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September 9, 2002

Moderate Islam is the mainstream

Carrie Wickham is associate professor of political science.

When Americans think of Islam as a political force, many think first of Osama bin Laden and the al Qaida network, or of the Ayatollah Khomeini, or of the suicide bombers of Islamic Jihad in Palestine.

The militant wing of the Islamic movement has received enormous media attention since Sept. 11, and this attention is well-justified. Yet an exclusive focus on militant Islamic groups yields a distorted picture of the Islamic movement as a whole.

In most Arab states today, the largest, best-financed, best-organized and most popular opposition groups are “Islamist” in orientation. While the exact nature of their goals and strategies differ, such groups share a conviction that the problems of corruption, repression, poverty, inequality and unemployment that plague Muslim societies are in large part a consequence of their departure from the moral norms of Islam. Hence, they believe what is needed is a thorough Islamic reform of society and state, informed by the principles of Shari’a, or Islamic Law.

Such groups have cultivated a broad following among young, educated professionals in the Arab world, many of whom are frustrated by the lack of job opportunities, low pay for the jobs that are available, a lack of affordable housing and other hardships. More broadly, they are dissatisfied with the detached leadership of the region’s authoritarian rulers who, as seen from the populist vantage point, are chauffered around in air-conditioned Mercedes to big parties and receptions with no concern whatsoever for the problems of ordinary citizens.

In Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and elsewhere, many of these high school and college graduates with limited prospects see the Islamic movement as the only genuine alternative to “politics as usual.” And in the context of renewed tensions in the Arab-Israeli conflict, such young people admire Islamic groups for their steadfast defense of Palestinian rights at a time when they see their own governments making concessions to the Israelis under American pressure.

In sum, the Islamists have emerged as the Arab world’s loudest and most “authentic” advocates of political accountability, social justice and the defense of Palestine (and Arab and Muslim rights, more generally), at a time when socialism has been discredited and liberal democracy retains the stigma of its close association with the West.

These themes, it must be noted, are shared by Islamic reformists and militants alike. Yet the reformists differ from the militants in three important ways.

First, reformist groups seek to achieve Islamic reform gradually, through legal channels. Such groups include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, the Nahda party in Tunisia, the Islamic Constitutional Movement in Kuwait, and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey. These groups run in parliamentary elections, and they compete for leadership positions in student unions and professional associations, as well.

In addition, they or affiliated groups run health clinics and schools in poor neighborhoods, publish books and newspapers, and offer religious instruction in private mosques. In the slums of Algiers, Islamic groups organized crews to clean up garbage in the streets and plant trees. Hence it is by providing services and presenting themselves as a model of “clean politics” that such groups have generated support; they seek to achieve influence not through bombs or bullets—but through the ballot box.

A second way they differ from militant Islamic groups like al Qaida is in the kind of society they seek to create. Reformists and militants share a commitment to Islamic reform, but they envision it in very different ways.

In brief, the militants adhere to an extremely puritannical version of Islam, based on a strict and literalist reading of the Quran as well as on the opinions of conservative Muslim jurists and religious scholars, some of whom date back to medieval times. This strand of Islam, which encompasses the Salafi and Wahhabi currents, is particularly influential in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, but also has followings elsewhere.

For adherents to this version of Islam, the goal is to purify the religion of all foreign elements and restore what they understand to be the Islam contained in the Quran and the Sunna, or practice of the Prophet Muhammad in seventh-century Arabia. From their vantage point, such modern ideas as democracy and pluralism are kafir, apostate concepts alien to—and unsuited for—the Muslim world. Further, such adherents reject the doctrine of universal human rights as a secular, Western construct, and instead are ready to use force to promote full compliance with Islamic moral codes. Many of them favor the compulsory veiling of all Muslim women, for example, as well as their seclusion from public life.

Reformist Islamic groups also seek to establish a political system based on Shari’a. But such groups advocate the reinterpretation of Islamic texts, using ijtihad (independent reasoning) in order to adapt Islamic principles to modern times. In their statements and party platforms, the leaders of mainstream reformist Islamic groups speak positively of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. In addition, they define pluralism as one of the most important principles of Arab-Islamic civilization and insist that they seek to spread Islamic behavior not through coercion but persuasion.

Such groups promise that they will respect the outcome of democratic elections, even if the result is that they are forced out of power. And the most progressive of the Islamic groups (who call themselves “moderate,” “enlightened” and “open-minded”) state that women are equal to men in all civil and political rights and responsibilities, including the right to run for the highest positions in government.

The point here is that Islamist goals cover a broad ideological spectrum. While even the most “moderate” Islamists are not secular democrats, neither do they share the militant ideology of Osama bin Laden and his associates.

The final way in which mainstream, nonviolent Islamist groups differ from their militant counterparts is in the extent of their popular support. Since Sept. 11, Osama bin Laden has become in the Muslim world a popular symbol of resistance to Western economic, political and cultural domination. Yet, in general, the number of recruits into militant Islamic groups remains quite small compared to the number of young people who support the more moderate Islamic parties.

In Egypt, the country I know best, the vast majority of the population rejects violence as a political tool, and attacks on secular intellectuals and foreign tourists by such groups as Jihad and al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya have diminished their popularity rather than enhanced it.

While only a tiny percentage of Egyptians openly supports such militant groups, the country’s leading reformist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, for years dominated the country’s student unions and professional associations and is now the largest opposition bloc in parliament—despite the fact that it technically remains a banned organization.

The same could be said of support for Islamists in Turkey, Tunisia, Jordan and Kuwait; it is the moderates, rather than the militants, who have the broadest popular base.

Of course, the positions staked out by Islamist groups, and their levels of support, are subject to change over time, and since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Palestinian uprising, even the so-called “moderate” Islamists have adapted a militant position in favor of confrontation with Israel.

Along the same lines, a massive American military operation in Iraq would be sure to unite moderate and militant wings of the Islamic movement in what would almost definitely be construed as an act of aggression against the Arab nation (al-qawm) by the world’s only superpower.

In sum, popular support for the Islamic movement shows no signs of abating. But what the Islamic movement stands for, and how its ascendance would affect the Arab world’s domestic political systems, as well as its relations with Israel and the West, has yet to be determined. In part, this will depend on trends in regional and international politics—which can either strengthen the incentives for mainstream Islamists to further moderate their agendas or, alternatively, hasten their radicalization.