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Hichem Karoui: The religion-democracy connect
October 14, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

During three days (October 6 to 8, 2012), scholars from the Arab countries and leaders and representatives of varied Islamist parties met in Doha to discuss the issue of democratic governance in connection with the political experiences of those parties in Jordan, Sudan, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya…etc.

The conference started with a lecture by Dr Azmi Bishara, General Director of the Arab Centre for Research and Political Studies (ACRPS), actually the organiser of the event.

“Regardless of the political-religious movements,” he said, “can we generally speak of a connection between religion and democracy?”

Such a question raised at the first session of the conference mirrored the entire programme, and the way ACRPS Director developed his own answer triggered the debate, thus compelling academics and politicians to think about what was really at stake in the Arab societies.

Bishara rightly noted that Muslims are not alone in considering that the cradle of their civilisation is the religious faith. This is also the belief of other people, Christians included. However, on the one hand, “religion as a faith and a relationship with the Sacred, is not related to any system of government,” he emphasised, thus expressing the view of many Arab scholars, since Sheikh Ali Abderraziq’s “Al Islam wa-Usul Al Hukm,” (Islam and the foundations of governance), published in 1925. On the other hand, “democracy does not convey an assessment of religion, but an assessment of governance.” Dr Bishara went on further developing his argument, and ended his lecture with a summarising of the findings of the Arab Opinion Index, a leading project of his institution.

Scholars and politicians then presented their views to the conference, and the debate thus generated was maybe a “premiere” in the Arab world since the recent regime changes. It is hard to talk fairly of all the papers in this column. However, the general impression is that we need more of those debates between politicians and scholars.

This is also the opinion of several persons who attended the conference. Dr Kamel Abdellatif (from Morocco) emphasised that what we have in the Arab world concerns “political transition, not democratic transition.” This is quite true, in my eyes, for as far as we know, democracy has not yet been proved fully working as a system of governance in any part of the Arab world. The experience is just at its beginning. The risks of reversal are as numerous and real as the challenges. Dr Abdellatif underlined “our need to be connected to the humanity achievements so to benefit from them in order to release our creativity and our own contribution.” He reminded the audience that “Arabs and Muslims benefited from all the achievements of the Persian Sassanid state, especially in the area of governance and bureaucracy. So, why should we not benefit today of the achievements of democracy and modernity?” However, the interesting point he made was, “The problem with the Islamists, is that they believe that we do not know the history of Islam.” This is indeed the main point, for upon this belief, they undertook to “show us” in what consists the “true Islam,” according to their own view, while refusing to acknowledge that their opinion is just an opinion, like any other. I subscribe entirely to this view, which is also that of many people.

The conference was meant to be a debate between scholars and Islamist political leaders. It is therefore interesting to see how each side reacts to the other’s opinion. The interaction was sometimes subtle enough. Scholars and political leaders seemed to meet at some points and to avoid intersections at some others. There were overlapping spaces in their discourses as well as vacuum. Political leaders avoided sometimes to answer a direct question addressed to them. For example, Dr Khaled Hroub (from Cambridge) asked Dr Hassan Al Tourabi, “After many years since the execution of Ali Mahmoud Taha, with hindsight, don’t you feel today any regret?” Sheikh Tourabi just dodged. He talked of something else, yet answered only the questions that would not shame or embarrass him, and they were many. For, to be sure, the debate showed some scholars holding him and his party responsible for the tragic events that tore up Sudan. The conference did not bear the subtitle, “Experiences and Tendencies” haphazard. The Islamist political leaders have been invited in order to talk of their experiences in connection with the democratic aims of the Arab social movement.

Other Islamist political leaders attended the conference and talked, like Abdullah Jaballah (founder of the Algerian Justice and Development Party); Ali Sadr Al Bayanouni (former supervisor of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood); Salem Al Felahat (former supervisor of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood); Mohamed Jamil Mansour (Islamist leader who ran for president in Mauritania); Yaser Burhami (vice-president of the Salafist Daawa party in Egypt); Rachid Ghannouchi (leader of the Tunisian Nahdha party), Harith al-Dhari (Secretary General of the Committee of Muslim Scholars in Iraq) etc.

The debate was interesting, although its limits were sometimes blurred. For example, we have an Islamist leader (i.e. Salem Al Felahat) recognising that the term “Islamism” is inaccurate, since it introduces a distinction between people of the same faith. Curiously, before the Islamist leader made such a statement, I was casually talking with Dr Farida Al Banani (from Morocco) during a coffee-pause, and she was saying, “It is unfair to describe those people as Islamists. I feel excluded.”

In my eyes, this is not just a secondary issue, but the core of the problem. What so many people in the West and the Arab world so far convened to label “Islamism,” is a political phenomenon that excludes the majority of the Islamic population from standing for Islam. Today, it is only those political parties labelled “Islamist” that claim to stand for Islam, as an identity, a faith, and a socio-political movement. Better, it is upon these claims that they have gained popularity and power.

To my knowledge, there was no debate about the terminology, scholars and politicians should use to describe the “Islamist” phenomenon. Surely that we can compare them to Christian conservative parties in Europe and the USA. Surely that we can talk of populism rather than popularity, of demagogy rather than democracy, with them at the head of the political pyramid in the Arab countries. However, even if they avoid the debate (which some of them did, dodging the questions), we cannot ignore them. That is why the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies decided to organise such a conference, gathering Islamist leaders and scholars. Such an initiative is important. For with all the ambiguous events happening in the Arab spring countries, we need to see clearly. No doubt that we were much more enlightened about Islamism and democracy after attending the conference than before it.

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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