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Analysis: Arab Spring stretches "Islamist" tag to its limits

The open politics spawned by the Arab Spring have stretched the term "Islamist" to its limits, covering everyone from hip moderate young Muslims to long-bearded hardliners bent on imposing a divine dictatorship.
/ Source: Reuters

The open politics spawned by the Arab Spring have stretched the term "Islamist" to its limits, covering everyone from hip moderate young Muslims to long-bearded hardliners bent on imposing a divine dictatorship.

The rainbow of varieties of political Islam has forced world media to start using unfamiliar terms such as Salafi -- an ultraconservative champion of an Islamic state -- to bring out some of the diversity in the emerging Muslim democracies.

Even local analysts and journalists in the Middle East find themselves fumbling for nouns and adjectives to describe exactly where a party stands in the spectrum of political options that find inspiration in the region's main religion.

Khaled Salah, editor-in-chief of the Cairo daily Al-Youm Al-Sabe, said the lines separating different Islamists were often so unclear that no agreed terms have emerged.

"It's very difficult even for Egyptians to understand the differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis and the other groups," he said.

Ibrahim Negm, senior adviser to Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, said the Islamist parties agreed on a role for religion but little else. "It's wrong to put them all into one basket," he said. "Their interpretations and tools are radically different."

Islamist, originally a French academic neologism for advocates of a political role for the religion, seemed to fit the bill while the region was ruled only by military dictators or monarchs who jailed faith-based challengers.

Iran's Islamic Republic seemed to be the model, even though it was a theocracy run by a Shi'ite hierarchy that has no equivalent among the Sunni Muslims who make up the majority in the Arab states of the Middle East.


Since pro-democracy demonstrations began a year ago, Islamist politicians have become prime minister in Tunisia and Morocco and Egypt's main rival Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, are leading in its staggered elections.

Egypt, the Arab world's largest nation, offers the widest selection of options for Muslims who want their faith to be reflected in some way in the new political landscape.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which deposed President Hosni Mubarak used as a bogeyman to justify his perennial emergency rule, has emerged as the broad middle ground of Islamism here.

Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna as an Islamic political and social welfare movement, its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has garnered almost 40 percent of the vote so far in the three-stage parliamentary elections due to finish in January.

Its leaders advocate a gradual move towards a more Islamic society, telling voters they want more morality in public life but won't impose veils on women or scare away foreign tourists by banning bikinis and beer from Egyptian beaches.

Still, in a Western country, Muslim Brothers would be among the staunch social conservatives, something like the evangelical wing of the Republican Party in the United States.

Political analyst Abdel Rahim Ali discerned three factions within the Brotherhood, depending on whether they stressed social and religious work, moderate political change or a more militant focus on achieving an Islamic state.

"It's hard for these factions to stand up publicly because the leadership has firm control," he said.


To the right of them are the Salafis, who have picked up over a quarter of the votes so far - the big surprise of these voting rounds. These ultratraditionalists used to say democracy was un-Islamic but jumped on the election bandwagon this year.

They want sharia, the Islamic moral and legal code, to become the law of the land soon and establish a Muslim supremacy that would bar Christians - who make up 10 percent of the population - and women from high office.

Trying to allay voter fears, a spokesman for their political party al-Nour said a Salafi government would not destroy the pre-Islamic art of ancient Egypt in a replay of the Taliban's destruction of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan in 2001.

Abdel Moneim el-Shahat said it would rather cover some statues with wax so tourists would still visit Egyptian museums but not be confronted with immoral sights.

The most militant are jihadis who want to impose an Islamic state by violence. They are banned but Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya, which has renounced violence since taking part in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, formed a party and ran.

To the left of the Muslim Brotherhood, in what would be the centre to centre-right in the Western political spectrum, are former Brotherhood members running on more moderate platforms.

The main party here is Wasat (Centre), which split off in 1996 and advocates a more liberal interpretation of Islam that is consistent with liberal democratic views.

One former Brotherhood member, the stubble-bearded independent presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh, recently expounded his liberal views in a glossy magazine amid liquor and fashion ads and shots of skimpily-dressed socialites.

Unlike Wasat party founders, however, he was expelled from the Brotherhood because he chose to run for president after the group said it would not field a candidate. He did not split over any ideological principle though he was on the reformist wing.


Islam is so much a part of the self-identity of Muslim countries that many in the Middle East -- including even some among the religious minorities -- think it's only natural that it would have some place in a democratic political system.

Justice is such a key concept in the Koran that the word figures in the names of Islamist parties in Egypt and Morocco as well as in Turkey's ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party), which has Islamist roots but is officially secular.

In Egypt, this offers an immediate appeal to many voters who have thrown off an autocrat, Mubarak, whom they blame for creating a gaping divide between rich and poor and between his favored elite and ordinary Egyptians.

Tunisia's Islamist party was called the Islamic Tendency Movement before changing to Ennahda (Renaissance) in 1989 because the secular state banned faith-based parties.

Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda's founder and a leading theorist of moderate Islamism, told Reuters in Tunis last month that Western readers imagined everything from conservative democrats to violent extremists when they read the term Islamist.

Asked if he had a better word for those who support what he called "applied Islam," he thought aloud for a while and then said with a shrug: "I think Muslim would be the right term."