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Can Islamist moderates remake the politics of the Muslim world?

Why We Wrote This

The era of political Islam appears to be waning in some regions. But as some Islamists broaden their appeal, there's an opportunity to increase our understanding of the nuances of Islam in politics.

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters
Ennahda party member Souad Abderrahim celebrated after being elected the first woman mayor of Tunis, Tunisia, in July. The wider adoption of democratic principles could transform the discourse in a region where – as elsewhere – politics are often bound to identity and bitterly polarized.

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From Tunisia to Egypt to Jordan, Islamist activists and organizations are adopting a more progressive and moderate tone. They are reaching out to minorities and secular Muslims, while doing away with old political goals to impose their interpretation of Islam on society. Part of the move is simple pragmatism. After watching the Muslim Brotherhood – with its call for sharia (Islamic law) – get routed in Egypt, and the defeat of other political Islamic groups, many Islamic activists believe that for their organizations to survive, a more moderate stance is the way to gain and hold power. Others say a deeper ideological shift is under way, with increasing recognition of the importance of religious tolerance and political pluralism in modern societies. Experts say this shift is a natural evolution for movements that are taking part in the decisionmaking process for the first time after decades in the opposition. “As the opposition, you can refuse, you can criticize, you can obstruct,” says Rachid Mouqtadir, professor of political science at Hassan II University in Casablanca, Morocco. “But when you are in a coalition with other parties and trying to govern, the parameters change, your approach changes, and as a result your ideology changes.”

Alaa Faroukh insists he is the future. After nearly a decade in the Muslim Brotherhood, he says that he has finally found harmony between his faith and politics, not as a hardcore Islamist, but as a “Muslim democrat.”

“We respect and include minorities, we fight for women’s rights, we respect different points of view, we are democratic both in our homes and in our politics – that is how we honor our faith,” Mr. Faroukh says.

The jovial psychologist with a toothy smile, who can quote Freud as easily as he can recite the Quran, is speaking from his airy Amman clinic, located one floor below the headquarters of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, the very movement he left.

“The time of divisive politics of older Islamists is over, and everyone in my generation agrees,” says the 30-something Faroukh. “The era of political Islam is dead.”

Faroukh is symbolic of a shift sweeping through parts of the Arab world. From Tunisia to Egypt to Jordan, many Islamist activists and some established Islamic organizations are adopting a more progressive and moderate tone in their approach to politics and governing. They are reaching out to minorities and secular Muslims while doing away with decades-old political goals to impose their interpretation of Islam on society.

Taylor Luck
“The time of divisive politics of older Islamists is over, and everyone in my generation agrees. The era of political Islam is dead,” says Alaa Faroukh, a young Jordanian who left the Muslim Brotherhood for a moderate political party.

Part of the move is simple pragmatism. After watching the Muslim Brotherhood – with its call for sharia (Islamic law) and failure to reach out to minorities and secular Muslims – get routed in Egypt, and the defeat of other political Islamic groups across the Arab world, many Islamic activists believe taking a more moderate stance is the only way to gain and hold power. Yet others, including many young Muslims, believe a deeper ideological shift is under way in which Islamist organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of religious tolerance and political pluralism in modern societies. 

While Islamist movements remain the largest and most potent political movement in the region, a widespread adoption of democratic principles by their followers could transform the discourse in a region where politics are often bound to identity and are bitterly polarized.

“We believe that young Jordanians and young Arabs in general see that the future is not in partisan politics, but in cooperation, understanding, and putting the country above petty party politics,” says Rheil Gharaibeh, the moderate former head of the Jordanian Brotherhood’s politburo who has formed his own political party.

Is this the beginning of a fundamental shift in the politics of the Middle East or just an expedient move by a few activists?

***

Many Islamist groups say their move to the center is a natural step in multiparty politics, but this obscures how far their positions have truly shifted in a short time.

Some 20 years ago, the manifesto of the Muslim Brotherhood – the Sunni Islamic political group with affiliates across the Arab world – called for the implementation of sharia and gender segregation at universities, and commonly employed slogans such as “Islam is the solution.”

In 2011, the Arab Spring uprisings swept these Islamist movements into power or installed them as the leading political force from the Arab Gulf to Morocco, sparking fears of an Islamization of Arab societies.

But instead of rolling back women’s rights, the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda pushed through gender equality laws and helped write the most progressive, gender-equal constitution in the Arab world. The Moroccan Justice and Development Party (PJD) has played down its Islamic rhetoric, abandoning talk of Islamic identity and sharia and instead speaking about democratic reform and human rights. And the Brotherhood in Jordan traded in its slogan “Islam is the solution” for “the people demand reform” and “popular sovereignty for all.”

