by Emmanuel Seitelbach
A conference on Political Islam took place in Ramallah on November 20th, organized by the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES).
During the opening session, Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi, Chairman of PASSIA, explained how the Second Arab Awakening (the so-called Arab Spring) emerged when the social and economic situation of Arab populations was deteriorating. The awakening revealed the bond between the political world and the religious one. Where civil society enacted change, people voted for a leader from the Islamist movement having various political models in each country. Turkey is often cited as the successful model for political Islam. But the Islamic political agenda is rarely inclusive, more often self-centered. Political Islam must free itself from this culture of imprisonment to interact further with the secular portion of society.
Dr. Abdul Hadi noted that the politicization of Christianity and Judaism with radical religious positions was also an issue. When Zionists insist on the Jewish status of the State of Israel, it transforms a religion into a political identity. Yet the media focus their attention on Political Islam.
Director of FES, Ingrid Ross noted that the topic of Political Islam was relevant to both the academic world and political decision makers. The Arab Spring did not bring the social freedom expected and the Western world is sometimes confused about Political Islam. Is it only political or does it also have a social dimension? How to deal with a political movement like Hamas? Should we isolate it or on the contrary engage with it? What recommendations can we make to decisions makers in the EU on how to deal with Political Islam?
Session I: Ideological Divide between Orthodoxy/Tradition and Reform/Modernity
Opening the first session, Dr. Abdel Rahman Abbad, Secretary General for the Muslim Scholars and Ulama in Palestine noted in his opening remarks that Salafism is not a faction nor a group but an era. It means 'what had past' or 'in the past'. And he elaborated on Salafism vs. Reform Islam by presenting various forms of Salafism.
Some forms of Salafism call for a modernization, rejecting the myths and superstitions that undermine progress and development of the Arab World. A reformist stream of Salafism leaves room for interpretation, emphasizing the respect for free will, a balanced and rational interpretation of the text, since ‘a slave cannot build a civilization’.
Other forms of Salafists have tailored Islam to their political agenda. They often draw from the Quranic lessons of the past, glorifying the era of the Prophet, sometimes with a literal interpretation of the text, by promoting a strict adherence to the rules of Hallal (what is permissible) and Haraam (what is sinful) unadapted to the modern era. Some of these groups reject all science discovered after the death of the Prophet. It may justify the use of violence against the infidel, in particular against a ruler loyal to the enemies of Islam.
Dr. Khaled Hroub, Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies - Masarat of Al-Bireh, commenting on the previous talk, highlighted the existence of a grey area in the Islamic experience of Hallal and Haraam, a room for personal opinion, and asserted that Islam deteriorated when scholars, by obstructing the grey area by decreeing fatwa, turned Islam into a reactionary force, empty of creativity, and prevented it from drawing from the pre-islamic wisdom (Jahiliyyah).
He went on by analyzing the Turkish model of Political Islam against the Moslem Brotherhood models. Turkey has adopted a secular Political Islam, preserving the rights of free Islamic practices, unlike the strict secularist model of France that holds laicism as a new religion.
In 1922, the Turkish State, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established in writing the relationship between politics and the religious scholars (Ulama) creating the blueprint for governance in an Islamic world, with a clear separation of religion and state. The constitution is purely a political document highlighting that citizens are Turks, not Shiite, Sunni or Copts.
The Turkish Islamist movement was founded by political leader Necmettin Erbakan when Turkey was already a modern state. His heritage inspired the neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), currently headed by Prime Minister Erdogan. Successive electoral victories were obtained on the promise of transparency after an episode of rampant corruption, and commitment to providing services to less privileged and marginalized classes, although the Kurds and Armenians remain excluded.
Turkey avoided the battle for the definition of the constitution that is taking place in Egypt. Egypt, Libya, Syria have now collapsed as states and have been reset to post-colonization, after a 60-year period of tyranny that provided for stability without freedom, in a rejection of democracy stemming from a suspicion towards a model brought by colonialists and the will to protect the Muslim identity. Islamist parties in the Arab World, and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, having been repressed for years, lack experience and need guidance as rulers.
Session II: Islamist Political Parties and the Dimensions of Transitions in the Post-Arab Spring Era
In the next session, Hani Al-Masri, Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, elaborated on the role of the media in influencing Arab public opinion. Media that were used by tyrannical regimes as a megaphone for commending the rulers’ accomplishments, forging the reality, have now lost their audience. Al-Jazeera served as the voice of the official Qatari position. Palestinian media hardly express the opinion of the street.
