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De-Islamizing Politics and Society in the MENA Region – Azizur Rahman Patel

August 27, 2013


De-Islamizing Politics and Society in the MENA Region

By Azizur Rahman Patel

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 19 (August 2013)

the process of Arab liberalization is ‘one where progress is followed by retrogression, that is, reversal or partial reversal of earlier democratic gains’. Hence Arab democratic development is not linear. It remains subject to the vicissitudes of Arab domestic politics, to the rulers’ whims, and, accordingly, to either retrogression or total retraction. The progressive, retrogressive, and retractive patterns characterizing Arab liberalizations are interpreted here by using the Khaldunian notion of attack/hit (karr) and withdrawal/run (farr).[1]

The aftermath of the “Arab Spring” or Arab uprisings, as I now prefer to call them, has indeed seen the rise of social forces inspired by an Islamist agenda. Societies across the Arab world have been systematically browbeaten, and socially and individually subjugated—not only by the tyrannical and dictatorial governments that have presided over them, and in some instances still continue to exercise autocratic governance over them—but also by the forces of conservatism that use religion—in this case the Islamic traditions—as their main source of inspiration in defining their weltanschauung for their societies.

Notwithstanding the fact that there indeed exist “… real and divisive social hierarchies that are vertical, dealing with questions of labor, exploitation, distribution, and economic power”,[2] as a scholar of religion and its relations with society and societal issues, I am particularly interested in how the religious discourses and articulations impact the political and social developments in the MENA region. I am especially interested in how the religious positions that are appropriated, not only by the religious elites, but also by other interest groups in the broader societies of the region, influence other branches of everyday life.

The monotheistic faiths are particularly prone to considering religious laws, as laid down by God, who they believe to be the only legitimate lawmaker, to be inseparable from religion. However, this supremacy of “holy laws” has been persistently challenged in the modern age, since the formation of the modern nation-state.[3] This seems to be the overriding feature of the current political contestations taking place—notwithstanding other significant socio-economic and political interests that are at stake—in Egypt since the uprisings of two and a half years ago. At the heart of the religious controversy with regard to the (now suspended) Egyptian constitution, is the inclusion of the clause that entrenches the role of Islam in formulating legislation for the country. In addition to the controversial nature of the clause, also at issue is the manner in which the Muslim Brotherhood dominated government steamrolled both the constitutional drafting process, as well as the subsequent referendum that saw it eventually becoming the constitution for the first democratic order in the history of post-colonial Egypt. What makes the “Islamization of the intended democratic constitution” more surprising, is that, instead of it being championed by the “traditional religious scholars” of al-Azhar University, Egypt’s paramount Islamic institution, it was in fact overwhelmingly engineered by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafist allies.[4]

Ever since gaining independence, post-colonial states, particularly of the MENA region, have been struggling with the issue of the democratization of their societies. They have experimented with Arab nationalism, pan-Arabism, socialism, and perhaps an assortment of capitalism. None of these ideologies have succeeded in delivering the people of the AME (Arab Middle East) from the clutches of authoritarian and despotic rule. The only discourse that currently seems to be in vogue in the MENA region—at least since the 1980s—is the discourse of “Islamization.” As Larbi Sadiki states: “[e]ven if incoherent, ‘Islamization’ is perhaps the only originally indigenous ‘narrative’ that has thus far been invented by the opponents of Westernization.”[5]

What I argue for in this article instead, is for the “de-Islamization” of politics, as well as the neutralization of the cultural tendency to enforce “Islamic codes of morality and religious adherence” in the public domain, not only in the MENA region, but also in all Muslim majority states. Let me explain. By “de-Islamization” I mean: removing the militant politically hegemonic, as well as the culturally ideological thrust of the contemporary “global Islamic Movement,”[6] and instead, shoring up support for those societal groupings that appropriate and employ more contextual readings of Islamic principles of justice, liberty and equality, and compatibility with other cultures and civilizations of the world.

The rationale for such an argument rests on the fact that in order for the MENA states to develop synchronicity with the rest of the liberal democratic world in terms of democratization, and respect for human rights and liberties, as understood in terms of the modern-day sensibilities of the modern world, which are chiefly centered around: freedom of speech, thought and conscience; freedom of choice; holding those in power accountable to citizens; the right to protest, and demand the fulfillment of the rights of the electorate, etc., it becomes incumbent upon those exercising the levers of political and social power in these states, to make the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for example, the bedrock upon which to charter the future course of political and social relations in society.