The past few years have seen an even more dramatic shift to the center. Not only have Islamist movements dropped calls for using sharia as a main source of law, but they nearly all now advocate for a “civil state”­ – a secular nation where the law, rather than holy scriptures or the word of God, is sovereign.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
Supporters of the National Alliance for Reform rally in Amman, Jordan, in 2016. They have rebranded themselves as a national rather than an Islamic movement.

In Morocco and Jordan, Islamist groups separated their religious activities – preaching, charitable activities, and dawa (spreading the good word of God) – from their political branches. In 2016, Ennahda members in Tunisia went one step further and essentially eliminated their religious activities altogether, rebranding themselves as “Muslim democrats.”

Islamist moderates say this shift away from religious activities to a greater focus on party politics is a natural step in line with what President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has done with his Justice and Development Party in Turkey, or even, they hope, with the Christian democrats in Europe: to become movements inspired by faith, not governing through faith.

“While we are a Muslim country, we are aware that we do not have one interpretation of religion and we will not impose one interpretation of faith over others,” says Mehrezia Labidi, a member of the Tunisian Parliament and Ennahda party leader. “As Muslim democrats we are guided by Islamic values, but we are bound by the Constitution, the will of the people, and the rule of law for all.”

Experts say this shift is a natural evolution for movements that are taking part in the decisionmaking process for the first time after decades in the opposition.

“As the opposition, you can refuse, you can criticize, you can obstruct,” says Rachid Mouqtadir, professor of political science at Hassan II University in Casablanca, Morocco, and an expert in Islamist movements. “But when you are in a coalition with other parties and trying to govern, the parameters change, your approach changes, and as a result your ideology changes.”

The trend has even gone beyond the borders of the Arab world. The Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM), founded in 1971 by Malaysian university students inspired by the Brotherhood and now one of the strongest civil society groups in the country, is also shedding the “Islamist” label.

In addition to running schools and hospitals, ABIM now hosts interfaith concerts, partners on projects with Christians and Buddhists, and even reaches out to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists in its campaign for social justice.

“We are in the age of post-political Islam,” says Ahmad Fahmi Mohd Samsudin, ABIM vice president, from the movement’s headquarters in a leafy Kuala Lumpur suburb. “That means when we say we stand for Islam, we stand for social justice and equality for all – no matter their faith or background.”

***

Experts say this evolution in political thought is as much a survival strategy as it is a political shift – an attempt by Islamists to secure their footing on the shifting sands of the Arab world.

Islamists are all haunted by the specter of Egypt, where what was supposed to be the crowning achievement of a century of political Islam turned into a disaster. By 2013, the Egyptian Brotherhood – the original, mother organization – had won both a majority in parliament and the presidency in the Arab world’s most populous state.

Yet only one year into Mohamed Morsi’s tenure, the movement had done little to calm the fears of secular or minority Egyptians, show transparency in its decisionmaking process, or overcome claims of mismanagement. A large portion of Egypt’s 100 million people came out to protest and supported a military overthrow of the democratically elected Mr. Morsi.

Following his ouster, Arab Gulf states led by the United Arab Emirates banned the Brotherhood as a terrorist movement, while Morsi’s successor, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, mercilessly cracked down on Brotherhood activists, killing hundreds and arresting thousands.

This dramatic fall from power looms large over nearly every decision Islamists make today. In Tunisia, faced with popular protests following the assassination of a leftist politician and Ennahda critic a few weeks after Morsi’s ouster, Ennahda relinquished power. The party later entered into a governing coalition with the secular Nidaa Tounes party as a junior member of the government. In Morocco, the PJD appealed more openly to the monarchy, conceding the king religious legitimacy.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters/File
Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood leader Salem Falahat speaks in Amman in 2011. It was during these Arab Spring protests that the hardline Islamist began to soften his views.

“This is not an ideological shift underway; this [moderation trend] comes from these groups’ survival instinct,” says Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and author of multiple books on Islamist movements. “Islamist movements prioritize survival and self-preservation at any cost. After the experience in Egypt and pressures from the Gulf and regimes, these groups had no choice but to move in this direction.”

Whether the shift is ideological or pragmatic, Islamists agree that the move to the center has been a recipe for electoral success. In May’s Tunisian municipal elections, the first since Ennahda became the Muslim Democrat party, the movement came away with the largest number of votes of any party at 29 percent, and snagged 2,135 out of 7,000 municipal seats across the country.