Social media enabled the revolution by empowering citizens with new freedom. Arab citizens have the right of access to information. The media must be professional, free and independent, in order to meet the needs of citizens, but neutrality is an illusion. Media must be public companies rather than owned by the state.
The Arab Spring is only the beginning of a major transformation, but the French revolution took 95 years to settle the republic.
Is Political Islam the only current with a dictatorial approach? There is no room for compromise in the need to open human rights, freedom, and equality to all citizens. A historic reconciliation is needed between Christians and Muslims of the Arab World.
Dr. Khaled Hroub elaborated on Islamism and the Arab Spring, and the dilemmas of transition.
Despotism brought 70 years of stagnation delaying the building of nation states, by failing to create a middle class, a consensus on citizenship and democracy, whose aspirations are reflected in the constitution. Uncertainty is better than despotism and the Arab Spring is an ongoing experience. So far, the contribution of Islamists to governments has been more of a failure than a success, in Afghanistan and Sudan. Political Islam leaders believe they represent Islam while others are not real Muslims (like Egyptian General El-Sisi). The dominant Islamist political culture is in contradiction with democratic values that regulate differences and control hatred. Islamic tolerance implies a hierarchy where Muslims dominate minorities unlike true equality and cohabitation. Structural failures of Political Islam stem from years of oppression and imprisonment leading to a culture of victimhood and suspicion.
Civil society has caught up with the elite in its understanding of democracy. Young generations have huge expectations that cannot be met by Political Islam’s objectives.
Session III: The Arab Spring: Islamist Forces versus ‘Others’
Fr. Dr. Peter Madrous, Professor of Theology from the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, gave an emotional description of how the Arab Spring has turned into an Arab Autumn for the Christians of the Arab world, in Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, and Gaza, warning that what he had to say may not please everybody.
The Middle East is the original nucleus of Christianity and yet only a few Christians remain. Palestinian Christians are part of the history of Palestine. In Egypt, and Syria, Christians are killed for being Christians. One million Christians have been displaced in Iraq, or exterminated like lambs. They are submitted to special taxes, women are raped, and families are forced to convert to Islam. In Bethlehem, Christians and their properties were under assault between 1996 and 2006. The Christian population of Gaza went from 5000 to 1500 through abduction of girls and forced conversions.
The core foundation of the Arab Spring was a renaissance to combat injustice. This has turned from a legitimate popular protest into a violent rejection of Christians. Christian minorities have been destroyed without condemnation but rather in deafening silence.
In the Islamist school curricula in effect in the Gaza Strip, ‘homeland’ has been replaced by ‘Umma’, the Muslim community excluding Christians. Textbooks of history have skipped a period of 400 years around early Christianity which is no longer mentioned. Jewish history books mention Christianity in 135 AD only to highlight the Jewish connection to the land. The incitement against Christians at the Friday prayer at mosques calling to “Kill the Jews and Christians” must be stopped.
Under the dictators, Christians had some kind of security and protection, and a few rights. They were not being killed in the name of God.
Dr. Raed Fathi, Professor of Islamic Jurisprudence from the Islamic Science College in Umm Al-Fahm, responded to these serious allegations, arguing that the Morsi government incorporated Christians in its government.
He then elaborated on the relationship of Islam with others. Islam considers politics a part of religion. Politics was understood differently in the Hijaz, in Eastern Syria or Andalusia where Christians and Jews were present.
The Quran and the Sunna (practices) are infallible sources of inspiration, unlike human actions. The book of Islam bonds all humans together. Disbelievers will be judged by God alone, on doomsday. Humanity in Islam acknowledges plurality, differences amongst humans, with no monopoly of truth.
But Muslims have the right to defend themselves against the enemies of Islam, colonizers who occupy their country, and expel them from their land, like partisans who defended Paris against the Nazi invasion.
Dr. Nabil Sha’ath, General Commissioner for the Fateh Commission of International Affairs, commented on Peter Madrous’ statements. The Palestinian society was proud of the unity between Christians and Muslims, in the Holy Land. Palestine serves as an example of tolerance for the Arab world. Crimes in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt are painful and we cannot remain silent to them. But political use of sectarian violence already existed under Sadat and Mubarak. The Arab Spring has unleashed a political reality where divisions emerged rather than unity. One cannot prefer dictatorships, even if it provided for the protection of Christians. Instead, we need to correct our mistakes. One side effect of the Arab Spring has been the postponement of the Fatah/Hamas reconciliation. Hamas gambled on Islam while Morsi ruled Egypt. But Palestinian unity is needed now.
