Islamists take political action in a wide variety of different contexts. Political scientist Amr Hamzawy, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, offers a nuanced view of these movements
At a time when Islamists throughout the Arab world are demanding a place in official political life, there are growing concerns as to the possible consequences of this participation.
At the same time, people are asking whether the Islamists would even be capable of governing if they did come to power democratically. However, given the highly diverse character of Islamist movements, generalizations must be avoided, as well as the reductionist view that labels all these movements a priori as hotbeds of a fanatical ideology.
Three forms of participation
At the present time three basic forms of Islamist participation in political life can be described. The first is found in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Here Islamist movements and parties operate with relative freedom within a multiparty system, but these processes play out against a more or less chaotic background – be it that the local government institutions have been destroyed by an occupying power, or that a permanent crisis situation threatens the functioning and stability of the political system and encourages monopolistic, intolerant forces to develop out of control.
Whether their orientation is Shiite or Sunni, the Islamist movements in these countries are characterized by quasi-military structures. They have the means to practice violence and tend to threaten or actually implement violence in order to solve political conflicts.
Islamist movements like these that have not yet committed themselves to an exclusively peaceful form of political participation (or may do so for purely tactical reasons) raise a fundamental question. Will their integration into pluralistic politics ultimately hinder or even prevent the development of an open and democratic form of government?
Or can political assimilation gradually induce the Islamists in collapsed and dysfunctional states to demilitarize their movements and confine themselves to peaceful participation?
Unfortunately, in view of the reality in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, this development seems unlikely – even taking into consideration the possibility that a movement of this kind can be transformed from within (e.g. through a conflict between hardliners and moderates) or that eventually society will stop listening to the Islamists' populist rhetoric.
At least in theory, there is only one way out for these societies: the collective will to realize the state as a purely civil political community, to reinforce its neutrality toward the individual components of society and to introduce mechanisms to prevent religious and non-religious interest groups from monopolizing public affairs.
Adapting to the rules of the game
The second form of Islamist participation in politics is quite different, focusing entirely on peaceful participation and on preserving the spheres and mechanisms of a semi-pluralistic, consensus-oriented system.
Islamists in Morocco, Algeria, Kuwait and Bahrain have committed themselves to this program, transforming themselves into parties or party-like groups without any militarist aspects. While the Algerian "MSP" (Mouvement de la société pour la paix) and the "Islamic Constitutional Movement" in Kuwait enjoy a modest degree of participation in the government, the "Party for Justice and Development" in Morocco and the "Shiite National Islamic Wifaq" in Bahrain belong to the loyal opposition.
Moreover, the first two movements have managed to create a functional separation between politics and their religious mission. Their political activities are oriented toward the Islamic code of values, but are carried out by professional politicians and are completely separate from the rhetoric and activities of a missionary movement.
Despite qualitative differences, all these movements have several basic features in common. Above all, they respect the legitimacy of the state to which they belong as well as the state institutions, the principle of the equality of all citizens and the pluralistic, competitive spirit of political life.
This attitude has not merely been adopted for the sake of form; it has been internalized. The movements no longer aggressively attack the dominant elite or liberal and leftwing tendencies; they avoid excessive rigor and ideological tirades, instead striving to make constructive contributions to the state's politics.
The existence of these movements is critical testimony to the direct connection between the stability of a political environment in which Islamists are no longer oppressed and excluded from political life on the pretext of security concerns, and the Islamists' relatively rapid embrace of the democratic rules of the game.
However, these Islamist movements have yet to prove that they will respect the pluralistic system even when its policies run counter to their values. At the same time, in an environment shadowed by the growing antagonism between radical Islamist tendencies and semi-authoritarian systems of government, they must convince their constituencies of the value of peaceful political participation.
No firm mooring
Thirdly, let us examine the situation in Egypt, Sudan, Jordan and Yemen. In these countries Islamist movements have maintained their footing despite a volatile political environment and a strained relationship with the power elite.
In Egypt and Jordan the Muslim Brothers are granted a certain scope to participate in political life, in legislative elections, professional organizations and other spheres of civil society, but the Damocles sword of the security services is always hanging over their heads.
In Yemen and Sudan, by contrast, the dangerous consequences of an undemocratic, paramilitary alliance between the Islamists and the power elite can be observed.
These Islamists have also adopted the strategy of peaceful participation, but in their case it really is nothing more than a strategy. Their political role in Egypt and Jordan is constantly fluctuating between participation and boycott, in large part due to state repression, in Yemen, and to a certain extent in Sudan as well, they have switched from being the partners of an authoritarian government to being its antagonists.
With no firm mooring in a pluralistic system, the leaders and followers of these movements remain stuck in the abstract heights of ideology and a "megapolitics" confined to fundamental issues such as the role of religion in society and the application of Islamic law, without developing the capacity for pragmatic, consensus-oriented and constructive political practice.
The authoritarian environment within which the Islamists operate in these four countries robs them of a stable basis for their political involvement and the opportunity to develop toward pragmatism and the acceptance of democratic norms and rules.
For us, the crucial thing is this: if we are not highly attuned to the differences between these three forms of political participation, we will be incapable of dealing realistically with the phenomenon of Islamism and its challenges.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Isabel Cole