In 2016, Morocco’s PJD gained an additional 18 seats in parliament in its second parliamentary election, cementing its hold on power. The successes have won over even hard-line supporters who demand party “purity” and are drawn to these movements solely for their Islamic identity.

“As long as people see these movements rack up victories, studies and recent history have shown supporters will stick with them no matter how less Islamic they become,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, a Jordanian expert on Islamist movements.

*** 

With his traditional red-and-white checkered headscarf, sharply trimmed beard, and no-nonsense demeanor, Salem Falahat was widely known as a hard-liner – a conservative with a capital “C.” It was his religious zeal and trademark unwillingness to compromise that helped propel Mr. Falahat through the ranks from a teenage recruit in 1968 to become overall leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan in 2006.

Taylor Luck
Salem Falahat holds a copy of his book criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood at his office in Amman, Jordan.

His views were that of a “true believer”: Christians had no place in the Brotherhood, universities should be segregated, Western culture was corrupting Jordan from within. People who disagreed with the Brotherhood were not just foes. For him, they were unbelievers, infidels.

“I was very, very conservative,” Falahat says, shaking his head. “So conservative that you could call me an extremist.”

It was while serving as the Jordanian Brotherhood’s coordinator for the Arab Spring protests in 2011 that Falahat says he began to have a change of heart. Each day, he would be on the phone, arranging protests and statements with leftists, communists, Baathists, nationalists, and seculars – the very people Falahat believed were his enemies.

As they linked arms one Friday to march in protest for greater political freedoms, he made a startling discovery: He realized he had much more in common with them than he did differences.

“It turned out that these people who I thought were our enemies had the very morals, ethics, and kindness that Islam calls for,” Falahat says. “I realized then that you don’t have to be a devout Muslim to have Islamic values – and you certainly don’t have to be an Islamist.”

Falahat tried to take his new political gospel back to the Brotherhood, urging the movement to open up and work with nonmembers. Yet while Tunisia’s Ennahda thrived in post-revolution elections and the PJD formed a government under the monarchical system in Morocco, the Jordanian Brotherhood, which is more closely aligned with hard-line Hamas and the Egyptian Brotherhood, resisted change.

Falahat and others watched in dismay as the Jordanian Brotherhood boycotted Jordan’s post-Arab Spring elections in 2013 and invitations from the king to take part in the reform process. After four years of being met with stiff resistance, Falahat left the Brotherhood in 2016 to join with nationalists, leftists, and tribalists to form a “third-way,” unity party devoted to constitutional reform and rooting out corruption. The Partnership and Rescue Party was licensed last December.

Its followers claim to practice what they preach. The party’s secretary-general is a nationalist, the assistant secretary-general is a woman, and the head of the politburo is a leftist woman. Former Islamists who followed Falahat make up around 10 percent of members. They openly support a Christian or a woman becoming prime minister.

This is more than a strategic shift, Falahat insists. It is a recognition of political reality: If Islamist movements do not moderate enough, their followers will – with or without them.

“Either you keep up with the times or you are left behind,” Falahat says. “Sooner or later even conservatives will realize that this is the future and will change their tune. Until then, we are offering a third way.”

Third-way political movements that prioritize political reform over ideology have become a refuge for disenchanted young Islamists. Several hundred of them have left the Jordanian Brotherhood over the conservative old guard’s stranglehold on the movement’s leadership.

Some, like Faroukh, the young psychologist, have flocked to Zamzam, another third-way political movement formed by Mr. Gharaibeh, the moderate former head of the Jordanian Brotherhood politburo who was excommunicated from the group for his pragmatic views in 2012.

“The failure of the Brotherhood in Egypt and the success of Ennahda in Tunisia proves that cooperation and moderation is the future,” Gharaibeh says from his party office in west Amman.

The more open and democratic tone was on display during a meeting of Zamzam deputies at the party office in late August. Voices and passions rose as party leaders took turns vigorously debating the new government, the income tax law, social media messaging, and preparations for a potential early election. Religion did not come up once.

“When we focus on national issues rather than identity politics, we have solutions, we have a strategy, and we have support,” says Gharaibeh.

***

But questions remain: Will rank-and-file Islamists support watered-down Islamism? And what is an Islamist movement without Islam?

In Tunisia, Ennahda’s core supporters – working class Tunisians and those from marginalized rural communities – remain divided over the group’s new direction.