 Understanding Islamization

At the outset, it should be understood that Islamization as an approach is closely tied to the Islamic reformist movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. In terms of the African experience with Islamization, three reformist militant groups arose during the 19th century. These were called the Jihād movements, and surfaced out of the Walī Allāh school.[7] They were the Sanūsī in Libya, the Fulbe in West Africa, and the Mahdists in the Sudan. The common denominator between these movements was their desire to recover the “true pristine Islam” of the Qurʾān and the Prophet. Among the distinctive features of thees movements were: an emphasis on strict monotheism, the contention that Muslims at the time could conduct their own ijtihād. Ijtihād can be understood as the ability to affect one’s own independent reasoning, and not be constrained by blindly following traditions in matters of both theology and law, in a society’s attempts to determine and devise new solutions to problems that pertain to both religious as well as temporal issues.[8]

The Islamization movement naturally manifested itself in all the various aspects of life, be they political, social, cultural, educational, or economic in nature. In terms of the political for example, the reformers adapted and advocated the Qurʾanic concept of shūrā (mutual consultation; which is actually a pre-Islamic concept). The concept of shūrā was creatively adapted to the modern notion of “democracy,” and was used to mobilize the masses to resist autocratic rule, which was condemned as Jāhilī (i.e. belonging to the pre-Islamic period of ignorance).[9]

In terms of family life for example, the modernist reformers actually attempted to eliminate the practice of polygamy, by interpreting the Qurʾanic verse (4:129) in such a way, so as to serve as a limitation of the practice, rather than as a license. This they did by emphasizing that the permission for polygamy was in fact given under special conditions. This was in the form of the proviso “… that if the husband could not do justice among his co-wives then he must marry only one wife.”[10]

Islamization must also be understood as a reaction to Western political and cultural hegemony, as experienced by Muslims. This is aptly demonstrated by the South Asian poet/scholar Iqbal, who resentfully accused the West of corrupting the moral values of humanity by bedazzling them with its modern technology; by exploiting the colonized territories, and by “dewomanizing the women and dilapidating the family institution.” The West is accused of shoving all these values upon the Muslim societies of the world in the name of progress and of “spreading humanitarian values,” which in itself contravenes “by waging internecine wars born of sheer economic savagery”, and thereby decimating the lands of Islam.[11]

During the latter part of the 20th Century, Islamization began taking on more “modern” forms, albeit itself a rejection of modernism. This can be demonstrated by the neo-fundamentalists’ assertion that “Islam is a total way of life,” which encompasses all areas of human private and public life. They particularly directed this at the ʿulamāʾ, who they believed confined Islam to certain religious rites such as the Five Pillars. The promotion of scientific knowledge and technology were particularly identified as being one of the crucial and desirable objectives of Islam.[12] However, this did not come without the twist of the “Islamization of Western knowledge” agenda. That agenda was primarily devoted to combating what Islamists considered to be “heretical values” that began impinging on what they understood to be “Islamic fundamentals”, such as refuting the “theory of evolution” in contradistinction to the belief in “creationism”, by way of example.

Other more mundane examples of Islamization can be found in the thrust towards establishing “Islamic banks”, Islamic schools and universities Islamic conferences; the vociferous promotion of the Ḥalāl food industry, with the introduction of the very “modern” phenomenon of “Ḥalāl certificates”. We should not lose sight of the issue of “Islamic dressing”, particularly with respect to women, with the growing popularity of the ḥijāb (veil) for women, and the famous thawb (the long shirt worn in the Arab Gulf states),[13] the lengthening of beards, etc., as norms which Muslim men ought to abide by. Failure to comply, by both men and women, increasingly invites much ostracism and social censure in many Muslim communities, even in Muslim minority countries such as South Africa and India.[14] Thus, the Islamization phenomenon should be understood in terms of the passionate reassertion of Islamic identity over and against that of the West.

Islamization and the Arab Uprisings

Specifically with respect to the popular uprisings that took place in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya since December of 2010, one witnesses the phenomenon of Islamization asserting itself in all of the above three states, especially with the ascendency of the al-Nahda party to power in Tunisia, and the brief one-year reign of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (June 2012 –  June/July 2013).

In order to understand this phenomenon of the renewed affirmation of Islamization in the Arab uprisings, we would do well to consider the observations made by Larbi Sadiki, in his book, Rethinking Arab Democratization, in which he analyzes the thoughts and sentiments of numerous contemporary Arab scholars and thinkers. To summarize, for many an Arab intellectual, political modernity should not ignore the “Arab and Islamic cultural heritage.” This question of cultural heritage vis-à-vis its role in the modernization project as a whole has indeed been a persistent “… theme in the various Arab attempts to engineer ‘transition’ to independence, then to modernization, Islamization, globalization, and now to democratization.” The vexing question of the preservation of, as well as the reconciling of democracy with pan-Arab and Islamic sensitivities, is a prerequisite to successful democratization in the AME.[15]

