Political Group or Political Party? Can a political Party Assimilate a Religious Frame of Reference?

This was the title of a symposium organized by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) within the framework of the Ibn Rushd Salon on March 12th 2007. Participants were Mr. Khalil al-’Anani, writer and political analysts for the International Politics Quarterly, Mr. Sameh Fawzi, writer and researcher, Dr. Amr al-Shobaki, researcher in al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, and Mr. Sobhi Saleh, Member of Parliament for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Mr. Moataz al-Foujiri, CIHRS Program Officer, directed the symposium

Mr. Sobhi Saleh asserted that a political party can assimilate a religious reference and illustrated this argument with models of states having followed this approach in Europe, the United States, and Israel.

Saleh argued that the party per se should be differentiated from the frame of reference, indicating that the party is, by definition, a group seeking power to implement its platform or realize its project. Reference, on the other hand, represents ideology or philosophy. He maintained that the political party is not instituted in a vacuum, and should embrace a frame of reference. If such reference does not differentiate between people, deprive any person from his/her rights, or confiscate property or opinions, it would be acceptable.

Saleh pointed to previous attempts by the Muslim Brothers since 1984, during the epoch of former general guide Omar al-Telmessani, to form and institute a political party under the name of the “Shura Party” (Consultative Party). He added that Islamic reference is by nature civil because Islamic Law (Shari’a) includes three types of provisions: detailed precepts, general principles, and interests. He added that Islamic jurisprudence is also civil, and that the proof is the diverse jurisprudential schools that emerged with the rise and spread of Islam, such as schools of the Prophet Companions, and the four basic schools of jurisprudence.

Saleh also highlighted the fact that civil constitution is a constitution that rallies the nation’s consensus, while the Islamic constitution is one that the Umma, or Muslim community or nation, believed in. He raised the following question: Does Islamic jurisprudence or Islamic reference deny the others? He answered that surely it does not, in terms of faith, legislation or conduct. He argued that on the contrary, Islamic Shari’a sanctifies the rights of others. Not only that, but the others in Islamic Shari’a are also part of our belief system; in other words, Muslim faith is built upon universality of content, humanism of purpose and scientific methodology. Saleh also added that non-Muslims participated in the foundation of Islamic civilization: “We are suggesting a frame or reference that embraced the world before the world embraced this religion”.

On his part, Dr. Amr al-Shobaki stressed that the proposed amendments to the fifth article of the Egyptian Constitution are closely linked to a political situation where the Muslim Brothers are on the ascendancy, while other political parties are receding. He alluded in this context to the fact that the Muslim Brothers won 88 parliamentary seats in the recent People’s Assembly (legislative) elections.

Al-Shobaki agreed with Mr. Saleh’s argument regarding respect for others in Islamic texts, and indicated that the fear, or rather obsession, with the presence of a political party with a religious frame of reference emanates from the possibility that this reference might shift into some kind of custody on the public in the name of religion, though the Muslim Brothers categorically deny this possibility. Dr. Shobaki called upon the Muslim Brothers to rejuvenate their perception of their religious reference, while putting forth some stipulations to promote this reference through specific civil mechanisms to settle issues such as: Would religious men or men of the law decide the compatibility of laws with Islamic principles?

Dr. Shobaki described the current debate regarding the dread of the formation of a political party by the Muslim Brothers as “an overreaction” and “an attempt to forecast intentions”. He expounded that the Muslim Brothers were beginning to translate their intellectual project into practices on the ground by accessing the public domain in professional associations and other organization. However, he maintained, the MB still needs to shift their operational doctrine into relative practices to eradicate the anxiety that pervades the minds of others.

Al-Shobaki stressed that the MB should necessarily become a political party and should select the reference they prefer as long as this practice is performed within the boundaries of civil constitution and civil state. He explained that if the MB accepted to form a political party, they would have to pay a price in return, especially that the party would represent the second institution or the re-naissance of the Muslim Brotherhood.

From al-Shobaki’s point of view this phase will be quite difficult, though not impossible, especially that this group can undertake the task at the moment. It is high time according to him that the Muslim Brothers distinguish between advocacy and political practice, and encourage the emergence of a new pattern of membership and ideas.

Dr. al-Shobaki indicated that a large part of the price to be paid by the Muslim Brothers in the case that their political party was taken into the arena, would be collision with international conventions and treaties that the group does not acknowledge to begin with. This party, in particular, would be the largest opposition party in Egypt and the first candidate to reach the seats of power. He pointed in this connection to the experience of Hamas and other large Islamic movements, and mentioned that Hamas rejects the Oslo Accords, even though they have reached government thanks to those accords. Al-Shobaki also denoted that, taken globally, Islamic movements should choose between either continuing as a movement of conscience and public mobilization, or shouldering responsibilities that would convert them into political movements and parties. On top of such responsibilities is action according to mechanisms, prerequisites, and rules of civil state and civil constitution.

Al-Shobaki clarified that the experience of the Muslim Brothers with politics in recent years has been positive overall, though the group is still banned. He asserted that the huge efforts made to eliminate the MB from public action fall under the rubric of punishing them for the positive aspects of their action and not, as they might claim, because of fear of their growing power.

Mr. Sameh Fawzi began his intervention by affirming that Egyptian history has never witnessed any turning points where the state has been separated from religion, on the contrary, many notions that contributed to the development of Egyptian society stemmed from pious persons or members of the religious community, such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi and Imam Mohamed Abdou. He asserted that every political movement is entitled to embrace its own frame of reference. However, what concerns the public is the platform of this or that movement, which should rally public support and should deal with items of daily life.

