Salon Ibn Rushd: The Present and Future of Political Islam

In Human Rights Dissemination Program, Salon Ibn Rushd by CIHRS

“The Present and Future of Political Islam” was the topic of the latest Salon Ibn Rushd seminar held on 28 October 2021 by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).  The recent failures of the Ennahda Party in Tunisia in parallel with the electoral defeat of the Justice and Development Party in Morocco were discussed at the session amid a wider dialogue upon obstacles that have accompanied attempts at democratic transition since the Arab Spring – a process in which political Islam has played a vital role in an array of contexts and experiences.

The salon, which is held by CIHRS every month, hosted Salah Al-Din Al-Jourshi, a Tunisian writer and political analyst; Lucia Ardovini, a researcher specialized in political Islam in Egypt and a fellow of the Swedish Institute for International Affairs; and Ali Anouzla, a Moroccan journalist and editor-in-chief of the “Lakome” news website. Egyptian politician Islam Lotfi moderated the discussion.

The dialogue began with an attempt to interpret the causes and implications of current obstacles to democratic transition in the region. Lucia Ardovini with Al-Jourshi agreed on the failure of Islamic political movements in the test of power, despite their previous success as opposition movements and their ability to cope under pressure. However, the uprisings of the Arab Spring have been a key element in changes in regards to the social circumstances and contexts in which these movements used to operate. Ardovini addressed the inability of Islamic movements to keep pace with rapid changes amid the impact of external pressures and accusations of terrorism and anti-democratic politics, together with the impact of the alliance of regional and international powers against the Muslim Brotherhood, especially the United Arab Emirates and France.

Al-Jourshi assigned greater culpability to the Ennahda Party for the situation in Tunisia, where the party combined weak programs and the absence of cadres, along with ignorance of the rules of the international political science. Collectively, Al-Jourshi noted, these matters exceeded the threshold for failure, creating a crisis of popular confidence in the political class and the entire democratic process in the country, which allowed Tunisian president Kais Saied to undermine the current system undergoing democratic transition in favour of building another political system. Al-Jourshi excluded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt from the failures of political Islam in Tunisia, arguing that the party did not have adequate  time to rule.

Moroccan journalist Ali Anouzla agreed with Al-Jourshi in holding the Justice and Development Party fully responsible for the situation in Morocco, as the party has held power for nearly a decade, a rare opportunity that no other party has had in the country’s recent political history. Moreover, Anouzla emphasized the difficulty of evaluating the experience of political Islam as a whole, or making any final judgments, due to varying experiences and contexts, and the continuation of these experiences in many countries amid unprecedented transition in the region.

According to Anouzla, political Islam was not the instigator of change but was instead the biggest beneficiary of it; he pointed  to the element of surprise that  was evident in Islamists’ reluctance to participate or compete for power. Anouzla added that many factors were unconducive to the democratic transition process, in which these movements found themselves in a position of leadership during the difficulties surrounding the transition. The international context was also unfavorable; the wave of movements for democratic change was contained within international context, and coincided with the rise of the right and nationalism.

Moderator Islam Lotfi pointed out that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was subjected to an unprecedented state of fragmentation, while Justice and Development party in Morocco experienced a major loss in popularity , and the Ennahda party faced a critical situation in Tunisia. Meanwhile, many young people departed from the founding ideas of political Islam, instead resorting to violence or aligning their sympathies or loyalties with the Islamic State. Many other young people left the religion entirely, in a mass exodus of atheism. Lotfi contemplated whether all of these developments were just a setback or a stumbling block in the usual path of trials and tribulations, according to the literature of the Islamic movement itself, or if they constitute a decisive historical moment in the history of political Islam.

Both Al-Jourshi and Anouzla opposed the concept of ​​ the ‘end of political Islam.’  Al-Jourshi considered this concept to be detached from reality, given that political Islam has exceptional resiliency despite its shortcomings, pointing to its ability to protect itself and its success in justifying its failures, and invoking external factors and disruptions. He also pointed to political Islam’s ability to return by changing its discourses or leaders; nevertheless, its survival depends structural factors, including the social and religious needs of society. Anouzla agreed with this vision, considering that the Justice and Development Party’s loss in the past elections represents a punitive vote, noting the party’s ability to restore the voting bloc if its leaders were self-critical and corrected their mistakes.

Ardovini considered both contentions to have validity: the current juncture may simply represent a stumbling block for political Islam movements but at the same time may also represent a historical moment of transformation. Ardovini added that political Islam should not be regarded as a solid entity but rather as a heterogeneous one, with diverging directions and diverse dynamics within a large entity that includes the reality that many ideas of Islamist movements converge today in exile, including dialogues on mistakes and shortcomings and how to remedy them. Furthermore, many of these movements were formed and activate under oppression, and have a long history of turbulent relations with political regimes. Thus the current moment can  be considered another stage for political Islam that does not as of yet represent a turning point.

Al-Jourshi posed an important question on potential effects and repercussions if the project of political Islam ends, and the impact of this on change and democratic transformation in the region. Al-Jourshi assumed that the end of political Islam would lead to a political vacuum or void in the region, and questioned if there are  political forces, parties and movements capable of filling this void. At the same time, he noted the lack of structure in political parties in the Arab region, whether old or new.

On the other hand, Ardovini affirmed that political Islam movements may restore confidence and create a popular base and incubator, especially during the escalating crises in the region, including a crisis in confidence in the frayed social fabric between rulers and the ruled. Ardovini speculated upon the international dimension: who are the international players and what is the nature of their role? She noted the known campaigns against Islamic movements, and the fact many global powers do not want these movements to have any role in politics, evidencing the substantial role of  geopolitical power.

Anouzla believes that the demand for democratic transformation will remain regardless of whether Islamic parties remain as a presence or disappear, because democracy is a popular demand. It is also a historical inevitability,  and thus, he stressed that political Islam can only remain effective if movements benefit from their own mistakes, practice self-criticism, reconcile with society, and build consensus with other movements. Anouzla added that Islamic movements must first restructure internally, and separate the political from religious preaching. Anouzla concluded by saying that the future will belong to those who have the political will to change, achieve social justice, and respect human rights.

Watch the webinar in english here.

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