Many gravitated to the movement for its calls for social justice and an Islamic state, not for technocrats talking about “power-sharing” and “democratic transitions.”

Taylor Luck
“While we are a Muslim country, we are aware that we do not have one interpretation of religion and we will not impose one interpretation of faith over others,” says Mehrezia Labidi, a member of the Tunisian Parliament and Ennahda party leader.

“Ennahda decided that they will worship the seats of power they sit on and not God,” says Mounira Ben Salem, a resident of the marginalized Tunis suburb of Douar Hicher, fresh off a 12-hour shift cleaning rooms in a downtown four-star hotel. “When they turned their backs on Islam, they turned their backs on us.”

Yet the movement also retains a solid base of committed supporters who believe in the more moderate approach.

“We need patience, wisdom, and vision to navigate our transition to a democracy at a time counterrevolutionary forces are waiting for us to fall,” says physician Ahmed Ali, near his office in the upscale Tunis neighborhood of Les Berges du Lac earlier this year. “Maybe in 10 or 20 years we will have passed these challenges and be free to fully implement our agenda.”

These contrasting views symbolize a wider division within Islamist movements over their future identity. Underneath the veneer of pragmatism and rebranding, experts say, Islamist groups are “battling for their soul.”

“You sit down with the conservatives in the movement and you agree with them, and then you sit down with the moderates and liberals and you agree with them,” says Hussein Khalil, a lawyer who has been a member of the Jordanian Brotherhood for more than 20 years. “But you put them in the same room together and no one can find the middle ground.”

One question is whether those who have moderated their views will continue to do so even if the political calculus changes. Some experts remain skeptical, claiming that the very pressures and crackdowns on Islamists from regimes and outside powers pushed them toward moderation. In a free democracy, they say, these movements may be tempted to drift back toward hard-line positions to appease their base.

“If you have full-on democracy, you will see Islamist parties feeling more pressure from the right and veering rightward to maintain electoral constituencies tempted by the competitors who will emerge,” says Mr. Hamid, the Brookings expert. “In the 21st century, the lesson is if you want to win elections, it doesn’t pay to reach out to a mythical center where voters are moderate.”

Although violent extremists such as Islamic State and Al Qaeda grab headlines, the true rivals of the moderates are hard-line Salafists. They preach an austere interpretation of Islam that has spread rapidly from the Arab Gulf through the Levant and North Africa the past two decades. Their vision, promoted by autocratic Arab Gulf monarchies as a rival to the Brotherhood, is strict, requiring long beards and obeying rulers unconditionally. They also ban music, Western dress, and politics.

The spread of Salafism has been achieved through the Gulf-funded construction of mosques as well as through aid. Hundreds of Salafi charity groups provide food, build homes, offer scholarships, and donate laptops to vulnerable families across the Muslim world in return for fealty to certain sheikhs and their Gulf backers.

Taylor Luck
“We believe that young Jordanians and young Arabs in general see that the future isn’t in partisan politics, but in cooperation, understanding, and putting the country above petty party politics," says Rheil Gharaibeh (r.), a former member of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood who has formed his own moderate political party.

Salafists have exploited the same openings created by the Arab Spring that gave rise to the Islamists: With Arab strongmen weakened or toppled, Salafi groups have filled the void left behind – offering citizens social services, education, security, and an identity.

All this poses stiff competition to the moderates, and in many areas the hard-liners continue to prevail. Both Salafists and the Justice and Charity movement have outflanked the moderate Moroccan PJD by openly calling for implementation of sharia in Morocco. Salafists and their Al Nour Party have taken up the Brotherhood’s mantle as the “Islamic party” in Egypt.

Brotherhood-affiliated preachers are all but banned in Jordan, giving Salafists control over many pulpits. The Madkhalis, a Salafi group, control territory in Libya and have made pacts with various militias and warlords. Even in Malaysia, ABIM has come under fire from its own Muslim Malay constituency, particularly the ultraconservative Malaysian Islamic Party. Hard-liners consider the moderates sellouts.

“Whether it be Salafist movements or extremist jihadist movements, there will always be groups further to the right of political Islamists,” says Abu Haniya, the Jordanian analyst. 

Still, Islamist moderates insist that they will not be cowed into changing their views. “Arab nationalism has failed, communism has failed, Islamism has failed,” says Faroukh, the Jordanian psychologist, counting on his fingers the political trends that shook the Arab world over the past century. “We are demanding a new approach. We have been fooled by politicians too many times.”

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