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The solution is banning Islamist parties

The failure of religious partisanship occurred in Egypt, Sudan, Gaza, Iran and Iraq

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Published: Updated:

It’s not easy for anyone who believes in the right of others to participate (in politics) to end up with the following conclusion: Politics in the Arab world will neither change nor stabilize without banning the use of religion in politics. We have a long experience that proves the failure of attempts to tame political Islamic groups and the failure of transforming them into civil groups. The problem is not that Islamic groups are extremist or tolerant; the problem lies in the political use of religion or in the use of religion to enable a certain religious group to govern unilaterally.

The failure of religious partisanship occurred in Egypt, Sudan, Gaza, Iran and Iraq mostly because politics works in changing civilian fields and circumstances. Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist politicians failed to adapt themselves, and when some succeed in doing so, they are accused of infidelity and are expelled from the party and religious group. For example, when Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood figure Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh presented a program that was slightly different from that of the group, he was excluded and accused of disloyalty. Meanwhile, a figure like Khairat al-Shater rose to fame within the Muslim Brotherhood as a result of his extremist approaches.

It’s no coincidence that all societies which succeeded democratically are those which prevented the use of religion and patriotism

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

It’s no coincidence that all societies which succeeded democratically are those which prevented the use of religion and patriotism. Most people are simultaneously believers and patriotic and it is unacceptable for them to allow parties that accuse others of infidelity or treason. Most people are religious and love their countries too. Groups which raise the slogan of religion in partisan work are effectively exploiting religion. Much the same occurred with the exploitation of Islam, which has become a “trademark” owned by the sweeping majority and which is not an exclusive right of one particular group. The same applies to groups claiming patriotism and accusing others of treason, like fascist Baathist and nationalist parties in Iraq and Syria.

Parties and politicians

Parties and politicians can compete in suggesting their different programs which are either based on developmental programs, on religious conservatism, economic orientations or which are based on the form of the political regime they wish to embody.

Alternatively, they can also make suggestions focused on domestic and foreign affairs and a host of other issues. The Muslim Brotherhood is a political group but it sees itself as exclusive to Muslims and therefore different from all other parties.

In the United States, most presidents go to church every Sunday and hold the bible in one hand and their child’s hand in another. They are believers in general and such behavior is expected from the president in a society where the majority is Christian.

Therefore, piousness and faith are not in question here as most politicians are faithful; however they are elected based on their stances on different issues which may include theological affairs such as abortion. Voters decide who to elect based on the nominees’ agendas and not based on their submission to Christianity or Islam. In a democracy, there are no political parties claiming to represent religion and there are no parties claiming to monopolize patriotism and reject the patriotism of others.

Fighting over power

Several religious groups are currently fighting over power. Some Muslim Brotherhood groups are very extremist and there are some Salafist groups with varying degrees of extremism, like Salafist Jihadist groups which believe in using murder to reach power. There are also Suroori, Sufi and Shiite groups and they are all split into smaller parties. This is a characteristic of ideological-based parties, such as those based on Communism.

Some may note there have been successful exercises in democracy under Islamist parties; they cite the Ennahda party in Tunisia and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey. First of all, very few Islamist parties have lasted the test of time, and those that did are an exception. Second of all, those which lasted are based on Islamic liberal models with intellect and orientations closer to the West. Arab Islamist partisans do not accept the ideas of parties like the Turkish Justice and Development party. We all remember what happened when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Cairo to congratulate Mohammad Mursi - his colleague in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood party - for winning the presidency and advised the Muslim Brotherhood to adopt the Turkish model. The Muslim Brotherhood fiercely criticized him and the MB spokesperson Mahmoud Ghazlan even criticized him publically in the media, saying the experiences of other countries cannot be copied, adding that Erdogan’s advice to the Egyptians was tantamount to interfering in the country’s internal affairs. Erdogan had recommended that they work within a secular regime that allows everyone to practice their rights and activities. Most Arab Islamist intellectuals who praise Erdogan and brag about his success avoid talking about his ideas and their implementation because they know that they contradict with their own local discourse.

Then why do we demand banning the formation of Islamic parties when we admit the success of the Turkish Justice and Development party? The reason lies in the latter’s program and its declared agenda. It is closer to a conservative party than a religious one – such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and other religious parties in Iran and Pakistan. If Erdogan changes his party’s path from political to religious, he will probably end up in the same boat as other theological parties, clashing with others and cutting short the democratic experience. It’s not strange that some Western parties adopt religious or conservative stances - such as positions opposing abortion. However, this does not make them religious as it is part of their generally conservative political plan. What should be prohibited is the use of religion in their slogans or when making promises. This would exploit the majority’s religion for the purpose of competing with others. Most liberals, leftists and nationalists believe in the same religion and they may even be more religious than others. As for the Tunisian Ennahda party, it’s too early to judge it because some of its leaders are cautiously trying to shift the party from its religious path toward a conservative civil one. Most of the party’s leaders still think in much the same terms as the Muslim Brotherhood, claiming to Islamize society and accusing others of infidelity to eliminate them.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on October 30, 2014.

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Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.