Islamic political groups and democratic participation

 16 Nov 2016 - 13:38

Dr Noureddine Miladi

The Arab Spring revolutions have brought to the forefront Islamic political groups through availing unprecedented opportunities for political participation either directly in rule like Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco or in opposition (Parliament) like Jordon, Kuwait among other countries. 
In the western media, Political groups are conventionally portrayed as a threat, a problem or sometimes a conspiracy. In few western countries official reports on the Islamic groups, who believe in democracy and peaceful change, describe them as problematic and sometimes a potential danger. Hardly are they described in what they stand for, what they exactly do or how much they contributed in the welfare and stability of their countries. 
It is worth noting that historically Islamic movements appeared in various contexts and related to social and political developments in the Arab world. Most of the movements which believe in democracy and political participation have been historically influenced by the ethos of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. However most of them have fashioned pathways which distinguish them from the Muslim Brotherhood. This distinction relates to the geographical, social and political specificities in each of the Arab countries where these movements have been observable and sometimes influential in the social and political scenes.
Islamic political groups are also the product of developments in the modernity process in the Arab world. They are the product of the reshaping of nation states after the colonial era which came to an end by the beginning of the 1960s. 
Those movements are originally social movements which responded in various contexts  to social and political problems. For instance the Moroccan Justice and Development movement managed to ascend to power and attempted to respond positively to the youth movements in 2012. It benefited from the legacy of the Muslim Brotherhood but carved for itself a distinct identity closely related to the Moroccan society. 
The question that needs a appropriate answer is whether modern states in the Arab world will be able to accommodate Islamic political groups or these groups should be integrated in the secular political parties in order for them to be accepted by the political elites.  
The last few decades testify that these movements tend to get affected by how the West reads them. How the west considers their raison d’être in relation to big issues in the Arab world like democracy, justice, rule of law, human rights and women’s equality. 
What is evident from recent Western think tank reports and official documents is that they don’t distinguish between political movements which believe in democracy participation and others which believe in social change through force. In the eyes of various western quarters Political Islam considers moderate Islamic movements like Ennahdah in Tunisia, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Moroccan Justice and party on the one hand and Al Qaeda and other Jihadi groups on the other side as one. All of them according to those think tanks are not compatible with modern liberal political systems hence should be excluded from any negotiations and business. 
The Arab Spring revolutions have brought these movements to the lime light. They have found themselves urged to assume political leadership either through participation such as in Tunisia or single rule like Egypt or Turkey. The move to transfer to the opposition ranks to assume responsibility in front of the public and offer solution to unemployment, health problems, ailing economy, reforming the political system, modernisation of the country’s infrastructure in addition to engaging the youth in political life.  However, it is no secret that these movements have faced colossal challenges during the last few decades. These challenges have not ceased even when few of them came to power. 
One of the lessons from the Tunisian experience is the significance of sharing power with other political parties in Tunisia. This has to a large extent paved the way to bottom line of stability in the democratic transition since October 2012, the first democratic election in the country since independence which brought Ennahda party to the political leadership. 
The pressure from anti-revolutionary forces in the Arab Spring countries have their echo in other Arab countries who have not witnessed such turmoil. These forces have in their tasks to block any participation of these movements in the political democratic processes. This can be seen in Tunisia for instance where extremist political groups from the left conspired to make their rule in 2012 to failure and push Ennahda to withdraw from power. 
The experience of political participation/ rule with other secular groups in secular states especially after the breaking of the Arab Spring revolutions seem to have become the way forward. 
Ennahda party in Tunisia and the likes should focus their attention to develop a systematic renewal and development project/ vision. This renewal should go beyond thinking about theoretical and theological matters into a more pragmatic approach which encompasses modern challenges which face the Arab and Middle Eastern societies. 
Also these movements should develop their alternatives to how to rule. So far most of the changes have been related to broader trends or mission for instance whether they are dawah movements or political parties. What is crucial should have been an attempt to develop plans on how to rule, which can constitute an alternative with their flavor in political management, economics, media, society and culture. 

The writer is Professor of Media and Communication. He can be reached via e-mail: [email protected]