Dr. Hroub agreed with Peter Madrous that the persecution of Christians must be addressed, not responded to by a theoretical rhetoric of Islam as a religion of peace. Christian Palestinians are disproportionately affected by emigration. Hamas should be held accountable for its duties towards the Christians of Gaza. Israel will brag about providing protection to Christians.
We should create a National Front as a third voice to compete against Hamas and Fatah.
Dr. Abdel Rahman, who was involved in the development of the Palestinian school curriculum, defended the content of textbooks, stating that revisions are applied every 3 years and Christian institutions did not submit any request. Allegations of incitements in mosques must be backed by evidence. Christians are part of the Palestinian social fabric, largely represented in the public service, as evidence of a lack of discrimination.
Session IV: Middle East Stability and the Role of External Forces
Olaf Boehnke, Head of the Berlin Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations elaborated on the role of Regional and International Communities vis-à-vis Ennahda (the Tunisian Islamist movement), Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Arab Spring is the expression of a process of emancipation from the former Western dominance. Westerners’ support for former authoritarian regimes highlights their lack of understanding of the region. They ask whether Islam is compatible with democracy and under what guidelines: a constitution or the Quran. Westerners hold double standards on democratic elections. The 2006 Palestinian election that brought Hamas to power confused Washington. The current unrest is perceived as an intra-Muslim conflict, where the West has no business; but disengagement can prove disastrous.
Islamophobia in the West is a social phenomenon, a racist manifestation, not a religious conflict that would be politically motivated.
The economic crisis has reduced European influence on world issues. Europe’s one size fits all foreign policy has failed. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict now at a deadlock is no longer number one priority.
Dr. Asad Ghanem, Professor of Political Science at the School of Political Science of the University of Haifa, commented on the previous statements. For the next 50 years, the Middle East will be central to world politics. The Arab Spring is built on many contradictions. People have been dying for democracy. No regime has been worse than that of the Assad rulers, father and son, except in North Korea. Sincere supporters of democracy are absent from the leadership in Palestine, Egypt, and Tunisia. The Muslim Brotherhood is an integral part of the political landscape even if we don’t agree with it. Palestine will not prosper except in democracy.
He then discussed the three regional powers: Israel, Turkey and Iran. Israel is a central power in the Middle East, with a large influence on the Arab world. Turkey, Israel, and Iran’s mutual deterrence contributes to regional stability. The assertion that they work to destabilize the Arab regimes is an exaggeration based on persistent myths:
Myth 1: Turkey is not going to bring back the Caliphate. It is a republic that has embraced partial secularism and democracy.
Myth 2: Iran is not using the Shiite revolution to assert its regional hegemony. The foundation of Iranian foreign policy is its opposition to the U.S. and Israel. Iran always tried to expand towards its loose side, currently Iraq, and Syria.
Myth 3: Israel does not want to establish a state from the Nile to the Euphrates (this myth has lost its appeal). Israel wants to relinquish land in order to strengthen the Jewishness of its state with a Jewish majority. Israel has at times created alliances with Egypt, Turkey, and Iran according to national interests. For the past twenty years, Egypt and Jordan were the preferred allies.
Israel is a democracy and it will not collapse from within. The country possesses a strong ethnicity, not without problems, so do Turkey and Iran. Turkey and Israel both have strong relationships with the West.
The spread of democracy is encouraged by external forces. The struggles in the Arab world cannot be blamed on the successes of Turkey, Israel, and Iran. The three countries have adopted various models of relationship between the state and religions. Israel is a Zionist state giving a large space to religion. The founders Khomeini and Ben Gurion were given a central role. The Turkish or Iranian models are not useful to the Arab world that must create its own model by gradually adopting the experience of others.
The Arab world is in transition; people are more advanced than their regime. A Palestinian survey showed that 76% would choose Israel has a model for the Palestinian democracy. The consumption society may appease the political agenda of Palestinians but the nationalist aspirations will not disappear without ending the oppression of the occupation.
In a very informative conference, experts on the subject voiced strongly different opinions on the role of Political Islam contributing to a vivid exchange that illustrates the contradictions of an Arab society in profound transition. The highlight of the day was the emotional plea by Father Peter Madrous to put an end to the persecution of Christians throughout the Muslim world, a topic that is rarely addressed.