Political Islam: Opportunity or Challenge?

enja-saethren2The most striking feature of the far-reaching political changes in the Middle East and North Africa over the past year has been the increasing importance of Islamic mass movements. In the wake of the riots large sections of the electorate in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt have shifted their allegiances to the Islamic parties. Does this constitute an opportunity or is it a challenge?

The former seems to be true, for the support given to these parties does not mean that voters are attracted by their religious ideology. Their credibility as far as ordinary people are concerned comes from their economic and social policies. In today’s Arab world a deliberate strategy of promoting employment, economic growth, justice and the fight against corruption would seem to be more important than anything else. The reason for this is the simple fact that the Arab societies of the future are now in the making, and new constitutions are being drawn up in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Since the world has become significantly smaller, this is a process we can participate in. It is no longer controversial to talk to members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but this was not the case a few years ago. However, to enter into a dialogue with Islamic movements does not necessarily mean that one agrees with everything they say.

And yet political Islam is an increasingly important power factor in the Middle East that needs to be taken into consideration. Communication and dialogue provide an opportunity to clarify areas of disagreement, and at the same time they enable us to understand the diversity that tends to be concealed by labels such as “political Islam” and “the West.” This insight is of great importance, since oversimplification and ignorance have all too often determined the way in which political Islam is seen in the West.

The elections in the Middle East and North Africa have shown quite clearly that the principles of democracy and freedom are totally compatible with Islam. This becomes apparent when we consider the wide variety of political views to which the generic term political Islam tends to be applied. They range from a pragmatic and moderate Islamic approach to fundamentalist groups. Movements such as the Egyptian Salafists cling to deeply reactionary values. Others, although they are obviously conservative, adopt a more pragmatic approach. This is true of certain sections of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

What they all have in common is the emphasis they place on values, on welfare, and on a fair distribution of wealth. And despite the great differences between the two approaches, people are interested in the democratic governance model often associated with Western political systems. I do not believe that our societal model can be copied by the Arab world, nor do I think that this should be our goal. I believe that it is time to redefine the way in which we talk about these topics. Democratic values do not exist only in the West. The fact of the matter is that they are universal values, even though we have failed to acknowledge their prevalence. What we can do is to share some of our experiences with democracy and modern governance.

And yet we should not overlook the fact that there are obvious tensions between old ideas and constricted interpretations of religion on the one hand, and universal democratic values such as equality and freedom of speech on the other. These tensions have become apparent in the work on the new constitutions. No one knows how the debates within and between the Islamic movements and parties that now dominate the Middle East will end. The only thing that seems certain is that these debates are going to shape the political future of the Middle East, and thus, in the context of our global society, will make a contribution to a new world order.