Is political Islam fading?

Is political Islam fading?

First, Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda made the surprising move last week. “We are leaving political Islam and entering democratic Islam. From now on we are Muslim democrats!” said its founding leader, Rachid Ghannouchi.

Then the golden shot came from the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) in Egypt. A senior member of its Shura Council, Gamal Heshmat, said they intended to separate political affairs from religion. This declaration was made on the 88th anniversary of the foundation of the group.

So it is the right time to ask whether Islamist parties in the region are melting away? Is political Islam fading?

Dr. Fouad Farhaoui, a Moroccan academic who monitors Islamist movements in North Africa very closely and is currently working at the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) in Ankara, says “Ikhwan is questioning its identity. It is soul searching and trying to find itself.”

Ikhwan was founded in Egypt in 1928 right after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, in reaction to the downfall of the Ottomans. Its objective was to form an Ottoman-like entity, i.e. a caliphate stretching beyond Egypt’s borders.

With Egypt becoming first independent and later a republic, Ikhwan found itself facing a big challenge: The nation-state mentality. The movement has not been able to grasp the modern nation-state, which triggered an internal discussion as to whether they should adapt themselves to the nation-state or not. The fact that Mohamed Morsi was unsuccessful in government - before he was toppled by al-Sisi’s coup d’etat in 2011 - has also deepened the rift within Ikhwan.

Today, the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have been split into three groups. According to Farhaoui, one faction argues that they should continue with religious activities and cut off their ties with the state entirely.

It is highly possible that this clique might become Salafist and entirely break off from Ikhwan. The second group wants to continue religious affairs in conformity with the state, while the third group advocates leaving religious affairs behind and becoming solely a political party. 

So Ikhwan’s recent announcement does not indicate a final decision or consensus; rather, it is a manifestation of this internal discussion.

Ennahda, the political Islamist party in Tunisia, is having the same discussion. Yet the sophistication of its debate and the distance it has covered are quite different. Ennahda’s leader, Ghannouchi, is the Islamist with the most experience of the West within the Muslim Brotherhood school. Ennahda, which was founded in 1981, was banned by Tunisia’s autocratic leader Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and Ghannouchi himself was put on trial, facing execution. This led most Ennahda members to take refuge in France and Britain in the 1990s. 

With the eruption of the Jasmine Revolution in 2011, many of them returned to Tunisia carrying Western notions with them. This in turn made Ennahda much more liberal and advanced compared to other political Islamist movements in the region, including Egypt. 

Fouad Farhaoui suggests that Ennahda has long been advising Ikhwan to follow the same path, but the latter has turned a deaf ear. Yet apparently the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has recently been impressed by the success story of Ennahda. Moreover it has also realized its own limitations in the political sphere over the last five years. As a result, the more liberal faction within the group made the recent declaration, right after Ennahda announced its decision to separate religion and politics.

In addition to the interaction between these groups, Turkey’s influence on political Islamist parties is also vital. Ghannouchi has often said he models Ennahda on Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Farhaoui says both Nahda and Ikhwan specifically take the AKP’s economic policies as an example.

When Turkish President Erdoğan called for a secular constitution during his visit to Cairo as prime minister in 2011, Ikhwan reacted sharply and accused him of meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs. But the group seems to have been affected by Erdoğan’s rhetoric and now a major faction is apparently following his path.
Back in 2003, Erdoğan said “we have left the ‘national vision movement’ behind and are becoming a new party,” referring to his embrace of a reformist and progressive Islamist agenda, renouncing a traditional and specifically Islamist course. His messages seem to have echoed. Today, a significant clique within Ikhwan is moving along his model.

The most critical point is that the group is adapting itself to the modern nation state. Farhaoui argues that “change wouldn’t happen in Egypt without the army.” According to him, Ikhwan has to be pragmatic and realistic by learning to work in harmony with state institutions.

The Arab uprisings did not bring democratization to the Middle East. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the strongest mass movement in the region, has been heavily beaten down during this process. Today it is legally considered a terrorist group in Egypt.

But it is apparently taking lessons from its own experience and seeking an exit route. The change that didn’t come to the region through revolution will probably arrive through evolution - even if only at the end of a long and grueling path.

The AKP’s success or failure, meanwhile, matters a lot not only for Turkey, but also for the evolution of political Islam in the broader region