The Backlash against Political Islam is not a Backlash against Islam: Egypt and Bangladesh

There is a big difference between being a believing Muslim and being a devotee of political Islam. Political Islam attempts to make the religion a platform for gaining governmental power. This movement (political Islam or the Muslim religious Right) has been very important in many Muslim countries in the past few decades, but its rise has also created a backlash against it on the part of those uncomfortable with its premises. The opponents of political Islam are not necessarily secular. Many are believing Muslims and political centrists. They just don’t think Islam is a political party.

I think part of the problem in understanding these distinctions has to do with language. I don’t think the term “Islamist” is very helpful. But let me come back to that below.

In Bangladesh, among the world’s more populous Muslim countries, the relatively secular Awami ruling party tried a prominent leader of the Jamaat-i Islami, the major South Asian vehicle of political Islam, for his war crimes in the 1971 partition from Pakistan. In polling, most Bangladeshis say that they want those war crimes punished. Jamaat supporters have struck and gone on rampages, clashing with police, but most Bangladeshis seem satisfied with the verdict.

The overthrow in Egypt of Muslim Brotherhood figure Muhammad Morsi was accomplished by a coalition of activist, left-liberal youth, workers and the poor upset by the bad economy, and the military. Although many believing Muslims were involved in this movement against the Muslim Brotherhood, significant numbers of the activists spearheading it were suspicious of attempts to turn Islam from a religion into a political party. They resented Morsi’s implication that only the Muslim Brotherhood consists of Muslims and that non-members are somehow not Muslims or not very good Muslims. There is still a strong Left among the youth in Egypt, descended from the followers of Gamal Abdel Nasser (the 1950s-1960s nationalist leader), or from the communists, socialists and Trotskyites. Many Egyptian union activists are at least vaguely influenced by Marxism, and although many of them pray and go to mosque, they see the Muslim Brotherhood as a movement of the religious Right, tied to businessmen like Khairat al-Shater, and unsympathetic to the plight of workers. Morsi’s overthrow came about in part because he moved too fast, too far, in attempting to ensconce the Brotherhood in power. His prosecutions of journalists, bloggers and television personalities who criticized him angered a lot of the youth.

I don’t like the term “Islamist” to describe proponents of political Islam; for all its problems, I prefer ‘fundamentalist,’ because most people will misunderstand ‘Islamist’ to be Islam or more authentically Islamic. It is confusing in English, where we don’t say Christianist for Christian (unlike in French, where the word ‘Islamist’ originated). And, if you say that most Egyptians and most Bangladeshis are not fundamentalists, that isn’t hard to believe and maybe is even self-evident.

And if you say that the fundamentalists in Egypt over-reached, it is easy to understand why religious centrists, along with secularists, rebelled.

Posted in Egypt,Islam | 28 Responses | Print |

28 Responses

  1. But if that’s the case, why did Morsi officially leave the Freedom and Justice party (political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) to become president and repeatedly announce in his innagural speech and afterwards that he was the president for ALL Egyptians? Just because he may have acted in partisan ways at times did not mean he was a fundamentalist or that he believed only MB members were true Muslims, Mr. Cole! If that were the case, he would be a infidel by leaving his own party when he assumed the presidency!

    Just because you may disagree with political Islam does not mean you should misrepresent and be unfair to the Brotherhood in Egypt. I was very disappointed with the MB however we should try to be objective!

    • I think Morsi left the Freedom and Justice Party after assuming the Presidency simply as a cosmetic gesture to assuage those who were skeptical of him and his Muslim Brotherhood roots from the beginning. The MB roots ran deep in Morsi, however, and his subsequent actions as President demonstrated that he favored an Islamist (or, if you prefer, “Fundamentalist”) approach to governing. It seems to me that Morsi maintained an Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood, orientation all along. And why would anyone expect him to change after a lifetime in such circles?

      • ” And why would anyone expect him to change after a lifetime in such circles?”

        A question that might be applied to many of us, especially those who leave hanging the implication, unsupported, of deep involvement in, and deep knowledge about, what the Deep Government has been up to. And of course “serious history.” And “serious observation of international affairs.” And I guess the implicit sense of how the rest of us are supposed to sleep on, secure in the belief that it’s all been for our own good.

