Faced with repressive rule by autocrats backed by the armed forces it is understandable when ordinary Tunisians, Egyptians or Libyans rise up against such a regime. It is also understandable when these citizens, given the right to exercise their vote in a free electoral system, choose to vote Islamists to power. The Islamists, too, bore the brunt of the brutal repression of the previous regime. Whilst these autocrats plundered state coffers and remained unresponsive to the needs of their citizens, Islamists were providing food, medical care, education and shelter to the poor and disenfranchised.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Tunisia’s Islamists secured forty percent of the votes cast. In Egypt, the scene is set for a bigger landslide victory for Islamists parties. In preliminary electoral results from nine out of Egypt’s 27 governorates, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party secured 36.6 percent of the votes cast whilst the hard-line Salafist Al-Nour secured 24.4 percent. By comparison moderate and liberal parties performed poorly with the Egyptian bloc securing 13.4 percent, the al-Wafd 7.1 percent and the al-Wasat a measly 4.3 percent of the votes cast. There is no indication to suggest that the Islamist juggernaut will lose momentum in the elections in the remaining eighteen governorates.
These Islamist parties, however, need to be made aware of an important fact – that sympathy on the basis of previous repression and gratitude for charity work done in communities does not translate into voters buying into every aspect of their agenda. Indeed, voter turnout in Egypt was only 52 percent – a very low figure considering this was the country’s first truly free and fair poll. The relatively low voter turnout also suggests popular voter disillusionment with the choices on offer.
Societies such as Tunisia and Egypt emerging from corrupt authoritarian rule need healing and reconciliation. They do not need more fractures undermining the cohesion of their respective societies. This is a lesson which the Islamists have unfortunately not learned. In Tunisia, Islamists have clashed with secular students following their demands to end mixed-sex classrooms at universities and compelling female students to wear the niqab or full-face veil. In Egypt, assaults on Coptic Christians and attacks on their places of worship have become tragically routine. For pessimists, the point gleaned from this is depressingly familiar: political Islam is incompatible with liberal democracy. Turkey’s AKP Islamist party, once considered the poster-child of a modern functioning Islamist democracy, coupled with a vibrant market economy is increasingly demonstrating its illiberal nature in the manner it is dealing with its Kurdish minority as well as the numbers of its incarcerated journalists.
As a progressive Muslim, I reject the notion that intolerance is the norm of political Islam. As a Muslim scholar I reject the notion that political Islam is incompatible either with liberal democracy or secularism. Indeed, Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt can tap into the wealth of Islamic literature to chart an alternative future – one in which peace, tolerance and respect for the other becomes the norm.
The key principle underlying this is the Quran verse 2: 98 that there can be no coercion in religious affairs. This is again repeated by the Quranic verse 18:30: ‘This is the truth from your Lord, let him who will, believe, and let him who will, disbelieve’. In the 39th chapter of the Quran, the Prophet is ordered to tell unbelievers: ‘It is Allah I worship in sincerest obedience’. Now as far as you are concerned, ‘Worship , what you like, besides him’. At other places, the Quran is even more explicit, ‘For you, your religion and for me, my religion’. In a similar vein, Allah asks a rhetorical question. Addressing the Prophet, He says: ‘If thy Lord had enforced His Will, surely all those on earth would have believed, without exception. Will thou, then, then take it upon thyself to force people to become believers?’ The underlying point here is that where religion is enforced, faith itself is undermined.
At the political level, too, Islam is entirely compatible with liberal multi-party democracy. In Islam one could draw a clear distinction between the religious and political spheres. Karen Armstrong, for instance, powerfully argues that the Quran insists that the Prophet Muhammed had no political function but that he was simply a nadhir (a warner). Of course, he did become head of the first Islamic state but this was more due to the political vacuum existing at the time as opposed to some divine pre-ordained plan. Also contributing to this separation between religion and the public sphere was that throughout Islamic history there never was a single voice that represented the canons of religion or Shar’ia law. As Khaled Abou El Fadl has asserted:
Historically, the Islamic faith and Shar’ia law have been represented by several competing schools of theological and jurisprudential thought, the most powerful and notable of these organized into privately run professional guilds. Although the state often claimed to rule in God’s name, the legitimacy of such claims were challenged by these professional guilds.
A secular state is not an anti-religious one; rather it sets the basis where people of different faiths can co-exist harmoniously. This is especially important in our modern heterogeneous and conflict-prone polities. More importantly Islamic concepts such as freedom (al-hurriya), equality (al-musawat), justice (al-adl), and consultation (shura) are all norms that can be found in a liberal, multi-party, secular polity. Furthermore, the first four caliphs in Islam, beginning in CE 632, were all elected by a majority vote. In addition, as early as the 9th century a rationalist movement, called the Mu’tazilites was established in the Islamic world which promoted secularism.
The underlying point, of course, is whether the Islamists in North Africa have the political maturity and acumen to tap into this rich Islamic tradition and embrace inclusion and diversity into their political programmes.