Legal and Constitutional Conundrums that arise from Islamization

The “Islamization” of political discourse has led to the configuration of a human rights charter—referred to as the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR). It purports to be an Islamic counterpart to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It was prepared by the Islamic Council, which is affiliated with the Muslim World League. It was ratified in 1981 and presented to UNESCO. It outlines human rights in criminal cases, marriage, inheritance, divorce, and economic activities, and supports freedom of religion based on traditional Islamic law.[16]

However, what this charter in fact amounts to is nothing more than—as very insightfully observed by the highly perceptive contemporary scholar of Islam, Ebrahim Moosa, when he declared that: “… the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR) should be better described as the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Duties, instead of Rights.”[17]

Furthermore, the issue of who determines when laws are “shariʿa-compliant,” becomes a sticking point.” In Egypt, prior to the Arab uprisings of 2011, the role of assessing the conformity of legislation with the shariʿa rested with the Supreme Constitutional Court, while in Iran “… the Council of Guardians (wilaya al-faqih), consisting of several prominent ulama, has been responsible for this role.”[18] However, after the uprisings, the (now suspended Egyptian constitution) gave al-Azhar University a major role in terms of oversight over the constitutional requirement for legislation to meet Islamic norms and values.[19]

To practically demonstrate the possibility of a conflict of fundamental values that could arise, Salim relates the case[20] of a Palestinian Muslim, Sharif Shanti, who was brought before the court “for publicly breaking his fast without a legitimate religious excuse,” an act which was in contravention of the Ottoman Penal Code of the time. However, Article 83 of the same code attempts to entrench “both the principle of individual rights” as well as the “collective right of religious freedom” in the following:

All persons in Palestine shall enjoy full liberty of conscience, and the free exercise of their forms of worship subject only to the maintenance of public order and morals. Each religious community shall enjoy autonomy for the internal affairs of the community subject to the provisions of any Ordinance or Order issued by the High Commissioner.[21]

While the defendant argued for the maintenance of his individual rights, the court gave precedence to the “maintenance of public morals among the Moslems,” which is a collective right. Hence, the “court’s decision seemed to put an individual under siege by the community, which itself has superior rights.”[22]

The manner in which the clash between “modern notions of individual rights of religious freedom” on the one hand, and the “communal imposition of a religious duty as a matter of public morals among Muslim individuals” on the other hand, becomes apparent in the example of the Shanti case. Moreover, instead of this case being an example of “a dispute between collective religious rights versus individual freedom of religion,” it becomes a case in point of a clash between “religious duties versus individual freedom of choice.” Therefore, the “collective rights” of the community, in effect become “religious duties,” which effectively supersede individual rights. As a consequence, we derive a classic case of the “rejection of individualism in favor of communalism” through the denial of a Muslim person’s lack of “individuality and autonomous existence.”[23]

Why the need to de-Islamize?

While the call for separating religion from politics increasingly becomes the clarion call of secular politicians, as well as of secular social movements, its actualization seems more unattainable in the AME, given that secularist politicians themselves employ Islamic symbols and rhetoric when it suits them. 

Manipulating Islam for political purposes by Arab leaders has become an all too familiar strategy. Sadiki quotes Piscatori, who documents their shrewd employment of Islamic symbols for various purposes.

The late Hassan II of Morocco adopted the title of the ‘Commander of the Faithful’. So did Sudan’s Ja‘far al-Numayri who enshrined it in the constitution (Article 80) in 1984.140 Like al-Sadat, the pious president (al-ra’isu al-mu’min), he expediently used Islam to placate or co-opt political foes. Al-Sadat enlisted the support of al-Azhar in the form of a religious counsel (fatwā) to vet his peace bid with Israel. In 1983 al-Numayri initiated a wide-ranging Islamization programme. The mobilization of Islam by secularist power-holders was well appreciated and thus, in the absence of equally potent modes of legitimation, will continue to be employed unsparingly.[24]

Sadiki further observes that this unstinting employment of Islam by secularist power-holders will continue to be put into service, for as long as other “equally potent modes of legitimation” remain absent from the political and social scene.[25]

However, the employment of Islamic symbols and rhetoric by secular power-elites must be viewed in the context of a similar, and parallel employment of Islamic “fundamentals” by traditional religious leaders on the one hand, as well as by the newly emerging Islamist fundamentalist, and puritanical social movements that are indeed very heavily influenced by very modernist political and social objectives. As a consequence, all these competing social forces, both religious, as well as secular, find increased “utility” in manipulating religion in the name of “preserving the Arab and/or Islamic heritage.”