Fawzi argued that some independent Islamists such as Tarek al-Bishri and Salim al-‘Awa, or Islamists affiliated with al-Wasat or Centrist Islamic Political Party, exercise independent thinking. Their version of “Ijtihad, or independent interpretation of the legal sources, outpaced Muslim Brotherhood versions, especially regarding the question of citizenship.

Fawzi urged the Muslim Brothers to identify their positions regarding vital issues if they are seeking to become a political party. Above all, they should specify their political loyalty and their standpoint regarding their affiliation with society. He recalled the MB suggestion regarding the issue of universality of Islam, and added that the party should assert their attitude vis-à-vis political, legal and national development of society, the party’s socio-economic alignments, and target social sectors. He also criticized the Ikhwan’s slogan of a “party to all”, describing it as mere political fantasy.

Fawzi mentioned several preconditions governing the general political context and laying a competitive political infrastructure in this society, namely, political mobilization, epitomized in the party platform that provides an answer to public queries; political legitimacy founded on achievements and performance, taking into consideration that religious legitimacy is the anchor of those who possess no achievements. Furthermore, policies should be motivated by public utility and should not be justified by religious reference, otherwise, groups of citizens or particular categories of society such as Copts, women etc, would be eliminated. The public domain should be open to all, and any expression of violence should not be justified by reference to religious texts. Finally, the sanctity of religion should be placed above arbitrary functional invocation.

Mr. Khalil al-’Anani was of the view that the Arab state has been undergoing a moment of both exposure and weakness for five decades; this is actually a decisive phase which is in fact the worst in the state’s political evolution. He affirmed that Egypt will remain a Muslim Arab state, not only by virtue of the Constitution but also according to social sentiment. Meanwhile he noted that there is a difference between religious reference as an absolute concept and the way it is invoked by any political movement.

He added that the idea of reference is quite flexible, if not malleable, and encompasses several definitions. First and foremost, it represents an authority that two parties in a state of controversy resort to when failing to reach a settlement to their predicament. He argued that the controversy in Egypt revolves around the lawfulness of a religious reference to be embraced by any party, and the fact that one party rejects this propounding on the basis that invoking religion as a reference is “a setback”. On the other hand, another party fears that allowing a movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood to evoke a religious frame of reference would make it difficult to forestall any other stringent or fundamental movement from invoking a religious reference as well.

Al-’Anani argued also that all Islamic-oriented parties in the Arab and Muslim world start off from an Islamic reference and do not raise such controversy as the one taking place in Egypt at the moment. In other words, there is nothing that could prevent any political party from being instituted on a religious basis. The problem with the Muslim Brothers, he asserted, is that they deal with the concept of religious reference as a political rather than a normative concept. Furthermore, they evoke this reference as a defense mechanism to gain people’s sympathy and obtain further ground to the detriment of other movements and parties.

Al-’Anani stressed that the Muslim Brothers ceased to exercise intellectual and religious Ijtihad, and failed to create a revivalist methodology or heritage. He also indicated that intellectual leadership rests no longer within the Egyptian group, but has shifted to Islamic movements in the Arab East and the Maghreb. He added that another predicament of the Ikhwan in Egypt is related to the ambiguity of their standpoint regarding issues such as women, Copts and citizenship. Mr. ’Anani considered that the party platform put forth by the Muslim Brothers will in large part rebut the disputation concerning the institution of a political party on a religious basis.

Mr. Moataz al-Foujiri argued that if the Ikhwan were predisposed to fully integrate themselves with the state of citizenship, they should have adhered to the advocates of amendments to the second article of the Constitution, which would in fact protect this religious reference from political abuse.

Mr. Sobhi Saleh made his comments once again and mentioned that he agreed with many of the arguments raised by speakers. He said that the party loyalty that the group raises is an obligation to society, and indicated that patriotism, nationalism and internationalism are natural, overlapping issues in social thought and are not in conflict. He also added that the states of the world are more and more seeking and moving towards coalition-making, and non-Muslim elements of the nation are components of the Islamic coalition that the Muslim Brothers are aspiring for.

Mr. Sobhi argued also that the MB group is targeting a party built according to an Islamic approach. Islamic Shari’a is based on the principle of “providing benefits and fending off evil” and thus could be applied without any worry.

Mr. Saleh stressed that Islam tends to favor the middle class to a great extent, since it is considered as the safety valve for maintaining social peace and an inhibiting factor against the explosion of any society. He argued that his group is perfectly alert not to overindulge in secondary issues to the detriment of the basics, which is in fact the strategy of the ruling party that attempts to push the elite and other political forces to prosecute and penalize the Muslim Brothers. He also pointed out that the proposed constitutional amendments forced the group to suspend its propaganda for the party platform.

Regarding the price to be paid in case the Ikhwan were able to form a political party, Mr. Saleh said, “The Muslim Brothers are ready to pay the price, provided they score some gains in return; it is utterly inconceivable to pay a price without achieving any real benefits on the ground”.

Saleh concluded by saying, “We do not request a historical application of the Islamic Shari’a; we rather appeal for the application of the Shari’a devoid from individual actions”. “I disavow periods of decadence”, he added, “…in the history of Islam and Muslims, which tainted this history, through misapplication of the Islamic Shari’a, even if it were practiced by the Muslim Brothers”.

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