        On another front,

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        Like with so many tipping-point exercises, it doesn’t take much to topple the balanced rock.

        • “A question that might be applied to many of us, especially those who leave hanging the implication, unsupported, of deep involvement in, and deep knowledge about, what the Deep Government has been up to. And of course “serious history.” And “serious observation of international affairs.” And I guess the implicit sense of how the rest of us are supposed to sleep on, secure in the belief that it’s all been for our own good.”

          What relevance the mouth-full quoted above has to the topic of Egypt and political Islam is known only to the author, who must be under the impression that a non-sequitur can pass as insight.

  2. I guess there are some common threads that tie a lot of what’s shaking in the world up in a nice neat knot. We got pseudo-Christians here, people with genes for organizing and repressing that “liberals” and “progressives” sadly lack, who have a set of Taliban Tenets that bind them into the same kind of political mass noted above (albeit with the seeds of schism planted in their bellies). You have to love the use of people’s sense of the spiritual to turn them into serfs and renters and Quislings, subject to “rules” that the “rulers” themselves sneer at.

    I’m just sure that no Imams drink alcohol, or eat proscribed food, or engage in adultery, or climb on little dancing (or altar) boys, or indulge themselves in other earthly fleshy pleasures, any more than our flood tide of Priests and TV Preachers and the heads of Mega-Churches and a whole raft of military officers and of course politicians with “wide stances” for whom abortion is anathema unless it’s their daughter who was raped or “made a mistake.”

    It appears that Buddhists and Hindus and of course recognized state religions like Shinto and even Confucianism are subject to the same perversions, in all the meanings of that word…

    Is “hypocrisy” a recognized religion?

    And anyone who thinks “reformation” is the answer, or “rectification,” sure is not a “serious and responsible student of history…”

    • Technically, any religion based on the idea that there should be one set of favorable rules for the elite and one set of repressive rules for the rest is hypocrisy, so that officially gives us plenty of religions to work with.

  3. How do you divorce Islam from politics? Islam is a religio-political system and Muslims say that Islam informs every aspect of life religion, legal/the law, politics, culture, ect.

    • Yours is a very good point, DFSC. One of the reasons that Islam has such a difficult time coming to terms with modernity is its failure to make a distinction between the secular and the sacred. The only country that accomplished it was Turkey under Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk). Ataturk forcibly brought Turkey into the 20th century by, among other things, relegating Islam to the Mosque and keeping it out of government and the public square. It lasted for more than 75 years, but, unfortunately, under Erdogan that important distinction is being chipped away.

  4. Christianism and Christianist are archaic English words. Milton uses Christianism in the sense of ‘the Christian world’.

    In the last ten years some writers have started to use Christianist for Christian fundamentalist, by analogy with Islamist. The short Wikipedia article on ‘Christianism’ quotes Andrew Sullivan from June 1, 2003:

    “I have a new term for those on the fringes of the religious right who have used the Gospels to perpetuate their own aspirations for power, control and oppression: Christianists. They are as anathema to true Christians as the Islamists are to true Islam.”

    And the Urban Dictionary has this: “A member of the Christian faith who seeks to use a religion of peace and tolerance for political and personal gain.”

    • Dominionist is a widely accepted term among the small group of people who watch out for Christian extremists in America. This comes from the extremists’ own language for taking “dominion” over America as a holy act. But there are other factions with slightly different ideologies.

  5. In a video of yours that you posted 2 months ago, you discussed that using the term “ultraconservative” to describe Salafis was incorrect since it implied that they were true to the religion. Doesn’t the word “fundamentalist” have the same limitation as ultraconservative? I’ve been using your term “narrow-minded” from the video to describe these groups.

    I don’t like the name “Islamist” either, but for a different reason. It implies that these groups are true to Islam as well. For example, the terrorists who tried to take over Mali were described as “Islamists” in the media, but I have 3 names that describe them more accurately: murderers, drug dealers and rapists.

