Will Islamists Ride the Wave of Muslim Democracy?

Ennahda members vote on the party's political and religious character, May 2016.

Opinion

Will Islamists Ride the Wave of Muslim Democracy?

Ruwan Rujouleh

23 Jun 2016

Tunisia's Ennahda party recently announced it was separating religion and politics. Islamists are in two minds about whether this can work.

A leading Jordanian Islamist organisation recently announced it was forming a new political party with one key aim: To separate religion from politics.

This move was very likely inspired by a similar announcement in Tunisia, the country that kick-started the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Last month, the co-founder of the Islamist Ennahda party Rachid al-Ghannouchi told thousands at its 10th congress the party had "left political Islam to enter Muslim democracy."

"We are Muslim democrats," he announced in the capital, Tunis. "We are not part of political Islam. Ennahda is a political party and the religious part of it will be taken care of by civil society." With those words, Ghannouchi paved the way across the Arab and Muslim world for a new phase of political Islam. This new chapter is all about embracing Islamic values as part of the fabric of society, and about Islamist groups not opposing the state.

The audience was visibly excited by Ghannouchi's vision. It was clear to me, a Muslim woman who embraces modernity and Islam, that Ennahda was not merely paying lip service to an idea. This new approach is about coping with the 21st century. Ennahda has signaled an intention to shift to policies based on the demands of modern life, but inspired by Islamic values.

Of course, before Ennahda there have been attempts to separate religion from politics across the Arab world, with Jordan and Egypt notable examples. In the Tunisian case, the party was likely motivated, at least in part, by political survival. The move will allow Ennahda to expand its grassroots support and reach out to people who identify as moderate Muslims, and not necessarily Islamists.

This new approach is about coping with the 21st century.

In Egypt, some leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood acknowledged that there are similar revisionist trends within the movement. This is significant because the Islamist movement is one of the world's largest and most influential. Dr. Jamal Hishmat, a member of the Brotherhood's Shura Council in Egypt, seems to support the idea. On 18 May, he said that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt should consider separating from the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the group's political arm, so that it could not be blamed for the party's political misconduct.

In this context, Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, former FJP spokesman, lawmaker and chair of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Egyptian Parliament Abroad, compared Ennahda's experience with that of Egypt. "A Muslim does not have to leave Islam to work for a political party, but a political party needs to be independent from the Muslim Brotherhood because it is safer and fairer to both." When the Brotherhood established the FJP, it was meant it to be completely independent, he said. The reason the experiment failed, according to Dardery, was that "Egypt did not have a fertile democratic culture."

But Ibrahim Munir, secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood's international organisation, who is based in London, said Egypt's constitution does not allow the "separation between the religious work and politics similar to what Ennahda did."

"The constitution in Egypt states clearly that Islam is the source of legislation, while this phrase doesn't exist in Tunisia's constitution," he said. "How do you want us to apply such a step in Egypt?"

In February this year, the Brotherhood's chapter in Jordan declared it was seceding from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and internationally. The move was an attempt to break away from the traditional concept of Islamism and focus on Jordan. Two additional political groups have been influenced by Ennahda's move: the Zamzam initiative and the Partnership and Rescue Initiative. Both have started the process to create political civic parties, launching soon.

'Ennahda syndrome' will likely influence other Islamists.

'Ennahda syndrome' will likely have positive reverberations among other Islamist movements, in Jordan, Egypt, and beyond. Ghannouchi's vision combines institutional governance, rule of law and the fight against terrorism with values inspired by Islam. In Tunis he talked about fighting bribery and corruption, promoting religious tolerance, and embracing entrepreneurship. But more than that, Ennahda's separation of faith and politics is about preserving national identity in fragile states, while enhancing Islam as a religion practiced in those societies.

The move is likely also intended to a certain extent to show the West that some Islamist movements are an alternative to violent extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. It could be seen as a political maneuver, adapting to increasingly tough Western policies to against Islamist parties like Ennahda and the Unification and Reform Movement in Morocco. Whatever the intentions, separating religious work from politics is a sustainable solution that can help bring stability to an increasingly unstable Middle East.

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