Islamists have failed to deliver economic and social justice by Parvez Ahmed*

December 29, 2013, Sunday/ 00:00:00

The military coup against the duly elected government of Egypt was without doubt a blow to democracy. However, the latest poll from Zogby Research shows an almost evenly divided Egyptian public.

Fifty-one percent of Egyptians believe it was wrong to depose Mohammed Morsi, their legitimately elected president, while 46 percent believe that the military intervention was the right thing to do. Around the time Morsi was deposed, seven in 10 Egyptians did not sympathize with Morsi's supporters, according to the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research.

After giving the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) only a year in office, why did the Egyptian public turn against it? A New York Times article stated that there was an erosion of support for the Brotherhood even in traditional strongholds even before Morsi's ouster. This was due to the “confusing economic policies of the Brotherhood-led government.” Another popular complaint against Morsi was that the Brotherhood was “focusing too exclusively on his [its] Islamist base.”

The first complaint stems from the Brotherhood's lack of governing experience. However, the second complaint is more foreboding as it goes to the heart of the trouble with Islamist politics. Ambivalence about pluralistic values undermines democracy.

The Associated Press (AP) defines an Islamist as an “advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam.” The AP's definition is useful but unsatisfactory as it fails to distinguish between those who want the values of Islam to inform laws and those who want to impose their parochial interpretations of Shariah (the moral code and religious law of Islam). Islamist groups such as the MB in the Middle East and North Africa and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) in South Asia want the latter.

In contrast, other political forces in the Muslim world, such as the National Forces Alliance in Libya, favor laws to be guided by the values of Islam but do not wish to impose Shariah. This puts them squarely with the majority. John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed in “Who speaks for Islam?” noted that “having an enriched religious/spiritual life” is an important priority for Muslims. The majority in most Muslim countries want Shariah to be “a” not “the” source of legislation. This seems to be no different from the aspirations of a Christian-majority country such as the United States. In 2006, a Gallup Poll showed 46 percent of Americans saying they want the Bible to be “a” source of legislation.

The upsurge in support for Islamist politics is the confluence of two trends -- a repudiation of the disastrous policies of past regimes and a growing view among Muslims that Shariah can be an effective bulwark against the oppressive corruption and monopolization of power by the elite. A recent Pew poll shows that clear majorities support the implementation of Shariah. However, Muslims do not have a unified understanding of what Shariah means in practice. In addition, the survey finds “most Muslims see no inherent tension between being religiously devout and living in a modern society.” Muslims favor democracy, symbiotic coexistence with others and a system of governance that best reflects their own ethical values. Islamists like the ruling secularists they deposed have not been able to translate this aspiration into effective governance.

How to reconcile the desire for Shariah with the erosion in support for Islamists? The realpolitik of Islamists has left many disillusioned. In Egypt, the MB left the powers of the military unrestrained, much to the chagrin of the Tahrir revolutionaries. In Libya, the MB was viewed as pawns of foreign powers such as Qatar. In Bangladesh, the JI was viewed with suspicion because of anecdotal accounts of their past collaboration with the Pakistani army in slaughtering hundreds of fellow countrymen during Bangladesh's war of liberation. In Pakistan, the chief of JI called Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, a martyr.

In Turkey, the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power as a result of the failures of the secular elite in ensuring broad economic prosperity. During its first two terms, the AKP succeeded by delivering stunning economic results. All that began to crumble as the AKP is now embroiled in corruption scandals and has begun to push conservative social policies, going so far as to suggest how many children women should have. The AKP's foreign policy is in shambles. A recent headline in the influential Foreign Policy summed it best: “How Turkey Went From 'Zero Problems' to Zero Friends.” The AKP's growing unpopularity, even with religious conservatives such as the influential Fethullah Gülen, may represent a turning point not only in Turkish politics but Islamist politics globally.

The 20th century marked the rise of political Islam, from the JI in South Asia to the MB in the Middle East and North Africa. But once in power, the Islamists, with the exception of the early period of AKP rule, proved to be ineffective. They are prone to the same abuses of power that characterized the ruling elites they deposed. From Egypt to Bangladesh, Muslims are increasingly uneasy. Beyond their utopian slogans that “Islam is the solution,” there is little track record or consensus about how to implement Shariah practically in a way that will deliver economic and social justice for all people. Islamists need to espouse a more secular vision that is inclusive of all people and not just subservient to their base. Secularists need to spiritualize their politics by espousing public policies that better reflect the public's aspiration that fulfill the objectives of Shariah. The politicization of Shariah and the Shariahization of politics are a disservice to the faith of Islam and have proven to be divisive thus far.


*Parvez Ahmed is a former Fulbright scholar and associate professor of finance at the University of North Florida. He is also director of the Center for Sustainable Business Practices at the University of North Florida.

Keywords: islam , economy , social justice , egypt