  6. “There is a big difference between being a believing Muslim and being a devotee of political Islam. Political Islam attempts to make the religion a platform for gaining governmental power”

    Indeed, it was a religious tenet that Winston Churchill believed that got Western Powers into the Middle East where we contend with religious tenets of Islam.

    Albeit through political religion on both sides.

    This is American History 901.

    • On that same note, it was even further back in history when the Pope rallied the Crusaders to the Holy Land in the name of Christianity. It had many advantages for the Pope; it confirmed his authority, and it united feuding tribes under his command. De-humanizing Muslims and engaging in a campaign of Islamophobia were very useful tools to that end.

      You could call that “political Christianity”. I believe that the popes of that era were very intolerant of dissenting opinions, which reminds me of the Saudi and Iranian regimes of today.

      • They were also a bunch of dissolute, self-promoting, shameless hypocrites, selling offices and indulgences to build their personal monuments and family treasuries and fund their idiot wars. Which it seems all leaders (owners?) of religions inevitably become.

  7. Professor Cole, let me make it clear that I have nothing but the utmost respect for you and appreciate your willingness to work with Muslims in the past.

    Consequently, I’m astonished by the fact that you’re using public opinion polls to accept the verdict against the leaders of the Jam’at.

    If we followed your reasoning, we would surely reject 90%+ of the information you put on this website.

    Are you aware of the many problems involving the trial including abduction of defense witnesses and the Judges didn’t hear all the witnesses?

    If you don’t dispute these, I request that you put up article informing your readers about them

    Here are the links on which I base my claims.

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  8. Good post.

    My understanding that followers of Trotsky like to be called “Trotskyists.”

    “Trotskyite” is, apparently, a pejorative term that Stalinists uses for Trotskyists.

  9. A significant majority of Egyptians prefer Shariah Law, not just the Brotherhood; in Egypt, as in most countries in the middle east, it’s impossible to separate church and state. Hence, terms such as “conservative” and “liberal” have entirely different meanings than they do in the west. I don’t care for Islamist for the same reason I don’t care for Christianist: in both cases, it’s used as a pejorative, not simply a descriptive. Fundamentalist suffers from the same weakness. What distinguishes the two poles in Egypt is the level of tolerance, or intolerance, of the other, with one end of the pole marked by intolerance and the other end marked by, not tolerance, but a moderate level of tolerance; pluralism, it’s not. But the differences in Egypt are not nearly as broad as the differences in, say, Syria or Iraq, which are sectarian differences (Sunni and Shiite), in which the other is a heretic and his death is God’s will. In Egypt, the differences can be bridged; in Syria and Iraq, they can’t.

  10. To me, this coup represented an attack by the largest organization in Egypt against it’s only other organized rival and used the pretext of unrest to do it. I don’t think people should underestimate the possibility the army does want to radicalize the MB even more to marginalize them. True, they’d be courting another Algeria, but ask yourself what’s stopping them? Sense of fair play? Desire for women’s and human rights? From an organization that propped up Mubarak for decades?!

  11. But there is a level of ‘Christian’ identity politics in Europe. Christian Democrats in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands may have ‘Christian’ in their name, but there is a world of difference between them and political groups which call themselves ‘Christian’ in the USA.

  12. I disagree, people of faith, be aware, your intolerance, ignorance and incompetence specially when acting under a heavenly banner, should and will reflect upon your faith. A Burden secularists don’t bear.

    • Oh, I’d say intolerance, ignorance, and incompetence reflect on the philosophy of avowed secularists just as much as on “people of faith.”

      Lord knows the intolerance, ignorance, and incompetence of the avowed secularists in Moscow reflected on their banner.

      • I only picked those bad attributes because no good deeds, indeed goes unpunished.
        My point was that when a political party uses religion and declares a divine mission, then its Failure, if and when (religious or secular) plus open and closeted racism, corruption and hypocrisy (religious or secular) is reflected on the religion they used and if not jailed or killed, they are probably headed for hell, where as the secularist (anywhere) land a magnitude higher on socio economic ladder (proportional to their failure) and get to keep their faith, thus no burden.

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