The headlines this week were full of stories from the Muslim world about Muslims attacking the Muslim religious Right, whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Jama’at-i Islami in Bangladesh. The rise of the religious Right in politics is producing a backlash throughout the region. Part of the backlash comes from secularists of Muslim heritage. But a significant part of it comes from believing Muslims, who oppose the sectarian and authoritarian approach of the religious Right parties, or who are uncomfortable with some of their stances toward longstanding Muslim religious practices, such as spiritual visits to the shrines of Muslim saints (a practice condemned by Wahhabism, Salafism, Talibanism, and other religious-right currents).
Nationalism plays a role in Muslim “anti-Islamism,” since many on the religious Right in the Muslim world have pan-Muslim concerns.
Thus, the Jama’at-i Islami in Bangladesh opposed the 1971 secession of that country from Pakistan. In that bloody struggle, Pakistani troops committed atrocities and some Jama’at leaders were accused of aiding them. A vital youth movement of critics of the Jama’at has been demonstrating for months demanding trials for those accused. The sentencing this week of leading Jama’at figure Delwar Hossein Seyedee for his role in 1971 atrocities satisfied the critics of the Muslim religious Right in that country, but provoked Jama’at riots that left dozens dead.
In the United Arab Emirates, supporters of the reigning emirs have attacked the Muslim Brotherhood in that country as fifth columnists and a revolutionary threat to the prevailing order, and dozens of members are on trial for sedition. The Brotherhood in the UAE is opposed both by tribal traditionalists loyal to ruling families such as the Nahayans and the Maktoums, and by the remnants of the Arab left (Nasserists, socialists) among intellectuals. There is also a growing unease about the Muslim Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia, given that it is now associated with the Egyptian Revolution and there are fears that it has secretive cells plotting revolution elsewhere.
In Egypt in the past few months we have seen Muslim crowds attack and sometimes burn provincial headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is not clear who exactly is behind these acts, but that they are of Muslim heritage is certain.
The Jama’at-i Islami in Pakistan still suffers reputationally for having allied with coup-maker Gen. Zia ul-Haq in the 1970s and 1980s, and Tahir al-Qadri’s Sufi-based Mizan ul-Qur’an is attempting to supplant it. (He has reinvented himself as a relative liberal, condemning violence and terrorism of the al-Qaeda/ Taliban sort, while the Jama’at, though not itself for the most part violent, has been reluctant forthrightly to condemn these tendencies). Many Pakistanis vote for parties opposed to the religious Right. The Urdu-speakers of Karachi support the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which is secular-minded. Most Pakistani Pushtuns voted for the National Awami Party, a party of Pushtun sub-nationalism that opposes the Taliban and the religious Right.
I don’t like the term “Islamism,” which was promoted by French scholars in preference to the American “Muslim fundamentalism,” since they thought the latter too Protestant in inspiration (it has no exact counterpart in French, where “integrisme” is sometimes used by analogy from ultramontane, hard line Catholicism). I think “Muslim fundamentalism” is better because, as the Chicago University project on fundamentalisms showed, it allows us to see the phenomenon in the context of similar movements in other religions. Moreover, I think the term is confusing because it is too close to “Islam” per se, and I don’t agree with figures such as Gilles Keppel who see the “Islamists” as unusually “pious,” implying that they are the real Muslims. Secular-minded Muslims who are nevertheless believers, and Sufi mystics, are also “pious,” and I don’t think social scientists should be deciding who is a better Muslim.
“Political Islam” has been proposed as an alternative, but if it implies the fundamentalist groups, it is also inadequate. In Egypt the Wasat [Center] Party and now Abdel Moneim Abou’l-Fotouh’s Strong Egypt are a form of relatively liberal political Islam to the left of Muhammad Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Sufis are entering politics (many in Egypt supported Wasat).
That is why I suggest the usage, “Muslim religious Right” for righting, fundamentalist religion in politics. It seems to me to fit the major such movements, such as the Jama’at-i Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood, and it allows us to put religious politics in the Muslim world on a spectrum– from secular, to religious but liberal or progressive, to traditionalist (Sufis), to, well, the religious Right. We see the same spectrum in the US, with secular (many Unitarians), religious but liberal (the National Council of Churches), traditionalist (many Catholics, Lutherans) to the religious Right (2/3s of evangelicals, many Pentecostalists, etc.). In the US, the groups on the left of the spectrum vote for the Democratic Party on the whole, whereas those on the right tend to vote for the Republican Party. In Egypt, the groups on the left support the National Salvation Front coalition, whereas those on the right support the Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brotherhood) or Nur (Salafi).
Secularism, forms of ethnic nationalism, tribalism, and the religious Left and Center all serve as countervailing forces to the religious Right parties in the Muslim world, the politics of which is becoming more polarized along these lines. But the resulting struggles look familiar if compared to those in the most religious of the industrialized democracies, the United States.