Sadiki quotes Gehad Auda, who he credits with providing valuable insights that in a very “sophisticated fashion,” encapsulates “the nature of the divide within Egypt’s state and society,” which also bears relevance for other Arab polities. On the one hand, you have “a government-led secular-oriented project harbouring its own Islamically defined sympathies, which is pitted against a state elite-led but mass-based and religiously defined project for reinventing Islamic tradition:”

The tension . . . supersedes the conflict between elites and masses or government and opposition. It is a protracted conflict between two different conceptions of society and social change. The rift not only prevails horizontally in the fields of politics, economy, religion, and social affairs but also, and more important, it splits the society and the state vertically. In Egypt, we observe a part of the state elite, supported by factions of the masses and political forces espousing Islamic teachings, in confrontation with another section of the state elite, led by the government and advocating a combination of modern and traditional daily life. In short, in Mubarak’s Egypt there are two contending regimes: the Islamic and the government-led.[26]

In the final analysis, how is “de-Islamization” of political and public life going to proceed in societies whose primary marker of identity harkens back to “religious fundamentals,” symbols and rhetoric? Would banning the headscarf for women, or beards for men, as happened in Tunisia,[27] be the way? That approach of course would not sit well with the ideals of liberal democracy. The only one possible option seems to be the bottom-up approach—albeit long term and painstaking—which is to educate societies with regard to the role of religion in modern society? However, the big question still remains—for which there are no easy answers—how do the Muslim societies of the AME and beyond, extricate themselves from this perpetual dance around: “what is Islamic and what is not”?


[1] Larbi Sadiki, Rethinking Arab Democratization: Elections Without Democracy. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) pp. 100-1

[2] Bassam Haddad, (19 August 2013) “Discourse Polarization and the Liberal Triumph in Egypt.” In Available online from:  (accessed 19 August 2013)

[3] Arskal Salim, Challenging the Secular State: The Islamization of law in Modern Indonesia. (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008) p. 1.

[4]The request to write a new constitution was rejected in favor of patching up Mubarak’s constitution and opening the way for parliamentary elections within six months, whereby the highly-organized and well-funded Muslim Brotherhood will come out victorious in exchange for them promising to preserve the economic and foreign policies of the former regime. So in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood formed an alliance with the remnants of the former regime. The two sides revised the constitution, installed the Brotherhood’s Essam Sharaf as prime minister, who also belonged to Mubarak’s policy committee, and allowed the military to retain its full privileges.

Quoted from: Mustafa al-Labbad. (2013, January 29). Is a Second Egyptian Revolution on the Way? from ALMONITOR Translated by: Rani Geha from as-Safir Lebanon.: Available online at: (accessed 29 May 2013).

[5] Larbi Sadiki, Rethinking Arab Democratization: Elections Without Democracy. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) p. 16.

[6] Here I am referring to the Jamā`at-e-Islami of Pakistan and its offshoots around the world, the Muslim Brotherhood that operates in numerous MENA states, as well as the more militant manifestations of political Islamist movements such as al-Qaeda and the like.

[7] Shāh Walī Allāh of Delhi is said to have been a fellow student of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (the 18th C Arabian reformer) while he stayed in Medina to learn the Islamic sciences. He was also an advocate of the call to “return to pristine Islam.” However, where he differed from Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, was that while Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb rejected Sūfīsm,  Walī Allāh was deeply ingrained in the Sūfic tradition.

Encyclopedia of Religion, Second Edition. Lindsay Jones Ed. in Chief. s.v. “Islam: an Overview” (Macmillan Reference, 2005)

[8] Ibid. This entire section has been largely adapted from the article in ER.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The thawb has predominantly become accepted as a sunna (Prophetic practice) form of dress. However, many a traditional ʿulamāʾ consider it not to be a sunna. They quote traditions to the effect that the Prophet wore shirts that were midway between the knee and the ankle (niṣf al-sāq).

[14] This statement is based on my personal observations and experiences in communities.

[15] Sadiki, op. cit., p. 19.

[16] John L. Esposito, The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Source: Oxford Reference: (accessed 21 Aug 2013)

[17] Ebrahim Moosa. “The Dilemma of Islamic Rights Schemes.” Journal of Law and Religion 15 (2000–2001): pp. 185–215. Quoted from: Arskal Salim op. cit., pp. 81-2.

[18] Salim op. cit., p. 80.

[19] See: Ahmed Morsy, (11 March, 2013) ” Al-Azhar must avoid a political role” In The Daily Star: Lebanon News. Available at: (accessed 11 March 2013)

            To summarize the main point of the article related to our current discussion, Article 4 of the constitution stipulates that the council of the “senior scholars” of al-Azhar is to be consulted on the application of Islamic law (Sharīʿa), but the language does not indicate when or which branches of government one must consult.

[20] This case took place during the British Mandate in Palestine (1917–1948). Ibid. p. 83.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Sadiki, op. cit. p. 128.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Gehad Auda, ‘The Islamic Movement and Resource Mobilization in Egypt: A Political Culture Perspective’, in Larry Diamond (ed.), Political Culture and Democracy in Developing Countries (Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner, 1993), p. 379.

Quoted from: Sadiki, op. cit., p. 128.

[27] Ibid., p. 127.

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