In recent weeks, we have seen Islamist parties in different parts of the world face challenging times. In Egypt, Morsi was ousted by what was effectively a military coup. Tunisia, home of the Arab Spring, has seen the En-Nahda-led government face huge protests from the opposition.
In Bangladesh, the High Court has declared Jamaat-e-Islami’s registration as a political party as illegal. Even the relatively popular and established Islamist party in Turkey has faced mass protests.
No doubt Islamically inspired political parties have a natural support base in these Muslim lands due to the religious sentiments of those Muslims who desire to see their beliefs represented in the political realm. However, recent events compel one to have a rethink about the role of political Islam and the direction it should be heading.
In the last century, the most prominent contemporary Islamic movements emerged in the wake of the First World War. The abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate which had represented the political unity of Muslims globally, inspired many movements.
People in the Muslim world today continue to suffer from a legacy of catastrophic consequences- dictatorship, corruption, poverty, social decay which have been left by both colonial and post-colonial regimes in Muslim countries.
Different Islamic revivalist movements have emerged to challenge and change this status-quo. Their core message being “Islam is the solution,” and their primary aim to free Muslim lands from foreign domination and make Islam prevail. No surprise then that such grand ambitions set them on a collision course with the powers that be, both within their own countries and in others.
Banned, imprisoned, tortured, and even killed, members of Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have operated under some of the harshest conditions. Despite these obstacles, many of these groups managed to instil confidence within the masses about Islam’s role in their lives. They were powerful even when they were powerless, because their most effective weapon was the thinking they championed. Dictators with their brute security forces can only lock up people, not their ideas.
When force does not work or is ruled out, efforts are made to compromise and seek to neutralise the challenge posed by the Islamic ideology, by incorporating Islamists within prevailing systems. But when the doors to political participation are open to Islamists, they are required to uphold pillars of the very system that they initially set out to change secular constitutions, nationalistic borders, sovereignty of the “people” (read “capitalist elites”) as opposed to the Shari’ah and hence be subordinate to the very international order they have opposed since the destruction of the Caliphate.
Some movements fall for it. They continue to call for Islam, but in a vague manner, all the while effectively accepting the status-quo. They hope that they could bring about gradual changes in line with Islam, by coming to power through the existing framework. This course usually leads to one of two possible ends: either the Islamic party is ousted by the military and secular forces because they were too Islamic and/or not palatable enough to the West, or they compromise their core message, thus allowing the system to change them rather than them changing the system.
The latter case is quite detrimental for the Islamic revivalist project. When groups that initially started out calling purely for Islam, start mixing their Islamic call with calls for democracy and secularism, their politics starts revolving around changing political parties and figures that are in power already rather than changing the system. They fail to present a radically different agenda to society, or a fresh set of solutions to their problems, and hence many start viewing them as just another party maybe with an Islamic flavour playing the same old secular politics.
Even worse, when Islamic parties do end up in positions of power, some people start blaming them or their religion for failures that are an inevitable consequence of the system itself. From the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria to Morsi in Egypt, we have repeatedly been shown that the non-Islamic democratic system has in-built mechanisms to safeguard its foundations. It is not so feeble as to allow advocates of a different ideology to uproot it from within.
Therefore, playing by the rules of the secular democratic system will only continue to derail Islamist politicians from their primary objective, which is to implement Islam as a comprehensive solution to the problems of, not just Muslims, but of all humanity.
It is high time Islamists reassess the path that political Islam should take. This requires a thorough and insightful reading of the Prophet’s (PBUH) struggle to establish Islam, which defines a distinct and comprehensive method of transforming society, from changing people’s thoughts and emotions to changing society’s power structures. Hence, just as Islamic movements seek to achieve an Islamic objective, so should their methodology be grounded in Islamic sources. Any attempts to contaminate it with secular politics, even if in the name of Islam, will only delay the real change for which they as Muslims yearn.