The battle for the soul of the Islamic world

Islamists and Salafis have been battling for prominence in forging new political realities in the Islamic world.

Palestinian Muslim man praying shadow
The international community will have to learn how to live with a vibrantly religious Islamic world, say the authors [AP]

Khartoum, Sudan and Oxford, UK – From Egypt’s post-Mubarak elections to Tunisian debates about media freedom: a battle is raging for the political soul of the Islamic world. Contrary to what was predicted during the heyday of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the clashing visions are not those of jihadi terrorism and Western-minded secularism.

The new realities emerging from the Arab Spring are demonstrating that Islam will occupy a key position in the political debate from Morocco to Indonesia. Yet what remains unclear is whether this will lead to greater societal cohesion or increased tensions within the Islamic world and between it and outside actors. To understand what the future might look like, we must analyse the struggle within the camp of the pious believers: reformist Islamists versus archconservative Salafis.

Misconceptions proliferate about the battle, which is a product of contemporary socio-political conditions, but by no means new: it is the return of a clash between old rivals with new bones of contention. Debates about the appropriate role of Islam in politics have evoked passions since the end of the Rashidun Caliphate.

While reformists highlight Islam’s dynamic character – the texts can never be changed, but our interpretations evolve in function of new challenges – Salafis depart from a literalist interpretation of ther Quran and Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad. They stress conservatism both in the personal sphere and in the political realm, producing a very ambivalent position – to say the least – towards democratic processes.

The 13th century scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, intellectual godfather of 21st century Salafis, rejected popular participation in processes of political change: “The ruler can demand obedience from his subject, for even an unjust ruler is better than strife and dissolution of the society.” Today’s battles revisit the old divide between those who believe in emancipating society through Islamically sanctioned reforms and those who question innovation and free debate in theology and in politics.

Salafis vs Islamists

For all their differences, important similarities exist between Salafis and Islamists. The choice is not between “Westernisation” and “traditional Islam”: neither camp belongs to the caricature categories of the GWOT. Both are products of modernity, who think about politics and religion in deeply modern ways and who respond to modernisation through discourses, institutions and ideas that are solidly rooted in 21st century imaginations.

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Despite the heated rhetoric, this is not about returning to 7th century Arabia. Both Salafis and Islamists lament the loss of status in past centuries and propose pathways to a Renaissance of the Islamic world. Both contest social injustice, the corruption of the “real Islam” and the inability of Muslims to deal with challenges from the West. Both speak of a lost glorious past, urging a reinvention of the status-quo. But while Salafis emphasise order, external ritual and religious difference within the Islamic world and outside it, Islamists highlight that Islamic civilisation has historically been a progressive force in the world, embracing innovation, science and rationality and engaging in free discussion within an Islamic framework that seeks to integrate, not to divide.

The central questions that Salafis and Islamists clash over today are those of liberal democracy, freedom and societal inclusion. The answers produced by the rivalry between them – in Egypt’s elections, in Syria’s growing three-way civil war, inside Sudan’s Salvation regime, etc – are determining the future of the Islamic world. Both Islamists and Salafis have had an uneasy relationship with elections. At the time of decolonisation, they both hoped for a politico-spiritual revival instead of merely formal independence.

Yet the ascent of Pan-Arabism and socialist governments – Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq, Gaddafi’s Libya – marginalised religiously inspired projects. As these secular regimes grew increasingly authoritarian, the options for change from within shrunk dramatically. Salafis struck a Faustian pact: following Ibn Taymiyyah, they refrained from any challenges and were given the liberty from the 1970s onwards to develop their social networks, with Saudi support, to compete with the Islamists. The Salafi rise anno 2012, including the Al-Nour Party’s capture of 25 per cent of the seats in Egypt’s parliament, is a direct result of this nurturing.

Shifting the political centre

Islamists have been keener than Salafis on electoral democracy but past experiences proved traumatic, leading many to question the intentions of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda Party. In Sudan and Algeria, Islamist coalitions ran for parliament but their ascent ended in large-scale violence. In Khartoum, the Islamists abandoned their commitment to democracy by working with the military to execute a coup in 1989 – a controversial alliance that ended up dividing Sudan’s Islamic Movement later, undermining its promises of modernisation and democratisation. In Algiers, the Islamist FIS obtained an absolute majority in the legislative elections in 1991 but refused to accommodate the interests of Algeria’s powerful military class. Hawks on both sides radicalised in a civil war that claimed between 150,000 to 200,000 lives.

The mistakes made by Algeria’s and Sudan’s Islamists when on the brink of absolute power allowed GWOT theorists to ignore the Islamist-Salafi divide; both were approached through the prism of al-Qaeda and possible radicalisation, unlike the “good” secularists. But the Arab Spring has shifted the political centre of gravity to the clash between Salafis and Islamists and has forced both to build a new engagement with democracy. While the former have reluctantly but successfully begun participating in elections, the latter have re-embraced their original Islamic freedom agenda, emphasising economic reforms, participative governance and freedom of religion. This is a moment of great opportunity in the Islamic world, but also one fraught with risks.

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Despite growing momentum in past years, a Salafi victory in this struggle looks unlikely in the long term: their rigid theology offers little guidance on how to deal with economic decline, the crisis in education in the Arab world and its youth bulge. Yet Salafis can still help deny Islamists a comprehensive victory. Optimists argue that their involvement in political institutions will force them to craft pragmatic solutions to bread-and-butter issues. This is a hopeful thought that may yet be eclipsed by the alliance between the old military establishments and zealous Salafis to torpedo the project of the Islamist archrivals. Such an outcome risks deepening the Sunni-Shia divide in Islam, endangering the position of religious minorities and lead to (not so spontaneous) outbursts of violence against “unbelievers”, like recent attacks on churches in Iraq, Egypt and Sudan.

The Islamic revival

The choice between Islamists and Salafis is not one between a rock and a hard place. Many Islamist leaders have matured dramatically since the Algerian and Sudanese experiences and have begun abandoning their revolutionary utopias, without sacrificing their principles. While some are indeed still too equivocal about “Western” human rights, the commitment of the great majority of Islamists to constitutionalism, a greater role in politics for Muslim women and harmonious co-existence with other faiths should no longer be questioned. Islamist voices have become the most credible defenders of these principles, unlike many secularists in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt who in the past have too often been too willing to “dissolve democracy to save it”.

The international community will have to learn how to live with a vibrantly religious Islamic world, with a bigger and more visible role for Islam in day-to-day politics: modernisation does not mean Westernisation. But for those concerned with international security, freedom of expression and social justice, the project Islamists are advancing to defeat Salafism and dictatorship is to be welcomed. Strong demands exist from Mauritania to Malaysia for a society-wide ethical revival and an Islamic Renaissance that catapults Islamic civilisation back to its pre-eminent position on the global stage.

For those willing to look beyond largely symbolic discussions about tourists in bikinis and alcohol consumption, modern Islamism, like that of Tayyep Recip Erdogan in Turkey, is not a reactionary flight from reality but a cri-de-coeur for a rights-based, progressive restructuring of domestic and global society. It is also an indictment against a form of globalisation that for too many has held out the promises of modernity – social mobility and greater individual freedoms – while in practice deepening injustices and causing psycho-social dislocation.

Dr Ahmed Daak is a lecturer of Medical Biochemistry at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Khartoum in Sudan.

Harry Verhoeven teaches African Politics at the University of Oxford.