiary devices precisely to silence any kind of contestation. That's one of the dangers of bringing religion into the public space--you have dogma and belief instead of arguing over the nature of moral truth. [It would be good] if religious groups in the democracy movement in Egypt can harness the transformative power of religion without making a tool out of religion.

What is so magical about this uprising was that it didn't turn into violence. The violence came from the tyrants. This is an amazing moment in the history of the Arabs that they have taken up non-violence with such a passion. This is unprecedented in a culture where people felt that their defense was to cry jihad, and jihad means "resist with a fist."

What should policymakers do to improve the U.S. image in the region and bridge the gap with Muslims?

In the last ten years and in the previous administration, America squandered its moral standing to the extent that anything that is remotely connected to the United States government is immediately seen as suspicious. For instance, even the U.S. civil society is immediately seen as suspicious. So from evangelicals to churches or NGOs, it's always tainted by the American credibility deficit. And people don't make a distinction between government and people. There's a lot of work to be done.

Just as every policymaker needs to know the ABCs of diplomacy, they need to understand the ABCs of culture. And a deep knowledge of the culture is the knowledge of religion. Lacking that, there can be all kinds of faux pas. Important military divisions and wings of our government [have shown] that there is a tremendous knowledge deficit.

It's not as if our country does not have resources to educate. There are very few countries in the world that have the knowledge about Islam that the United States has. Yet that knowledge [has not been used to educate] the American public, and most egregiously, this knowledge does not translate into the apparatus of the governance in our country. Therefore we are making the most ill-informed decisions both domestically and internationally.

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